The day before my father died last March, I moved in close to his right ear and asked him a few questions.
“Do you remember Primrose Avenue?” I said.
That’s the name of a street near the house where we lived when my brother and I were growing up in Mt. Vernon, N. Y.
Primroses are small colorful old-fashioned flowers. Primrose the street was pretty, too. It began in a vale (an appropriately antiquated word) near the business district, then meandered along, past a small park with lilac bushes and a few benches. As it climbed a hill, the street widened with grand houses on either side, some with marble steps at the curb. These had been used for carriages in the 1890s.
|Primrose Avenue postcard, around 1905
Now it is 2018 and a big storm has swirled into New York City. Down on the street, you can hear the snow crashing into the wind. I remember this sound from my childhood when snowstorms occurred routinely from November to March. We trudged to school through banks, drifts and slush. Sometimes the driving snow stung our eyes.
During the winter of 1970, a blizzard socked the New York metropolitan area. It lasted a few days. I can still conjure that wonderful sense of being stuck inside. Even if one had an appointment, it would be impossible to get there. Everything was closed; only our homes were open for business.
One night, the snow finally stopped. Looking out the window, we saw a few flakes trickling down. My father and I decided to take a walk. In boots and layers of sweaters coats scarves hats gloves, we stepped outside.
We started around the block and came to Primrose Avenue. The last foot of snow had not been plowed and we couldn’t find the sidewalk, so we walked up the middle of the street.
I remember a pink glow, which must have been the snow reflecting the streetlight. Also the crunch, crunch of our boots. I also recall, dimly, our conversation.
|My father reading to me (left) and my brother (right), early 1960s
My father was a talented writer and editor who worked largely with dry bureaucratic prose. At heart, though, he had a true literary sensibility. Because of him, there were volumes of Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Housman, and Keats in the house; also such novels as The Naked and the Dead, Of Human Bondage, and Johnny Got His Gun. My mother recommended King’s Row and anything by John O’Hara, but he urged on me Lolita and You Can’t Go Home Again.
After his death, I found notes for the book reviews that he wrote during his years as a newspaper reporter. It was a good way to make extra money and get free books. In 1947, for example, his reviews included All the King's Men and a thriller called The Big Clock.
Who knows why he also was reviewing Boswell’s Life of Johnson (published in 1791), but of it he noted simply: “Had to choke this one down.”
Back to Primrose Avenue.
As we walked through the pink light and dwindling snowflakes, he imparted something magical to me. I believe it involved the exhilarating connection between literature and experience. The scene, the shadow, the words and characters – you could always return to them, or call them up. And of course, what he said turned out to be true.
That’s why I’m glad that New York is finally getting a snowstorm, this snowstorm, the first one since his death. It feels like I’ve crossed a continent to get back to Primrose Avenue and he’s there with me, talking and walking in the unplowed world.
|Throughout his life, my father jotted down the titles
and authors of books he wanted to read.
Met photo by Claudia Keenan
See posts November 16, 2016 and November 8, 2017.