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History Lessons columns of 2009 and 2010.

For History Lessons of 2008, click here.

For History Lessons of 2007, click here.
November 2010 

Loss is another word for change, I think, though the two are

Not the Same
by Bebe Vaughan

     Fearless Leader tells me that this will be my ultimate piece … for a while.  The magazine will sink into a deep, dreamless sleep.  Blank will be our screens, silent the voices that have squawked, rumbled, chirped, boomed and trilled the opinions, the observations and the memories of us crotchety, ink-smudged hacks.

     It’s time to say goodbye, to wave our damp handkerchiefs at the air.

     I’m not good at saying goodbye.  I tend to fall apart, sobbing and hiccupping and embarrassing everybody.  Last year I finally bade farewell to my ancient Honda, but I had to leave the building hastily before they arrived with their tumbrels to carry my beloved, tyrannical old friend and servant off to its fate with the charity to which I had donated it.  I’m still in mourning.  Its replacement, another Honda, which I swore I’d fallen in love with after just one drive, shows signs of unaddressed grief: dings, dents and scrape marks from where, in a shockingly short time, I’ve backed it into a truck, two walls, a large recycling bin and a carport pillar.

     Unaddressed – that’s the operative word.  I remember being summoned to the hospital after my father’s final, fatal surgery.  I knew I was there to say goodbye, but the concept froze in my brain and failed to become a word on my tongue.  A kind nurse said something admiring about my eyes. “We can see whose little daughter you are!” she said.  It had never occurred to me that I resembled my father, but over the years I have realized that our eyes, quite dissimilar in color, have a similar shape, the same droop at the corners.  I pondered this question on the bus going home from the hospital and later that night as I fell asleep; it was with me the next day when the news came of my father’s death.  I often think about it now, even though I know it’s an effective distraction from the hard reality of loss.

     Loss is another word for change, I think, though the two are not the same.  Loss makes us feel that the world is imploding, that we will not survive its caving in.  Change we can be safe with – just as long as we remember that its details require careful scrutiny and the fine polishing of peripheral vision.

     With this goodbye, I’m doing rather better than I expected.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

September 2010

The beach did it.  It made me wonder about the relationship between

Memory and Imagination
By Bebe Vaughan

      It was the beach that did it.  A recent trip to Carmel, California, with my grandchildren got me wondering why we have memories.  What are they for?  Are they simply part of the human brain package that was selected as we evolved?  I  mean, did an early ancestor, delightedly easing his spine erect as he gingerly initiated bi-pedalism, decide to tell his cave dweller mates that this was a remarkable feat and worth cultivating?  And, communicating his discovery, did his primal grunts take on a poetic cadence as he described what he saw, standing there on two feet, brushing the dust off his knuckles?  Did he convey how it affected him?  Did a memory contribute to his survival?  Because the next thing he knew, with never a sir-by-your-leave-professor-Darwin-sir, the mechanism of memory was implanted, to be handed down through generations as a reliable measure of intellectual superiority.

      Or something like that.

      Maybe.

      These thoughts tumbled around in my mind as we parked, unbuckled the children and scrambled down hills of silver sand to stand on that magnificent white beach and, ignoring the jeers of the déclassé resident seagulls, marvel again at the Pacific ocean stretching out ahead all the way to places like Hawaii and New Zealand and Tasmania.  Since I was last there, about four years ago, the gulls have been joined by gangs of beady-eyed henchmen – sleek, savvy, streetwise black starlings.  You just know that between them they would charge you a fortune for simply enjoying the view, so the sooner you unpack your picnic lunch and share it with them the better for all concerned.

      What came to mind was the photograph around which my memoir winds.  It is ancient, long ago and far away on another white beach.  Two people, with the sea behind them: I am there, a skinny child of five, grinning widely and clinging to my father’s hand.  He is wearing the pale linen clothes I remember so well; he looks tired and ill, defeated to the point of collapse.  On the back of it, in my mother’s handwriting, the caption: Plage de Hamm, Dakar, Juin 1940. That’s the date, early in the explosive progress of World War II, when France fell and the English colony in Dakar, Senegal (then known as French West Africa), disintegrated.  Some hurriedly left for Sierra Leone to embark on the anticipated convoys and plow home through the U-boat-patrolled Atlantic or, as in the case of my family, a small, stout collier headed out of the harbor toward Australia.  This never happened, due to an air attack from the Brits who, exasperated with the exhausted French for collaborating with the invading Germans, resolutely harassed the French fleet wherever it was stationed – like Meirs el Kebir, Toulon and Dakar.

