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Let's Never Talk About This Again
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Could be worse. Could be raining.
I am pundamentally a word nerd. It comes from my father, or came, I guess. Past tense. He died. But his puns live on posthumorously.
Dad's name is Ira, or was. I don't know if a box of dust can have a name. I guess Ira is as good a name as any for a box of dust.
When I was a kid, our family Volvo was my comedy classroom. We'd pile into that overripe tomato–colored station wagon for quick trips to the ice cream stand in the next town over, or endlessly long trips to the L.L.Bean outlet in Freeport, Maine; Dad would throw me and my brother, Daniel, into a rapid-fire game of wordplay, which had no point but to make each other laugh, or groan. His favorite was a rhyming pun exercise he'd made up to pass the time.
I'll give you an example: One summer our neighbor hired me to walk her dog, Esme, rhymes with "yes, may," which inspired hours of brain twisting.
My father would call back over his shoulder, something like, "What's Esme's favorite condiment?" and you'd screw your face into a constipated prune, trying to contort syllables in your head until you finally came up with the answer: Esme-onnaise.
Dad would be so tickled when we figured it out. Well, if. We almost never figured it out. But Dad could go for days. "What would it be called if Esme were a spy? Esme-ionage! What's Esme's favorite song? Esme-rican Pie! How did Esme's ancestors arrive here? The Es-Mayflower!"
This was all happening in Massachusetts. When I was born, we lived in the suburb where the Boston Marathon starts; later, we moved to a historic town that had such a starring role in the American Revolution that the zip code is 01776. And if you think there are no puns to be made about that, it's here that I must Minutemention the varsity-level quip skills we coloneeded to keep up with Dad. I Paul Revered him. I'll stop there.
I ate those word games up with a spoon, so in awe of my dad's quick wit. In many ways I was a junior version of him, or wanted to be. We had the same coarse curly hair, same Silly Putty nose that points to our chin when we smile. Smiled. We were both wild for Chuck Berry records and Mel Brooks movies, and I loved Dad so blindly that it took me ten years to realize he'd shaped my tastes on purpose.
It took me another ten years to realize that our favorite Mel Brooks movie, Young Frankenstein, has a sex scene at the end. I'd always assumed it ended, kind of abruptly, on Madeline Kahn brushing her hair at a vanity table while singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which is when my father would spring from our scratchy brown couch to jab the stop button on the VCR.
The first time I watched Young Frankenstein as a young adult—in my French vanilla concrete dorm room, freshman year of college—I learned that it does not end after Madeline Kahn brushes her hair while singing, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." It ends after Madeline Kahn squirms beneath Peter Boyle while singing, "Oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you."
I didn't ask Dad why he'd never let me watch the full ending of Young Frankenstein, because I didn't have to. This was a man who was allergic to difficult conversation and made us say "bottom" instead of "butt." A man who grounded me for two weeks when he caught me with a cup of coffee before I turned sixteen, the age he'd sanctioned as coffee-ready. A man who did whatever he could to protect his kids from prematurely becoming adults.
He was also a man who picked me up from every ballet class with a carton of chocolate milk and a package of peanut butter crackers, who taught me to drive his car in the snow, and, years later, drove thirty miles to dig mine out in a blizzard.
And he was a man who eventually lost his wonderful words, driving privileges, and social graces to Alzheimer's disease. No longer burdened by the need to filter the world for the benefit of his children, Dad finally spoke openly and honestly about something he'd kept hidden from us for our entire lives; an open secret that I didn't have the stomach, or balls, to talk about, until conversations with my father had an expiration date.
More on all of this later.
For now, all you need to know is that I loved my dad so much. Love. Present tense.
The Duck Room
The most important room in my childhood home was covered in ducks; a first-floor den that we called the Duck Room.
I worked in branding for a while, coming up with names for products and start-ups and buildings, and there was one guy at my company who would get so frustrated during brainstorming sessions that he would finally yell, "Call it what it is! Why are we fucking around with this, guys? We should just call it what it is!" Of course, if we always called things what they were, the world would be full of Overhyped Pink Wines, and I Can Believe It's Not Butters, and Sneakers for Elves at Raves.
