Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Encountering my childhood in Alison Bechdel's Fun Home
When I first read about Alison Bechdel's book Fun Home last week, I was startled by these words: "her father, who committed suicide". Bruce Bechdel's death, after toppling over in front of the house into oncoming traffic, was one of those horrible landmark events of my youth. Proof that bad, unexplained things can happen. Proof that you can't count on anything going the way it should.
But Alison's memoir, serious as it is, is also a whole lot of fun. Despite the dark secrets, it mostly celebrates the strange and wonderful house and family that I remember visiting. We visited often. The three Bechdel kids went to school with the Foster kids through the sixth grade. Alison was in my sister's class; Christian in my brother's; John in mine. So it was more or less decided that the six of us would be friends, because it was convenient for our parents. (We also spent a lot of time with the other trio of kids, the "Gryglewicz" kids, according to the book.) And those are the details that really knock me over in the book: Helen Bechdel preparing for her role in "The Importance of Being Ernest" (we were staying at their house that week, and she would play scenes for us and ask advice); the huge, artifical granduer of their house, which made it seem like another world, everything bigger and more dramatic; the oddness (to me anyway) of the fact that they had no TV room, but rather a small TV that was housed on a bookshelf, with a chaise lounge positioned in front of it.
We built small dams in the runoff of their long driveway. We all wrote letters to each other even though we only lived 20 minutes apart. When my mother was ill and in the hospital for a few days, we moved in, unexpectedly, and Bruce Bechdel, ususally invisible during our visits, suddenly materialized to assign each of us chores. Then, as we successively turned twelve, we left elementary school and went to separate high schools, where I imagined they were all having a much better time.
But earlier, one afternoon, Alison gathered the six of us together and she painted a group portrait, including herself in the tableaux, even though she was on the otherside of the canvas. Sort of like her book now, too. But I'd love to get my hands on that old painting, to see again what it was she was seeing then too.