FAMILIES, LIKE NATIONS, have their own languages. We talk, we colloquialize ourselves into clans whose simplest intimacies are nicknames and dog names and things we shout at an ump.
In my family, we even have a motto: “Say it with words.” It’s a family custom.
My father was a sportswriter. It’s a portmanteau profession, the baggage of which requires an equal love for the hard play of others and for writing. I am a sportswriter’s daughter as well as a writer and a sports fan. If that role has any heavy baggage, you won’t hear it here. This is a love story.
These days we just don’t say enough about how much some of us love our Dads. We don’t get nearly enough ink on how some of us are so proud to be their daughters that we weep at Single-A baseball games, still love pink Brooks Brothers shirts and plan to read aloud to our children the near-poetry of Red Smith, the great sportswriter, until they can read him themselves. We hear all too little in the language of love about how the qualities of that one man went into the healthy image we have of the men we need to befriend and who, if we listen very closely, will lead us to the man that we should marry.
We are so awash in words and books and talk shows on the abuses of power — and yes, they exist — that we have fallen in love with agony.
We had agony. My father loved the written language so much that he became a great agonizer. Every single word was weighed against a possible pinch-hitter. Sometimes he agonized at home, once to memorable consequences. On a long afternoon in the early ’70s, he sat in his study hunched over the typewriter, running his hands through his thin hair. The story was due. For the previous three days painters had been in the house but I guess he hadn’t noticed. On the fourth day, a lone painter wandered up to my father’s study. The encounter went something like this:
“Mr. Roach,” said the painter.
Mr. Roach said, “Who are you?”
“That dining room. You want that champagne, too?”
“Like the rest of the rooms?”
“The rest of the rooms?”
“In this house? Since when?”
“And the dining room?”
The writer cast a look at the clock, then the typewriter, then the painter. “What nationality are you?” he asked.
“Croatian,” said the painter.
“Such lovely national colors,” said the writer. “Use those.”
Back to the silence — which was broken six hours later by the earsplitting scream of a woman viewing her red, white and brown dining room for the first time. It may have been the only time Jim Roach expressed himself in anything other than words in his own home. I know it was the last. But it is worth noting that those walls remained a deep red, the ceiling a pure white and the beams their natural brown for as long as we had the house.
To me, it’s worth noting these impressions in the season of Father’s Day, when all around me I see cards in the stores and hope that they are merely footnotes to the lifelong dialogues we can have with our fathers. Say it with words, I always think as I pass them by. You never know what might happen.