My father was always a storyteller. His home room teacher at Thayer Academy used to promise her class that John would tell a story if they behaved. With luck, and increasing skill, he could spin the story out over two or three class periods so that the teacher and his classmates forgot all about arithmetic and geography and social studies. He told them stories about ship captains and eccentric old ladies and orphan boys, gallant men and dazzling women in a world where the potent forces of evil and darkness were confounded and good triumphed in the end. He peopled his tales with his own family and friends and neighbors from the surrounding Massachusetts South Shore towns: Quincy, Hingham, Hanover, Braintree, Norwell, and Wollaston, where he lived in a big clapboard house on the Winthrop Avenue hill with his mother, an Englishwoman whose family had immigrated to Boston when she was six, his father, a gentleman sailor who owned a prosperous shoe factory in nearby Lynn, and his older brother, Fred, who was going away to Dartmouth in the fall.
My father told these stories over and over again all his life. He wrote them into short stories and novels, and he passed them on to his children. He won the National Book Award, and the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Medal for Literature. He also kept us amused. Still, he never got the stories quite right. Otherwise, how can you explain the way he kept changing them, embroidering some anecdotes and shifting the emphasis in others, adding sequences and even characters, as if he was searching for some ideal balance that might set him free?
As he grew older, my father became increasingly reluctant to talk about his early years, especially to psychiatrists, who invariably zeroed in on his anger at his dominating mother and his identification with his weak father. Later, when he became famous and journalists' questions forced him to talk about his childhood, he patched together a background of suggestions and half-truths that implied a happy youth and a slow but steady progress in his chosen career. It wasn't so.
"It seems that in my coming of age I missed a year -- perhaps a day or an hour," he wrote in his journal twenty years after he left home. "The consecutiveness of growth has been damaged. But how can I go back and find this moment that was lost?"
The critical moment was almost certainly lost in the mid-1920's, when my father was an adolescent and the Cheever family's comfortable way of life began to disintegrate. His father had sold his interest in the shoe factory, Whitteridge and Cheever, and invested the profits in stocks that dwindled in value during the late 1920's and became worthless after the stock-market crash of 1929. By 1926, my grandmother had opened a little gift shop on Granite Street in Quincy to help support the family, but in the fall Of 1928 money was so short that my grandparents could no longer pay tuitions, and my father dropped out of Thayer Academy and enrolled in Quincy High School; his grades slid from gentlemen's C's and C minuses to D's and E's. When he returned to Thayer in 1929 to repeat his junior year, his mother was paying the school bills. Fred left Dartmouth and came home to look for a job. When he arrived, still redolent with the glamour of campus life, he met and co-opted my father's girlfriend, Iris Gladwin.
My grandfather, once a dapper, literate businessman who read Shakespeare to his sons, became desperate and bitterly sorry for himself. In 1930 he was forced to begin borrowing from the Wollaston Cooperative Bank against the fine house at 123 Winthrop Avenue. (In 1933 the bank repossessed the house and tore it down.) The family's financial disaster became a personal disaster. My father's parents were separated, and although they were later reconciled, no one in the family was ever reconciled to their new circumstances. His mother expanded her business to a larger gift shop on Hancock Street and began running a tearoom during the summers. Being supported by his wife was a humiliating experience for my grandfather. At home there were angry fights and terrible silences. My father's parents, locked in their private agonies, hardly seemed to notice him. Had they ever noticed him? The unhappiness of those years cast deep shadows over the past as well as the future.
His parents' separation was symbolized for him by "an afternoon when he returned home from school and found the furnace dead, some unwashed dishes on the table in the dining room and at the center of the table a pot of tulips that the cold had killed and blackened," he wrote in his journal in the 1950s, expressing his feelings through a third-person narrator, as he often did. "The realization that anger had driven them both out of the house, that their passionate detestation of one another had blinded them to their commitments to the house and to him traveled crookedly up through his heart like a fissure made by an earthquake in a wall, leaving on one side innocence and trust and on the other the lingering ruefulness and gloom of an orphaned spirit. He never quite escaped the chill of that empty house, and all the symbols of exile -- the lighted window on the distant farm, the watch dog's barking, the ship going out to sea, the bright voices of children playing in the distance -- held for him so unnatural a force that they could make it seem as if his heart had turned over."
My father's story, as he usually told it, begins with his final departure from Thayer Academy in March of 1930, his junior year, and his flight to New York City. There his first short story, "Expelled," was published by The New Republic in October 1930, when he was eighteen. Typically, there are many different versions of these events.
"It didn't come all at once," the story in The New Republic begins. "It took a very long time. First I had a skirmish with the English department and then all the other departments. Pretty soon something had to be done."
