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January 19, 2013
My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
But there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going
-Edna St. Vincent Millay
Like a fresh breeze from the clean prairie. This was how my friend C. and I struck my father in 1958 or ‘59, two Connecticut College girls, down to meet him, up from Port-au-Prince on a business trip, for lunch at the Commodore Hotel in New York. This characteristic handy saying was one of the ways he had devised for keeping the prairie with him all his life. Look at all the snow, he might say, looking down at the royal palm trees from my bedroom window in Port-au-Prince. Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey is another expression familiar to me from childhood. People where he was born, in Fessenden, North Dakota, put on their long underwear in the winter and didn’t take it off till the spring thaw. Although he lived in Haiti, El Salvador, and Southern California from 1950 onwards, he was never without an overcoat – the last one, boxy and black, hangs in my downstairs hall closet. And through his many readings of Main Street, he spent a lot of time with the residents of Gopher Prairie.
I formed this idea last summer while reading some autobiographical essays my father wrote in 1966, for a creative writing class at Cal State L.A. I had read them before, but paid them scant attention. They were filed away somewhere and, when he died, I marveled at how little he had left behind. Not only was there no money to divide or property to fight over, there was not a single material object, neither pen, nor watch, nor book edition, of any value. Just these suddenly precious pages. Here he establishes himself in his time and place, a misfit in Fessenden. He was near-sighted, awkwardly tall for his age, and thin. His parents’ divorce embarrassed him, set him apart. An oddball, he calls himself, no good at hunting gophers with the other kids. Pegged early as a bookworm, he didn’t want to lick anyone; he wanted to study French.
He talks about being a Boy Scout, Hopalong Cassidy, horse markets and wheat harvests, grain elevators, land grants, a farm implements business owned by an uncle, and T.L. Beisicker, the richest man in town; President Harding, the Teapot Dome scandal, an earthquake in Tokyo, a fight between Jack Dempsey and Tommy Gibbons, a ban on the study of German in high schools during World War I, and popular songs like Oh Frenchie, Frenchie, and You, You Tell Her, ‘Cause I, I Stutter Too Much. His prodigious railroad lore (names and numbers of trains, arrival and departure times, separate waiting rooms for men and women, wooden platforms, round houses, freight yards and depots, switch engines, the making up of trains, yard bulls and more) betrays a profound longing to leave this territory where his does not belong, but which is still beloved, and is home. He is an embryonic Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis. Grandchildren: Emily, Nicholas, David, and Sirene! Great-granddaughters: Lucie and Farah! These are authors you must read if you would understand your ancestor and an important theme in American literature. He packed in a lot, but he didn’t get far; his narrative stops abruptly in 1923. I wanted more. So Melville Austin Shaw (1903-1983), not cancer, was the inspiration for this series.
I began to notice things he never let go of, like his boyhood self, like the prairie. Late in life, he went back to the house where he was born, amazed to see how many trees had grown up in that flat and windswept place. Even at sixty-four, it still rankled that he had never completed his B.A. Here’s how that came about:
In the spring of 1923 I was a junior at the University of Minnesota and a front desk clerk at the Plaza Hotel, working a shift from 5pm to midnight. I was 20 and had just finished my final examinations for the quarter when, on a June afternoon, in walked Wesley Davis, a young Montanan I had known for some years, but had not seen for quite a while. We did a lot of talking, and Wes convinced me that in the four years I had spent in the big city of Minneapolis, I had grown soft and stale, that the city was no place to live for anyone who had once experienced the big sky and wide open spaces, the plains, mountains, rivers, and forests of Montana. He held that clerking in a hotel was degrading, a stultifying occupation. He said that I could easily find some more elevating work among the friendly, warm-hearted, firm handshaking and generous people of Montana. He suggested that my evenings could be better spent in a pool hall or going to a country dance. This was music to my ears as I had only had 3 nights off in 3 years. I resigned my job at the Plaza the next day.
Did not having that diploma hinder my father socially, or in his working life, when college degrees were far less common than they are now? I remember talk of the Wharton School in our New York days, so perhaps it kept him from getting an advanced degree. But once settled at Pillsbury Mills, making use of his romance languages major to handle their extensive business in Latin America, entertaining the big Latin customers, finding decent accommodation for Haitians and Brazilians (not so easy in New York at the time), that nagging worry might seem to have been behind him. On he went to the Pillsbury and other agencies in Haiti and, eventually, to his appointment as Commercial Attaché to the U. S. Embassy in El Salvador. Yet, almost as soon as he retired, he set about to earn those few remaining units.
