French polymath Paul Valéry (1871-1945) once said poems are “…never finished, only abandoned.”
Recently I remembered a project I abandoned decades ago and forgot completely about.
My father died at the age of sixty-four, when I was twenty-one. [As a footnote, I quietly celebrated the exact moment when the days I have had with my son surpassed those I had with my father, and have marked on the caledar the same milestone with my daughter.]
In a muddle after his passing, I struggled to find a way to reconstruct him and hold on to his essence. So I contacted as many of his peers as I could locate—his remaining brother and sister, childhood friends, former co-workers, neighbors and associates, and simply asked each to provide whatever scraps of remembrance or ephemera they could. I would then try to assemble these bits and pieces unedited and unexpurgated into a coherent whole that shined some light on my father.
I was dismayed by the results.
Not like comparing apples and oranges, but more like comparing apples and aardvarks, like comparing the sound of a wild goose’s wing on a moonless night with the smell of a bag of damp gym socks. Childhood clippings from his hometown paper; an article he had written for a trade publication; a letter about him which seemed strangely generic; scraps of old personnel files. Such disparate data points; I could no more recreate a notion of my father from them than I could stitch a cozy comforter from slices of pizza.
I pored over them time and again, unable to find a starting point from which to build the portrait I so badly wanted to create. I still have all the responses somewhere, dogeared and yellowing, stuffed in a folder in a box on a shelf in a room. I don’t even recall what they look like or who all bothered to respond, and I still feel pangs of guilt in recalling that I promised everyone who responded I would send them a copy of the finished product. I supposed I haven't actually broken that promise—yet.
But recently I realized in hindsight (having read Zinnser on “writing well” ) that what I really needed to do was sit down and interview each and every one of those people. I would have been able in that moment to extract exactly what it was I wanted from them, to precisely plumb their remembrances and tease out the threads that meant the most to me. Instead, I asked them to read my mind and heart, and answer a question I wasn’t even capable of asking at the time.
I am not a good enough writer to yet create a coherent narrative from those bits and pieces; I doubt I will ever be, and the urgency and sorrow that propelled me in that effort has diminished and dwindled over the decades. The loss has subsided and life has, in its richness, helped me to fill in that gaping hole. It makes me sad to realize how little remains of my father, how much has evaporated and been lost to time, how little of him I can still recall.
But then Valéry also said: "Everything simple is false. Everything which is complex is unusable.”
Postscript: The irony is that if I want this project to come to fruition, I will need to bootstrap it by creating a remembrance of my father to bring order to creating a remembrance of my father...how circular.