In the story, a boy filled with lively curiosity, quick intelligence, and the love of nature clashes with a school where knowledge is less important than college admissions and curiosity is not allowed. The boy is expelled. He is right, but he is all alone. Autumn comes.
"Everyone is preparing to go back to school," the story explains. "I have no school to go back to.
"I am not sorry. I am not at all glad."
Sometimes my father would say that he had been kicked out of Thayer for smoking. Sometimes he suggested that his attitude as a student had left something to be desired. He once let drop that he had taught himself German in order to show up a mediocre teacher's interpretation of Goethe. Once or twice he told me that he didn't like the quality of the teachers and administrators at Thayer. He had won a scholarship to Harvard, he said, but when his name was read out in morning chapel on a list of students being considered for suspension, he had walked out of the chapel and the school forever.
The Cheevers are very good at walking out. "When I remember my family, I always remember their backs," he wrote in his journal. "They were always indignantly leaving places...They were always stamping out of concerts, sports events, theatres. If Koussevitzky thinks I'll sit through that! That umpire is a crook. This play is filthy. I didn't like the way that waiter looked at me. They saw almost nothing to its completion, and that's the way I remember them, heading for an exit."
At other times, my father would say he left Thayer after the bank foreclosed on the Wollaston house and his family moved temporarily to Aunt Mary Thompson's farmhouse in Hanover -- although in fact this did not happen until a few years later. The world seemed to have gone awry. His father was drinking heavily and had begun the debilitating rounds of unsuccessful job interviews that would go on the rest of his life. At times his losses seemed to be driving him crazy. My father's own aunt Anna Boynton Thompson, once a respected classics scholar, was starving herself to death in the upper rooms of her house in Braintree. It was her protest against Abdul-Hamid II's massacre of the Armenians. And his mother was running a gift shop.
Mary Liley Cheever had always been a cheery "make-do" sort of woman, with tiny deft hands and a passionate dedication to Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science. But she also had her dark side: claustrophobia, impatience, a stubborn desire to control. She insisted on self-reliance, and although she had been a nurse before she married, she did not believe in medicine. (My father had a childhood bout with tuberculosis that wasn't even diagnosed until his lungs were X-rayed and showed the scar tissue years later.) When she broke her leg in a fall in the bathtub when she was a middle-aged widow, she refused medical care and let the bone heal itself. A broken leg can be excruciatingly painful, but she did not want medication. She limped for the rest of her life.
"And thinking of mother, while I shave, it seems to me that she lived her life by a set of values that I never understood: fire, water, loneliness and prayer," my father wrote soon after she died in 1953. "Many things that were close to the earth: the smell of new bread, lilacs, earth; the sound of running water. It seemed to me at times I was not meant to understand this set of values; that they were intentionally arcane; that their strength was in their complexity."
But one thing that his mother told him, my father understood too well. They had not wanted another child before he was born. His conception was a drunken accident between two people who no longer cared about each other. When his mother found out that she was pregnant, his father had tried to force her to have an abortion.
* * *
After my grandfather had lost the shoe factory and his life savings, it might have seemed a natural thing for his wife to open a little shop. My grandmother had a genteel English manner that made her the perfect teashop hostess. It might have seemed natural, that is, to anyone except my grandfather. To him, his wife's competence was an emasculation, a perversion of the Yankee male ethic that had been his mainstay and his anchor. My father observed and remembered, in Wollaston, in Hanover, and later when he came home to visit Quincy, where my grandparents had settled and my grandmother had established a new, larger Mary L. Cheever Gift Shop.
She hooked rugs and painted lampshades and filled bottles with seashells and covered bricks with printed fabric to make doorstops, and she struck bargains on tea sets and hand-crocheted antimacassars. All his life my father hated any objects or furnishings that suggested the bibelots and toilet-water-scented atmosphere of a gift shop. Inlaid boxes, agate eggs, china dogs and cats, curtains with valances, doilies, and guest towels all gave him an intense, nauseating claustrophobia. They seemed to threaten the true, delightful, innocent order of the world. They seemed to pollute the clear air and darken the blue skies and muddle the sexes. In my father's first novel, The Wapshot Chronicle, the Wapshot brothers' mother Sarah turns their father's beloved boat, the Topaze, into New England's Only Floating Gift Shoppe. An earlier story, "Publick House," is an account of a young man returning to visit his childhood home, which has been turned into a tearoom by his mother. The family heirlooms are being sold off to tourists who would prefer reproductions, his mother is too busy with the paying guests to pay any attention to him, and the grandfather in the story is a wasted old man who lives upstairs, above the chattering ladies, like a ghost of the past.
