My father died on January 7, 2010. Having received the news from his partner Camille that he was in the ICU when I was still in NYC (at that time I lived in London), I was able to fly to Sacramento the next day and be with him the moment he died. I've written about that moment here and elsewhere. While I did not know my father that well, his death had a huge effect on me, for many reasons. What I will focus on in this post is what happened next.
One day that week - perhaps five years ago today - I went through his storage facility and discovered among other things, the photos of my grandmother, Dick from the 1920s, 30s and 40s that shocked me into a new awareness of her as a person - a person who had once been young and happy - a person who I had never met. As anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows that event - along with reading the letters and seeing photos of Jani (my more flamboyant and loquacious grandmother) when she was younger - is what set in motion The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani.
So, in a sense I've been working on this book now for five years. I didn't start the actual writing until 2011, but I will never forget finding those photos while it poured outside in sunny California and I was holding up some large steel metal object so it wouldn't crush me. (The storage locker was basically a bunch of Jim's stuff hurled into a metal shed, which is another - very long - story.)
On January 7, 2015 - a couple days ago - I woke up very tired. I attributed this feeling to the fact I'd been working flat out on the book for the past five days. I decided to rest that day, following a phrase I'd read earlier attributed to Ovid "Take rest; a field that has rested gives a beautiful crop." I forgot that that day was the anniversary of my father's death - an event that changed the trajectory of my life in many ways - not the least of which was finding those photos.
So, it is a time to rest, to take stock. Yesterday, I went through and typed up the - far fewer - letters in my possession of Dick's - the ones she sent to me - along with those from my father telling me of her death. Again, I did not remember the anniversary time of year and was struck by how hard typing up these letters was - the quicksand feeling again.
Both of their lives, Dick's and Jim's, for different reasons, appeared to follow a similar depressing trajectory - a lot of early promise frustrated by outside circumstances and personality traits that do not match those circumstances - so that whatever they had hoped to make out of their lives did not come to fruition. They both died from a combination of a stroke suffered in their sixties, followed by a massive heart attack in their seventies. Dick lived longer (77 to Jim's 72) and recovered much better from her stroke. When I think of Dick and her husband George and their families from Seymour, CT, the phrase that comes to mind is: cannon fodder. The people who work in the factories, the secretaries, the clerks, the people that are not noticed, the ones who get sent to the front lines - like her brother that died in the Destroyer off Okinawa the same day FDR died. They were not poor - except during the Depression when everyone was, but lower middle class. Dick aspired to much more. Jim went to RISD and was meant to be an artist - what Dick had wanted to be before the Depression era art class cuts from her school - so she went to work in a rubber factory instead. However, during his last year at RISD, Jim got my mother - age 17 - pregnant and voila, I show up - a complication - an accident - Not In The Plan.
A lifetime of fun ensues.
OK, so you get the idea. My father was a man who would take no for an answer, was happiest when he was working for CETA (a government program of the 1970s - Career Educational Training in the Arts - dare to imagine that if you will now - bwahahahaha) and teaching art to schizophrenics. That was the kind of work he was meant to do - he was probably on the Aspergers spectrum, though no one knew about that then. Very intelligent, painfully introverted, liked to watch basketball and baseball while scuffing along in furry slippers. Wrote poems, took photos, got discouraged by the art world. Did not have a trust fund to fall back on. Moved to California...found the CETA job and lost it in the Reagan era - an era for which he was in no way prepared...found women to marry, discouraged all these women in the end...except his last partner who stuck with him through thick and thin - though she had many of her own crosses to bear...
This is a painful life to watch unfold, especially when that person is - in fact - your father.
So, this is a strange week, as I let all this wash over me. This past of mine, it is hard to absorb and accept. You want to have heroic parents or at least normal ones...and well, that was not my lot. Any of the parents/grandparents I idolized have been revealed to have - as all people do eventually - clay feet. Normalcy was not on the table - except in terms of a weird facade that no one really believed in because it was so clearly a paste-up job - no one clings to the bars of the appearance of normalcy that hard if it's real. Sometimes I find this part So hard to write about...this side of the family, but it is half of my heritage, like it or not. I won't go into a lot about Dick because I'm writing about/from her voice now...but this is to give you all some idea of the material through which I slog.
