RON ARIAS, A CORRESPONDENT for People Magazine writes of his fifteen year investigative journey into the history of a man accused of spying, a man he learns is not his biological father, a man he calls, Daddy, a man who died quietly, alone without the knowledge of Ron and his two brothers, in 1980. This is a memoir of Ron seeking to open the closed, secret door of his fathers life.
This collage of a book is divided into two sections: Part I, 19511970, in which Ron recounts growing up, moving from army base to army base, nineteen of them in nineteen years. One of these moves was Rons assignment to Peru from 19631964 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Part II, 19852000, is the story of Rons search for his father. Ron provides us with journal entries, photographs, drawings, postcards, government and hospital documents, letters from friends of his father, maps and newspaper clippings.
Was his search successful? Arias became an investigative journalist for this memoir, using his skills honed as the death beat reporter in Sarajevo, Nicaragua, and other war torn countries for People. He attends ex-P.O.W. conventions, hounds the army for documents, looks at reports of his father escaping from a number of enemy internments during World War II and the Korean War and visits friends of his father. Year after year he writes and writes, thousands and thousands of words, when will he know he has finished? Succeeded?
We write to give form to the things we can sense but not see.
Why spend a decade and half traveling around the country, seeking stories and documents of a dead man? Who is interested, who will read it? Rons youngest brother writes, Our father died sometime in 1980 or 1981 in Ojai, California.
Rons response, I needed the embrace of a father who defined much of what I was. I wanted his approval of my existence. A painter starts with a blank canvas, a potter throws clay into a container with a hollowed emptiness. A dancer learns quickly to appreciate negative space. A writer puts down words out of a gnawing in the gut, a need to explore what is unknown and mysterious, often a drive to heal a broken heart. Ron is writing to fill in the missing pieces of his fathers puzzling life. A modern day Jacob, seeking a blessing from his father.
When I read Rons words, I needed the embrace of a father . . ., I thought of my own search for my mother who died soon after she gave birth to me. In my small town, no one spoke of her after my father remarried. My high school graduation present was the use of my dads car to drive to Duluth, Minnesota and visit her grave for the first time. After she was buried in the family plot, he moved to Michigan and never returned. At age 18, I was ready to begin my search. I quickly found out how the doors to memory close, how the lips seal after a tragedy. Only when my father was dying did he begin to tell me stories. Only after my father died did the neighbors in my hometown tell me about my mother.
I would like to live a life that is so big it would encompass contradictions and paradoxes.
Maxine Hong Kingston
When Ariass father returned from a prisioner-of-war camp in North Korea his mother said, There was some stranger in the house. Ron interviewed other prisoners of war and learned of their deep anxiety and fear of telling what they saw and experienced. Better leave the past in the past, was their slogan. Ron sought out his fathers second wife. We learn that his father had great difficulty in expressing his emotions, and that he withdrew from his three sons because he feared they rejected him for remarrying.
Many pieces of the puzzle of Armando Arias remain lost. Lost to previous generations of fathers taught the honorable way. My father before he died answered me, Once a day, when I am alone, I bring out a picture of your mother and remember a story of her, of me and I smile. Then I tuck her back inside my heart for safekeeping. Thats what you must do also Bill, dont wear your emotions on your sleeve.
Ron begins and ends this journey paddling a kayak from shore out into the ocean to an island and then returns. First it is the Pacific, then the Atlantic, and finally a return to the Pacific, near where his son, Jonathan, lived and died. I wonder about Jonathan and Ron. Another thread backwards? I am writing this review, two hours down the road from where my daughter is buried. She died the same year and age as Jonathan, just two months earlier. Hers is the picture I bring out of my imagination as I write and remember, a sacred trust built up over many years. I am like my father in that way. Im more open and honest but I am also secretive and often silent.
At the end of his inquiry, Ron hears from his fathers girlfriend in France, He had a sacred dose of culpability that he wanted to eliminate, without really being able to do so, which could explain his constant desire to break with the past in a universe where there is a sincere conviction about his bad conduct. Responding to this picture of his father, Ron adds, Daddy loved us with confounding limitations.
Was Arias successful? At the level of penetrating into the depths of his fathers past? Yes. In fact he over did it with the array of documentations, pictures and postcards. I got lost with all that information and started skipping pages. But at another level there remains work to be done. When Arias went through months and months of heart problems and depression, I began to notice a softening, a shifting of his perspective away from his father and his work and back into himself, his own fears, dark desires, denied losses. This memoir needs more of that type of engagement. Father to son, past to present. I wanted to hear more of the heart-felt reflections of why the author gravitated toward death beat reporting and was always on the move. Did this have to do with his losing Jonathan and his father?
This memoir is successful measured by Ron Ariass committment to digging out the details of a man with a secret life. He painted as full picture of his father as he was able, a picture deep in background with contrasting images, filled with as many paradoxes as insights and then he put the painting aside. Not completed, but finished. Mr. Arias knew when to stop.
I wish Ron had become a weaver of stories and reflections as a result of this search. How was his family affected? His vocation? The move back to California? This memoir lacked fulfillment at that level and that may be Ron Ariass next step. Asking the question, How am I changed because of what I went through and found out about Daddy? I hope Ron will wear his emotions on his sleeve.
McCabe Coolidge lives and writes from a second floor perch overlooking the Rachel Carson Estuarine, Shackleford Banks and the Atlantic Ocean. He writes poems, essays and book reviews and is editing a memoir entitled The Grace In Falling: The Blessing of the Erotic.