Category Archives: My father’s book

Going back to my father’s book

I hadn’t opened the binder for more than two months. I couldn’t even remember why I stopped reading its pages. And yet there it was, on my living room coffee table, waiting patiently for its turn among the piles of books, magazines and research notes demanding my attention.

My father’s book has waited 20 years for me to read it. I guess another two months wasn’t such a big deal.

On this particular night, my husband was going to be out late. My work was done (enough of it, anyway), my house was fairly tidy and I even had a big pot of my favorite Barley Minestrone Soup on the stove. I had at least two hours ahead with no interruptions.

It was time to go back to my father’s book.

My father always said that everything he wanted to say to me and my brothers, but couldn’t, was in the novel he wrote during the months before his death, just after Father’s Day, in June 0f 1991. You would think we’d be eager to read it. We each started to, but never managed to finish it — partly because it’s written in a style that is antiquated and cumbersome. (My dad placed his novel in Australia during the mid-1800s and tried to mimic the language of the day.)

But for me it was also because I was afraid I’d be disappointed. That there wouldn’t be any great insights. That his words would not solve the lingering mysteries of his life, or the frightening, painful death that he endured without letting any of us know that he was ill.

In January, I decided that the specter of that book was messing with my mind — with my own goals to write a book and my emerging sense of self as a middle-aged mother of two grown sons. So I mustered my courage and dove back in.

For several nights I slowly poured over each chapter, trying to read behind the lines and understand the process behind his choice of story line, characters and setting. I read with purpose, pausing after each chapter to jot down notes about my initial impressions. I looked for fictionalized interpretations of my real-life experience as his daughter. I read with kinder, more understanding eyes than I had offered as a self-centered, 35-year-old who still carried no small amount of resentment about her largely absent father.

The first time I tried to read my father’s book I didn’t get past the first 40 pages. This time I made it to page 58. There, to my great distress, I discovered that some pages of his manuscript were missing. So I start again, at page 64, hoping the answers I am seeking aren’t lost forever with those six missing pages.

Breaking the block

Our blueline for the February magazine came to the office today. That’s always our last chance to proofread. Our last chance to make changes. Our last chance to catch the mistakes that inevitably slip past the earlier proofs.

When you stare at pages for days on end it’s almost impossible to see where something is still wrong. Your brain sees what it wants to see. So you do your best, take a deep breath and send your publication off to the printer. You know there are mistakes waiting to jump out and mock you — typically once the magazine is printed and delivered to the office. But you do get that one last chance to catch them.

When I looked at the blueline today, the first thing that caught my eye was my own name on the masthead. It was wrong. In two different places! You’d think I could at least get my own name right.

For 21 years I didn’t touch my name on the masthead. It was always “Karen Barr.” And then in December, I changed it. One of my staff members noticed, and asked me about it. “It’s a long story,” I told her, then changed the subject.

So here’s the story.

In early November, I took most of a week away from the office to write “An Ethiopia Adoption Story” for the December magazine. My husband was out of town. The timing was perfect. I was looking forward to spending long, uninterrupted days at my computer, blissfully playing with words. The story would be the framework for a book I hoped would follow. I gave myself a week to luxuriate in the lifestyle of a writer, without the distracting duties of a publisher and editor.

Except that’s not what happened. The first day came and went and everything I wrote sounded terrible. Then the second. And the third. I tried what typically works for me when I’m experiencing writer’s block: I went for a hike in the desert. Even that didn’t help. By the fourth night, I was truly starting to panic. I woke up from a bad dream with the very real and frightening sensation of terrible pressure on my chest.

The next day I spent some time with someone who knows me well. By talking with her, I came to realize why this particular story was so hard for me to write: It was fraught with unresolved emotions about my father, who struggled in his last years to write the book he always dreamed of writing.

My dad did finish a novel before he died. It was never published. And for 21 years I ignored it.

My father always said there were messages in  his book — things he never felt he could tell my brothers or me. I never read it because I was afraid I wouldn’t find them.

But dismissing his effort was now affecting mine.

So how did I break my writer’s block? I allowed my dad into my writing process. I pulled his manuscript out of the closet and put it on the shelf near my computer. I started reading it. And when I turned back to my own story, the first thing I did was insert his name, my maiden name, into it. I silently asked him to let me go — to let me do this. And, as Karen Davis Barr, I got to work.

A part of me you have never known

When my father started sending me the draft chapters of his book, I was not receptive.

It was January of 1988. I had a 2½-year-old, a 6-month-old and a lot of frustration about giving up my professional identify as a journalist and MBA to be a stay-at-home mom. I loved my sons to distraction but felt trapped, unable to bear the thought of leaving them to someone else’s care so I could go back to work but overwhelmed by the monotony of diapers and daytime soaps.

Dad with his first grandson, Andrew, on July 17, 1985. He never saw David, who was born two years later.

I was also angry at my dad, who had fled Arizona shortly before my parents’ divorce was official, leaving me to accompany my mom to court for the final decree. He drove across the country to establish a new life in Florida and when my son David was born, in 1987, he couldn’t be bothered to come back to Arizona to visit his new grandson. That was my take, anyway. And it hurt. So when the thick manilla envelopes began to arrive in the mail, I was disdainful.

