Dec. 8, 2007

My Daughter at 14: Christmas Dance.

by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

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Poem: "My Daughter at 14: Christmas Dance" by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, from Winter Light. © Chantry Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

My Daughter at 14: Christmas Dance

Panic in your face, you write questions
to ask him. When he arrives,
you are serene, your fear
unbetrayed. How unlike me you are.

After the dance,
I see your happiness; he holds
your hand. Though you barely speak,
your body pulses messages I can read

all too well. He kisses you goodnight,
his body moving toward yours, and yours
responding. I am frightened, guard my
tongue for fear my mother will pop out

of my mouth. "He is not shy." You giggle,
a little girl again, but you tell me he
kissed you on the dance floor. "Once?"
I ask. "No, a lot."

We ride through the rain-shining 1 A.M.
streets. I bite back words which long
to be said, knowing I must not shatter your
moment, fragile as a spun-glass bird,

you, the moment, poised on the edge of
flight, and I, on the ground, afraid.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the travel writer Bill Bryson, (books by this author) born in Des Moines (1952), whose most recent book is The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006), a memoir about his childhood. Bill Bryson said, "Much as I resented having to grow up in Des Moines, it gave me a real appreciation for every place in the world that's not Des Moines."

It's the birthday of the humorist James Thurber, (books by this author) born in Columbus, Ohio (1894). He started submitting humor pieces to The New Yorker in 1926, when the magazine was barely a year old. He said, "My pieces came back so fast I began to believe The New Yorker must have a rejection machine." But he finally published a piece about a man who sets the world record for laps inside a revolving door, and not long after that the editor, Harold Ross, offered him a job.

Thurber wanted to be a staff writer, but Ross hired him instead as an administrative editor. For the first two months on the job, Thurber worked seven days a week, editing factual copy for all the most boring parts of the magazine. He hated the job, so he started making mistakes on purpose, hoping that Ross would demote him. When that didn't work, he started submitting his own pieces without Ross's knowledge.

One day Ross barged into his office and said he'd found out Thurber had been writing for the magazine in secret. Ross said, "I don't know how you found time to write. I admit I didn't want you to. I could hit a dozen writers from here with this ashtray. They're undependable... [but] if you're a writer, write! Maybe you've got something to say." So Thurber became a staff writer and began sharing an office with E. B. White.

In addition to writing, Thurber was constantly doodling on pieces of paper and throwing them away, and he liked to fill up all the pages of office memo pads with sketches and then put them back on the shelf, in hopes of driving someone crazy. It was E.B. White who suggested that Thurber's drawings be published in the magazine, and Thurber went on to include drawings in many of his books.

Thurber is best known for his short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1944), about a man who imagines he is a soldier, a deadly marksman, a world-famous surgeon, and a condemned man facing a firing squad, all while running errands for his overbearing wife. The word "Mitty" is now defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "An ordinary, often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs."

It's the birthday of the novelist Mary Gordon, (books by this author) born in Far Rockaway, New York (1940), whose hero when she was a girl was her father, a writer who taught her to write poems and stories and took her to the New York City Public Library every Saturday. But he had a heart attack when she was seven years old, and she later said, "When my father died, it was like all lights went out."

Gordon went on to write several novels, including Final Payments (1978) and Men and Angels (1985), and in each one there was usually a character based on her father. Finally, she decided to write a book about his life. But once she began to do some research, she realized that she'd grown up thinking he was a Harvard graduate, but in fact he'd never passed 10th grade. She'd always thought he was a writer, but in fact he was a publisher of pornography magazines. She remembered him going to work in the city every day, but in fact her mother had supported the family. Gordon wrote about the experience of investigating her father in the memoir The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father (1996). She said that she resents the lies her father told her about his life, but she believes that if she hadn't believed his lies, she would probably never have become a writer. She said, "The myth of my father gave me courage."

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