      These were whirlwind times, and memory, in the retelling, is chronologically unsure.  But memory loves a good story and blithely calls up imagination to fill the gaps and ensure an even flow.  Never mind how inaccurate it is.  It will do to burnish the often bleak present – and maybe something beautiful and mesmerizing will break loose and take flight across the water.  And find itself at last in the lines of a book, patting the past into redemptive shape, giving a raison d’etre to memory.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

June 2010


Because my father is no longer making imprints on this planet, I have a lot of freedom.  I can buy him a silk dressing gown, opera tickets, onyx cufflinks and lunch at the Ritz-Carlton.  We can start with champagne cocktails in celebration of   

Dad’s Day
by Bebe Vaughan

      I tend to hide on Mother’s Day (a familiar feast day from my childhood, authoritatively titled “Mothering Sunday” and surely blessed by the Pope) and hope my children won’t find me.  Sometimes I am successful.  And July 4 has me tip-toeing to the car and driving off at high speed to a mall somewhere, there to meet up with other Brit friends and quietly ignore it.

      In my life, of course, what with one paternal evaporation and another through the generations, Father’s Day has been irrelevant.  Sometimes, as I squint through my Franco-Brit cultural lexicon, I wonder hopefully if this time I will discern a ghostly shape, indicative of Father worship.  I would settle for a clue, something pointing languidly to a memory as weightless as gossamer, something like my memories of my father’s birthday, involving dutiful presents such as monogrammed linen handkerchiefs and No Fuss.  On closer scrutiny, though, I have to shake my head and mournfully acknowledge a paternal non-presence.  It’s all dealt with, evidently, by the commandment “Honor thy father and mother,” which makes me wonder what sleight of ancient feminine hand succeeded in slotting in Mothering Sunday.  That’s why, after almost half a century of living in this almost barbarously celebration-intentioned society, every year Father’s Day takes me by surprise.  Fifty – well, forty-nine – years of repeated shock, followed by mild depression.  Surely it’s time for a change.

      Is there a protocol for Father’s Day as there is for Mother’s Day?  I am a strong believer in the power of the imagination to soothe, if not actively to heal, the past.  I love celebrations and I love choosing gifts and, because my father is no longer making imprints on this planet, I have a lot of freedom.  So forget protocol. I can construct a production of my own and cast him as the lead.  I can buy him a silk dressing gown, opera tickets, onyx cufflinks and lunch at the Ritz-Carlton.  We can start with champagne cocktails.  Later, over coffee, I can produce my book list and explain why I have chosen the volumes bulging from the enormous independent bookstore bag at his feet, particularly the copy of Operation Mincemeat by the Englishman Ben Macintyre that I have just read and found marvelous.  It’s about deception and luck and what is known as the art of war and the calmness with which the Brits accept colorful and unrepentant eccentricity.  It’s the perfect gift for my Dad, right up his alley.  Then we can get into my car and drive down to Carmel, or over to the wine country, or how about up to Mendocino?  As we travel I can ask him all my questions, about his first meeting with my mother, in Dakar, when she was thirteen – why was he there?  I can ask about the repeated appearance of Dakar in the family history, and what exactly happened to the Brit-owned coal-shipping business after France fell in1940 and the English colony had to flee, and about his life in Wales and out of it, before and after World War I.  And we can rent bicycles and pedal through the little towns and stop somewhere for tea.

      Then, when the day is over and it’s time to part, I can say: “So, Daddy – next year in Paris, yes? Or London?  Or would you prefer Marseilles?”

      And he can say: “All sound wonderful, darling.  See you there!”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
March 2010

 

I am writing my memoir. It could start like this, with

 

A Snapshot

By Bebe Vaughan

 

            The print is faded, but the captured images are recognizable and heart-stopping: the shimmering sand, the arching white sky, the incandescent ocean pouring itself over the horizon’s rim, the heat a presence, and two people, a father and his little daughter, together on a beach.

 

            Here is the little girl, mischievous and tousled in a skimpy playsuit.  Delight is coiled in her small body like a silver spring.  She crosses one bare foot nonchalantly over the other and leans in to him, smiling for the camera.

