in the last months of his life were chosen and designed and outlined with his legacy in mind. He set out to structure a curriculum so he could leave behind his wisdom and learning. Instead of his mind naturally cycling back through a lifetime of obsessions, he was selecting topics for the course "Father and Daughter: Creating a New Relationship at the End of Life" or, "The Stories We Tell: How to Use Your Time Left to Reveal Your Key Message."
Fantasizing that Dad had a list of the stories that he needed to tell me while he still had breath to share gives me some insight into the topics that befuddled and often annoyed me at the time. (Who cares about the names and professions of Carol's second cousins? Hint: Not Carol.) Striving for patience and careful listening, I still rolled my eyes when certain phrases were invoked: the Tarski Symposium, the Forsyte Saga, Alexander Korda, Clara Schumann, Manumit School, Lake Buel and Great Barrington, Claire Siegel.
Carol wouldn't even let him tell the Claire Siegel story in front of her. If she came into the room and he was telling me, she'd leave. As Dad said, "Carol's objection to the story is something like, or has to do with, 'What does THAT have to do with the story?' There's a lot that doesn't have to do with, is not, that's not important."
The story itself is simple ("She had a crush on me, and I thought she was a baby") yet complicated by an abundance of named characters (Doris Siegel Balder Willig, Sylvan Balder, Minkie Walbaum, two stepbrothers named Andy). The overt point here might have been something like when he was an adolescent, Dad had crushes on older girls, who thought he was cute and smart but not dating material. Claire Siegel had the same attraction to him and he lacked empathy. That fits it into the curriculum under the section "Substitution: Seeking love from older women to replace the missing mother." The lessons in this section have to do with the pain of looking in the wrong direction until you finally look in the right one; how growing up means finding the person to love who is the same emotional age as you and neither one of you is a baby (as my parents were when they married and divorced within a ten-year period); the ways people central to your memories find you parenthetical or tangential.
But Claire Siegel is not the central character of the story, despite the title. Dr. Doris Willig is the central character. Dr. Willig was Claire and Andy Siegel's mother, Andy Balder's stepmother and Sylvan Balder's ex-wife. Sylvan was a warm, friendly person. Dr. Willig was not very friendly. Sylvan often sang a song from Brigadoon: "What a day this has been / What a rare mood I'm in / Why, it's almost like being in love."
When Sylvan Balder, divorced from Doris Willig, died, Dad found out from Minkie Walbaum, his French teacher. (Repeating all the names, as Dad did, often infuriatingly, I can see how the listener might not be as in love with the repetitions as the teller is. Yet as his stand-in, I feel like part of Dad's legacy is the references and touchstones he kept returning to, so I'm caught in repeating them ad nauseum as well.)
One day in the summer of 1958, my teenaged father found himself in a conversation with Doris, who was feeling bereft at the loss of her former husband. He thought, "Ohh, is this appropriate? She's now remarried, and she's talking to me about her former marriage.... I don't think she should be telling, talking to this sixteen-year-old about how nice Sylvan Balder was and what a shame it was to lose him."
The emergent topic of this section of the course: Grief and loss and who to share them with and how. What is appropriate? What crosses boundaries more: a 13-year-old girl having a crush on a 16-year-old boy, or a woman in her forties sharing her feelings with that 16-year-old?
From the transcript of our conversation:
Me: ...what comes to mind for me is, um, the ongoing interrelationships, interrelationsh--uh relationships between you and my mother. When I think about--
Dad: We're friends!
Me: I know.
Dad: She's been such a help to me.
Me: So, Doris may have been friends with Sylvan.
Dad: He was dead, I'm not dead! I don't...
Me: Yes, okay.
Dad: I'm friends with [Uncle] Fred after he's dead. I guess, I guess they could be friends.
Me: But it makes sense to me--
Me: --that there's an ongoing sense of connection.
Me: And that's, that's where the mourning is.
Dad: One thing is, that that goes to show that we like marriage or something like that.
Lessons, topics, curriculum. "We Like Marriage or Something Like That." "Staying Friends with the Dead." "When Older Women Open Up to Younger Boys."
Now I wonder, what is my curriculum? My legacy? What is yours?