Friday, June 15th, 2007
Christen Clifford is a writer with a New School MFA, 2006 NonFiction Competition prize, 2007 fellowship in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and work published in Salon, Nerve, and New York Press.
She is also an actor who has performed off Broadway, on As The World Turns and Guiding Light, and in her own solo play BabyLove which won Best of Fringe at the 2006 San Francisco Fringe Festival and the Audience Award at the Frigid Festival.
But before any of that, she just was a daughter, trying to connect with her athletic, electrician dad. Below, she explores how newspaper snippets helped her do it:
Clippings by Christen Clifford
1. My father, John M. Clifford, Sr., was known as Jack. He read my hometown rag, The Buffalo News, as well as The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and various financial magazines. Towards the end of his life he traded the Wall Street Journal for the brightly colored pages of USA today.
Don’t get the idea because he liked to read about money that we had any. He was a self-employed electrician who liked to play the markets. I read the New York Times. I’m addicted to it. I used to read it for four hours a day (easy to do when you are unemployed). Now I have a child and am lucky to skim the Sunday paper.
I was born when he was forty-nine years old, the youngest of his eight children. We didn’t share many interests except for brief intervals—one summer when I was on our local softball team The Mel Ott Sizzlers and a winter when I took tennis lessons. I was interested in the arts: painting, ballet, theatre; and my father was interested in sports: ice hockey, baseball, football. He didn’t seem to need stories or art, or novels, or dance; when I was growing up he didn’t even enjoy watching TV shows or movies. He wanted everything to have a practical purpose.
There’s a family story that at a party he met Mr. Knox, the namesake patron of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, a museum known for its large collection of Abstract Expressionism. “I just don’t get why anyone would want to look at this stuff, ” he said to him. My mother, who had a love of the arts—and I’d wager was pretty excited to be at a party with the Knoxes—is said to have not spoken to my father for a week.
2. My father was proud of working with his hands. “At least I did something with my life; I wired houses,” he said a few years ago, as were watching the news. This comment came out of nowhere and I rolled my eyes; I thought he sounded like a peasant. At least he didn’t work for The Man—he had his own company, had been his own boss. But somehow I took his comment as a judgment of my unsettled life and artistic ambitions. I thought to myself, “If you think that wiring people’s houses is a noble profession, that it makes any difference to the world at large, you are mistaken.”
The last few years of his life, he talked more when I saw him, but at the same time he turned off. He stopped answering the phone; he rarely left his room; we had to practically force him to family dinners. He retreated into that specificity of old age that included leaving any dishes he used regularly in the drying rack. It was as if he didn’t want to open any drawers or cabinets that didn’t need to be opened. He woke at 7 and took an hour-long shower to sooth his rheumatoid arthritis, then had juice, instant coffee, and generic raisin bran for breakfast. When I visited, I always made the mistake of putting his dishes away in the cupboards and turning up the heat and throwing away his collection of tin foil. He didn’t like me changing his things.
When he went to work (even into his seventies he still he worked as an electrician) I rifled through his top drawer—trying on his discarded eyeglasses, smelling the worn leather of old wallets, tossing silver dollars. In the evenings, we watched Market Watch, Wheel of Fortune, and whatever game was on. Sometimes I’d try to convince him to watch a film with me, but then he’d just go watch a game by himself in his bedroom, so I’d watch the game, not knowing what was happening, just to be in the room with him. I think he gradually came to realize that having his rituals disturbed was the price he had to pay for the supposed delight of having one of his children in the house again.
I didn’t call often. When I did, it was usually after a playoff game in football or baseball, or during Wimbledon or the US Open, so we would have something to talk about. I liked tennis and followed it for pleasure but mainly for him. I repeatedly offered to bring him to New York and take him to the US Open, but he always said something like, “Why would I want to do that? I can see it better from my TV.” I haven’t followed the tennis since he died.
3. When I was a child, he wasn’t around much, always at work or hockey or working around the house. I tried to be daddy’s little girl, but never felt like I succeeded. I remember sitting on his lap before I went to bed, piggy-back rides when he came home from work in summer months when it was still light out, and being threatened with The Strap. There is so much ambivalence in parent-child relationships. It’s a particularly funny thing between fathers and daughters, negotiating a connection. There’s the age-old drama of the girl wanting to marry her father, of the father becoming uncomfortable around the developing girl, and drawing away as she turns into a woman. For us, it went like this: one morning, after I had gone to a concert and spent the night at a friend’s, I took the bus home in the morning and arrived for my family’s garage sale in my clothes from the night before: patent leather spiked heels that had been my mother’s in the fifties, a black denim miniskirt, and one of my father’s Hanes T-shirts that I had
decorated in permanent marker with the logo for The Splatcats. Red lipstick and a platinum blond bob completed the look, and my father said, “You look like a whore.” I ran into the house slamming the screen door on purpose to annoy him more. I remember raging, “How dare he?” But now, I can see his point.
