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A Family Affair

My biological father is dying. He is in the later stages of hepatitis with cirrhosis of the liver. I've been told he might not have much time left.

I don't really think much about him. He is an awful father, a totally amoral individual, and not very bright. There may have been a point in my life when I liked him, but I don't recall. My parents separated by the time I was five.

The summer after I graduated high school, I went to Atlanta to tell him off. We'd had very little contact for the previous ten years, having seen each other maybe three times. Sure, he had the excuses of being a heroin addict and of spending part of that time in prison on attempted rape charges, but that didn't matter to me. He was still an absentee father. When I showed up in Atlanta, my father demonstrated his version of hospitality. He offered me cocaine, his girlfriend (who was only ten years older than me), and free advice ('Always keep a baseball bat handy so you can knock around your woman when she gets out of line'). I declined the drugs, the sex, and the advice. He was everything I despised in a man. In the ensuing years, we've talked a few times on the phone. None of it particularly pleasant.

Tarzan Luckily for me (and for everyone around me), I did have one positive adult male influence. My mother's father, my Papa, wasn't a perfect man but he was honorable, respectful, thoughtful, and intelligent. There was nothing more important to him than his family. When he died ten years ago, he left very little wealth or material possessions. He had given everything to his family. He was also an avid reader. Papa read nearly a book a day for roughly 75 years! When I first showed an interest in science fiction, he told me about eagerly waiting for the latest Edgar Rice Burroughs book when he was a kid. He was a big Tarzan fan. Papa loved reading H.G. Wells and The Time Machine was among his favorites. Later, he left science fiction behind for mysteries and westerns (Louis L'Amour and Dick Francis topped the list), but he remembered enough to share his interest with his excited grandson.

For as long as anyone in my family can remember, Papa would sit at the kitchen table every night with a piece of fruit and some cheese reading whatever book had caught his interest. When my mother was a child, she would often sit with him and read. During those times they rarely spoke, but he would often reach over and hold her hand while reading. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, so I sat at the table with him at night to read. He'd share his fruit and cheese with me. Invariably, he would reach over and take my hand in his.

Ironically enough, it was my father who introduced me to comics. The man was barely literate, but he loved Tarzan too, and the first comic book I remember owning was a Tarzan. My mother indulged and encouraged my interest in comics and later books.

I learned the language of books from my mom. From an early age we analyzed and critiqued what we read. We still do that. Just the other night, we had a lengthy discussion about The Exorcist, The Godfather, Rosemary's Baby and Jaws. It was very interesting since we came from different perspectives. She had read all them when they first came out while I, of course, read them all much later ( Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist this year). I owe a lot of my bookselling skills to her. She has always told me whether she liked a book and more importantly why. Her feedback has practically made me an expert on espionage novels, which I rarely read. My mother is also a superior salesperson and some of her experience has rubbed off on me. I will always remember a piece of useful advice from her: never lie to a customer. That credo has served me well over the years. I tell everyone what I think or have heard about the book they are holding, sometimes talking them out of their selection. I then proceed to tell about something better. Always replace the bad with the good.

Geek Confidential Apparently, my father is quite the charmer and a talented salesperson as well. There are family legends about the time he worked at Sears. Whenever someone in the family mentioned they needed or wanted something, it would magically appear from the Sears inventory. Money was never a worry, just the moxie to walk out with the item. My aunt needed a new TV? Presto.. one appeared. My mom wanted a new washing machine? Well, why not put it on a dolly with a big red bow wrapped around it and wheel it right out the front door, saying 'bye' to everyone along the way? We had that dolly for years after they divorced. His devilish charm is the only explanation for my mother's attraction to him.

My father's father died a year before I was born. Irving Klaw was a famous and influential photographer. In recent years, I have become fascinated with Irving Klaw the man, reading and researching about who he was and what he did. He was one of the principals behind the rise of Betty Page and popularized the softcore bondage fetish film.

Thanks to my grandmother, I know a lot about my maternal history. Nana was a natural storyteller. In me, she had a captivate audience. I have always loved a good story. What is more interesting than one about your own family? It was during those fascinating chats that I fell in love with storytelling. To this day, I love listening to older people tell stories, to hear the past come alive in their voices.

Since the release of Geek Confidential, Nana and Papa have been on my mind a lot. They would have been so proud. I doubt my father even knows I wrote a book and if he did, he wouldn't care.

After hearing the news about my father's illness, I've been thinking about my family and how they influenced and shaped me. I am grateful to my grandparents for showing me love and influencing me in such an ordinary way. Growing up, we rarely had money and I certainly didn't have a father, but I never wanted or needed for love, food or really anything. I am a lucky guy.

Copyright © 2003 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw decided to collect his columns, essays, reviews, and other things Klaw in Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century (currently available from Monkey Brains, Inc). As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. Catch Rick in Georgetown, TX on Saturday, October 4, Noon at the Hill Country Bookstore, (512) 869-4959. His father won't be there, but chances are good you could meet both his mom and his aunt.

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