Yesterday was Father’s Day, which got me to thinking about my stepdad, Jim. We got stuck with each other when I was in eighth grade, and I often tell people how grateful I am that he didn’t smother me with a pillow. (I mean, come on, you were all eighth graders once; you know what I’m talking about here.)
Not only did he not smother me with a pillow, he introduced me to a level of discipline and structure that my single mom had never been able to provide. He implemented a strict schedule that involved curfews and built-in study time—whether I had homework or not—and he changed the conversation from, “Do you think you’re going to go to college?” to “Let’s start visiting colleges so you can get a better idea where you want to go.”
I’m not exaggerating to say that it changed the course of my life. Not just the fact that I went to college, but the fact that he taught me how to sit down and work even when I didn’t have any pressing deadlines—something that would later come in handy when I had the cockamamie idea that I was going to write a novel.
So, the day I got my book deal, Jim was one of the first people I called. When he called me back, I was already out celebrating with my husband and some friends, but I stepped outside to take the call. After he congratulated me on my good news, we muddled through the kind of phone call that is probably inevitable when you’re in a public place talking over a cell phone with a hard-of-hearing man in his late 80s.
J: What’s the name of your novel?
M: Terror in Taffeta.
M: Terror in Taffeta.
J: I still can’t understand what you’re saying.
M: [enunciating] Terror in Taffeta
J: [getting kind of mad now] Horror?
M: No, Terror.
J: Oh, Terror. And what’s the other word?
M: [giving up] Um, sure.
J: Terror in Satin. Huh.
After a pause, he asked me the question no writer ever wants to hear. “When are you going to write a real book?” Let me take a moment to say that this was not an entirely surprising question coming from him. One of his best (and worst) qualities is that he speaks his mind, and I guess I got a little of that from him myself. After I explained to him that this was the book I wanted to write, he said, “You know who I like? James Michener.”
I didn’t take it personally. After all, it made a good story. And Jim always loved a good story. After we hung up, I went running back to the table and immediately told everybody and we laughed and had another drink and forgot all about it.
Fast forward two years to when the book came out. I didn’t automatically send him a copy for fear he’d feel like he had to read it. Then one day he mentioned that he’d heard my brother had a copy and he would like one, too. So of course I sent it to him, and when he called to tell me it arrived, I detected what almost sounded like a hint of pride in his voice.
Then, a couple of weeks later, I got a text from my stepsister.
“Dad is so proud of your book. He got it today. He can’t wait to take it to church.”
And you know what? He did. He showed it to everyone in his Sunday School class, and sought out people who knew me a million years ago when I was a kid, including my best friend from eighth grade (who, at the time, got to hear all about this super mean guy my mom had married). He even took it across the street to show his neighbor, who said she’d go order it from the library.
Will he ever read it? Who knows. But based on our early conversations, I never thought he’d be as excited as he is.
Take that, Michener.