The Lost Father, p.1Mona Simpson
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The Lost Father
“Simpson is … a born writer. She has a sterling sense of observation, emotional as well as physical, and you can feel her working a scene between her hands like a cherished stone.… Mayan’s voice, chronicling the Proustian details of her life, is what gives the novel its weight and texture. In the hands of a writer as agile, as possessed as Mona Simpson, Mayan becomes the voice-over for her whole world … exquisite [and] heartbreaking.”
—Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe
“A missing person case that begins in ambivalence and becomes an obsession [that] assumes all the best qualities of a detective story.… A hugely satisfying novel.”
“Wonderfully alive … the mismatched expectations and transactions between Mayan and her father [make for] rich human comedy … splendid.”
—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times
“Irresistibly absorbing … part detective study, part psychological study [with] prose as precise and canny as it is intense … impressive.”
—Dan Cryer, Newsday
“With her remarkable second novel, Simpson [gives] us another complete world.”
—Meg Wolitzer, Chicago Tribune Books
“Haunting, beautifully written … Simpson writes with mature skill and energy … emotional range and power. With The Lost Father, Mayan Stevenson will become one of those rare and special characters who enter a reader’s heart and remain there for years after the book is put back on the shelf.”
“A beautiful, original chronicle of a woman-odyssey rare in literature … taut, intense with revelation. [Simpson’s] prose is vivid and precise as good poetry.”
“A symphony of a novel about the American dream. [Simpson] writes a prose of exquisite sensuousness, capturing the beauty of things as different as a splash of fountain water on the skin, the taste of nutmeg doughnuts, the look of the Wisconsin sky. Her Midwest is real, its inhabitants imbued with a special individuality. Her journey through America is Nabokovian … a dream of a book.”
“Mona Simpson’s prose is perfectly, luminously beautiful. It is a novel about love and loss and the relationship between them. It takes one of the oldest, greatest themes of American literature—the absent father—and fills it with new poignancy, pain, passion and power. In the process, it reminds us that our sense of incompleteness is what binds us to the human community, connecting us by forcing us into awareness of our need for one another … exquisite.”
—Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn,
“A wonderful writer … Simpson’s sharp prose make[s] your spine tingle as you read.… Mayan is so real you can almost feel her breathe.”
—Louise Bernikow, Cosmopolitan
“Quietly seductive … mesmerizing … intense … Mayan’s sense of loss expands to touch on what you might call … the essential longing of our age.”
—Vince Passaro, Mirabella
“A joy … The Lost Father with its moments of perfect illumination, is a rich and telling book.”
—New York Daily News
“In the modern religion of desire, Mona Simpson is a prophet, an explicator of … the way we live now.”
—Village Voice Literary Supplement
The Lost Father
Mona Simpson’s first novel, Anywhere But Here, has been translated into fourteen languages. She is the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Prize, and the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. Since 1988 she has been a Bard Center Fellow and a teacher at Bard College.
ALSO BY MONA SIMPSON
Anywhere But Here
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events and dialogue are imagined and not intended to represent real people, living or dead.
FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, JANUARY 1993
Copyright © 1992 by Mona Simpson
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1992.
A section of this novel, entitled “Ramadan,” appeared in Granta.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The lost father / Mona Simpson.
—1st Vintage Contemporaries ed.
Author photograph © Gasper Tringale
For Richard Appel
About the Author
Other Books by This Author
“If it is miracles you are after, you must know how to wait.”
—Oskar, The Tin Drum
WE BELIEVED. All our lives we believed, all our separate lives.
My grandmother never did. She died old, never believing, and she was the only one of us who went to regular church, with a pocketbook to match the season, at the nine o’clock mass every Sunday. She had never been a Christian until her husband died. Then she capitulated, gracefully, ending the one battle that had lasted them all his life. It was then that she began to buy hats.
There were two of us who were his. My mother and me. My grandmother respected our feelings although she had never liked my father. She made my cousin give me the cowboy suit just because I didn’t have enough myself from him. My cousin didn’t see the point. “Your dad’s an Indian giver.”
“Shht. Now do like I tell you,” my grandmother finished our fight. She could be unfair and we would obey her, because she cared for our comforts. She was good to us. We trusted her.
