Burying My Father

Burying My Father

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Donald Margulies, photographed above by Dan Mims, is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy this excerpt from Margulies’s play Sight Unseen (Dramatists Play Service, 1991).

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PATRICIA: …So tell me about your show. How’s it going in London? (That English inflection slips in) Is it going well?
JONATHAN: Yeah. Pretty much. Oh, I brought you a catalogue. (Hands her one from his bag)
JONATHAN: There are a couple of gaps I’m not too happy about. Particularly in the early stuff. It’s supposed to be a retrospective.
PATRICIA: A retrospective? At your age?
JONATHAN: Are you kidding? I’m almost passé.
PATRICIA: You know, I still have that very first painting you did of me, remember?
JONATHAN: Of course I remember. Where is it?
PATRICIA: Over the mantle. Go and see.
JONATHAN: No shit. You didn’t just haul it out of the attic, knowing I was coming?
PATRICIA: There is no attic. And, no, Jonathan, I wouldn’t do anything at this point to feed your ego.

He goes to the doorway leading to the living room and sees his painting; it’s like seeing a ghost. She watches him in silence while he looks at the painting.

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JONATHAN: Jesus. Look at that. I can’t believe you saved it. How old could I have been? Twenty-two tops?

She nods; a beat.

You know? It’s not bad. I threw out most of my student work years ago. I couldn’t stand looking at anything. But this, this one’s different. It’s really not bad.
PATRICIA: When do you open?
JONATHAN: What? Oh. Tuesday. (Re: the painting) Look at that: See what I was doing with the picture plane?, how it’s sort of tipped? I didn’t think I started doing that till like much later.
PATRICIA: Nervous?
JONATHAN: No. I don’t know. What can I do? It’s my first solo show outside of North America, okay?, my European debut.
JONATHAN: So the critics are salivating, I’m sure. Ready to chomp into me like their next Big Mac.
PATRICIA: And what if they do?
JONATHAN: I don’t know, I can’t worry about it. Press is press. Good or bad. My father, God!, my father loved seeing my name in print.
PATRICIA: Oh, yeah?
JONATHAN: My last name, after all, was his last name. Got such a kick out of it. Eight pages in the Sunday Times. He couldn’t believe the New York Times could possibly have that much to say about his kid. “All these words,” he said, “are about you? What is there to say about you?”

She laughs.

He was serious; he wasn’t just teasing. Oh, he was teasing, too, but it threatened him. No, it did. It pointed up the fact that he could be my father and still not know a thing about me. Not have a clue. What did the fancy-schmancy art world see that he didn’t? What were those big dirty paintings about, anyway? So then when all the hype started…
PATRICIA: “New visionary?”
JONATHAN: Yeah, and that’s very seductive in the beginning, I got to admit. Vindicating, even. “Ah ha! See? I am a genius. Now maybe my father will respect me.” But it had the opposite effect on him. It didn’t make him proud. It bewildered him. It alienated him. How could he have produced a “visionary”? It shamed him somehow. I can’t explain.
PATRICIA: How’s he doing?
JONATHAN: Oh. Didn’t I tell you on the phone?
JONATHAN: He died.
JONATHAN: Right before I flew to London.
PATRICIA: You mean last week?
JONATHAN: What’s today? Yeah, last Thursday it happened.
PATRICIA: Oh, Jonathan…. What happened?
JONATHAN: It was long in coming. Did I not mention this on the phone?
JONATHAN: Sorry, thought I did. Strange to think, four days ago I was in Flushing, Queens, burying my father under the Unisphere.


PATRICIA: He was sweet to me, your dad.
JONATHAN: Yeah, I know.
PATRICIA: What about shiva? Didn’t you have to sit shiva?
JONATHAN: There was no time.
JONATHAN: I mean, they were mounting the show.
PATRICIA: Couldn’t they have waited? I mean, your father
JONATHAN: No. I had to be here. I mean, there was nothing more I could do; he was dead. What could I do?
PATRICIA: I don’t know.
JONATHAN: It was good for me, getting away, I think. Therapeutic. Bobby’s doing it, though, shiva. He wanted to. I don’t know, I just couldn’t. It didn’t seem like the thing to do. It’s like I’d been sitting shiva for him for fifteen years, since my mother. I’d done it already. (A beat) I wasn’t a very good son.
PATRICIA: That’s not true; I’m sure you made him very proud.
JONATHAN: No no, that’s not what I need to hear. I wasn’t. (A beat) I went to pack up his house the other day? My parents’ house? All his clothes, my old room, my mother’s sewing machine, all those rooms of furniture. Strange being in a place where no one lives anymore.
PATRICIA: I know; I do that for a living.
JONATHAN: Yeah, I guess you do.

A beat.

Anyway, what I found was, he’d taken all the family pictures, everything that was in albums, shoved in drawers—hundreds of them—and covered an entire wall with them, floor to ceiling, side to side. I first saw it years ago, when he’d started. It was his Sistine Chapel; it took him years. He took my hand (I’ll never forget this) he took my hand—he was beaming: “You’re an artist,” he said to me, “you’ll appreciate this.” He was so proud of himself I thought I was gonna cry. Proud and also in a strange way competitive?
JONATHAN: So, there was this wall. The Waxman family through the ages. Black-and-white, sepia, Kodachrome. My great-grandparents in the shtetl, my brother’s baby pictures on top of my parents’ courtship, me at my bar mitzvah. Well, it was kind of breathtaking. I mean, the sweep of it, it really was kind of beautiful. I came closer to examine it—I wanted to see how he’d gotten them all up there—and then I saw the staples.
JONATHAN: Staples! Tearing through the faces and the bodies. “Look what you’ve done,” I wanted to say, “How could you be so thoughtless? You’ve ruined everything!” But of course I didn’t say that. How could I? He was like a little boy. Beaming. Instead I said, “Dad! What a wonderful job!”

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Sight Unseen
by Donald Margulies
Dramatists Play Service, 1991
Where to buy: Audible | Amazon

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