Sunday, June 12, 2005

Big Daddy

In keeping with the upcoming holiday, I want to introduce you to my father. His name was Sumner, which I include not because I called him by his first name -- I called him Papa -- but because I think it’s a cool name: unusual without being precious or bizarre. If any of you are pregnant and thinking about giving the world yet another Jack or Ethan, I humbly suggest another option.

The house in which I grew up was perched on a narrow winding road in the Hollywood Hills. It had a porch which ran the length of the three bedrooms on the top floor which, because of the nature of hillside architecture, was four stories above the street below. On airless summer nights, I would sleep out there on the chaise enjoying the random cool breeze that meandered up from the ocean a dozen miles to the west.

One morning, just as the sky was pinking up, I awoke to the sound of a voice. It was Papa’s voice. He was in the middle bedroom, which my parents used as an office, and he was making a business call to somewhere in Europe. I lay perfectly still, watching him through the French doors, and I remember feeling completely secure. The city below spread out huge and daunting in every direction, the world beyond it was even more immeasurable to a girl my age, but when I woke up that morning, I could see my Papa, so everything was as it should be. The world was perfect and I was safe in it.

I doubt anyone else would have looked at him and thought “This man can protect me”. He was short (sadly, I didn’t get any of my mother’s Northern European height genes) and slight. He had suffered through an adult case of a typically childhood illness, which triggered a life-threatening fever, which somehow caused most of his hair to fall out, of which very little came back. This wasn’t a dad you would see modeling a kayak in the L.L. Bean catalogue.

But short men can do heroic things, and members of the Cummings family can do heroic things in offbeat ways. Papa graduated from Cornell with a double major of Classics and Astronomy -- apparently, during the late 1930’s, there was a thriving job market for people who could point out Polaris while reciting The Iliad.

When Pearl Harbor happened, the flying inventory of the United States Air Force was almost entirely comprised of aircraft left over from World War I. These were little more than winged, canvas-covered crates and lacked even the most rudimentary navigational technology of the day. The war effort began frantically manufacturing modern planes but that didn’t help the fearless airmen who, in those dreadful early days of the war, took to the skies over a smoldering Europe or the vast and hostile Pacific. What did help these heroic men was a small book an Air Force Lieutenant quickly wrote about how to navigate by the stars.

That Lieutenant was my Papa.

And he helped bring many of these men home.


He was terrifically funny, but in a weird, quiet way, which happens to be my favorite kind of funny. One night, as my mother was making dinner, the phone rang and Papa got it. I will give you both sides of the phone call, as Papa explained it to my mother that evening, who recounted it to me many years later.


“Yes, may I speak to Mrs.…Cumming please?”

(From the slightly askew pronunciation of his name, my father figures this is a telephone solicitation of some kind. He has a few minutes to kill while the chili cooks, so…)

“I’m so sorry. We lost her last week”

The telephone solicitor now has something much more interesting to do than call the next mark. Besides, Papa sounds unnervingly cheerful to be delivering this kind of news.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Uh, was it sudden?”


“If you don’t mind my asking, what happened?”

“We went to a Dodger game. She went to the bathroom and never came back.”

“You mean… you lost her as in you can’t find her?”

“That’s right. No idea whatsoever. I looked around for a while at the park, but it was getting late, so I decided to go home”

“You didn’t think to wait for her?”

“No. She knows where we live.”

That was my Papa.


Papa was already in his forties when I was born -- a far less common age for paternity than it is now. He had two sons from his first marriage who were twenty and twenty-two years older than I am. I can only imagine how he could not have imagined having another child at this stage of his life. But he fell for and married a woman who wanted a child, and here I am.

I’ve been told he had some ambivalence about starting a new family before I was born. I can see him being the kind of father who only gets interested when the kid starts talking in full sentences. [You’ll be shocked to know I started talking very early and very emphatically.] But by the time I remember him, I never doubted for a second that I was thoroughly adored right down to my toes. In certain emotionally lean times of my life, I have drawn from that deep well of unconditional paternal love. I’m sure he would have been amused by all the nonsense surrounding “The Goodbye Girl”, but he couldn’t have loved me one iota more than when I was simply running around the house, making noise, chasing the dogs and generally being his nutty little kid.

My mother and I were in Manhattan for the final three weeks of shooting “The Goodbye Girl”. Papa, of course, had stayed home in L.A. to work. He had experienced something odd on the tennis court a few weeks earlier but a quick trip to the ER had determined it wasn’t a heart attack. I was outraged when told about this at the time. “Do they think he made it up?” I groused. “Papa doesn’t lie!”

I was nine.

On the eve of the last day of shooting, Papa had a massive heart attack and died at the hospital. They reached my mother early the next morning and told her what had happened. Somehow, she held it together for the entire day so I could finish my last day of work in ignorance. She told me that night back at the hotel.

He was 57. He was in good health. He ate decently and exercised regularly. There was no history of heart trouble in the family. What he did do was worry. He had been promoted to President of a large manufacturing company the previous year and I still sometimes imagine him walking around with the entire factory and all its employees sitting on his shoulders. The man I saw making an overseas call at dawn was probably making a call to Japan late the night before. For years before he had the title of President, he had done the work and carried the stress of the job. A man probably best suited for the inner life of a scholar and writer had worried himself to death.

It still saddens me to remember how the board of directors of the company – a company for which he literally worked his heart out -- sent a sympathy note and hired a new president within two weeks. They had to. I understand. He was replaceable to them.

He was irreplaceable to me.


Anonymous Kate said...

This is excellent. I've heard that the true test of a writer is to write about someone you know about and write it honestly without lapsing into sentimentality or cliche. With this piece, you certainly pass that test. What a wonderful way to honor your father for Father's day. While I never had the chance to meet him, I imagine that he would be quite proud of your writing. Also, I think your piece is a wonderful reminder to push our loved ones to get checkups and to push their healthcare providers to be as thorough as possible when any symptom of heart disease presents itself.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your father with us.

10:49 PM  
Anonymous Danny said...

What an extraordinarily beautiful post. And how sad that your father and your daughter are not able to revel in their adoration of each other as they surely would have done.

6:11 PM  
Anonymous Karen S. said...

Oh Quinn...I just discovered you last week(bought your book)and this morning I've spent THREE hours catching up on your blog. My butt is numb. But my heart is overflowing--my Dad passed away four years ago,feels like yesterday,and he too was a quiet yet quirky man. Oh--did I say how much I love you? You crack me up to no end. Thank you for writing.

11:57 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home