 

            Here is the father, remote in his pale linen clothes, his Celtic fairness dazzling under the tropical sun, his hair a round halo, like a Giotto saint.  He is courtly and fastidious.  His gaze falls inward and his hand, holding the little fist, is flaccid at the end of a rigid arm; his countenance is guarded.  He does not wish to be here, on this far-flung beach, transfixed on the parental hook by this importunate five-year-old, his fifth and, as it turns out, last child.

 

            On the back, my mother’s handwriting fixes the place and time: La Plage de Hamm, Dakar, Juin 1940.

    

            It is a snapshot of a world that evaporated.

 

            This snapshot is one that I must restore.  I wonder if I can dig as deeply as required, incise as precisely as planned, with just two small trowels, one called Memory and one called Imagination.  I wonder.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


February 2010  

I did, for purposes of running amok in the literary sense, give my parents’ married intimacy to my imagination when I wrote about it in

Sex, Death & Other Distractions
by Bebe Vaughan

      I was the penultimate pregnancy of my family: There were eight in all, with five surviving.  I was last – the ultimate, as it turned out – conceived during a rare period of parental cohabitation in St. Vincent, in the Cape Verde Islands.  Either that or during what must have been one of my father’s rare appearances in England.  Well, it makes a certain strange sense: My parents lived largely apart.  This arrangement, if scrutinized calmly and rationally, worked for them, I think. They didn’t like each other very much and divorce was out of the question; my mother’s stringent Catholicism could make no room for divorce, and it’s probable that my father’s firm insisted on marriage to lend gravitas and dignity – as well as style and decoration – to his position.  (Who knows?  Perhaps, if they had divorced, he would have lost his job.)  My parents in retrospect seemed able to live together, though by no means peacefully, for periods of about two years at a stretch.

    “Of all sad words of tongue or pen/The saddest are, it might have been.”  Actually, I did, for purposes of running amok in the literary sense, give my parents’ married intimacy to my imagination when, along with other members of the Kensington Ladies Erotica Society, I was engaged in writing the last book in our trilogy.  (That’s the one entitled Sex, Death & Other Distractions.  You can find it, in hard cover or paperback, on Amazon.)  In retrospect, it was not a happy piece I wrote.  The only memory I have of my parents’ close contact was in the days following my older brother’s death: They sat together and held hands as my father read aloud the beautiful, stately, heartbroken letter received from his father-in-law, my maternal grandfather, who adored his grandson.  I was only eleven, but I was struck with the realization that this was not something I had ever seen before.  That’s a deeply sorrowful recognition for a little girl to have, and I have often wondered about its impact on my view of marriage, which has never worked for me.

    So, on the feast day, I salute St.Valentine, though warily, and try not to flinch at unexpected loud noises: crockery smashing, for example, or objects dropping, as if hurled to the floor with a noise like a thunder clap.  I try not to hurry the day toward its end, although I’m very good at babysitting, so that starry-eyed folk can go out to dinner and come home late and entwine.  I just prefer to keep myself separate, in my own safe space.
    
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


November 2009  

My parents should have known that dreams don’t have to be nightmares, and that

Secrets Can Be Shared
By Bebe Vaughan

      About ten or fifteen years ago, I made, on the British Independent Television news channel, an amazing discovery.  The newscaster was my cousin.  Or my great nephew.  Or my half-brother, or my half-brother’s first-born son – a fact that would have made him, let’s see, my nephew once-removed.  Is that it?   Errr, perhaps not.  I can never get those “removed” details straight when it comes to family: It’s a bit like having a personal compass installed in my brain that submits to the authority of someone else, not me at all, someone ruthlessly skilled in genetic detail.  Removed – what’s wrong with second cousin, or third or fourth cousin?  I can understand those, and follow the relationships meticulously, but they are scornfully cast aside by the experts in the field, so I quietly subside.

       Anyway, there was the newscaster, presenting the news via ITV – an elegant man, slight and well-spoken, who looked exactly like my father.  So many eerie details: the shape of the eyes, the spring of the hair from the brow, the smile, the pitch and timbre of the voice.  I was entranced.  This, I told myself, was obviously the spin-off of one of my father’s brother Frank’s children, two boys whose names I only vaguely recollect, whom I had met in England years ago, after the war, when I was a teenager still immured in a convent.  And here, now, across 3,000 miles and more years than I cared to calculate (my father would be well into his centenary), was the image of some grand- or great-grandson of my uncle.  How absolutely marvelous!  How gratitude-provoking! How undeniably perfect!