But in this case, the "Duck Room" captures it perfectly. The room had wallpaper with a mallard pattern that was as tasteful a mallard pattern as a mallard pattern could be. I remember the paper as red, but my mom insists it was brown. Armchairs were upholstered with another tasteful duck pattern that Mom and I both agree was yellow. Our duck-shaped phone had a curly black cord extruding uncomfortably from her fine-feathered bottom. It was all pretty classy for the mid-1980s.
The Duck Room was important because it was the nerve center of our house: part media library, part family archives, where we kept all of our games, records, VHS tapes, photo albums, and books. Our TV was in there, and our VCR, and a convertible "flip chair" that was just wide enough for me and Daniel to cuddle up on together when our family settled in to watch a show or movie. Mom usually took the couch, and Dad liked the armchair closest to the TV, just in case a racy scene came on and he had to spring into action, changing the channel or jabbing at the fast-forward button on the VCR. The Duck Room was my favorite place in the house.
It was also where my image of my dad changed forever. Alterman, forever altered, man.
I'll show myself out.
The room had two floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases that flanked a sliding glass door leading out to our deck, where our three cats that I always forget about liked to sleep in the sun. I always forget about them because they were outdoor cats, and belonged to the woods, and knew that they were better than us. Their names were China, Tasha, and Sunday, and sometimes my dad would catch a glimpse of one of them and start singing "Memory," the only song he could stand from the Broadway musical Cats.
The built-ins had storage cabinets at the base, and those jutted out far enough that there was room for me or Daniel to stand on top of them when we wanted something from a shelf. I could reach every shelf except the top one. It was an easy climb, and from there we could explore a hodgepodge of cookbooks, novels, storybooks, and random artifacts from our parents' lives before they were our parents: like newspaper clippings, their high school yearbooks, an invitation from First Lady Rosalynn Carter that requested the pleasure of my father's company at some dinner for employees of senior citizen–related publications, which, at one point in his life, he was.
I loved the yearbooks, loved seeing the kinds of kids my parents had been. My teenage mom looked like a young Penelope Cruz with a Jackie Kennedy hairdo. There are photos of her throughout, some where she'd posed with her choirs and clubs, and one candid from a fancy-looking dance, where she looks stunning but uncomfortable. Mom sang soprano with the madrigal singers, and even went to All-State one year. Above her class portrait it reads Chords that vibrate sweetest pleasure.
Dad's yearbook was called The Pennridge High School Pennant. He's wearing thick Buddy Holly glasses in his class portrait, and above it reads Gift of self-expression…quotable…way out humor…strong convictions…irrepressible.
Even on my tiptoes on top of the cabinet, I couldn't reach higher than the second-highest shelf, but that was fine. I kept most of my own books in my bedroom, and never really needed anything from the Duck Room, except my own cookbooks, and a rainbow-colored set of kids' encyclopedias called The Childcraft How and Why Library. It was a collection of a dozen or so volumes like Mathemagic, which combined arithmetic lessons with puzzles, games, and stories, including the tale of a little boy named Milo, who travels to a magical world and meets a friendly human-like shape with twelve faces: the Dodecahedron. Each face showed a different expression, and when his mood changed, they would shuffle around. I loved this little creature, and the idea that you could have ever-changing moods all over your body, like a blush in your armpit, or a frown on your knee. I read and reread the Dodecahedron's story for years before I found out that it was an excerpt from the fantasy novel The Phantom Tollbooth.
Instead of being excited that there was so much more to Milo's story, I was gutted! What do you mean, my favorite story was just one small part of another story? This whole time I could have been reading about bigger adventures, with more wonderful creatures? I felt cheated, like I'd missed out on years of opportunities to develop a deeper and more complete connection with something I loved. It made me wonder what else I was missing out on.
I'd already suspected that there was a wide, wild world beyond the Duck Room. Even though my own shelves were stocked with G-rated material, I had a few friends who were allowed to see PG-rated movies, without their parents present for guidance. That blew my mind. And made me jealous.
Out of curiosity, or maybe defiance, or maybe even in an act of quiet mutiny, I began to snoop through my parents' shelves and drawers when they weren't paying attention, just to see if, like Mathemagic, they were holding anything back from me, too.
I didn't find anything interesting, not on purpose. One humdrum Saturday, while my parents were at the grocery store, I scaled the Duck Room bookcase to grab my copy of The Sesame Street Cookbook, so Mom and I could make Snuffle Loaf in a Spaghetti Nest together for dinner.
While I was up there, I noticed that I was finally tall enough to reach the top shelf. A whole new trove of goodies to explore.
