In The Hall Of The Mountain King

This is another piece of memoir writing. My parents separated when I was less than two weeks old, and I didn't reconnect with my father until I was in my late 30s. My memoir writing has revolved mostly around that: getting to know my father, and looking at my life with new eyes from the experience of getting to know him. Maybe someday I can get the memoir pieces into some order, but for now, it's coming in bits and pieces.

Here's one piece:

To start communicating with my father we set up an email account for me, separate from my regular email. That way messages from him wouldn’t come along with updates from my book club and eBay reminders to bid again on that Laura Ashley dress. I wanted a written record. I had the sense, and as we wrote back and forth I discovered things were even worse than I thought, that communication between us had been rife with misunderstandings. Better to have things in a format I could reread, maybe pick up on more if I looked at an entry later with a cooler head.

It started out the way one might expect. He devolved into fits of guilt and regret. I asked if we could forget all that and just be friends? So there followed a few “get to know you” emails. He wrote that he read quite a bit, mostly nonfiction, history, science, anthropology, ect. “I have an abiding curiosity about people and the world.” That is the sort of generalized statement you might find on say, a dating website. It’s also a statement that describes me.

Maybe I was fishing with my reply. If so I hooked something bigger than expected. I wrote about my own interests, but threw caution to the winds and got specific. Evolution interested me I wrote, also comparative anatomy and primate behavior. Bonobos, I wrote, I found particularly interesting. Now, this wouldn’t be the sort of thing I would usually say to someone I just met. Very few people know what a bonobo is, or are likely to care.

But bonobos are very important, the way I see it. Bonobos are primates, and they look very similar to chimpanzees, so similar that they were believed to be just another population of chimpanzees, until someone investigated their DNA. This research yielded the result that bonobos are different enough to be considered a separate species. The picture gets very interesting when you look at behavior, because here chimpanzees and bonobos diverge sharply. Like all primates, both live in complex social groups, but chimpanzee groups exhibit quite a bit of violence, whereas bonobos are peaceful towards each other. This raises the question: where does violence come from? Is the behavior inherent in DNA? Or is the different social behavior of bonobos somehow the result of choice? Since chimpanzees and bonobos are the primates most closely related to humans, questions about their social behavior are relevant to us.

I didn’t say all this in the email, I just tossed out, “I find bonobos interesting.” My father responded that he also found bonobos interesting, especially their ability to resolve conflict. He went on to say that he had followed with interest Jane Goodall’s articles in National Geographic, when she first began her research among wild chimpanzees.

Whatever I was expecting, that was not it. He had just informed me, with brevity, that he knew plenty about the rather specialized topic I mentioned. He was in fact ahead of me. He had read Jane Goodall since her early field work, when I was a child.

 

Maybe I didn’t have a lot to lose here, and maybe I was trying to annoy him. When it came to family, I had long ago learned to edit myself.  I read a lot, and was the sort of kid who thought factoids were terribly interesting. I thought so – why wouldn’t others? I had angered more than one family member by doing things like explaining the plot of The Fountainhead (maybe they thought I was casting myself in the place of the brilliant architect rejected and suppressed by mediocre peers?), or using a word they didn’t know (Why can’t you speak English?!).  In my younger years I made those mistakes, but I learned. When I spent time with family as an adult I spoke carefully, and stuck to topics they already knew about.  My mind made logic jumps and ran off down rabbit trails, but I had learned giving voice to any of this was likely to earn me dirty looks. But with my father – why not give myself free rein? If he had spent years searching for his daughter in order to get offended by the real me, that was his tough luck.

But my father had a habit of taking off down rabbit trails himself.  In one of his first emails he wrote, “I’m dithering,” then digressed into a description of the function of a dither valve in an engine.  The image tied nicely into his emotional state and his communication pattern.  Explaining yourself in metaphors: I had unlearned that tendency. 

Another time he took a sharp left turn into history, asking if I knew Ireland had been mostly a forested island until the 16th century.  I didn’t know that: when I read early Irish history I pictured it taking place in the green rolling hills of current photo books. I hadn’t taken thought to the ecology of the place changing dramatically, though it made sense: the deforestation of the rest of Europe was going on at the same time.  I busily redrew some of my internal map.  It was the sort of thing I liked to know.