       When the news was over and dinner cleared away, I went to my computer and wrote an enthusiastic letter of enquiry to my relative.  I enclosed details of my parents’ marriage, of the years in Senegal before the war, of the events leading to my settling in the San Francisco Bay Area and of my own experiences as a journalist.  I invited him to stay next time he was in California, something I was sure happened often, and pressed him to bring his wife, or significant other of either sex.

       The next day I mailed it, and then let the matter rest while my life went on.  I noticed that I felt peaceful and happy each time I thought of it, so much so that I telephoned my eldest sister and told her what I had done.  

       Her reply startled me.

       “Are you sure you should have done that?” she asked quietly.

      Crestfallen (once the youngest child, always the youngest child), I stammered my explanation.  I never once, as I view this event in retrospect, questioned why she asked that question, just repositioned the matter on one of my mental back burners and let the days pass.

       About three weeks later, a letter came with an ITV logo on the envelope.  I could hardly keep my hands from shaking as I tore it open and removed the letter and unfolded it.  

      I had been wrong about everything.  There was no family connection, no overlap of place and time in our family’s history, no shared genes.  We simply were not members of the same family.  All there was – and this I have remembered – was that unnerving likeness, a profound energy inimical to a careless casting aside of the initial shock of recognition.  I filed it away in the “Misc.” folder in my mind.

      Some three months ago, in the course of a conversation with another of my sisters, I had reason to dig out that file.  My sister was talking about all the worries that my mother had to sustain while we were growing up.  A lot of them in retrospect had to do with the fear that various members of her largely female family would become pregnant while unmarried – not something one recovered from briskly, back then.  Then: “It would be really unsurprising,” she said, “if we were to run into an illegitimate half-sibling from one of Daddy’s liaisons, conceived while they were separated.  Think about it.”

      Bingo!

      There is no way that my parents could know that dreams don’t have to be nightmares, and that secrets can be shared, and that joy is the crucial currency in the God business.  That’s what Teilhard de Chardin tells us, and he should probably know.

      But, just thinking about it, I’ve got my peaceful, happy feeling back.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
September 2009  

My father insisted that his children know art and be cultured by

Books, a Good Newspaper and the Radio
by Bebe Vaughan

    Art and music.  Well, there was quite a lot of it.  Both my parents were artists manques, the curiosity that turns to passion if nurtured, trained and shown the way, diluted at best, at worst left to shrivel “like a raisin in the sun” by parental eccentricity, laziness or fear.  I feel such sadness when I think of them both – adolescents just on the cusp of recognizing their gifts, never sure that theirs could be the brass ring, never getting any closer than glimpsing it, but ultimately unable to muster the courage, that mysterious energy one sees in children, compounded of equal parts curiosity and gaiety, that leads, if one is audacious enough, to grasping it, making it one’s property, one’s work in the world. 

    My father was a scholar primarily.  His adoration was for language, the spoken word, preferably Shakespearean.  Allied to this was his Welsh understanding of himself as a singer – he had a lovely tenor voice, although he made it to the stage just once – and I always rejoice when I recognize how many songs (the spoken word set to music) the Bard included in his plays.  And I recognize, too, that my father’s insistence on governing what reached his children’s ears from Out There In The World had to do with knowing that his children would know art and would be cultured by books, a good newspaper and the radio.

    The radio was the BBC which, when I was a child, was two stations: the Home Service (very serious arguments between fretful, acerbic, often asthmatic male academics under the rubric “The Brains Trust” and a mighty mystery to a six year old), which gave us the nightly news, mostly about Bombs Dropping at Random (where was that? Here, down the road towards the airfield?) and Saturday Night Theatre, which it was almost a sin against the Holy Ghost to miss (dramatizations of the works of John Masefield and Thomas Hardy, wonderful workouts for the imagination and invaluable listening practice).  The other one was the Light Programme, where matters were a little less earnest but still full of surprises.  This station carried radio shows that allowed us to relax during the most alarming times of the War:  ITMA (It’s That Man Again), which was the Tommy Handley show, often very funny, although my mother, whose grasp of English at that time was tentative, could not follow it and therefore loathed it vociferously (“Mais ces gens sont completement ridicules! Je deteste ca!”).  Nonetheless, my father insisted that we listen, and we did, and assumed an aspect of culture that is invaluable to me today, when there isn’t any.  And Dick Barton, Special Agent! I recently heard, on the air, the music that introduced this amazing, fifteen-minute nightly production – those BBC producers were genii – and I called the radio station in a voice high and squeaky as I tried to explain how this music heralded one of the bridges that I paused upon, reflectively, on my path into the shadowy grown-up world.  (The announcer was not particularly interested in my memories.)  And Workers’ Playtime, which was broadcast from different munitions factories throughout the country and where I heard little Julie Andrews, daughter of a musical couple called Ted and Barbara Andrews, make her debut before a British public: She sang The Russian Nightingale, and the announcer said she had a six-octave range.  I was enraptured: I’m pretty certain I was twelve, and I know that Ms. Andrews and I are the same age, and I, too, loved, still love, to sing.  (Later, I was discovered by Miss Bailey, the talented, exquisitely pretty music teacher at the convent, when she was auditioning new voices for the annual Christmas Carol Concert.)  Looking back, I realize now that as far as music was concerned it was already too late, it would not happen: Talent was all very well, but my father was bankrupt and ill, and music lessons were extras on the school bill.  I loved to dance and was good at it, but it was too late for that, too.