My mother is fifty-six years old and in a way she still believes. She would say she does not but she has saved herself for him, saved herself beyond saving, to a spoiled bitter that expects only the worst. But in her private soul she is a child holding an empty glass jar waiting for the sky to fill it, for him to return and restore to us our lives. To me, my childhood; to her, the marriage she once had and threw away and will now cherish forever as some unreachable crystal heaven. It is he, she believes, who stole her glitter and throne, her money, her wings, which after all are only petals of the years.
My grandmother was always on the other side. She used herself and whatever she had for her life. Her husband was dead and to her, so was my father. There was no Head of Household. But at the age of fifty, she learned to pay taxes and to drive. She spent. We, even in our extravagance, were always saving.
Now, I can tell in children, who has that hole that is belief and which children will be children of this world. You can see it in a class of first-graders. You can recognize in a group of eleven-year-olds, the children who lose their rings and their gloves, their keys, the same children who themselves get lost in department stores, on the way to the library or
It depended on how quick you had an answer. I was too quick on the top but really I was infinitely slow. Our patience was tragic. We were people who could spend our lives loving one person who never cared for us.
I grew up without a father, but those years while it was happening, I never understood that it would always be that way. We expected him to come back. Any day. And then, when he didn’t, my mother thought she would marry someone else and he would be the father. “He’ll buy you things,” she said. “You just wait and see.”
I waited. There was nothing else I could do.
My mother was a young woman then; she was waiting, also, for her life.
From place to place we moved an embroidered sampler. Row Row Row Your Boat, Gently Down the Stream, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Life Is But a Dream. She always hung it in the kitchen, usually near the sink. Sometimes she looked at it and sighed.
Once she did marry someone else. But he never seemed to either of us like a father.
ABSENCE HAS QUALITIES, properties all its own, but no voice. The colors of his absence were the blue and white of a Wisconsin sky, a black like telephone poles and lines falsely on the distance, or a tossed spray of crows. The brown of a man’s old suit, bagging pants and worn leather shoes; there were traveling men, hoboes, those days, and every time we saw one across a field it was him. The yellow of a moth, the gray of sheer mountain rock in Colorado, even the dusk smell of a summer field. He was the forced empty clean of those cheap mints from taverns, green in the middle of white. That taste meant empty, like the tiled tavern my mother and I went in once during the daytime to use the phone and buy gum.
He would never know. He wasn’t watching us. Days went by and years. We understood we’d never remember all we had to tell. It was just now—the elapsing of our time and lives. Nothing much. We would have left it for an afternoon with him.
There were two times. Wisconsin time and his. Everything in the Midwest was patient and had to do with seasons. Everything seemed too easy for us there. Nothing was hard. In school, for me, everything was beside the point.
I never found the faith I wanted and all along I had it. It just wasn’t colored and fleshed the way I’d imagined. It was like the time my class was taken to hear a symphony orchestra. The children around me were playing hang-the-man, passing paper and pencil back and forth. They offered me a place in their game but I refused. I was following the program intently. It said two things and then Hansel and Gretel.
I imagined sets and capes and pink ballerinas. Choral opera vaulting into the sky.
Then the concert ended and there was an encore and people stood and left their programs on their seats. I never saw the pageant I expected.
Faith was that way. Thinner, abstract. Only music.
We wanted too much from this world.
WE BELIEVED in an altogether different life than the one we had, my mother and I. We wanted brightness. We believed in heaven. We thought a man would show us there. First it was my father. We believed he would come back and make me a daughter again, make my mother a wife. My grandmother did not like him, but I prayed for her anyway. If he came, we didn’t want her to be left behind.
My mother never lost her faith in men, but after years, it became more general. She believed a man would come and be my father, some man. It didn’t have to be our original one, the one we’d prayed to first as one and only. Any man with certain assets would do.
In this we disagreed, but quietly. I was becoming a fanatic.
We moved to California. I thought maybe if he saw my face on TV. That is the way I was with men. I wanted love but a high far kind that made my breath hard as if it wouldn’t last.
I was ashamed of my wishes as if there were inherent wrong in them that showed and if I told anyone they would see it was my own fault I would never be happy. I wanted too much. Foolish things. But I wanted them anyway. I couldn’t stop my longings. I could only keep them to myself.
It is pathetic now to remember. They were ordinary girlish toys, full of netting and spotlights, sugar and ballet. I wanted wands, wings, glittery slippers from my father. I wanted to dance while someone watched me.
“Look at me,” I dared.
“Shht,” my grandmother used to say. “Keep still.” She settled my arms against my sides. “There now, that’s better. What have you got you think is so special, huh?”