Another time, my father told me that his plan had been to leave Thayer and set up housekeeping in nearby Boxford with his older brother Fred. After their parents' separation the two brothers had become very close, and in 1931 they went off together on a low-budget walking tour through Germany and Great Britain. Fred had apparently been forgiven for taking away Iris. He also had a job, and he would soon go to work for Pepperell Manufacturing Company. In the Cheever family, Fred already represented the forces of stability and probity. My father was to be the artist. Two oil portraits painted by their mother's sister, Florence Liley Young, show Fred looking ruddy and substantial in a business suit, and John, who was seven years younger, with tousled locks and wearing a blue painter's smock. Their parents' failure had encouraged the two brothers to depend on each other, and it was arranged that Fred would support them while my father established himself as a writer in New York and Boston. They adored one another, and in the Boston community, at least, it wasn't unusual for two bachelor brothers to live together for a while, or forever.
But love was already a complicated business for my father. His love for his older brother, who nurtured and supported him -- and whom he was later called on to nurture and support -- was certainly the most powerful and complicated attachment in his life. It was so powerful that he had to get away from it. "It was the strongest love in my life," he told me once. "When it became apparent that it was an ungainly closeness, I packed my bag and shook his hand and left." Ungainly closeness was to be avoided absolutely. Instead of renting the house in Boxford and moving in with his beloved brother as they had planned, my father left the South Shore and went to seek his fortune in New York City. After he left, Fred married Iris.
In all the different stories about my father dropping out of Thayer and leaving home, he always arrived in the city in the autumn of 1930, a few months after his eighteenth birthday. While he was trying to get a start in New York, his parents lost the Wollaston house and spent three years staying with friends and family or in summer rentals before they eventually settled in Quincy. His mother ran the gift shop. His father looked for a job. After my grandfather died in 1946, my father found in his desk copies of more than fifty job applications he had sent off with no success, as well as letters to Jim Farley, Jim Curley, and the King of England, and a long correspondence with the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles about losing his four-digit license plate to an Italian politician. Fred and Iris moved to Norwell, built an authentic Swiss chalet in a grove of pines, and started raising their family, although Fred's Pepperell salary was still being used to subsidize his parents and my father in New York. My father often went to Norwell or Quincy for long visits, and he spent the summer with his parents when New York got too hot and too expensive. But the South Shore was never his home again -- if it ever had been.
"He would remember with pleasure as the most beautiful part of the world the roads south of Hingham with their pollarded elms and the smell there of timothy and sweet grass in the hay and the salt marshes on the North River and the river itself with its strong smelling waters and even the peaceful hill at Adams as quiet as a country village with its elms and its distant church bells," he wrote after his father's funeral in Norwell. There had been a scene at the graveside. There were always scenes. His mother insisted that his father had wanted Prospero's speech from The Tempest -- "Our revels now are ended..." -- recited over his grave. My father refused to do it.
"But beyond the country skies, beneath the peace of the Hingham lanes, deeper than memory but acting with the force of a remembered crime, was something that would always lead him away and not only away but far away so that when he stepped from Grand Central into the traffic of 42nd Street and only then did he feel that he was free. They had been poor there. That was one thing. They had been unhappy there."
About fifty years after my father left the South Shore for New York City, after he had gone through poverty and success and alcoholism and collapse and success again and celebrity to become finally established and prosperous, I too began to make a living writing fiction. My father seemed to be pleased when my first novel was published, and my second. But I think he also feared for me; he wanted me to have a more secure and happier life than he had had. He was always more of a father than a colleague. We used to have a friendly competition about who could find or invent the best titles. When one of us came up with a good one, we would argue about who would get to use it. I don't know where he found the last one he came up with, in the summer of 1980, but it had a special resonance for both of us. It was Home Before Dark.
"Oh, I'm going to use that one!" I said.
"Oh no you're not," he said. "It's mine." But we both found other names for the books we were working on.
Home before dark. My father liked to tell a story about my younger brother Fred. When Fred was a little boy, we lived in a small house on a big estate called Beechwood, in Scarborough, New York, about twenty-five miles up the Hudson River from New York City. Once, at twilight after a long summer day, my father was standing outside the house under the big elm tree that shaded the flagstones in front of the door. Fred came back from playing with some friends, worn out and tired too, and when he saw Daddy standing there he ran across the grass and threw his little boy's body into his father's arms.
"I want to go home, Daddy," he said, "I want to go home." Of course he was home, just a few feet from the front door, in fact. But that didn't make any difference, as my father well understood. We all want to go home, he would say when he told this story. We all do.
Copyright © 1984 by Susan Cheever