    “You have to be so good,” said my father, when I announced my wish to be a writer.  “Be a writer’s wife, darling.”  And my mother nodded silent assent.

    I remember staring at them, aware of all the questions, words twittering and tumbling over themselves inside my head like a flock of demented pigeons.  There was one statement that I tried not to hear, that I caught and tried to stifle, that made one thing icily clear: There would be no encouragement, no support, no focus, from my parents toward my desire – it was not yet an intention – to have an artist’s life.  These people were not on my side.

     My father’s legacy to me, to all his children, in fact, was fear.  He knew and trusted fear; he had known it all his life.  It was knitted into the pattern of his cellular structure like cables on a sweater.

     Fear was my father’s immortalization, and his gift.  His task was to find a foolproof way to deliver it, because his view of himself as a Good Father was the string that bound fear to love.  Perhaps that’s why he chose fabrics of truth and passion – the art and music he loved with all his heart – that later would give me the strength to detach myself, wave a last goodbye.

    Perhaps, in the end, love won.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

June 2009

My memoir will be my search for my father.  Because so little is known about him, everything requires research.  I am not very good at research, but I cling to two constant companions:

Memory and Imagination
by Bebe Vaughan

       My children’s father once remarked resignedly that, in his opinion, if one must believe in God, one should do so with the full understanding that This is an entity possessed of a Gallic sense of humor and a Lucullan sense of tragedy.  In the wonderful French movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, author and Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby is given a terrible, appallingly typical gift that I suspect in theological circles would be classified as a blessing.  Paralyzed by a devastating stroke at the wheel of his car, he revives in a hospital bed to find himself unable to do anything – well, he can breathe and blink his eyes.  With the help of family and friends,
Bauby starts to write his autobiography: one blink for yes if the letter of the alphabet in the word he has chosen is the right one, two for no.  Or perhaps it’s the other way around; no matter, the film is available on DVD, so check with NetFlix.

       I watched it about a year ago, when my own what W.H. Auden has lovingly termed “interesting scrawls” were beginning to waver from my thoughts to the page, and there alas to wilt in the toxicity of the environment in which I found myself.  A writer friend, calling to ask how the memoir was coming along and hearing my stammered explanations about its snail-like progress in the surrounding sturm und drang, said quietly, “It’s impossible to write if you don’t feel safe.”

       She was absolutely right, and that was when I stopped trying to write and turned my attention outward, to Google and other mysteries of the World Wide Web.  I started doing research.  And I started looking for an apartment close to my daughter, who makes me feel very safe.

       My memoir, I now see, is my search for my father.  And because so little is known about my father, everything about him that interests me requires research.  I am not very good at research, but I cling to two concepts that that poor man in
The Diving Bell spelled out to an indefatigable friend with blinks: Memory and Imagination. These are my companions, my constants.  It all rather makes me think of A Pilgrim’s Progress.

       And why not, in fact?  This memoir, which I think is going to carry the title Please Send Gumboots – mucky, yes, but what family isn’t
reflects my journey.  I am in a new place.  My physical problems have receded under the ministrations of the chiropractor I am stoically seeing three times a week.  Expertly, unapologetically, he twists my head off to the right and screws it back on to the left, stretches my spine on a machine that was probably designed along the lines of something thoughtfully observed in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds, zaps me with lasers and rollers and sends me tottering home clutching 750 ml bottles of acai pulp.  I look ten years younger than my age.  My desk was a miraculous answer to a very fuzzy projected image indeed, and I understand that usually God is impatient with fuzzy images, but the Gallic and the Lucullan are off somewhere bothering someone else, for non-theological blessings abound.