“I don’t know,” I said. That was the answer to everything in childhood. “Nothing” and “I don’t know.”
My grandmother didn’t care about brightness in any of its forms. She didn’t care about fancy, shining things, she had all the money she needed. She didn’t care about intelligence or newness. My mother understood too that these qualities weren’t any closer to God. But God would always be there like the stones in the road, there was all the time in the world for God, we could go back and pick God up, after we were young. But when a person bad-off slanted across the street, when my mother helped someone old, she would remember. You could see it in her eyes.
FOR YEARS my mother and I waited together. We had been together my whole life. Other people had come into our family, but only she and I stayed. The hardest thing I ever did was leave my mother.
The spring before I first went away, to college, we drove out to get ice cream cones at night.
I told her she might still get married. “But he won’t be my father,” I said. Our time for that had passed.
My mother had tried substituting once before, in Wisconsin, with Ted Stevenson the ice-skating pro, but she thought it would be different here in California, the man would be rich, someone who could give us life.
“Well sure he will. You’ll see. Just wait and see.”
I had waited already a long time.
“I don’t need a father anymore. You don’t need a father when you’re twenty, Mom.”
“Sure you do. Just wait’ll you come home from college and want to bring the boys and your friends to a place that’ll impress them a little. That’s when you’ll really need a father. And he’ll buy you things maybe, and make a nice place for you to bring kids home to and see. Just wait. You can’t know how you’ll feel then. You’ll see.” That was her way of getting off a subject when she had to.
“I already had a father and he wasn’t there.”
“He wasn’t there for me either,” she said.
“I don’t want one anymore.”
Then, later, she began to expect him too, but in a bad way, as a danger that could drive me from her.
MY MOTHER had always talked to me about marriage. It was her great subject because it was what she never really had. She felt she had missed the boat, so she advised me, starting when I was very young, too young to do anything about her suggestions. College, she said, college was the promising time and place. When I was a child in Wisconsin, I already knew I’d go to college. From the way she talked it was a large green summer camp where everyone wore beautiful clothes. Hundreds of good young men just walked around waiting to be picked. When I wanted things in high school, the same as what she bought for herself, she’d scream at me, you, you don’t really need the clothes now, I need them, I’m the one who has to catch a man, you won’t marry any of these boys you know now. You think it’s important because you’re in it, but it’s really not. High school doesn’t matter. Unh-uh. She was angry at me. I still had it ahead of me—college—she was way past that. When you’ll really need the clothes and the house and the car and the everything is in college, and then maybe, if I get someone now, I’ll have it all to give you.
“Marry someone in college,” she said, “that’s when you meet the really great kids. Find him there.”
But then when I was in college, she didn’t like who I found. I didn’t
I always knew I wouldn’t do it my mother’s way. That seemed like an old-fashioned wish. When I went to my first wedding I was twenty-two and I kept thinking that they were too young. Their faces looked round and liquid the same as always and they looked funny in their clothes. I was a bridesmaid in a mint green chiffon dress. All the rest of us were still just graduate students, or kids with promising stupid jobs. I didn’t envy the bride and groom at all. I thought I’d get married late. Well, I thought I knew exactly when. I thought twenty-seven. By then, I wanted to be rich and have the Beatles play at my wedding. That was already impossible. The Beatles had been apart for years. But I still thought about it. Poor people always want things like that.
You will, my mother whispered once. I didn’t really expect the things she promised anymore, but I didn’t disbelieve her yet either. She always told me we were royalty really. People didn’t know it, but we were. It was something we whispered about. I wasn’t supposed to tell.
I always wanted to marry an architect, even when I was a little girl. It was the first idea I had about who I wanted to marry. I thought I’d be a ballerina. And the only reason I’d thought of being a ballerina was our fifth-grade teacher was trying to teach us about money. We had to make a budget. First, he wanted us to choose a profession and ask for a particular salary. He let everyone be what they said and gave them the salary they had asked for. Mine was the most in the class. I’d asked for three hundred and fifty dollars a week. “Performers make a lot of money,” my mother had told me. “Go ahead and ask.”
“You have to ask for what you want in the world,” the teacher said. “Put a high price on yourselves and the world will probably be fool enough to pay it.” He was using me as a positive point, this teacher, to teach us all to feel entitled to more than we had. But I could tell in a way he hated me. He was like the others himself. Three hundred and fifty dollars a week was more than he or any of our parents earned in Wisconsin.
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