First I found a fancy wooden book that wasn't a book at all, but a blue-velvet-lined case containing a few intricately carved tobacco pipes. Next, a small red book with pages that crackled with age. My mom's teenage diary. I did a quick flip through; she mostly wrote about some guy who she wanted to take her skiing. Then, they went skiing.
Way in the corner of the shelf, I found a stash of tall, thin paperbacks packed tightly together—and, behind them, there were a few more, hidden from plain sight. I crammed my fingers between two spines so I could wiggle one of the books out of the sardined pack.
There was an orange cartoon cat—sort of a poor man's Garfield—on the cover. She was scraggly and orange, with heavy pink eyelids and softly floppy whiskers that reminded me of overcooked spaghetti. The cat sat, human-style, leaning on her elbows in front of a checkerboard, looking about as interested in it as our snooty cats were in us. It was called Games You Can Play with Your Pussy.
A book about games! I loved games! Why hadn't I seen it before? Why was it shoved out of reach?
I cracked Games You Can Play with Your Pussy open and found that it was a chapter book, divided into sections like "How to Clean Your Pussy," "How to Feed Your Pussy," and "Nursing a Sick Pussy." That one begins: Nothing looks quite so sad as a sick pussy. The spunk, the vitality, the old get-up-and-go have all got up and gone.
But…there weren't any games in this game book. And the how-to chapters didn't contain any actual grooming or feeding information. I knew that my cats disdainfully licked themselves clean and ate bowls of colorful, crunchy bits shaped like tiny drumsticks and three-leaf clovers with no stems.
I stuck my fingers back into the pack and wiggled a few more books out. There was So You've Got a Fat Pussy!, with a cartoon cover cat that looked like it had eaten the first one. How to Pick Up Men featured a blond woman in a slinky dress. A man in a green suit sat in her lap—a man sitting in a lady's lap?! Hilarious! And two other men in the background, looking askance.
It took a little effort to wiggle out the hidden books, but I finally managed to get a few loose. They had names like The Official Italian Sex Manual, Sex Manual for People over 30, and The Jewish Sex Manual. And there was one with a very eye-catching cover, called Bridget's Sexual Fantasies.
I'd never heard the word "sexual" before, but I did love the Disney movie Fantasia.
On the cover of Bridget's Sexual Fantasies was a photograph of a large, topless woman with ripe apple cheeks and juicy watermelon breasts, holding a braided rope and some kind of lacy belt. She looked up at something, or someone, beyond the camera. She looked happy.
Something below my stomach gave a little ping! Cautiously, I opened the book. It was full of photos of the same large woman, the "Bridget" of the title, spilling out of different skimpy costumes, posing with different smiling men. As I flipped through the pages, I found many more words I didn't recognize. "Bondage." "Voyeurism." "Orgy." One unfamiliar term, "Oral Sex," was at the top of a story about lollipops. I started to read it, but then I heard the garage door rumble, announcing my parents' return, so I hurried to shove the books back into their place on the top shelf. My father got mad whenever we messed with his stuff, and based on how the books were shelved, I got the feeling that I wasn't supposed to be looking at them.
As I hurried to put everything back into what I hoped was the same order I'd found it in, some familiar words caught my eye. More precisely, a familiar name.
The first page of Games You Can Play with Your Pussy said, "by Ira Alterman."
That couldn't be right.
Ira Alterman. That's my father's name.
I knew I was seconds away from being caught red-handed, but I couldn't resist checking the title pages of the other books: So You've Got a Fat Pussy!, by Ira Alterman. How to Pick Up Men, by Ira Alterman. Bridget's Sexual Fantasies, as told to Ira Alterman.
The ping! below my stomach turned into a brick. What. The. H-e-double hockey sticks?
There was barely time to process this fresh and confusing information before I heard a noise in the hallway and realized that—oh no!—someone was coming. I jammed those books back into place as fast as I could, jumped down from the cabinet, and landed with an ungraceful THUD just as Dad appeared in the doorway.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
For a second I thought about asking Dad about these confusing books, but I didn't want to get in trouble for touching his things. For now, I'd pretend I hadn't seen them.
"Just getting my cookbook," I said, and quickly grabbed The Sesame Street Cookbook from its familiar place on the shelf. "And, um, looking at your yearbook."
