The Elephant In The Room

When I am asked,, I have a good answer: It was like living with an elephant for 15 years that was trying to give birth to something twice its size.
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NEW YORK - APRIL 17: Author Kurt Vonnegut arrives at the opening of the Lincoln Center Theater presents ' Awake And Sing' at the Belasco Theater on April 17, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - APRIL 17: Author Kurt Vonnegut arrives at the opening of the Lincoln Center Theater presents ' Awake And Sing' at the Belasco Theater on April 17, 2006 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)

When I am asked, What was it like living with your father? My tongue swells up and I squeak out words like, thrilling or complicated. I've given the question a lot of serious thought and I have a good answer: It was like living with an elephant for 15 years that was trying to give birth to something twice its size.

Darling, your father is going to be famous someday. People will say his books are dirty, but they are truthful books because people in real life use dirty words. I'll never forget my mother telling me this. Her tone was earnest and it scared me. I must have been 8 or 9. My heart was heavy with this news, so I shared it with a couple of my friends at school, My dad is going to be famous for writing dirty books!

Starting at around age, 10, my dad would occasionally give me something he had written to read, which I did with some annoyance and trepidation. He was never far away and would come running into the room if I laughed. He had to know exactly what it was that made me laugh. Once it was his description of a man who talked as if he had a paper asshole. There were enough farts and words like fugging to keep any 10 year old laughing. Needless to say, his hovering expectations put me off of reading for a while.

How my father ever got any writing done at all in the years that I lived with him, I'll never understand. There were six kids under his roof, all boys except for my sister and me. I was the baby and I cried all the time. My dad also had to deal with four boys who knew where to get gunpowder, cherry bombs and later on, exciting hallucinogens from the Amazon Rain Forest. My sister became a member of a gang called The Herd, consisting of dozens of lovely and daring young women.

Between all the explosives, and The Herd, the Vonnegut house was the most popular house in town. Friends and friends of friends were always there and never went home. They guzzled our milk and devoured whatever new-fangled food inventions my mother found irresistible at the A&P. When my mother wasn't guarding my father's study door she was out food shopping. When she pulled into the driveway, she would lean on the horn until we came out to unload the bags and bags of groceries. It's a mystery to me why my father never came steaming out of his study when she honked like that, the driveway being right next to his study. Such intrusions into his writing life were constant; cherry bombs set off much too close to his study window, and the endless thwacking sound of Frisbee's and whiffle balls hitting the outer walls of his studio, year after year.

My father kept standard, nine to five working hours. In those hours my father became a mumbling ghost to all of us. There could be 10 of us sitting at the kitchen table and he'd lumber in, slather a piece of pumpernickel bread with butter and, while mumbling between bites, cock his head from side to side, contort his face from a smile into a grimace, finishing with a chuckle. Hardly did he ever acknowledge us. But, there were rare occasions when he'd unexpectedly stop me, look me square in the eye and impart a lesson such as, The unstructured life is not worth living, or, Why is that table a table? Because it was structured that way! I knew my father was not an ordinary man.

I have tried hard to keep my father as just my father so, for long periods, I avoided reading his books. Reading my father's books caused me to hyperventilate. The last time I read Slaughterhouse-Five, it wasn't long before I was sputtering at the pages, thinking, My fugging father wrote this? I have spent no small amount of time trying to square myself with this fact, as I feel embarrassingly ordinary.

I make an appearance in Slaughterhouse-Five, in the introduction. I am one of the little girls wearing a white party dress and black party shoes, stopping to admire the Hudson River, on our way to visit his wartime pal, Bernard V O'Hare. What he wrote is true, Allison and I made him stop to look at the river and the carp were as big as atomic submarines. He lied about the party dresses and black shoes, though. We were wearing corduroys and sweatshirts. When we arrived at his wartime pal's house, my best friend and I were given a bucket full of candy and sent upstairs to eat it and watch TV with the O'Hare kids. That night I savored a Charleston Chew for the first time and filled out the order form on the inside of the wrapper that promised me a chance at winning a miniature pony the size of a kitten. I remember something else. I had never seen my father seem so comfortable, even serene, as he was in the company of this very small, kindly man, Bernard V O'Hare, his wartime pal and fellow survivor. I felt left out.

Forty years later, I went on a pilgrimage to Dresden with my 20-year-old son, Max, who was a German Studies major and who spoke German. The fact that Max was close to my father's age when he was a P.O.W. and that he resembled his grandfather in so many ways, made the pilgrimage feel surreal and as close to a religious experience as any I've ever had. Walking in that city made me ache for my young father, as any mother would have.

We tried to find the original Slaughterhouse-Five and after a bizarre day of zigzagging from one side of the city to the other, we wound up at a pornographic film festival in the slaughterhouse district of the city. My son, the speaker of German, refused to approach anyone for directions to the famous meat locker out of abject humiliation at being in such a setting with his mother.

"Max, I've come 6,000 miles for this, pleeeese, ask some questions, help me!" To which he answered, while running away from me, "Mom, these people don't give a shit about any Slaughterhouse Five or Kurt Vonnegut!" By the time I caught up with him, a fair distance from the xxx posters, I was crying. But then we had to stand still because we were laughing so hard.

I don't have to read much past the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five to be reminded why aliens came and took my father away from me in 1969, to celebrity and New York. I had warnings going way back that this would happen. I just didn't it expect it to happen so fast, that we'd stop bumping into each other in our pajama's on a regular basis. But, this is just a fragment of what I saw come to life in my time with him: The Siren's of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1961), Cat's Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine (1965), Slaughtehouser-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death (1969).

Once I did have a dream that my father was an elephant and he had fallen on his side. My mother was calling from the sidelines, "You can do it, Kurt, I know you can do it," and he does it, he heaves his massive weight up onto his long elephant limbs and in elephant manner, waltzed away.

I woke up wracked with tears of relief and felt as much pride as I've ever felt.

We Are What We Pretend to Be, a new book featuring one of Kurt Vonnegut's early novellas and the establishing chapters of his last novel, both in print for the first time, are published this month by Vanguard Press, with a foreword by Nanette Vonnegut.

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