"The port from which I set out was the port of my loneliness."
- Henry James
It is nearly thirty years since I wrote a book about my parents and
the extraordinarily different families and personal histories from
which they came [A Love in Shadow, New York: W.W. Norton,
1978]. I had made a conscious decision at that time to tell their
stories as truthfully as I could, and to venture as modestly as
possible into the realm of autobiography.
One of the book’s more perspicacious reviewers, Geoffrey Wolff, recognized the fault line in that choice. In revealing little of my own experience, my memories of my own childhood with (and without) my parents, I revealed less of them. This brief essay, then, is an experiment in remediation, a rebalancing of a chapter of my personal book. I write now, as I did then, particularly for my children, that they may know better a part of their own histories.
Each of those children, now adults, two with children of their own, have asked me for memories of my parents, particularly of the grandfather they never knew, around whose legacy an ominous and beguiling cloud still lingers. So much of that memory is gone, casualty of time and trauma. What remains is part of my truth, my story, even as I have inevitably reshaped it through the years, even as it has become difficult to separate the real memories from the stories of others, from the photographs into which I have poured so much of my hunger. For those reasons and others of which I speak here, he must always be the father I barely knew. My children only knew him through the fragments of my telling, and have wondered about his shadowed gifts to me, and through me, to themselves. I did not write or speak much of my loss of him when they were young.
My parents met on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign train in the autumn of 1932, and immediately fell in love. Both were married to others at the time, though separated from their spouses. On that train they were not successful in hiding their liaison from the press corps of which my father was a member. Had the story of their affair broken, it is just conceivable that the campaign, and perhaps the course of history, would have taken a lurch. Or so, much later, I liked to imagine.