"Ha! That old thing," Dad said. "Have I ever told you about the time I had to play the piano in a jazz band at a talent show? It was last-minute. I didn't even play the piano, but I had to figure it out as I went. They call that 'out-on-a-limb-provisation.'"
And then we took The Sesame Street Cookbook into the kitchen, and Mom helped me shape a lump of ground meat into the suggestion of a Snuffleupagus. The whole time, questions about the books tumbled around in my head, and I wasn't sure how to ask them, or even if I should.
So, I didn't. I kept everything I knew and wondered about these strange books to myself. For the next twenty-five years.
Hear Ye, Hear Ye
Dad's name didn't belong in those books. They didn't even belong in our bookshelves.
My parents, Ira and Carolyn, were straitlaced squares who wouldn't have let me or Daniel anywhere near a book with a naked lady in it. They were sticklers for rules—and our house had a lot of rules. No listening to music that hadn't been pre-vetted, no PG-13 movies until we actually turned thirteen. We couldn't say "butt" or "fart," or watch kissing scenes, or eat sugary cereal unless we were on vacation. They wanted to protect us from anything that would rot our brains, teeth, or innocence, and their expectations for us were very clear: Keep it squeaky clean. We were allowed a little leeway on holidays. My brother always asked for two swears as his birthday present, and, permission granted, he'd stand at the top of the stairs and gleefully bellow: "HELL! DAMN!" I don't think he dared go any bluer. Dad would wince and look down at the floor, shaking his head at the pleasure his little boy took in those big words.
Overall, my parents created a whimsical, wholesome world for our family, and we had a lot of fun together. Dad lived for grand gestures, loved to totally blow our minds with over-the-top birthday cakes and elaborate Christmas mornings. "Santa" always wrote clever clues on our gift tags, and we'd have to guess at what was beneath the wrapping paper before we tore in. "It's time for a present" might be the tag on a cute alarm clock, or "Doll in the family" on a Cabbage Patch Kid.
My dad even gave me a purity ring, with literal fanfare. To be (fan)fair, he didn't have God in mind when he bought the jewelry that was supposed to symbolize chastity. He didn't even believe in God.
In the second grade I was desperate for a ring just like the one my best friend Allie wore on her left hand. The delicate gold band seemed so much more sophisticated than my own stick-on earrings, or the bulbous silver heart necklace I'd put a dent in with my back teeth.
Allie said she wore the ring because she'd made a promise to God to stay pure. I didn't understand what that meant, and I'm not sure she did either. What do little girls know about purity, besides the shameless, shameful pressures that their parents or religions heap upon them? I begged my parents for a thin gold ring so that I, too, could make a purity promise to God.
"The only promise you're making to God," said my father, an atheist Jew, "is that if he comes anywhere near you, he's getting a knuckle sandwich."
I put the ring out of my mind. But Dad must have liked the symbolism of it.
Every fall my parents took us to King Richard's Faire, a seasonal medieval fantasy in a southeastern Massachusetts forest, featuring an artisan marketplace, blacksmith demonstrations, wandering minstrels, juggling fools, swaggering knights, pony rides, ax throwing competitions, a zoo for some reason, and food stalls that offered juicy turkey legs served by juicier maidens. I loved those turkey legs. Daniel loved those maidens.
That final "e" in "faire" is an important distinction. There are fairs, like festivals of fried food, agricultural competitions, and barfy Tilt-A-Whirls; and then there are faires, carnivals of jousting and mead flagons and jesters going to night school to become radiology technicians. Disneyland for people who love chain mail and being referred to as m'lady.
It was—no, 'twas here one crisp and sunny October afternoon that I was gallivanting about in a felt princess hat that looked like an upside-down ice cream cone with a trailing tail of tulle, while Daniel swung a plastic sword around at an imaginary dragon, when—behold!—I heard a ballyhoo of trumpets behind me.
"Good Lady Sara!" boomed a double bass voice, and I spun around to find a noble and bearded silver fox in a brocaded tunic, speaking directly to…me. It was the king. The king. King Richard. His wife, Queen Can't Remember Her Name, stood by his side, a total babe in a tall gold tiara.
"Your…Majesty," I said, in awe of his local celebrity. A murmuring crowd began to gather. They may have wondered if this was part of the show, if this gobsmacked little girl would be revealed to be a secret warrior witch princess.