What we refuse to let go of, what we come back to as we grow older. How circular our lives sometimes seem. Are we onions, peeling off layer after layer, to lay bare nothing? Or avocados, with centers fixed and firm? The core of his being, we are prone to say. Perhaps we have no choice but to remain true to ourselves. What, then, allows us to let go? The Haiti chapter is over was another of my father’s sayings, one it pained me to hear. But these days I find myself rehearsing it, dreading it. I mean to go back, to volunteer as an English teacher. But do I have what it takes at my age to face the ruin and chaos that is Haiti today? Not to mention my ties and responsibilities here, or my fear of running out of money.
Certainly there were closed chapters in my father’s life. Like me, he exaggerated and invented. Told lies, hid guilt, kept secrets. I know very little about his family and find myself uncertain of what I half-remember. Unlike my mother, who kept in steady contact with her faraway relatives, my father chose to maintain distance. Many details were filled in for me by my mother, who was protective of my father and had her own ideas. Scraps, rumors really, are what I am left with. After his parents’ divorce (who divorced whom?), his father, a lawyer and a judge, took off for the West Coast, married a red-haired manicurist closer to his son’s age than his own, drank too much, died young. My father writes, without a hint of emotion, that he was not fond of him. I have photographs of both sets of my mother’s grandparents, but not one picture of my grandfather, George K. Shaw, Jr. The Shaw Records, which trace our family line to the Earl of Fife in the Scottish Highlands and, more consistently, to one Roger Shaw, who shows up as a selectman, Town Clerk, and landowner in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1636, notes his birth in Bay City, Michigan, August 24, 1874. A brother Benjamin, who died in childhood, follows him, and there the Records end.
I hang on to our lunch at the Commodore which stands out because I went away to boarding school at thirteen and saw my parents rarely. My father had in mind the coffee shop, but I quickly convinced him that only one of the hotel’s more expensive restaurants would do. In the background were the many shrimp cocktails, steaks, and parfaits I had been treated to by the fathers of wealthy school friends. Play-actor that he was, Daddy absorbed in my sense of the occasion. I was immensely proud of him. C.’s father was dead, but here was mine. He was beaming. He was wearing his overcoat. So evidently pleased to see and be seen with us, to talk to us, and to listen to what we had to say. He had a contagious laugh, a way of leaning into conversations, sometimes taking on a foreign accent in English in order to conform to a companion. C. and I were lively, attractive, intelligent, and well-read. Not yet twenty, poised for independence. And he was still young enough himself, successful enough, to see us as we were, and as emblems of much more, without envy. My selfishness, my thoughtlessness, my penchant for style over substance, especially when it comes to restaurants, are on flagrant display here, but they are not important to this story. We talked, we ate, he paid, and we were all three satisfied. I know what my father was thinking: that he was almost done with me; that the little bird would fly away from the nest. If my fancy eastern schools had left their mark, so be it. Children belong to the world, he always said, not to their parents. I had been hearing these wise sayings of his since I was little, but it would still be many years before I could accept them.
In my mind’s eye, I see my young, long-legged father. He is skating on the frozen Yellowstone, camping on a bed of pine needles on the bluffs above Forsyth, scolding his sister Marian for acting countrified, jumping on the iron ladder of a freight car, with forty dollars in his shoe, to ride along with hobos who urge him to join the IWW. Yearned for big cities, and dinkier ones, lie ahead: Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and New York where, in 1933, he will marry my mother, still a little girl in Des Moines. In 1934, Marian will die her terrible early death and, in the early forties, my sister and I, with our high price tags, our expensive educations, will be born. He will travel to Ketchikan and Rio. To Sao Paulo, Recife, Fortaleza and Caracas. To Managua and Tegicigalpa. He will know Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien, Mirebalais, Port-de-Paix, Les Cayes, and Jeremie, all the Haitian outports so important to his business in the fifties. Paris, London, and Rome. Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he died. All unimaginable. All yet unordained. Just now, in 1916, he is a boy in short pants with a new pair of glasses, riding the transcontinental North Coast Limited with Marian in a bright red coat, his mother and step-father Bert Edminster, and their baby Bobby, to their new home in Forsyth, Montana. Beisicker has made Edminster, spendthrift, back-slapper, and Elks Club man, the manager of a bank.Forsyth turned out to be a cow town with hitching posts and log buildings right along Main Street. When the ice melted on the Yellowstone, a raging river covered the town. No matter. The street signs and the numbers on buildings will impress him.
Forsyth was a railroad division point, a county seat, the largest town between Miles City and Billings, a distance of 150 miles. He didn’t stay there long; in an attempt to run away, he wound up back in Fessenden, living with his grandmother, finishing high school. Nevertheless, he is on his way. The train has a valet, a maid, and a barber. He visits the observation platform, eats in the diner, and goes to bed in the Pullman car only to stay awake all night, lifting the curtain over his window to see Bismarck, Mandan, and Dickinson alight in the darkness, to catch glimpses of North Dakota.
As I was his, so is he my fresh breeze from the clean prairie.