My Father’s Ghost (2002) by Suzy McKee Charnas is a memoir by one of my favorite science fiction writers and favorite people, as well. As you can guess from the title, it’s focused on her relationship with her father, Robin McKee. She passed away earlier this year at age 83, after I’d already added this book to the list, so it was a different reading experience than I’d planned, and had different resonances. I read the entire thing in one day.
Onward. This month’s book definitely, definitely fits the theme!
Suzy’s parents got divorced when she was a child, so she didn’t know her father as well as she would have liked. She had an older half-brother, from her father’s previous marriage, whom she didn’t get to know until she was an adult, and a younger sister who lived in California, whom she kept in touch with mostly over the phone. Her mother had died young, and she’d not seen her father much since she’d moved with her husband to New Mexico. When he began to have health issues, and could no longer live alone in his cheap artist’s apartment in Greenwich Village or support himself, she invited him to live near her and her husband in New Mexico; she took care of Robin until his death a couple of decades later.
This is a melancholy book, and also one about reminding yourself to accept and appreciate what you have rather than yearning painfully after what is no longer possible. It demonstrates the difficulties of supporting someone who is cynical, extremely introverted, and secretive about their health problems. Yet at the same time, it’s not as sad as I would have expected. Though getting him to talk about the past and their family was extremely difficult, it was clear how much he meant to her, even when he was cranky, obstreperous, and distant. And he did experience some intense late-life happiness, shortly before his death, which gave Suzy happiness for him as well.
When Robin had moved to New Mexico, he’d left behind almost all of his possessions and unsold artworks, and never went back to being an artist, possibly related to his failing eyesight and other health issues. Among his few belongings were decades of journals, ending shortly before the move. He did not want his children to read them while he was alive, but he had brought them with him. After his death, Suzy began to read them and piece together a larger picture of her father’s life. Selections of his quirky, inquisitive writing are scattered throughout, resonating with his time in New Mexico.
This book gives a clear-eyed and realistic picture of Suzy’s father and his relationship with her, the man he had been and the man he became. His memory for a blessing.
It’s definitely a different experience reading a memoir after a person’s death. I’m sorry to hear about Charnas, I enjoyed her books a lot as a young woman.