“If you will hunt in the closet for a dog-eared three-ring binder and file these dog-eared pages as I send them to you, I will be grateful,” my dad wrote in his distinctive cursive on the lined pages of steno pad. “And of course, you are the one I want to keep them.”

Why me?  Because I was the one who wasn’t “working”? Or because he thought that I would appreciate (as a former journalist) the honor he’d bestowed upon me as keeper of the pages?

Was he expecting me to read them? What did he want from me? Affirmation? Support? An editor’s critique? Whatever it was, I didn’t have it in me to ask or cooperate.

I saved his drafts and revisions. But I didn’t read them and I never commented on them. It was my silent protest, the only way I knew to hurt him as much as he’d hurt me with his self-centered pursuits and seeming indifference to the important events and challenges of my life.

He never asked me what I thought, never made any demands. He just kept sending revisions. And I kept ignoring them. Right up until a few days before Father’s Day of 1991, when my guilt finally got the better of me.

I remember sitting in the kitchen at my sons’ school, scribbling a letter to my dad as I waited for the boys to end their day. I apologized for being so selfish, explaining how consumed I was with motherhood and the demands of running Raising Arizona Kids magazine, which I’d launched a year earlier. I felt hopeful, excited, confident that my dad would forgive me and we’d find a way to reconnect.

I never got around to sending the letter. And before Father’s Day arrived, my father was dead.

More than 22 years later, I see all of this so differently. I know for myself how easy it is to disappoint adult children, how excruciating it is to undergo the scrutiny of their judgmental clarity.

And as I now struggle to write a book of my own, I also have a greater understanding of how complex and overpowering that process is; how much thought and how many revisions it takes. I understand what my dad wrote in one letter, when he said it was “like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.” I see how it consumes you, fights for space in your head, screams for attention when other priorities get in the way.

“It will acquaint all of you with a part of me you’ve never known,” my father wrote hopefully in that Jan. 10, 1988 letter. Tucked with it in the manilla envelope were 40-some pages of the novel that was his lifelong dream.

Its title: Redemption.

Fighting doubt and personal demons

I have this amazing story in my head. I think it’s interesting enough, layered enough, moving enough, to become a book. Will it get written? Self-doubt, fueled by family history, rules my thoughts.

My father always said he wanted to write a book. Conditions were never right. We were always living in the wrong place or his job was too stressful or the burden of supporting a family was too great. I grew up thinking my brothers and I were the reason he couldn’t write. If he hadn’t married, hadn’t had children, maybe he would have realized his dream.

My father sought solitude to escape the pressures of life. He had “important business” in Arizona when he left my mother, my brothers and I alone in Indiana for Christmas one year. He missed my brother’s high school graduation for similar, made-up reasons. A few weeks before my wedding, he told me with exaggerated regret that he couldn’t make it — he had to be in Florida for God-knows-what. That’s when I put my foot down. This time, he was not going to let me down.

And yet he managed to do just that. Showing up at the church in the wrong tux. Nervous and awkward. Unable, or unwilling, to whisper expressions of love or pride in my ear before we headed down the aisle. Even then, he was a ghost, always on the fringes. Never fully vested in anything that wasn’t his alone. Always seeking greener pastures in a new job or new home state. More comfortable in conversations with strangers than he was with my mother, my brothers or me.

I chose a different path — to the extreme. A martyr’s devotion to responsibility, family and career. Excessive self-accountabilty and crushing perfectionism. Self-neglect from a perception that others’ needs were more deserving.

I always thought I was being different from my dad, better at being in a family and community than he was. As I get older, I realize I’m just like him. Afraid to do what I really want to do. Subconsciously blaming circumstances beyond my control, or other people, for my own failures. If only that…. If only they…

I keep trying to set aside time to go “off the grid” and focus attention on my own book project. One thing after another keeps interrupting. Each weekend, when I realize how little progress I’ve made, I am completely distraught. How will I ever do this within the unpredictable context of running a small business? I come dangerously close to giving up and admitting defeat.

But I keep thinking about four beautiful children who are happy and thriving because of a series of miracles. A family that is doing important and timely work in the country of their children’s birth. An experience that was, to me, a precious gift. A story that needs to be told.

And then there’s this: My father did finally write his book. He finished it in the spring of 1991, in a small room he rented in a boarding house in Florida, during reclusive weeks he spent alone before he died from a cancer that spread from his colon to his liver. A cancer I didn’t know about until my younger brother called me from Florida as I was still sleeping one summer morning and told me our father was dead.

His book was never published; my brothers and I found rejection letters from publishers lying among the few belongings our dad left behind.  To my knowledge, only four photocopies of the manuscript exist. I have two of them in my house.

Over the years, I have tried to read his story. I have never made it past the first 40 pages. My dad once told me that everything he ever wanted to say to my brothers and me — but couldn’t — would be there in his book. I’ve never had the courage to find out. And yet something tells me I won’t write my own book until I confront the specter of his.

Binders of my father's notes and drafts, and two copies (at right) of his completed manuscript.