       I finished arranging my new office in my apartment yesterday.  My computer is switched on and I start to type. Now, indistinct but gaining line and form, weight and substance, guided by memory and imagination and, with Google’s help, history and information, my father begins to emerge.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


May 2009  

Jobs are all about fathers.  Work, on the other hand, is not.  Work is all about relationship

To the Self

by Bebe Vaughan

        What an interesting undertaking: writing about Jobs (the upper case J is my largely unconscious but, on reflection, perfectly fitting choice) for a historical column in a magazine about Fathers (observe more use of upper case).  In my view, Jobs are all about Fathers.  Work, on the other hand, is not.  Work is all about relationship to the self.  I’ve never had a problem with work.  See?  No upper case!  

       Jobs, though, have always been a problem.  I think the patron saint of jobs is – and, if not, it should be – Abraham.  Abraham obviously considered the murder of his son to be his job, which explains, I think, the echoing absence of Isaac’s mother from this particular frolic.  Dad was at work, after all.  You don’t just barge in on the head of the household when he’s conferring with the boss upstairs on the next project, now do you?  Sarah was probably off somewhere, ploughing a field and wondering when all those rubies her price was purportedly greater than were going to materialize.  And we’re not told how many of his other children Abraham had already terminated as part of a day’s, or perhaps a week’s, work.

        “Get yourself ready, my dear darling/For we must do a little thing…”  Thus croons the tenor (Dad) to the soprano (Isaac) in Benjamin Britten’s wonderful musical piece, and it’s absolutely chilling.  He’s going to kill the boy, his son, yes!  On orders from Him, no less – the One who keeps trumpeting that He and Love are one and the same – and Abraham is not in the least surprised at the command, never mind upset, or rebellious, or sorry.  Does he, as certain military heroes have been known to do, explain to the C.O. that he did not hear that order?  No.  Does he cut off his buttons, salute the chief, quit his job?  No.  Abraham, determined to keep his job, totally identified with his boss and evolved into a savage corporate bully.  As Jean Hayes Michie murmured once when we were watching a cat stalk, ambush and bloodily devour a chipmunk: “God is love, if you like that sort of thing.”

        Which is why, I think, that the emblem of this legacy has been passed without interruption down through the millennia.  I frankly lay my ambivalence about jobs on its doorsill.  I can’t bear bosses of either gender and, of course, many women now have perfected the corporate high kicks that propel these monstrous regiments across the job-sustaining battlefields.  It used to be that one discovered such harpies only in hospitals, orphanages, schools, or convents – places where, unless the “austere office of correction,” in Thomas Mann’s wry phrase, was grimly deployed, the young ran wild – but now they’re on Wall Street, deconstructing banks, grinding the faces of the poor with six-inch Manolo Blahnik precision.

        I remember eavesdropping on a conversation my father had with an old friend when I was five and we had been back in England a few weeks.  He was outlining what had happened to his exalted position as Managing Director of the French West African branch of the British company after France fell in 1940.

        “Oh, well,” he said. “They gave me a job when I got back to London.  Nothing much, you understand. But still, a job.”  He never recovered from the shock of being demoted, of dwindling so abruptly from his Abraham position to that of Isaac; he was dead within eight years.

        And I have never made a lasting success of a job.  Work, though, fills me with close to holy joy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *


April 2009
 
Truth is a matter of extremes, an alarming commodity that can result in shrieking, untidy plunges into red jelly madness. Yet I feel, glumly, that I am required to confront the truth about

My Relationship to Money

by Bebe Vaughan

     Truth, as the saying goes, is beautiful at all times, even if it does reveal, in the end, that Mrs. Demon Barber’s pies are made of human flesh.  I do not dispute that assertion.  Quite the contrary – stories are always more gripping, or terrifying, or heartbreaking, or hilarious, when they’re true.  Truth is a matter of extremes, and so it’s an alarming commodity that in general we choose to sidestep unless we’re forced to confront, and that can result in shrieking, untidy plunges into red jelly madness.  We all have our different methods of staying comfortable, and more power to us.  But for purposes of this column, I do feel, glumly, that I am required to confront the truth about my relationship to money.
          
    Especially that aspect of it that is expressed in our one-sided conversations.

