The Song without End
by Roy Lincoln Karp
When I was boy, I had a secret space at the top of a musty closet in my bedroom, a room which doubled as my father’s office. I would scamper up a set of angled shoe shelves that served as an ersatz ladder to the very top of the closet. This was my office. Like my father’s work space, it was equipped with notebooks, pens, and an old-fashioned typewriter. In my mind, I was a writer who, like my dad, used words to expose the wrongdoings of the “bad people.”
Looking back on this memory, I am struck by the banality of my creative play. I had no dragons to slay, no castles to storm, no princesses to rescue. I created a fantasy world in a closet that was a little kid’s version of the world right outside that closet. My imagination, such as it was, took me no more than several feet from my lived experience as the son of a working writer.
This was the fantasy of a child who felt exceedingly safe and comfortable, who felt no psychic need to escape to a different world. What I wanted more than anything else was to feel connected to my dad. He was my greatest hero, my knight, my dragon slayer. His life work as a political writer was a noble calling, and one that inspired familial pride. My sister once recalled how much she loved writing “Freelance Writer” in school forms asking for our father’s occupation because it had the word free in it.
This is all in sharp contrast to my wife Courtney’s experience as a child. As a girl, she devoured books of mythology and fantasy that transported her to distant times and faraway lands. A memory that still haunts her is the time she soiled her clothes because her father was too drunk to unlock the front door to let her and her brother in the house. In time, she would become a parent to her father. She was expected to be the mature and responsible child when her dad walked out and her mother was left to raise two kids on her own.
Courtney’s childhood was in many ways stolen from her. She would never have created a fantasy world that mirrored her own. She needed an escape and found it in books. When we were dating, she often asked me about the countless books she loved as a young girl. When the titles and authors elicited no reaction from me, she would express dismay that I had missed out on all of these amazing tales.
But I was not an avid reader as a kid. I was too busy enjoying my own little world. One of my favorite activities was playing in the living room after school when my father’s work day was done and he sat with my mother drinking Michelob from a wine glass. I loved listening in on their adult conversations as my father’s old records crackled in the background. Popular music of the 1920’s and 30’s – Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, Ruth Etting and Fats Waller – was the soundtrack of my childhood.
There was a time when our different formative experiences caused tension between my wife and me. I didn’t understand why we approached situations so differently. I tend to be trusting of people, often naively so, and then find myself caught off guard when that trust is breached. Courtney doesn’t allow herself to be hurt that way. She puts up walls to protect herself from being harmed as she was as a child. Over time, Courtney slowly let down her guard with me. I came to understand how her childhood experiences shaped the way she navigates the world. She in turn began to understand why I could show up at the wrong wedding and still enjoy myself.
I am sad for that little girl who had to grow up so fast, but I am also in awe of her resilience and the creativity that allowed her to escape into fictional worlds of wonder. She often returns to these stories, which she continues to find comforting, just as I find solace listening to those old recordings my father loved so much. I can still smell the bitter foam of his lager when I hear Al Bowly singing, “what else on earth could ever bring such happiness to everything as Love’s old story?” This is the song without end.