This excerpt is from Jeanne McCulloch’s forthcoming memoir, All Happy Families, from Harper Wave. The memoir will be published August 14, 2018, and you can click here to pre-order it from the publisher.
Chapter IV: The Spy Who Loved Me
When my father wasn’t at home studying languages, index cards at his feet, he took us traveling where he could use them.
The summer we were in Greece, he taught us how to write the Greek alphabet. He propped up his books on the table in the hotel suite, open at the spine, so we could follow along. He always traveled with boxes of No. 2 pencils, sharp and new, and gave us each a pencil and a package of unopened index cards, still fresh in their cellophane wrapping. He had whole suitcases just for supplies such as these, language books, pencils, and index cards. When my family traveled, my sisters and I had one suitcase each, my mother had an enormous folding Val-A- Pak, and my father had six suitcases mottled with luggage tags.
“I’ll teach you a word,” he’d say. “ ‘Parakalo.’ You can use it at dinner tonight. It means ‘please.’ Then you say, ‘Efcharisto’—‘ thank you.’ ‘Efcharisto poly’—‘thank you very much’—if you want to be extra polite.”
“Good. If you write it down on an index card, I’ll check your lettering.”
My sisters and I spent vacation hours in hotel suites writing vocabulary words on index cards in new languages. If we were well behaved in restaurants, he promised to bark like a seal at the waiter when he came by with the check. We held up our end of the bargain and so did he. “Thank you very much,” he’d say to the waiter, then pretend to reach for his wallet, pause, and look up at the waiter and open his mouth as if to ask a question. Instead, he’d let out a loud series of barks, startling many a waiter and surrounding tables of guests. “I gave him a good tip,” he’d say as we’d leave the restaurant. “Affable fellow.”
Our laughter, he said, was everything. Ditto, I might say to that. His laugh was the freest thing about him.
“Laughter is the universal language,” he used to tell us. “The great unifier. Never forget that.”
A photograph has the date June 1965 stamped on the white-rimmed edge of the print. We are at the Parthenon, running along the sun-bleached slabs of lime, playing hide-and-seek.
My two sisters and I are dressed in matching sundresses and white Mary Janes; my father is in a short-sleeved white shirt and gray lightweight suit trousers. He would be counting out loud to ten in Greek while we hid. In the picture, we are behind him, peeking out from behind the marble columns. He stands on the stones of the ancient Greek acropolis with his light blue sports jacket draped over his head, so as not to peek as he called out the numbers: “Ena, dio, tria, tessera, pente, exi, efta, octo, ennea, deka!”
“How do you say ‘lion’ in Swahili?” we asked one summer when we were in Kenya. We were driving through the arid countryside. Occasionally we’d pass elephants and okapi and warthogs along the way. We wanted to see a lion.
“‘Simba.’ Say ‘sim-ba.’Go ahead, try it.”
Often, on long road trips, our parents sang. My father had an easy tenor voice, my mother, though she couldn’t hold a tune, sang with a playful, rhythmic exuberance. Together they sang duets, love songs, show tunes. “You’re Not Sick, You’re Just in Love” was a favorite. My father crooned. My mother snapped her fingers as she sang a jaunty accompaniment.
We were on our way from Nairobi to a Masai village so my father could practice his Swahili. I wonder what they must have thought of us, the regal Masai villagers, their bright cloths wrapped around them, when we emerged from our rented van. Our van was white with black zebra stripes, as were all the vans rented to tourists. My mother had gone to Abercrombie & Fitch on Madison Avenue before the trip and outfitted herself and my father in khaki outdoor wear, which the Abercrombie catalogue referred to as “Safari Chic.” While she poked out from the sunroof of the van with her camera, my father emerged with Pam, our British guide, and engaged in lengthy though halting conversation with a tall Masai tribesman. The man wore a lush orange cotton wrap and nodded as my father spoke. Soon both my father and the Masai were laughing their heads off.
My father had three rules for measuring proficiency in a language. Can you tell a joke, can you understand song lyrics, and finally, do you ever dream in that language? The last, the dreaming, was the final test of proficiency. “But start with the joke,” he’d remind us. “If you can tell a joke in a foreign language, you reach across cultures, time zones, and barriers you girls can’t possibly realize. It’s the unifier, I always tell you girls that. You make a lot of friends through laughter.”
By the time we went to Africa, I was thirteen and our traveling road show embarrassed me. My mother dressed up like Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, her noisy Super 8 movie camera going out the top of the sunroof, we three girls in the back seat of the zebra van, my father busting into the Masai’s daily routine to tell a few jokes, as if he were some kind of freelance Bob Hope. What I remember of that day is a woman holding a tiny baby wrapped tight about her chest in a carrier made of bright pink-and-green fabric. She wore long strands of beads in many colors. She had the tired, patient face of an overwhelmed young mother. Beside her, a young boy, a boy around eight, the age of my sister Catherine, was crying, his ankle tied to a pole by thin rope.
“That fellow was a very amusing chap,” my father said of his new Masai friend when we were settled in the car and driving back to Nairobi. “Good sport letting me barge in on him like that.” He laughed to himself as we drove along the dry dirt roads.
“What did he do, the kid?” we wanted to know. We wouldn’t let this go and kept asking our father all the way back to Nairobi. “Why did they tie him up?”
“Honey, that’s their culture, not ours.” He pulled out the phrasebook and passed it back. “ ‘Samahani,’ say.”