    “Okay,” I say. “You’re right. I don’t understand you. I don’t get it. I can see how important, how self-referenced and successful you are, how rigidly your gaze stays focused on your objective. And I can see how appallingly inept and inconsistent I am, how I cower, slickit and timorous as Robbie Burns’ beastie, blown about by the opinions and often invisible intentions and directives of others. So I’m going to abandon any foolhardy fantasies about meeting you on equal turf and do it your way.”
          
    And then I‘ll settle, frowning in front of my computer, and design another budget, and this works like a charm on the page, but doesn’t seem to have anything to do with day-to-day reality.  Money always ends up chortling fruitily in triumph: I am money, it gloats, bubbling like syrup, a superior force that always wins in the end.  Back off.  Gather your tattered, paltry shreds of dreams; wind them around your not-qualified-for-plastic-surgery neck, tie those real-but-needful-of–too-expensive-restringing pearls in a knot under your chin, and clatter off in your copper-toed boots.  Mud inhabitant.  For I am money, and I belong to the sleek, the glittering, the accomplished and the rare. You’re outclassed, baby – a tiresome gnat buzzing faintly at my lightly sleeping tiger.
           
    I think this conversation has been going on since I was in utero.
          
    Which can only mean that there are more voices to hear, more hidden messages to dig up and analyze.  And where does this lead but to the family rock, the source of all plenty, especially to someone of my generation?  A study in gray and white, sandy, dappled, always exiting: My father.
          
    My father, remote, largely unreachable, gentle-voiced, not quite feared but definitely viewed as a powerful stranger, demanding the best, from everybody.
          
    My father, fountain pen in hand, seriously and slowly doing the football pools every weekend, like a religious ritual.  I wonder where he got his information?  He was not interested in sports, he never won, and I think he rode into his involvement on a wave of disbelief.  He believed he wasn’t supposed to win, to be wealthy and worry-free and envied; I think this is one of the more powerful beliefs he communicated, because every time I follow an inner prompting and ruefully buy a lottery ticket, I think of him.
          
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February 2009

I wrote the following two paragraphs in 1986.  They open a chapter entitled “The Morning After” in Look Homeward Erotica, written by the Kensington Ladies’ Erotica Society and originally published by Ten Speed Press.  Things haven’t changed much in twenty years.  I still have the same feelings, full of portent and mystery, for

St. Valentine’s Day
By Bebe Vaughan

         My childhood was devotional, ordered by the Calendar of Saints.  The names of the Feasts and Vigils glitter with gold leaf on the dim parchment chronicles of my pious past.  But time and a thousand heresies have drastically altered my relationship to the Director of the Universe.  Many of the names and dates, the feast days and the Holy Days of Obligation, have vanished from my memory.

         But there is a day which arches like a slender bridge between my magical child self and my more skeptical adult habits.  For St. Valentine, I have changed the rules of vigil-keeping.  The celebration happens on the eve, when instead of keeping watch before the sacred day, I rejoice.  The feast day itself is spent in restoring order, and this I do with the same ardent dedication that I demonstrated as an enraptured schoolgirl. 

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January 2009

The huge navel oranges, glowing like small suns, are a symbol of

Rapprochement with My Father
By Bebe Vaughan

         I have a clear memory of a Dad Magazine stakeholders’ meeting last summer.  A hot day in Walnut Creek.  Curried chicken.  Cool drinks.  A robust agenda.  Where Dad Magazine stands compared to other father-based online – even off-line – magazines, to me a most mysterious imponderable.  Column subjects broached, discussed, rejected, retrieved, accepted.  Months chosen to fit.  All well and good until the last one.  Then a wild cacophony of cries rose up.  A color?  And yes, firmly, from the editor-in-chief.   A color.  You want pieces on Dads and colors?  Exactly right; get on with it.  I felt incipient despair.  All I could think of was orange.

         Why orange remained a mystery until one morning last week, when the recurrent image of a Christmas stocking that had stalked my imagination for months following the meeting suddenly ceded to memory: True to one of the seasonal English traditions that my mother adopted (the other one was the Christmas cake, baked sometime in late fall, repeatedly drenched in brandy and immured, in the non-functional oven she used as a storage place for rare delights, until Christmas Eve.  Then she would haul it out and, eyeing it critically, slice it in half, stick the two halves together with marzipan, wrap it in more marzipan and then cover it in sugar icing until the entire surface resembled nothing so much as a dazzling, snow-packed playing field.  Upon this she deployed Baby Bunting figures evidently debauched beyond redemption, but that’s cultural ambivalence for you), that stocking carried an orange in its toe.
    