In high school, we tried to ignore each other, but in college I began to despise him. My mother had Parkinson’s disease and her health was getting worse. I got accepted early decision to the NYU acting program in New York City, but my father wanted me to go to the State University at Buffalo, where I had received a full scholarship in theatre even though I hadn’t applied. (Yes, I’m bragging. The head of the department had seen me in a local play. I was good.) My father wanted me to stay home and take care of my mother. I don’t know what made him think I’d be any good at it since I’d spent a third of my high school years at my friend Rachel’s house; her mother had given me a set of keys and the alarm code and let me take over the guest room.
When I was home I was fighting with my mother, angry at her for being sick, fed up with her bossing me around and telling me how to dust and vacuum and make pineapple upside down cake and meatloaf exactly the way she wanted it done, as she could no longer do it herself. The only cooking I had freedom with was spaghetti sauce and stir-fries. Everything else had to be done according to her orders. I went to New York to get away from her and she continued to deteriorate.
From NYU, I would call home and no one would answer. My mother couldn’t get to the phone in time. This meant she was by herself in the house. Once she fell in the basement, into a laundry basket and couldn’t get up until he came home from work. She was stuck in a laundry basket all day, uncomfortable, exhausted, surely soiling herself. I blamed my father for leaving her alone. I hated him not only for his lack of care, but my own. I wasn’t going to stay home to take care of her. I couldn’t really blame him for not wanting to either.
After my mother was moved into a nursing home my parents had dessert together every night. My father usually arrived at nine PM and flirted a little with the nurses, then helped himself to two of the little round paper containers of ice cream that I remember from my school days, eaten with a flat wooden spoon that came wrapped in paper. In my head, he went quickly from sinner to saint, but I’m sure he was just someone in between, like most of us. We became a bit closer. I wrote him a letter, asking him all the questions a daughter wants to know about her father but never expects answered. Do you still love mom? Have you ever cheated on her? Did you really want to have eight children? Of course he didn’t answer, but I thought he was a little gentler with me that Christmas.
4. When I left home, he clipped articles from the newspaper for me: about a band I liked, about my ex-Buffalo-actor-boyfriend, about my old gym teacher. He would leave them for me on the stairs to my old room.
It takes effort to love someone through clippings. You have to find the scissors; turn the page over to make sure you’ve read the other side; cut out the bit that you think will interest your intended; set that aside, and then find an envelope and a stamp, address the envelope, write a quick note on the clipping or stick a post-it to it, and finally, make sure to put it in the mail.
I always feel special when someone sends me a clipping or photocopy in the mail. I know the effort that went into it. The sender was thinking of me. I like being thought of. I feel loved. Of course, he didn’t mail them, but I felt like he did.
5. For my father’s 75th birthday party, one of my brothers brought a large box of newspaper clippings that he had found in the attic of our old house. They were yellow, with sepia scotch tape holding some together. They were all about my father. Jack Clifford was born in 1923 and made the cover of the Buffalo News three times before he graduated from high school. All articles about young athletes. At MIT, where he majored in electrical engineering, he became the first student to have 4 Varsity letters. He lettered in lacrosse, baseball, hockey and basketball, while making JV in squash, bowling and football. And he kept up academically. There are twenty clippings from the MIT newspaper, The Tech, with my father in the headlines: “Clifford Stars, scoring six goals,” “Clifford Leads Lacrosse To First Win,” and finally, with a large photo of him crew cut and handsome in tortoiseshell glasses, “Star Athlete: Jack Clifford, One of Tech’s All Time Athletes, Graduates”. In one interview, my grandmother said that he worked in the dining hall at MIT only so he could feed his large appetite, “Jack doesn’t consider it a meal unless he downs a full quart of milk.”
I knew him as a hockey player; his excellence in all these other sports surprised me. “Oh, I wanted to be a baseball player, ” he told me. “When? What did you play? Tell me about it.” But he just said, “Oh, I wasn’t good enough,” and went back to his newspaper. There was one clipping about his service in WWII. The Buffalo News wrote, “Clifford served 4 years in the Signal Corps division. He served in the 9th infantry division in the Battle of the Bulge in
Remagen, Germany in April of 1945, crucial months of the war. Clifford installed radio communications on the West Bank of the Rhine, very dangerous work, as German shells shattered his handiwork soon after it was finished.” He rarely talked about the war, but watched what I called The “Hitler” Channel every day. Sometimes, when I asked him about his service, he demurred with a laugh, “It was so long ago, I don’t remember.” But other times he would say a few sentences. I didn’t take notes. I don’t remember. Most of the time he claimed not
to think about it, but then why did he watch the History Channel all the time? I like to think that he did need storytelling and art in his life.
I remember as a child that we had actual photographs of concentration camps that he had taken, photos of the bodies in mass graves. I took them to school to show my seventh grade history class. I can’t understand what it meant to witness that, and then go back to college. I can’t believe that I never asked.
There is an article from The Buffalo News about his rejection from Dodger training camp. This is the baseball story. “Clifford was deemed too old at 25 to start a pro career.” Maybe if the war hadn’t interrupted his college career at MIT, he could have been a professional athlete. I want to believe that he could have lived his dreams. It’s my tendency to romanticize him, now that’s he’s gone. He coulda been a contenda!
