MY father was a great believer in the Postal Service, and when his grandchildren were young, his postcards to them arrived almost daily. They were plain white postcards, never the photo variety, so there was plenty of room to write on both sides, and from edge to edge. What he wrote was almost always nonsense verse, with titles like “The Mother of All French Fries,” and “Reasons to Sneeze.”
I keep them, now that my father is gone and my children are grown, in a couple of file boxes under a bed and pull them out occasionally to remind myself of that time. They have almost nothing to do with reality, and yet they are the reality that survives. On a postcard from 1985, my oldest child is still a 2-year-old hunting for jelly beans with his entourage:
Jamie Conniff took a ride
With six monkeys by his side,
Fourteen leopards out ahead,
Sharp of fang with eyes of red…
My youngest, from a 1997 postcard, is still 8 years old and birdlike:
Clare paints her hair to look like wings
Because that lets her fly
Over the hills at break of day
Into the by-and-by
Animals were my father’s usual theme, as they are in many verses and stories for children. He wrote about monarch butterflies, singing mice, spitting camels, cats and dogs, a living conch picked up on the beach and tossed back into the water (“Two passing gulls that saw it hissed, / Went diving for it, but they missed”), and the occasional snow leopard. Animals are, of course, a natural topic in childhood, when we are sorting out big questions about what we are, what we should or shouldn’t eat, what might possibly eat us, and of course what might be lurking under the bed to do so at this moment. For Ben, age 6, my father wrote:
Bears don’t scare me!
I’m too big:
I make noises like a pig!
I make noises like an owl:
You should hear me hoot and howl!
But the power of animals to inspire feelings of strangeness, wonder and delight had somehow not faded for my father, any more than it had for his grandchildren. Or maybe he was simply recovering a natural sense of awe after the long forgetfulness of his working life. At times he relived his own childhood fears — for instance, in a poem about a vicious chow dog the family kept (“Minsing’s evil yellow eye / Rolled from sky to earth to sky”).
My father had taught writing to college students, inculcating them in “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, with its emphasis on plain language, orderliness, short, simple sentences and a close regard for the reader’s perspective. His mantra was “Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite,” and the program he ran had the unfortunately Orwellian name “Prose Control.” But in retirement, he seemed to chuck all that, and cram the page with whatever happened to wing through his mind at the moment. He wrote not as James C. G. Conniff, ponderous and professorial, but as JimBaba, crackpot elder extraordinaire.
As a writer myself, still firmly in the realm of Strunk and White, I sometimes envied his freewheeling disdain for prose control. But it could also be disconcerting. His children’s verse often veered into bizarre literary or political territory. It was hard to explain to my daughter, Clare, why her stuffed bear would have a habit of eating “its weight in honey combs / And books of Seamus Heaney’s poems.” Likewise,
Boomba-Zoomba went to sea
In a waterlogged snot-green boat
(He had no choice — he’d been reading Joyce),
And he took along a goat.
I sometimes suggested edits to my father, little tweaks that might save the gems and omit the outright lunacy. “Do you think a 3-year-old will get that reference to Edwin Meese?” I wondered mildly. (Of the man who was then the United States attorney general, my father had written, “Ronald Reagan pulls his strings / Mousey Meesey dances, sings.”) “And, um, what about this line urging Ben to ‘give him a good one with your gat’?” (I looked it up. “Gat, noun: Handgun.”) “Maybe ‘bat’ would be more Ben’s style?” And so much less of a felony.
He always professed willingness to be edited. He had been a published poet as a young man, and he could recite many great poems from memory. At his funeral his former students — not English scholars but aging accountants, journalists, municipal clerks — remarked that lines of Milton or Keats that he had had them memorize still surfaced decades later in their minds. Poetry was the lost ambition of his youth.
In his 80s, he hoped that I would salvage his better self and make these poems publishable. I wanted to do so, because there were times when they lit up with the charm and zaniness of Roald Dahl or Edward Lear. But then I would point out a line or two in need of minor editing and he would immediately write a whole new poem from that point. “No, no, it’s just those two lines. The rest of it is fine,” I’d say. “O.K.,” he’d agree, and promptly unleash another torrent of verse, until I thought that maybe it was time to get back to my other work.
Often the poems went on too long, or made too little sense, and they were also overwhelming in their abundance, piling up like leaves in the corners of cabinets, sometimes unread. The postcards still turn up unexpectedly here and there around the house:
I like to watch the frogs bounce by;
They’re bulgy-eyed and jumpy.
The young are green as a parrot’s wing
While the old are green but grumpy.
I file them away. In their time, they gave the writer and his readership the enduring pleasure of words, rhythm and rhyme, and of animals in all their wonder. The postcard poems also reminded my children that a somewhat odd grandparent, somewhere at the other end of the mailbox, loved them dearly. And that is enough.