Opera Dad


March 19, 2020 by The Citron Review

by Claire T. Lawrence 


Of the few things I know about you the most important is this: you died in 2002. Six months before my daughter was born, a year and six months before the first time I would try to look for you because my own life had fallen apart. I am presuming you died alone in the spartan apartment you lived in in San Francisco, the one I toured on Zillow. The one that was three blocks from my aunt’s apartment and fifteen minutes—a line and an angle on Google maps—from the opera house where you sang the year you met my mom. It seems you and my aunt knew each other for years, but I really have no way of knowing. My aunt is dead. My mother lies and obscures.

When I first found your yearbook picture on Ancestry.com this summer, the only image I had ever seen of you, I thought you didn’t look like me at all. Then a friend mentioned we had the same eyes. Yesterday I took a picture of my son in his Halloween costume, and you looked back at me. Since he was a baby he has sung constantly, like a bird. While he was playing, when he was going to sleep in his crib, while he was sitting on the toilet. A random gene expressed? Your ghost in his ear?

When I was small, my mother listened to the opera broadcast on public radio every Saturday afternoon while she cleaned the house. Did she miss you, mourn you then? Was she hoping for a note of your voice or just stoking hate for someone who had abandoned her? I don’t remember her face back then, when she was young, just the small white GE radio that sat on the kitchen table. On her knees, she scrubbed the kitchen floor until it shone. Keeping up appearances. Banishing the dirt.

When I was five, my favorite record was Willie the Whale. It was a 45, and to hear him sing, I had to place the beige plastic adapter and move the needle on my mother’s record player, which she didn’t let me touch. My Grandmother, who watched me while my mom was at work, let me listen to all the records I wanted to, as long as I didn’t get caught. Willie was an actual whale who tried to sing opera at the Met. In the picture book that accompanied my record, there was an image of Willie in a clown suit, as Pagliacci, crying so hard he got the entire audience wet. I laughed every time I saw it. Whales don’t cry. I didn’t cry either, because I was told children should be seen and not heard. Once I watched the Disney movie about Willie. He got harpooned and died at the end because a professor thought he had swallowed an opera singer. But then the humans sang the song from my record: a whale of a talent was he.

Around the same time, I became convinced Mr. Rogers was my father, but he wasn’t with me and my mom because he was too busy being on TV. He was so gentle. He had dark hair. He loved me despite my flaws. When his show wasn’t on, I would listen to his record. When no one was looking, I would kiss his picture on the album cover. Did you mind? No, of course you didn’t, because you never wanted a child.

But wait, did you not want a child or did you just not want to marry my mother, what everyone tried to force you to do? Before abortion was legal, a pregnancy was de facto an occasion for marriage. Women didn’t really have other options. I understand my mother’s desperation. But maybe you had your own. If you became a father, would you have had to give up the opera and get a 9 to 5 job? `If that was the case, Dad, Father, Internet Ghost or whatever I am to call you, maybe I understand.

A few weeks ago, I went to see La Boheme at the Met in New York. I wanted to experience a connection, to imagine you and my mother together when you were young. The hall and the staging were beautiful. My drink cost 20 bucks. But I didn’t feel anything, not really. Except that Mimi took way too long to die, and Rent had a better plot. Not until a few days later, when I thought about the bodies of the opera singers, did something fall into place. The opera singers were mostly short and stocky and definitely not thin, just like you were short and stocky and definitely not thin. Just like I am short and stocky and definitely not thin. And they were loud, able to project their voices to the very back of the theatre. Just as I am able to project my voice to every corner of a classroom. So, though I will never get to know you and, especially saddening, to hear you sing, I am in some small way your echo: a voice embodied, a song you sang a long time ago.


Claire T. Lawrence is a Professor of Creative Writing at Bloomsburg University. She has a PhD in Creative Writing: Fiction from the University of Houston and an MFA in Fiction from the University of Utah. She has published fiction, poetry, and memoir in numerous magazines including Crab Orchard Review, TriQuarterly, Event Magazine, Terra Nova, and Western Humanities Review. She lives deep in a flyover zone with her husband, children, and two Pekingeses named Mushu and Kung Pao.


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