Dear Friends of Magically Real — Sometimes the real is horrible and sometimes the real is wonderful. Sometimes the real is something in between — so here’s a real story about some good dead men. Don’t worry. It’s not very sad. It’s kind of nice, actually.
The fathers are dying.
That’s a funny thing for a feminist to write, isn’t it? But still, every feminist needs a good father.
I had at least three.
One died a long time ago.
Two died within a month of each other three years ago.
One was an indirect dad—a famous professor not even in my department. The LA Times had a big obituary for him:
Emory Elliott, a UC Riverside professor and leading scholar of American literature who was a pivotal figure in the university’s intellectual community, has died. He was 66. …As a scholar, he published two groundbreaking books on early American literature, Power and the Pulpit in Puritan New England (1975) and Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic (1982), but he was a leading voice on all facets of literature from Puritanism to Postmodernism. He was also influential in expanding the canon to a wide array of diverse voices.
Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2009
Emory wrote about American Lit. A white working-class Catholic, he labored continually to bring African-American faculty and writers of color to our campus. He worked hard to help African-American students, too.
“He’s a light,” said Rickerby Hinds at Emory’s rosary service, the night before the funeral in Riverside, CA. “I know you all feel bad, but we ought to feel good because we got to know him. We have a piece of that light.”
I’m not sure Kerby actually said that, but it’s what I remember.
I remember two colleagues from the English department sobbing in back of me and my friend Theda.
But you know? We did feel good. We sat at the service and held hands with our colleague Yang. Yang and I don’t always get along, and Theda and I aren’t Christian, and I don’t think Yang is Catholic. But we felt a part of the circle of light. Emory’s body in the open casket. That was weirdly comforting.
Peter Behrendt was my father-in-law. He loved to get up in front of people, recite silly poems he made up, show off his swan dive, and do comedic, self-invented plays about his family.
“Crime marches on!” he intoned in a satirical radio show he did for his father’s birthday in the 1950s at a big party.
The reel-to-reel tape recording that Peter found while cleaning out his Beverly Hills garage features a long mockumentary in which Peter is referring to the fact that Berthold Behrendt and his wife left Germany in the thirties before the kids did. This was common practice for German Jews escaping Hitler, but leave it to Peter to make up a story about the parents fleeing their responsibilities in order to take up a life of bank-robbing in the US.
Germans are not famous for their sense of humor. Berthold must have been pissed off by these and other antics. He never left Peter a cent and pointedly left him out of his will. No matter. Peter Behrendt made his own money. And kept right on making fun of everyone, writing skits, and creating voice mail limericks.
I can’t find Peter’s obituary. He wasn’t famous, like Emory.
But he wrote books like Emory did. He wrote a book on public speaking. Then he got interested in writing fiction.
“Is a novel hard to write?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
He wrote one.
Peter and Emory were playful, funny, extroverted, and practical, in an ambitious sort of way.
“I’m no genius,” Emory said to me once over coffee, “but I like the university.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Then write that book for the full professorship,” he told me.
Over breakfast, Peter Behrendt told me he was proud of me. “You’re one of the most successful members of the family,” he said. I said thanks and ate my bacon.
“So—what are you going to do next?”
I walk around LA and see bald Jewish men, and I miss Peter. I walk around UCR and see tall, white-haired profs, and I miss Emory.
“The fathers are gone,” I tell my therapist.
“Well, I’m still here,” he says. Gordon is maybe ten years older than I am. He used to be a professor of Japanese. Now he’s a therapist and travels. He’s Jewish and has written a bunch of books.
I smile for a moment.
I will enjoy him while I can.
(Copyright, Stephanie Barbe Hammer, 07/29/12)