The summer of 2009 will go down in memory as the summer when one famous person after the other died. As I walked towards my television one particular afternoon that year, the perpetual, “orphaned child” face that now covered the screen looked the same as it did the last time I saw the elevator door closed on it the last morning he and I talked at a writing conference at Southampton College in the summer of 2005. Just like I felt when I heard the news of John Kennedy’s death, I was surprised by how deeply new penetrations of sorrow were trying to burrow themselves within me. Reading McCourt’s memoir and seeing his subsequent interviews were only supposed to grant him a minimal level of entrance into my sentiments, one which was only supposed to allow me to empathize with his “miserable childhood” and grow fond of his craft as a writer. But now, I felt hurt to the point where for the next few days, quiet moments caught me thinking, “…and Frank McCourt died….”
The writer’s conference itinerary was very simple: an early breakfast, mid-morning till noon classes, lunch and then dismissal until the 7pm night conference readings began. Around 8am, we gathered at the large, magnolia colored tent that served as our dining unit. It sat impressively the entire duration of our stay on the lawn next to the building in which we had our classes. Breakfast serving, however, was when it was at its best. They were true “New York Breakfasts,” far from the steaming, pile of eggs and grits flapped on my plate from an industrial sized spoon each morning back home. This New York breakfast had to be collected, item by item, from one table after the other until it became a meal. There were carton cereals and carton of milks of both animal and non-animal origins. Melon slices were orange, green, yellow, and red in color. Purple and green grapes were larger than our plums. Juices were chilled apple, cranberry, orange, and grapefruit. Blueberry spots or sesame seeds topped caramel colored beagles, and moist, delicious pastries, striped or circled with varying colored jellies, were expertly cut into thick, yet bite sized squares. There were no visible cooks or servers. Food came in a non-descript van, and out of it came a female who looked as if she lived at a Gym– wearing what must be the unofficially declared official Long Island Day Wear: Khaki shorts, a Tee shirt, expensive shades, and a suntan. At these breakfasts, we either sat alone, or were invited or invited ourselves to sit at tables where one famous author or another sat at its head captivating us until classes began at 9.
Even though that year’s featured author’s list was long and impressive, The classes that held my interest were Roger Rosenblatt’s essay, Billy Collins’ poetry, Clark Blaise’s short story, Bharati Mukherjee’s novel, and Frank McCourt’s memoir. I liked Roger’s way of helping his students see how to make an essay’s main point more poignant or showing the true essence of a character simply by casually incorporating into the narrative the particular item(s) or surroundings a character prefers — like the two combative women in his essay who babysat him when he was a preschooler and who also possessed a predilection for displaying war armor on their walls. I like Billy’s approach to poetry: his “sucker in a plight” like characters in his poems and his melodic readings of other poet’s work such as his reading of the humorous “Li Po” the first day of our class. I eventually decided to choose between the two genres into which I’ve never delved: memoir and short story. Frank McCourt’s Memoir filled hurriedly, so I took Clark’s shortstory.
On my first morning at the conference, before the group left breakfast to go upstairs to take their seats in their perspective classrooms, I left earlier to take a strategic seat in mine. The room was cold, and the group was taking longer than I expected. So I went into the hallway to sit on the bench that allowed me to sit with my back towards the sun. I heard the elevator door open and close, but I didn’t look up to see who had exited it. A few people had gone by now, and in New York, it’s not uncommon for people not to speak or utter some type of pleasantries even when they come into close contact. The classroom this person was trying to enter must have been locked, and I could feel him or her looking at me as he/she waited.
“What is your nay..aim..meh?” It sounded like the voice said. “Roe… Ethel,” I pronounced as I looked up to see who was staring at the odd collection of alphabets on my name tag. Then we just stared at the other, quiet and peering, like someone in a curiosity shop, letting silence and senses become better detectors than words.
His eyes said, “This is the land of internationally recognized people…Pulitzer Prize winners, gold rings with Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Oxford stamped insignias. These bays enclose houses that have, not plants, but full grown trees in their living rooms—housing compounds that are larger than most schools you have attended. Alan Alda stands in the BookHampton Book Store, Paul McCartney walks down Jobs street, Alec Baldwin eats breakfast in The Golden Pear, Kit Hathaway sat at the next table while he helped developed the MFA program when he was here. Billy Joel speaks and sings at graduations where graduates come to the event in stretched limousines. What happenstance or twist of fate conjured you?” As I imagined he was thinking this, I was questioning myself behind my eyes, “Tally the odds of a Carolina bred, sharecropper’s daughter — who, at that time, had lived to see nine U.S. Presidential Inaugurations on TV since Ike’s, and seven presidential administrations from the time she had to leave college until the time she was able to return—meeting and speaking face-to face with the real “Frankie” from the books and the movie. The one himself who had to go through odds most people couldn’t imagine just to be standing here today. God, you really are all that you say you are: ‘great, wonder-full, and a wheel in a middle of a wheel’…” Other than telling him how much I liked his material and how hard I tried to get in his class, I cannot remember the rest of our conversation that first morning. The only things that I could remember were the two grape like eyes planted closely together on his face, his little mouth that twitched on each side in acknowledgement of what was being said to him, and his beautiful head of snow white hair.
None of the authors wanted to be called by pre-fixes that recognized their acclaim, such as “Doctor,” “Professor,” “Mister,” or “Ms.” But, everyone, for some reason, always called Frank Mccourt, “Frank Mccourt.” His face and mere way of being seemed to be of a type that asked everyone, inadvertently, to want to connect to him even further by placing him and his name somewhere into one of his or her life’s local registries. He could easily be the mild mannered, fix-it-shop owner in a small town, where everyone used his full name when they recommended him because he could fix anything except his affections for a wayward wife that had long since chosen to leave him. He could be a neighbor’s kid that someone felt a compulsion to check on every now and then. Or, better still, he could be the neighbor that had lived down the street for years, the one that that could be depend on to be there to take care of someone’s parents, even after that someone had chosen to live his life hundreds of miles away.
One subsequent morning, he said, “That’s teaching, Kid,” after he had asked me about the students I taught. I told him one day how his wording in Angela’s Ashes of how he had eaten the letters off the fish and chip newspaper told me that he was a great writer, and how I like showing the scene in the movie where the four Frankies meet to emphasize to my non-traditional students how we all needed all the hardships that our younger selves had to endure in order to be where we are today. I told him that I would also go on to tell them, “You, he, and I are the same, just at different stages of development.” Since then, I have seen him on documentaries, ETV and Book TV, and read newspaper and magazine articles about him, but I never did get a chance to meet with him again, and he never did get to do a pro bono visit to my class as I had laughingly suggested he could do if he were ever in town. Our encounter was an oddity …and Frank Mccourt died….