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On Life and Talk Showsby Maura Conlon-McIvor
Every morning I peeked through lace curtains, watching my father, Joe Conlon, zoom off in his special FBI car to Los Angeles. At night he returned to a house in which the bureau was revered almost as much as our ancient Catholic faith. On one family room wall hung our picture of Jesus, on another, an autographed photo of J. Edgar Hoover. Communism, not terrorism, was the scourge back then. Sunday evenings our family gathered around the TV to watch The FBI, starring the handsome Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. After the show ended, I always did my best talk show host imitation: "Dad, can you tell us one of your secrets? Can you tell me a story?" And so would come the eternal response: "Later." With little to go on, I analyzed my father's silence, deciphering when he spoke in 'code,' spying upon his clockwork ritual of removing black tie, stashing badge and gun, and lighting up another cigarette.
From an early age I lived in parallel universes. I was the quiet girl with the Celtic name growing up with many siblings, the youngest of which was born with Down syndrome. I was also an industrial-strength Nancy Drew, designing black crime-fighting capes, convinced one day I would accompany my powerful father on dangerous missions. Acknowledging these conflagrations of our so-called rational selves, Virginia Woolf, here in The Waves, writes:
[I]t is a mistake, this extreme position, this orderly and military progress; a convenience, a lie. There is always deep below it, even when we arrive punctually at the appointed time with our white waistcoats and polite formalities, a rushing stream of broken dreams, nursery rhymes...half-finished sentences and sights...that rise and sink.Unable to connect with my father in real time, I figured I'd have better luck in this imaginative universe.
If it's true that I was traveling in parallel spheres, what about my father the kid who weathered the Great Depression, the soldier who served in Burma and India during WWII, the agent who served in mystery? I wondered where his fantasies brought him. Tom Brokaw in his book The Greatest Generation explores the lives of men from this earlier era who gave their patriotic all. As far as my dad, I discovered that tough guy Joe Conlon's scars were from the battlefield of the human heart. My father may have leaped across tall buildings, stalked criminals in L.A.'s dark alleys, and survived shootouts, but he wasn't about to let anyone see what lay beyond his tortuously grave countenance. That was my assignment, as I explore in my memoir, FBI Girl. This investigation was the stuff of my life.
In the exquisite travel memoir, A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland, Rebecca Solnit writes how in the first decade and a half of our life "an internal landscape comes into being with the force and activity of primordial volcanoes and plate tectonics" and "the rest of one's time on earth is spent retracing, mapping, deciphering, excavating." When I was thirteen year old, my father's beloved brother a priest in New York City and a favorite uncle of mine was gunned down in his church rectory. This became a collapsing point. No longer did I revel as the dreaming sleuth in some parallel universe. No longer was it satisfactory swinging at imaginary windmills. The tragedy had happened... in real life. So I dared myself to enter the minefield of my father's heart.
He never recovered from this murder, only retreating further. I looked deep in his eyes one day and saw there the image of a young boy standing outside a locked door. Was this a glimpse into his parallel universe? Who was this boy? These questions fell by the wayside as I came of age, left for college, and soon was working in the big, bad, dangerous city, filling my book shelves with The Razor's Edge, Sister Carrie, The Finishing School, and Excellent Women, among others. I was grateful to be living in a literary hub and far away from my father; for, oddly, the further I roamed, the more he wrote. His colorful anecdotes and wry observations about life impossible to cull in personal conversations found safety in private correspondence. The depth of his heart, I realized, was endless, his prose the irrefutable proof.
When visiting my father years later during his brief fight with lung cancer, I remembered that image of the young boy standing outside a locked door. In his raspy voice, he told me the story about his playing baseball as a kid in New York during the Depression. One day he made a stupendous catch in center field, witnessed by his own father, another quiet, reclusive man. My grandfather never congratulated his son on this feat of boyhood, an acknowledgement that would have honored one boy's last attempt to connect with his dad. "He never said 'good catch,'" my ailing father cried to me. I listened quietly, but inside I was quaking to do something, desperately wanting to expurgate this sadness festering inside him for sixty years.
Decades earlier, Special Agent Joe Conlon had shared with me the important adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. That September afternoon, I scribbled a small note to my dying father: "What a great catch you made in centerfield, dear Joe. It was magnificent. Signed, Your Father." I folded it and placed it on his desk, soon returning to my home in New York. I'll never know if he found the note before dying. Maybe it was a ludicrous move, but it was my last ditch effort, my last flight to find that young boy behind the locked door, and let him in.
I was talking to my older brother recently about that old Steve Allen show we used to watch. He reminded me how Allen, the former host of The Tonight Show, would sit in his interview chair and comment wryly about the people walking outside the TV studio, whose images were being captured by a hidden, roaming camera. This fascination made me wonder if in our own way, we are all talk show hosts people-watchers at heart, trying to make sense of life's sometimes inane mysteries and relying on one another for clues. Somewhere between the tears and laughter, perhaps we discover a glimpse of the truth, that ultimate punch line etched in our hearts, one that keeps us up at night, waiting for the next one.