Thursday, March 21, 2013

My Father's Eggs

My father could never throw anything out, partly because everything he laid eyes on became autobiographical. Every morning he would prepare a plate of kleine Schweinerei, an edible mosaic composed with bits of toast dabbed with pâté or stinky cheese, smeared with butter, topped with slices of hard-boiled egg or shaved ham, and always a cup of insanely strong instant coffee with a layer of pure cream floating on top, undisturbed. He savored the contrast between the hot, bitter coffee and cold, sweet cream. (He would serve this coffee to guests, who would fall from grace as soon as they stirred.)

          He would bring his breakfast into the dining room, which was a composition of his particular chaos. Bags were strewn across the floor and their contents, a mixture of articles and offprints, important papers, letters, and junk mail, spilled out and mingled in a friendly way. The table was covered with stacks of books in Latin, German, Dutch and English, jars of pens and colored pencils, fountain pens and index cards.

          All of this stuff would get pushed carefully to one side to make room for his breakfast and the full breadth of the New York Times. He flagged articles for my mother to clip by drawing scissors in the margin and eventually filed them in his highly idiosyncratic filing system. More than 20 cabinets in his study included such headings as Taboo, Nomen est Omen, and American Shit. He insisted on filing by given name rather than surname; in order to find Einstein, you would have to look for Albert. It has always been perplexing to me that he was a bona fide member of The Royal Society of Indexers.

          He would study the advertisements in The Times and often see fit to improve them, enhancing the noses and nipples of fashion models, supplying wrinkles and warts, adding tufts of armpit and pubic hair, a boner here, labia there. Somewhere my mother has several manila envelopes containing these embellished ads.

          I don't believe my father was ever bored, due to what he referred to as his "rich inner life." When he was too old to drive, he continued to drive theoretically by instructing my mother. In his aristocratic Teutonic-British accent, he would incessantly chastise or philosophize, as the mood struck him.

          "Don't take this street, take the long way...I abhor traffic. Why do these American idiots speed up at traffic lights? So adolescent! They race like mad only to jam on the brakes. Don't imitate. Drive slow and calm: be fluid."

          Sometimes he waited in the car while my mother ran errands. That's what the index cards in his breast pocket were for. An idea, a motto, or a joke would occur to him ("What do you call an old man's balls? Elderberries"), and he would instantly write it down in his spidery handwriting or make an illustration. In the absence of such thoughts, he turned outward and drew caricatures of passersby, politicians, or people he imagined. More often than not, he would flip down the car's sun visor to look critically at his own reflection in the mirror and make one self-portrait after another. He produced thousands, all filed into albums of various sizes.

          When his brother died, my father studied his body in the mortuary. My father looked uncomfortable, but quickly produced an index card from his pocket and began to draw a portrait of my uncle. Afterwards, he was apologetic. "It's not very good, I'm afraid. I was in a rush and had to draw in mid-air."

          This is why nothing could be thrown out. Anything and everything became a a kind of salvation or a self-portrait, and by extension, a holy manifestation. (That was a word he used often to describe something he didn't want violated. "Don't throw it out—it's holy.")

          His gift for immortality inevitably backfired. Although we rarely ate together as a family, when guests came for dinner, as they often did, he was instructed by my mother to clean up, which created a certain friction. The bags and papers, all the documentation of his life, had to be moved somewhere—but where? Piles of precious junk would be shoved into his study or my parents' bedroom, and get absorbed for good. Occasionally, my mother would go behind his back and organize him, which was a disaster because he could no longer find anything.

          For years my parents drove from Princeton to Martha's Vineyard for a whole month every summer, and the packing would give my father migraines. Packing would take several days, during which his life—medicine, vitamins, clothing, papers, books, notepads, typewriters, everything--was strewn haphazardly throughout the living room. My father checked off a list of inventory, with Roman numerals, that went on for pages. They had to take two cars in order to squeeze everything in (including his assistant, with whom he was naturally having an affair). Nothing was simple.

         My mother unearthed volumes of graphic correspondence between my father and his lover shortly after his death. She keeps the letters—just as my father did—because they are a part of him.

         Another way his gift for immortality backfired was with his eggs.

        Once my mother boiled half a dozen eggs, and when they cooled, she began to pencil Hard-Boiled onto the shells to distinguish between raw and cooked. My father took the pencil from her and began to draw his self-portrait on an egg and, in the end, all the hard-boiled eggs became self-portraits. The problem, of course, was that now they were holy and couldn't be eaten.

         At Easter, when I used a kit to dye hard-boiled eggs in a palette of livid colors, my father showed me how to pierce a raw egg with a needle, top and bottom, and patiently blow out the contents to make it hollow. Once empty, the eggshell provided a perfect canvas for portraiture. With pencil, we were carefully able to create subtle shading, but we used pen and ink most often, probably because it never faded.

          Eventually we had to stop eating soft-boiled eggs. I displayed my eggheads, as well as some of my father's, in a makeshift gallery on a shelf in my bedroom, by making use of every single egg cup in my parents' kitchen. Once when I was furious with my father, I deliberately squeezed his eggshell. It was unbelievably satisfying to shatter him. But in the end, I saved the fragment of shell onto which his face had been inscribed. Because just like him, when the pressure is on, the instinct to preserve is always the most urgent.
Source: Dida Heckscher Mitchell


  1. wow... really well written, and so recognizable...
    {found your blog via your sister on facebook!!}

    1. Hi, Daan! Thanks--I'm so happy you enjoyed reading it. I'm now in the process of exploring all your blogs. You are a woman of many talents! xx