He struck a home shot with a piece of creative writing.  He wrote it years ago for a class, a short descriptive essay about a night he went swimming in the ocean with a woman.  The water was full of phosphorescent algae, aglow with its own internal light, and it poured down her like stars whenever she stood up.  The subject didn’t matter - it was the way he used words. If I had been there, I would have described the scene the exact same way.

After reading this essay, I lay down on my bed and didn’t get up for the rest of the day.  I couldn’t deny it anymore: I inherited the very way my mind worked from him.  He didn’t raise me, but when he wrote a sentence it looked like something I might have written.  After years of joking about being a changeling, I found myself in the Mountain King’s hall.

I thought I had made peace with being an eccentric. I thought I had finally decided that being different was O.K.  But what if I’m not “different”: what if I am true to my own nature?  What happens when you are your father’s child, and then you never meet your father?  The mountain might be my true home, and the sense of not fitting in I carried from the time I was very small not a personal flaw, but my internal compass saying, “This is not where you live.”

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Comments 8 comments

Enlydia Listener profile image

Enlydia Listener 5 years ago from trailer in the country

Grace, This was beautiful and well written. I knew my father, but often wished I hadn't...and yet find myself having good and bad qualities inherited from him. As much as we think we are an island, we can not be...even if we want to be. I hope you write more, as I enjoy reading your thoughts.


graceomalley profile image

graceomalley 5 years ago Author

Enlydia - Thank you for the compliments. Our connections to parents are so complex, the good and the bad.


Jean Bakula profile image

Jean Bakula 5 years ago from New Jersey

Grace,

Your description of your journey to find and get to know your Father is fascinating and very touching too. Even people who grow up living with both parents can sometimes feel they never really knew them "as people." It's so neat you are finding you are somewhat like him--but are still your own person, always.


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

I can empathize and feel with this touching story Grace. My birth mother wasn't found until a year and a half ago. Thanks truly for this share.


graceomalley profile image

graceomalley 5 years ago Author

Jean - I wonder this about my own children, if they know me as a person, or as Mom. There was a novelist who wrote at one point that when he was middleaged he began to discover that his mother was her own person, and that was when he began to get to know her.

Alastar - So many people are separated from parents they are born to. I'm glad you found your birth mother.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands

Hi Grace :)

I certainly think that it is possible to pick up traits from family whom we don't know. Naturally we can pick up looks, etc, via DNA, but I mean interests, attitudes, ways of perceiving things, etc.

I, too, am fascinated by evolution ~ and definitely by bonobos!

I was drawn to this hub by the title ~ 'In The Hall Of The Mountain King' ~ I love that piece of music!

A very interesting piece! :)


writeronline 5 years ago

Hi Grace, this is a very well-drawn and evocative piece. (imho). When you think about it, there’s no reason why genetic traits should be limited to the physical, or the characteristic, even the attitudinal.

So, it’s fascinating to ponder, as you’ve done here, the deeper questions of ‘Why do I think the way I do?”, and, in getting to know your father, and how he thinks, the far more cerebrally challenging, “How can it be that we think virtually the same?” Because as humans (ie; the only species with enough time on our hands to spend it thinking...), we tend to believe that the mind arrives as fresh and pristine as the body, when we’re born, and develops as a result of imprinted patterns we learn from our parents, in our very formative years. Ipso facto; absent a parent, absent that parent’s impact on our thoughts. Your experience says otherwise.

I especially like the metaphorical way you’ve mixed genealogy and geography, in sensing a message from your “internal compass saying, “This is not where you live.” Loved that.

Sorry this has turned into almost a short story itself, Grace, I really just wanted to say that I was fascinated by the content, and impressed at the way it’s expressed.


graceomalley profile image

graceomalley 5 years ago Author

Trish M - Thanks for visiting and for commenting. Glad to meet another bonobo enthusiast!

Writeronline - Thank you for the very kind thoughts on the writing here. I hope to continue with more memoir, and the good response really helps.

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