         When filling a stocking, that’s where you start.
    
         And that’s where, as a memoirist, I find myself chronologically at a loss.  Am I to remember Christmases wartime or post-war?  There were no oranges anywhere in England in wartime; oranges came from Spain and North Africa, and they might as well have come from the moon.

         Things were somewhat different post-war.  But I am writing about Christmas in the early 1940s, when we had miraculously evaded the U-boats and landed safely in Liverpool; when we had returned to the University town my parents had lived in before leaving for Senegal; when my father had discovered that somehow, because of the fall of France and the establishment of the pro-German government at Vichy, because of his French wife, who had been such a glittering asset when he headed the company that represented the best of Britain abroad but who was now suspected as a spy, he had become, despite his conscientious closing of the Dakar office, persona non grata and was humiliatingly demoted from the company’s upper echelons.  Every hope, every aspiration that he had worked for was erased; his salary, his standing, diminished.  His world shrank, he lost himself, and life became a nightmare.

         I think it was his dread, his shame I felt every Christmas after we returned to England.  Children do this: They read the pictures in their parents’ minds, suffer the disorder of displacement, feel the agony of loss.  For my father, I think, the holiday underscored his sense of failure, his bewilderment and rage at the turn of events over which he had no control.  Perhaps he hated his family at this time, hated their proximity to his debasement, hated a holiday that insisted on family closeness.  Perhaps that’s why he left Christmas traditions to his bemused wife.

         Now, so many years later, I buy huge navel oranges, mostly to look at, and pile them in a bowl on the table.  They are perfect, they glow like small suns.  I’m happy that I have found a symbol of rapprochement with my father.  Forgiveness will happen when the time is right – perhaps at Christmas.

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I Am Bebe Vaughan

by Bebe Vaughan

    I am the product of an uneasy detente between the Welsh (my father, blue-eyed, strawberry-blond, musical, literary, sartorially stylish, often missing and, when present, largely remote; he died when I was fourteen) and the French (my mother, from the Midi coast, black-eyed, garrulous, gifted and unstable, present in my life with an intensity that caused me later to decamp and head for America).  I was born in England and educated in France, Senegal (in what was then French West Africa), and England, so by the age of four I could speak three languages.  Unfortunately, I never learned the alphabet in any of them and, to this day, I consult dictionaries only when no one else is around to stare aghast at my chaotic thumbed hunts through the listings as I murmur "M ... let's see, M -- is that before Q? Oh no, it's after L: KLMEnno. So it's before N... Oh, look! R!"

    Despite this drawback, I am remarkably well-read, say my children, and I have been writing since the age of nine.  I have written a lot.

    I am a member of the Kensington Ladies Erotica Society and contributed to all three books as both author and editor. The emerging KLES oeuvre was published by Ten Speed Press in 1984, 1986 and 2002.  The first book, Ladies Home Erotica, stayed on the Bay Area Trade Paperback Best Seller List for 26 weeks and propelled us, as part of a national book tour, onto Fresh Air with Terry Gross and Oprah, before she was Oprah.  She was the Oprah Winfrey Show in those far-off days, and we were Those Masked Ladies.  Well, it was 25 years ago, before Madonna and AIDS, and things were far less, er, frank.  We all had jobs and nervous husbands; the word modesty was still in use.  The prospect of being sidled up to at the water fountain, or in the supermarket parking lot, and assailed by the sibilant graphic whisperings of furtive Lotharios was unnerving.  We raided the mask collection gathered by one of the Ladies and hid behind papier-mache, shells and feathers as the publisher's photographer took our group pictures.  Our success caused the Ladies' Home Journal to panic: They ordered us shrilly to cease and desist, because we were a) encroaching on their intellectual territory as they apparently own the words Ladies and Home when they are right next to each other in a sentence and b) confusing their readers -- all of whom, you can bet your bra, were over eighteen.  But, as Tony Soprano said at his mother's funeral: "Whaddya gonna do?"  We changed the title of the first book to Ladies Own Erotica, and there it has stayed.  None of the books has ever been out of print.

    I am an award-winning journalist (to my surprise, the American Sunbathing Association awarded me the Non-Nudist Printed Media Award for Best Magazine Article in 1988.  They gave me a plaque which, as we speak, hangs resplendent above my computer, and $100, most of which I spent on lunch with my editor, who assigned the piece).

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