How It Was

<i> Susan Cheever is the author of "A Woman's Life," "Treetops" and "Home Before Dark." Her next memoir, "Note Found in a Bottle," will be published next year</i>

“I made him buy me a cucumber, peeled and salted in a cone of newsprint. While the train rocked us out of the city, I sat on our berth eating the salty slivers and watching him.” Lisa Michaels writes of a trip to Cuernavaca with her father when she was 7--six years after her parents separated in 1966. “Over the years we spent apart, my father had become reduced to an icon. I had run my few vivid memories over and over in my mind until I had worn away the details, the grit. This real father, squarely across from me, was twice as potent as my memories. He looked like a man from a Camel cigarette ad--tan, with a full head of black curly hair and a mustache, a silver hoop glinting in one ear. It was safe to say I was starstruck.”

In the past, little girls like this sometimes dreamed that they would grow up and marry their fathers. These days, our girlish yearnings are more salutary: We can grow up and write about our fathers. And what dazzling characters these memoir daddies turn out to be--writers and politicians, good men and bad--they shimmer in their daughters’ memories just within the reach of words. In her engaging, poignant memoir, “Split,” Michaels creates a fascinating cast of dozens of 1960s and 1970s characters--a kind of Winesburg, Ohio, meets the Age of Aquarius.

She lovingly describes her beautiful earth mother, Ann, who settles in a speck of a town and grows her own food, and her glamorous blond radical feminist stepmother, Leslie. She includes her grandparents and her sisters, her neighbors, friends and boyfriends. But it is her father, handsome and iconic, who springs boldly to life from her pages.

A Cornell-educated activist who left Students for a Democratic Society to join the Weathermen, a man who was so involved with the plight of the working class that he spent most of his professional life slaving in factories, a light-hearted singer of doo-wahs and dup-de-doops in the oldies from his Valley Stream, Long Island, high school days--her father spent two years in a Massachusetts jail for his part in a protest at the Harvard Center for International Affairs during which he and his fellow activists dumped out files, tore out phones and exchanged a few blows with the staff. At age 3, little Lisa, clad in toddler-sized work boots, was carrying a Viet Cong flag in anti-war demonstrations; by 5, she was visiting her father in prison.


Lisa’s life was marked by her father’s belief that in his crusade to make the world a better place for families, his own family got in the way. His struggle to love his daughter and save the world at the same time, and her struggle to accept his ambivalence, are the painful subtexts of this story. “When my father and I quarreled, I saw two choices before me,” she writes, “fury or sadness. It always paid to take the second path. I used to tell myself there was something honorable in this--to say, in the middle of the fray, you hurt me. But somewhere along the line I got stuck in that pose.”

The intersection of intimate, personal, day-to-day lives with the cataclysmic events of recent history gives this book tremendous power. In one of Michaels’ many amazing scenes, her young mother storms into the Weathermen collective to complain that Lisa’s father isn’t doing his share of child care. “ ‘I can’t believe you would give up your own kid,’ she said. And in her memory he replied with a line that would haunt her in the years to come: ‘I was no more his child than were all the children in Vietnam.’ ”

Soon after, Lisa’s mother met a Frye-booted guy named Jim at the Earth Guild in Cambridge, Mass. They traveled across the country in a remodeled U.S. Mail truck--wood stove, denim curtains--with little Lisa asleep on a mat over the engine and ended up in a town where they settled into a simple life which would keep them close to the earth.

From her mother, Michaels inherited good sense, good looks and a gift for passionate, deadly accurate observation. “I didn’t write stories in high school, nor had I been a childhood diarist. People might have said I was an imaginative kid, but though I had some of the trappings of this type--the books, the love of gnomes and underworlds, the private games--I was not particularly creative. . . . I made hand-lettered signs for the hillside across the river and stuck them in the dirt--The Badlands, The Misty Wood--but I never pretended to play in a hexed kingdom. I was dull as a surveyor, pounding my stakes into the mud and moving on. This is something I shared with my mother: the love of naming how it was.”


In naming how it was, Michaels takes us on an alternative cross-country journey almost as well marked as the one the prairie schooners followed: from Cambridge to California and, finally, to the coastal mountains somewhere north of San Francisco. There, her mother and Jim became her resident parents, and her time was punctuated with visits to her father and Leslie--first in Berkeley and later in Oakland and in Los Angeles. There is not a lot of drama in Michaels’ tale; toward the end of the book, she goes trekking in Nepal and gets lost for a few hours, but that’s about it. Terrible things don’t happen. There are no earthquakes or tragic deaths or dreadful crimes or ecstatic highs. Instead, Michaels creates a persuasive surface from hundreds of details: what she wore, the way the light played on a certain tree on a certain day, how a boyfriend combed his hair, the color of wallpaper, the tastelessness of shredded wheat, the sound of a voice. For her, God is definitely in the details, which she seems to remember with uncanny, nostalgic vividness, and this accumulation of colors, light and sound becomes weirdly compelling, as if we were there in the mail truck and then in the garden behind the house and at the beach and later at UCLA and, finally, in Nepal. When she wonders whether she will die, Michaels imagines it will be her father’s task to travel around the world to identify her body.

“One morning, we walked into town to buy a pair of sandals at the market,” she writes of that long-ago trip to Cuernavaca. “It was still cool, and we were nearly alone on the cobbled street. I walked on the narrow sidewalk, brushing my hand against the stucco wall, which changed colors to signal the end of one house and the beginning of another. My father walked in the street, holding my hand, and after going on for a while in silence, he started into ‘Lean on Me,’ stair-stepping notes meant to be sung over a blazing garbage can. ‘Sometimes . . . in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow.’

“I looked at his face, becoming once again familiar to me, and my heart squeezed up. In the quiet of that strange and lovely street, in a country where no one knew us, those lines sunk deep and hit their mark.”