He married and fathered his large family, all the while staying in the news. He played hockey in the local MUNY hockey league: he was a defenseman on the Rochester Olympics, the Frontier Blue Banners, the Rothschild Champs, as well his own team, Jack Clifford Electric, Inc. He was a defenseman who was also a top scorer, winning the league leading scorer award for the ‘53/’54 season. This all puffs me up. After he turned 50, he played on The Amherst Antiques, and was inducted into the Amherst Hall of Fame in 1980. He played hockey the day before he had the heart attack that killed him.
6. When someone dies, there is inevitably a sense of something unfinished, undone, unsaid.
He thrived on hard work, and I suspected that he thought of the theatre as a kind of wussy aspiration and that he respected me more for my off and on work as a waitress. That was work he could understand. I failed at getting him to understand that theatre was blue-collar work. When I became a working actor in the theater, the only time he asked me about my work was on a visit home; he was reading the paper waiting for me to cook dinner. He lowered the paper and said, “Don’t you get bored doing the same thing night after night?” I started to reply, “No, it’s actually really different every …” but he had raised the paper in front of his face again. I resented the newspaper for coming between us.
I sent him my reviews. Not the bad ones, and there were plenty of those. I sent the ones that were flattering and didn’t mention the drugs, sex and nudity that were a part of most productions I was in. I was proud of my reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe,
less so of mentions in smaller arts weeklies. When I moved recently, I came across recent clippings from The Burlington Free Press. I realized I never sent them to him because I wanted to star on Broadway and instead was playing Pinter in the provinces. He wouldn’t have cared. There was a front arts page feature article with large flattering photos of me in demure costumes. But I couldn’t see that, only that I was doing a small production in a small city, far short of what I had expected of myself. I wanted him to be proud of me. Of course I underestimated him.
7. I’m not so egotistical that I only sent him clippings about myself; I also mailed him articles I thought he would appreciate. I sent a New York Times article about how pack rats are thought to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, with a note saying “The Clifford Disease
has been diagnosed!” No one in my family throws anything out. My father grew up in the Depression. He had drawers full of twist ties and rubber bands and aluminum foil. You couldn’t walk or park a car in our garage, for all of the not-worth-throwing-out-but-not-quite-in-working-order objects: rakes, snow blowers, bicycles, jugs of windshield wiper fluid with an inch in the bottom, old tins of paint, ripped and smelly hockey bags, bats, balls and sticks. He taped the article I sent to the garage door and I was so proud, it was like having my report card with a gold star on the fridge. I sent him news of the latest medicines and alternative therapies for his rheumatoid arthritis: Omega–3 oils, Chinese medicine balls, Glucosamine. Anything to get rid of “His friend,” as he called it, “Arthur Itis”. The joints of his thumbs would swell up like golf balls and his neck would stiffen. He could barely skate some days. As it worsened, I dreamed that a drug called Humira would work for him like it did the people in the commercials: inject it once a week and swing a golf club with ease. He could have still gotten enjoyment out of his life if he had had some freedom of movement.
8. His teeth started falling out a few years before he died. He bit into a peach and a tooth crumbled. It was a different experience from Prufrock’s. This peach was the harbinger of his death. Some Eskimo tribes leave behind their elders as soon as their teeth start to fall out. They see it as the beginning of the end. It was for my dad. With his teeth rotting, he had a difficult time eating, and survived on ramen noodles and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He rarely ate enough protein and his energy was low. On one visit home, I found a recipe in the Times and cooked it for dinner. It was salmon steamed in a foil packet. You put tomatoes,
onions, a touch of garlic, lemon slices and basil with the fish in an envelope of aluminum foil. It was soft enough to chew with ease and my father loved it. Whenever I was home, I bought enough for 7-10 meals and made foil packets and froze them, putting 2 packets each into a
ziplock bag along with instructions to defrost in the fridge first and then cook for 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven. I’m sure he never defrosted them and just threw them in the oven.
After that, I started cooking for him as much as I could. I loved playing wife to him. He loved my butternut squash and apple soup. (”You were cooking for an hour,” he complained before tasting it. Afterwards, he said, “Now that’s a soup!”) Roast pork with quince sauce. (”Oh, Man- ischevitz that’s good!”) Smoked ham and cheddar omelets. Carrot and ginger soup. Cilantro salad with bell peppers, tomatoes, sesame seeds and avocado. (Actually, he hated that one.)
Roasted chicken with maple and lime glazed carrots. (”Holy-Moly.”) Crisp roasted potatoes with rosemary and sea salt. Scrambled eggs with heavy cream and fresh chives, with thick cut bacon from my butcher in Brooklyn. I had finally found something I could do that pleased him.
One of the last clippings he left for me was from the Wall Street Journal. It was a column about how people cook for each other to express love. He loved me by clipping an article about how I loved him by cooking.
He didn’t acknowledge that he loved me through clippings, for that, it would have had to be a clipping about clippings. Maybe this clipping meant simply that he acknowledged my love; maybe that was enough. I wrote what was likely to be his last clipping, his obituary in The