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My father, Walter Stephen Hamm, was a complicated man, wounded by the circumstances of his childhood and then wounded again by the grenade that blew up in his hand during World War II.  As a child, I believed that grenade had blown up in the hands of his unborn children as well. And my relationship with him was mostly one of fear. His mother died when he was six years old. His father descended into his alcoholism and his six small children were either farmed out to relatives or adopted. When my father entered the military, he was a carpenter. When he came out of the VA hospitals he'd spend more than three years inside, he was a carpenter who'd had most of his left hand blown off, who would wear a steel brace from thigh to ankle, and would battle osteomyelitis for the remainder of his life. The grenade exploded when my oldest brother was an infant, before I and my other brothers were born. My father was angry and when he drank that anger exploded in some pretty frightening ways. 

Most of my life, I kept a safe distance from my dad. I loved him. And I thought I hated him. In his later years, he needed an aortic transplant when he developed an aneurism that could not be repaired in the ordinary way because of his osteomyelitis. I traveled from my life in Oregon to Baltimore where I sat by his bedside for 5 weeks that changed my perception of  him forever.  I wrote something in my journal on the way home from that amazing time. Now that my father is dead, I wish I'd shared what that time with him meant to me.  Each day, he told me a story from his life.  I'd listen and then at night I'd return to the motel room I'd rented on the campus of Johns Hopkins and write about what he'd told me that day.  If my father cried the following morning when I read it to him, I knew I got the important things right. I wish he could have known how I changed as result of hearing his life story.  Perhaps understanding is all we really need to find forgiveness. This is what I wrote on the plane.

"From the other side of the country, the other side of my life, I came to that place--The Johns Hopkins Hospital--to be with my father. And each day, for more than five weeks, we greeted the morning together. 

It was in those moments that I came to understand, I mean really understand, how far my father and I had journeyed together and how much I was able to reconcile the separate truths of that voyage. My father is a man I came to love in an intricate and irreversible way and I can no longer conceive of his absence from my life.

But if time could magically cease for my father and me, I know that is where I would stop it--in that place, at that unlikely time in both our lives. That time when our roles reversed and I became the parent of my father. It was a wondrous, unbelievable time, especially the way we were in the morning.

And that is what I want to remember. To remember always. The two of us, father and daughter, shadowed by the first light. Momentarily alone together, our breath rising into the morning air and him, lying there, telling me for the first time, the story of his life. The story of the man who was, after all, my father."


And so on this Father's Day I go back to that time, as I knew I would, and I remember him with love and respect for everything he endured. For how hard he tried, despite the wounds, to rise above his circumstances and love me and my brothers.  My father taught me tenacity. And it has helped me in this elusive pursuit of the writing dream. My father never gave up and he became a pretty good one-handed carpenter. I loved you, Dad. And now, when I can no longer say those words to you, I wish I'd said them more often. 


An afterthought:  It occurs to me now that, in a way, I did stop time by writing about those weeks with my father. And now I can go back to it whenever I want. Sometimes it's a wonderful thing to be a writer.  
 

 
 
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Tell Me a Story by Barbara Rudolf
A few  years ago, I bought this painting from Scottsdale artist, Barbara Rudolf.  It is entitled "Tell Me A Story" and it hangs over the fireplace in a room where I often write my novels and poems. 

When I first saw this piece, I was so drawn to it that I had to make it mine. We collect art, and we buy it when we fall in love and can afford to, but I have never been drawn to a piece as strongly as I was drawn to this one. 

It reminded me of Maya Angelou's quote: "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song."

It's interesting how in the process of writing, we often discover answers. It wasn't until I started this blog that I realized I was drawn to this piece because as writers, we are like those birds. We write because we have stories that haunt us, stories we need to tell in order to more fully understand life and our unique place within it. Stories we can't bear to hold inside any longer. Sometimes the stories are joyful ones--a way of reliving something that awed or inspired us. Other times, it may be sadness, loss or grief that drives us to write. Or a fantasy that haunts our dreams and needs to expose itself on the page. There are so many things in the life of a writer that trigger stories. And so, we create fictional characters to tell those stories that haunt us. Let's face it, we tell lies in order to expose a greater truth. 


Of course learning how to tell our stories in compelling and meaningful ways with extreme and interesting characters who are willing to do almost anything to get what they want, takes work. And, in some cases like mine, a lifetime of study and practice. In future blogs I hope to share some of the things I've learned about this craft and how they've made a difference in my life, in my work and in the songs I sing.