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Twenty years later, the discovery of some old photographs launched Oliver on an obsessive quest to learn more about her father. She unearthed a forgotten journal, home movies, even a tape with her father's voice on it, and interviewed all those who knew him. The act of reconstructing a life would not only change her perceptions about her father and the turmoil of her childhood but would ultimately transform her understanding of herself.
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About the Author
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ON APRIL 9, 1974, a man lays newspaper on the floor of his rented room in Taos, New Mexico. He puts a gun in his mouth. He pulls the trigger. He is thirty-five years old.
A middle-class Jew raised in Queens, a New Yorker to the core, an architect, an intellectual, finds himself alone in a dirt-walled rented room. His wife has left him. He sees his son, age seven, and his daughter, age five, only at his ex-wife’s whim. His parents are dead. His business is bankrupt. His house is sold. He dies flying on coke.
No mystery really: a man on drugs, paranoid, delusional, comes to the end of his rope. Except, as Nabokov says, “detail is always welcome.” And so, skin pasted to muscle wrapped around bone, joint slipped into joint, I reconstruct him. I—the five-year-old daughter in the story— struggle to remember a man I don’t remember, a man who is for me at every point in his life a man who dies at the age of thirty-five.
Buds and Thorns
Ordinarily we do not see a picture of a thing but receive an impression of the thing itself, of the entire form including the sides we cannot see, and of all the space surrounding it.s.s.s. In the same way we know that we have seen a church when we have merely received an impression of a tall building combined with a steeple. And if we are not interested in knowing more we usually notice no more. But if we are interested we go further.s.s.s. The mental process that goes on in the mind of a person who observes a building in this way is very much like that which goes on in the mind of an architect when planning a building. After having roughly decided on the main forms he continues by adding details which shoot out from the body like buds and thorns.s.s.s. He mentally prepares the materials and combines them in one large structure. It gives him pleasure to work with the different materials, to see them change from an amorphous mass of ordinary stone and wood into a definite entity, the result of his own efforts.
—Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Experiencing Architecture
Ojo de Dios. Eye of God. I don’t know who taught me how to make one. It might have been the Sunday school teacher at First Methodist. Or maybe I saw one at a school friend’s house or in the back window of a pickup truck. I just remember sitting under a tree on our property in Taos, on the bench seat left over from some old Chevy, winding yarn around and around two crossed sticks until it formed a colored diamond, green and yellow bands radiating from a brown eye of yarn in the center. I was nine. My mother must have gotten the yarn for me, or had it in her scrap bag. When it was finished, I hung the ojo on the wall above my bed in the plywood shack we lived in then.
It was just a thing you made from two sticks and colored yarn, but I believed in it. I had heard that if you hung one in your house, the eye of God would always watch over you. He would make sure your quilts did not slide off the too high bed at night, so you would not wake up shivering after the stove had gone out. He would prevent the cat from standing on your neck, choking you while you slept. He would keep the vampires away, so you could fall asleep with your face in the sweet air, instead of buried in the covers to protect the tender area where fangs were most likely to sink into the skin.
It was my first conception of God.
And when the quilts did indeed stay on and the cat, at least for a few days, curled up at my side instead of on my jugular, I was convinced that it worked. My faith was easy and adaptable. It did not demand large proofs. It seemed good in those days to have God there, always watching.
Conversational Terrorism My mother went out west to be a hippie. My stepfather beat her. My father killed himself. My mother, born Jewish, became a fundamentalist Christian when I was twelve.
These were the things I said about myself, always, in any conversation, almost immediately, when I was eighteen and on my own for the first time, an exile from bohemian Taos to mainstream Middle America, a disorienting land of mini-malls and all-night grocery warehouses. These facts defined me. They set me apart from the suburbanites and Iowa farm kids I found myself among at college in Minneapolis. Their histories, even when traumatic, rarely consisted of so fantastic a combination of elements.
I never knew what not to tell people.
Whenever I spoke, I played a game of double vision with myself. I’d speak and judge myself speaking at the same moment. The words, the shades of meaning, the tone: aggressive, condescending, arrogant, or rarely, but sometimes, hitting just the right note of friendly interest and camaraderie. I didn’t relax into conversation and parse it later, wishingg I could take back certain words and add others. I wished I could take them back even as they emerged.
I used to say to people, straight outtttt, “My father killed himself.” People I barely knew. At a bar, say, when a bunch of us went out after class, someone would ask, “And your father? Where is your father now? What does he do?” “My father died when I was a child.” Pause. “He killed himself.” It was promiscuous. It was like fucking on a first date.
Not that I knew anything about that. In those years, my late teens and early twenties, I was already respectably married. I was a Christian. I’d never slept with anyone besides my husband.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the person would say.
Things happen, I’d shrug. Get over it. Aloud, I’d say, “Don’t be, it was a long time ago. I hardly knew him.” It was not an invitation to intimacy, but a fending-off. Cold shoulder by total exposure. I enjoyed, I admit, the shock on my acquaintance’s face. I did not say, He put a bullet through the roof of his mouth. He blew his brains out. But that’s what I wanted to convey. The full grisly horror of it.
My father killed himself. And then there was nothing more to say.
Remains: An Inventory of My Father 1. A handful of photographs of him, including his high school graduation portrait and some taken in Florida by my mother.
2. A silver belt buckle.
3. Photographs taken by my father of my mother in her twenties, and of my brother and me when we were children.
4. Architectural Record, Vol. 145, No. 6: “Record Houses of 1969.” 5. Miami Herald, “Dwelling Is Designed for Family Living,” May 25, 1969.
The first house my parents owned was featured in Architectural Record’s “Record Houses of 1969” as one of the twenty “trend-setting winners” of that year. An article ran in the home section of the Miami Herald, Sunday, May 25, 1969, under the headline: “Dwelling Is Designed for Family Living.” I spread the magazine and the crumbling newspaper on my dining room table to study them. I had just been born when we moved in; my brother, Peter, was two years old. Our parents had been married nine years. My father, Lewis Weinberger, built that house, or had it built, working as a developer and contractor in Dade County.
“The house,” the Herald says, “seems to float in a ‘cage’ of shimmering greenery.” Donald Singer, whose name and photograph appear in the magazine spread, was the architect. This fact strikes me as peculiar because my father was also an architect. I’ve known his profession for as long as I can remember, though almost nothing else. He got a degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, information I discovered only after a question on my own college applications asked me to describe my parents’ educational background; I had to ask my mother. The syllables of the school’s name impressed me. Rensselaer, I would repeat quietly to myself, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Why then did he not design the house himself?
“Like a big sculpture perched alone in a rain forest,” Donald Singer is quoted as saying in Architectural Record.
Maybe Donald Singer was a friend. He seems not to have charged my parents for his plans, or if he did, his fee is not included in the figure cited by Architectural Record: $22,400: “[excluding] the architect’s fee or builder’s profit, as Mr. Weinberger was contractor.” “Mr. Weinberger”: my father. And “Mrs. Weinberger”: my mother, only twenty-nine years old. My mother, who was “pleased,” the Herald says, “to discover she could dispense with drapery treatments” because the eighty-foot banyan tree on their property, a former nursery, prevented neighbors from peering through the two-story-high windows, which formed one side of the house. A statement reported so confidently in its time that it completely conceals the seed sprouting in her even then: a disdain, which at any moment might give way to revulsion, for such niceties as drapery treatments.
Copyright © 2004 by Anna Cypra Oliver. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.