I doubt my story is that unique in the end - the details are, sure - crazy stuff - lots of twists and turns - huge cast of eccentric characters - basically an indie film that could write itself if I did that kind of thing (note to self: do that kind of thing - make some money for once, you nitwit; self: *ignores and sings loudly to self in shower*). But the song remains the same. An American story - not the dream - the real story - of class division, aspirations thwarted, confusion about who is responsible, delusions of grandeur and delusions of inferiority, fear of aspiration if not from the ruling class (and yes there is one - I know, I went to school with them on scholarship)...etc...Insouciance is not a personality trait, it's a class inheritance. It is attractive and brings opportunities, but does not come for free. There are exceptions, yes, but the fact you can probably count them on one hand proves the rule.
These are some of the issues, along with gender limitations of course, that I am attempting to wrassle with this book and in my own heart. My own life has been lived in so many corners of all these worlds that no matter what I think I believe, I can then pretty much argue the opposite, and at some point in my life, probably have. This may be a good thing for a writer (though it may just be a good thing for going loopy), but it makes walking through this world that wants you to do stupid shit like have a personal brand (dear God kill me now) pretty hard.
OK, update complete for now...maybe time to take a walk outside (haven't been out of the apartment since Wednesday).
Welcome to my blog..
"We struggle with dream figures and our blows fall on living faces." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
When I started this blog in 2011, I was in a time of transition in my life between many identities - that of Artistic Director of a company (Apocryphal Theatre) to independent writer/director/artist/teacher and also between family identity, as I discover a new family that my grandfather's name change at the request of his boss in WWII hid from view - a huge Hungarian-Slovak contingent I met in 2011. Please note in light of this the irony of the name of my recently-disbanded theatre company. This particular transition probably began in the one month period (Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 7, 2010) in which I received a PhD, my 20 year old cat died on my father's birthday and then my father, who I barely knew, died too. I was with him when he died and nothing has been the same since. This blog is tracing the more conscious elements of this journey and attempt to fill in the blanks. I'm also writing a book about my grandmothers that features too. I'd be delighted if you joined me. (Please note if you are joining mid-route, that I assume knowledge of earlier posts in later posts, so it may be better to start at the beginning for the all singing, all dancing fun-fair ride.) In October 2011, I moved back NYC after living in London for 8 years and separated from my now ex-husband, which means unless you want your life upended entirely don't start a blog called Somewhere in Transition. In November 2011, I adopted a rescue cat named Ugo. He is lovely. As of January 2012, I began teaching an acting class at Hunter College, which is where one of my grandmothers received a scholarship to study acting, but her parents would not let her go. All things come round…I began to think it may be time to stop thinking of my life in transition when in June 2012 my stepfather Tom suddenly died. Now back in the U.S. for a bit, I notice, too, my writing is more overtly political, no longer concerned about being an expat opining about a country not my own. I moved to my own apartment in August 2012 and am a very happy resident of Inwood on the top tip of Manhattan where the skunks and the egrets roam in the last old growth forest on the island.
I am now transitioning into being married again with a new surname (Barclay-Morton). John is transitioning from Canada to NYC and as of June 2014 has a green card. So transition continues, but now from sad to happy, from loss to love...from a sense of alienation to a sense of being at home in the world.
As of September 2013 I started teaching writing (composition and rhetoric) as an adjunct professor at Fordham University, which I have discovered I love with an almost irrational passion. So blessed for the opportunity and hope to find a more permanent job doing same.
I worked full time on the book thanks to a successful crowd-funding campaign in May 2014 and completed it at two residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Wisdom House in summer 2015. I have done some revisions and am shopping it around to agents and publishers now, along with having written a rough draft of a new book and some other projects.
Not sure when transition ends, if it ever does. As the saying goes, the only difference between a sad ending and a happy ending is where you stop rolling the film.
For professional information, publications, etc., go to my linked in profile and website for Barclay Morton Editorial & Design. My Twitter account is @wilhelminapitfa. You can find me on Facebook under my full name Julia Lee Barclay-Morton. More about my grandmothers' book: The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani
Recently, I started a website Our Grandmothers, Our Selves, which has stories about many people's grandmothers. Please check it out. I will be blogging there, too, now.