Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Melanchollie

A melancholic river runs through my veins. Fed by both parental tributaries, it has determined the course of my life.

I have no need of a Livingstone or a Burton. I know where the sources of this malevolent spring can be found.

One strain originated along the shores of Loch Arkaig, west of the Great Glen. The other from an even more remote Hebridean hinterland.

The island of Scalpay, should it be afforded such a generous description, lies just off the larger island of Harris. During their Tour in the fall of 1773, Dr. Johnson proposed to James Boswell that they ought to buy it, and "found a good school, and an episcopal church ... and have a printing-press, where he would print all the Erse [Highland Gaelic] that could be found." As far as I know, that idea fell stillborn from the Great Cham's imagination.

Over the past weekend, as I partook of the Tartan Mania that grips the ancestral glen each August, I spent some time with my father, who is rapidly fading into the fog of a much darker melancholy than the species that enveloped me for many years before I was rescued by the Interruptnum.

My father built almost every stick of furniture that I own, in particular the three white pine bookcases that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Marvelous and sacred for their imperfections, they exemplify the relationship between my father and I. Each tiny mistake and uncovered nail is telling of a flawed template that structured his life, and troublingly governs mine.  Every knot in the wood tells a story. Not always a happy one, but an important one. Those bookcases, and everything else he built for me, will be one of the most enduring memories of my father. It doesn't matter that so many other memories I have are not so pleasant. It is unfortunate that my own memory is almost as retentive as Boswell reports Dr. Johnson's to be. 

My father no longer remembers making those things. So I took pictures of them with his camera. From every angle. Along and against each grain. I zoomed in on his signatures in order to furnish him with the indisputable evidence of his craftsmanship. To show him the authenticity of his authorial stamp. Otherwise he may not have believed that he had made these things. On certain days, seeing him as he is now, it is hardly imaginable for anyone to believe he did all the remarkable things he did with the resources he had at his disposal.

As I showed him the images on my laptop, I thought I could almost see inside his head -- the ideas and impressions struggling to coalesce into a solid memory. I didn't expect his next question when he asked when I had cancer. I told him. I think he was really asking when this happened to him -- when he started to forget. "It was exactly the same time", I said to myself. I think he had already suspected that uncanny synchronicity. 

I tried to keep it together, and I think I did. I thought of a favourite lyric written by a (usually instrumental) band that often speaks to me in such moments, and its become an important corrective in my negotiation of the lamentably persistent grudges and irrational messiness that scars our family relationships.

when you die
you have to leave them behind
you should keep that in mind
and when you keep that in mind
you'll find a love as big as the sky


  1. those pine bookshelves are a fine fine image of or dad -

    As a lowlander this makes me want to be a highlander.

  2. An incredible synopsis, searching through these moments only to find what you thought was authentic, truly was. Don't know if we can expect more from our fathers. Good writing FE.