“That’s right. Samahani.” He sighed. “It means ‘I’m sorry.’ I think he had probably done something naughty, and she was waiting for him to apologize.”
“Samahani,” we repeated.
“As much as you should say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in each language, ‘I’m sorry’ is pretty useful too, if you get into scrapes,” he told us as we drove.
“Which John McCulloch never does, does he?” my mother said from the front of the van.
“Me? Honey. I never.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said. Sometimes, the mood between them altered suddenly.
The truth was, he did get into scrapes. He would go off “exploring,” as he called it, in cities we visited and return late and sloppy. Sometimes his traveler’s checks or watch went missing during these excursions, and like a tarnished angel he wanted forgiveness. In these instances, for long empty hours his remorse hung heavily in the air, gray and loud, drowning out any other family life. He’d shuffle around or sit silent in a chair in our hotel suite, watching us but not seeing us, his eyes watery, his body hunched, a man slumped in guilt. And then he would drink more, another scotch or another martini. He’d hold the glass in his hand and tears would run down his cheeks. As a child, it was painful and terrifying to watch this man, our sweet and loving father who spoke volumes in a multitude of tongues, who barked like a seal for our amusement, now changed horribly in the space of a few hours into a well of helplessness, and self-pity.
It was the remorse of the alcoholic. For years I thought of his demeanor in these episodes as pathetic and it made me angry. Yet being only a child, I blamed myself for my anger—it seemed wrong somehow, to feel irritation.
My mother, impatient, seethed. Rows in hotel suites were a feature of these trips, and the pattern tinged our childhood. We did not know when our playful father would disappear behind his eyes and a blundering facsimile take his place. Not knowing when the cycle would recur scared us. As we got older, the cycle was more frequent, and as he got older, the cycle was more severe. I was young though, and I didn’t see it as a feature of having an alcoholic parent. I just reacted to the familiar pattern the same way every time: He “was bad” and in his subsequent guilt he inspired anger, then pity. My mother lashed out and we felt angry at her for yelling and angry at him for being pathetic. We’d retreat. The child of an alcoholic retreats in many ways; the subtlest is the retreat into the background, into silence. I recognized it only as self-preservation at the time, but of course it was self-abnegation, a hardscrabble strategy that becomes the automatic response to trauma, the desire to disappear.
Then there was the physical retreat. The need to be anywhere but where the episode was unraveling. When we were home, we could simply retreat into our rooms, but in the hotel episodes, retreat was nearly impossible. Being too young to be allowed outside by ourselves in those early years, we developed elaborate escapes within hotel confines, plotting elevator races through the hotel to escape the din. The rules would be devised on the spot and someone would yell “Go!”: run to the eighth floor, pass through the whole hallway front to back once, then take the elevator to three, run down to the lobby, past the ladies having tea, take the elevator down to the Grill Room floor below, then up to the lobby, touch the concierge desk, then back to our door. By the time we’d run down the long carpeted halls that smelled like perfume, past the women in furs drinking tea in the lobby amid the ferns, and back up to our door, we’d be breathless and invigorated. We’d return to our rooms laughing, the silence no longer deafening. Our father would have gone to sleep or would be watching television with a blank stare. Our mother would be waiting. Sometimes we’d go with her for a walk outside, the fresh air bracing. She knew we needed an out, and hotel managers were handsomely tipped, I imagine, to indulge our relay drills. Casing hotels for potential elevator-race tracks was always something we did when we arrived. We had to be prepared. We never knew when it would all happen again, but it always did.
Outside, that day in the zebra-striped van, the sun blasted the baked African plains, and herds of giraffes walked languidly in the tall yellow grass, their necks slanted forward as if leaning into the windless afternoon. These days held a golden extravagance wreathed in an intangible tension, which was often my memory of trips with my father in pursuit of words.
By the time I was in college I had stopped traveling with my family altogether. I thought if I stopped and stayed home, then instead of retreating I’d actually be moving forward, like those giraffes that appeared to be leaning into the future as they made their way through the midday heat. I’d make my own way, and the reminder of our family sorrow would leave town without me and for a while I’d be whole.
These are the naive expectations brought about by a blind faith, as if there were shortcuts to our wholeness and to my father’s redemption. Blind in the belief that things would change. Life could only go back to where it had been upon their return.
I believe words danced in my father’s head. Even as he sat in our living room in his bathrobe, index cards by his feet and the morning can of Budweiser on a tray at his side, words were his passport to a world far outside his imagination. Words were his power.
Danish was his final language. He was translating a novel from Danish into English the summer he died, and the index cards by his feet the last time I spoke to him were Danish words he collected as he worked on the translation.
Pearls of wisdom, he said, each word is a pearl of wisdom, and in the art of translation you recognize you cannot replicate a pearl, yet you are called to equal its luster in the passage. That is the art. That is the challenge. Pearls of wisdom. Translation is a calling.
My father: “Respect the words, girls. They will open doors to you that you’ve never imagined.”
My mother: “Respect the sea, girls. It can turn on you in an instant.”
These are the lessons we learned as children.
Full fathom five thy father lies . . .
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
This work, “Chapter IV The Spy Who Loved Me,” is an excerpt from All Happy Families © 2018 by Jeanne McCulloch, published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins on August, 14, 2018.
About the Author
Jeanne McCulloch is a former managing editor of The Paris Review and senior editor of Tin House magazine. She is the founding editorial director of Tin House Books. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, The New York Times, O Magazine, Vogue, and North American Review among other publications. She lives in New York.
Author photo by Nina Subin.