"Lady Sara," the king said, "'tis my royal pleasure to present thee with a treasure from the court. May thou cherish it always."
Then the trumpets played again and a man with a little red pillow appeared, and on that pillow perched my birthday present: a thin and delicate gold ring.
I was over the moon about this surprise, giving the king a thousand hugs. My parents let him take the credit, maybe because they'd already said no to the ring and didn't want to look weak. I put it on the third finger of my left hand and took any opportunity to wave my hand around to show it off, like a newly engaged woman.
Allie was thrilled about my new jewelry, too, because it meant we were twins! Schoolgirls love to be twins! We held our hands next to each other to compare rings, hers perfectly round, mine a series of angles, like a stop sign with no middle. She was also thrilled that I'd made a twinsie promise to God, and I didn't tell her the truth, that a king gave me jewelry with no sanctimonious strings attached.
I didn't even know what I was supposed to be promising anyway. Virginity? Abstinence? I didn't know what those things were. A promise to avoid the topic of sex altogether? In the second grade, I didn't know what that was either. Any questions I might have had about those forbidden movies and kissing scenes were brushed off or ignored. Sometimes it felt like the whole world was off-limits.
It's not like Daniel and I were locked in a windowless basement with a pile of Highlights magazines and only each other for company. It's more that our parents were ferocious watchdogs of culture. So, while my Esprit-clad friends were singing Madonna songs into their hairbrushes or taping Michael J. Fox posters to their bedroom walls, I was belting Judy Collins classics in the bubble bath, and writing fan letters to Ben Vereen, the iconic Broadway actor who played the singing, dancing civil servant snow leopard Mayor Ben on Zoobilee Zoo.
I didn't know it was weird for an elementary school '80s kid to have a baby boomer's taste in music. I just liked what I liked, which was what my parents liked. We had a record player in the living room, along with a massive album collection. Mom taught me about show tunes and operas and musicals, like The Threepenny Opera, Show Boat, Camelot. Dad liked any genre, as long as it had a beat, but he was especially moved by Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Waller, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry. His favorite Chuck Berry song was "Johnny B. Goode," and Daniel and I loved it too. We'd bop around the living room until it was done, then scurry to drag the needle back to the opening notes over and over again, making my father anxious that we'd scratch the record or wear it out.
Around the same time that Dad gave me the gold ring—about a year before I found the books—my music teacher at school had our class go around in a circle and name our favorite songs. Other kids listed stuff I'd never heard of, by bands like Bon Jovi and U2 and the Bangles.
When it was my turn, I blurted, "'Johnny B. Goode'!" to an audience of confused crickets. Finally, Allie said: "Oh, from Back to the Future!" and then the room got rowdy, and then I was confused.
"From what?" I asked.
"Back to the Future," said one of the three kids named Adam. "The movie?"
"I got the tape for my birthday," said another Adam. "I've probably watched it fifty times. You've never seen it?"
With kids it's one false move and you're the dummy of the day, so I pretended to know what everyone was talking about. "Oh…yeah," I said, trying to sound annoyed with his stupidity. "A-doy. A-doy hickey."
That was enough to convince Allie and all three Adams that I also absolutely knew about and had definitely seen Back to the Future. I nodded along as my friends chattered about how cool it was when Marty McFly totally smoked the guitar at an enchanted dance under the sea.
"Wicked cool!" I added, doubling down on my smoke screen and my Massachusetts-ness. "Wicked cool."
Of course, I'd never seen Back to the Future. The Duck Room was stocked with Disney cartoons like The Sword in the Stone, Swiss Family Robinson, and Robin Hood, starring a foxy fox that I had a crush on, and live-action stuff like Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre and The Apple Dumpling Gang.
- "Sara Faith Alterman’s memoir, in which she reckons with her father Ira’s pornographic career, is both hilarious and moving. . .The story will devastate any reader who has dealt with a parental illness, yet still manages to be one of the funniest books written this year."—Time
- "[Alterman] writes hilarious, dark, and touching prose, creating that right level of cringe to inspire others to tell their own problematic childhood stories (baby boomers be damned)."—Chicago Review of Books
- "Alterman is a top-notch comic writer, and fans of Chris Offutt's memoir My Father the Pornographer or the podcast "My Dad Wrote a Porno" will especially love this smart, compelling chronicle of family connections and the foibles and contradictions that make us human."—BookPage
- "Alterman leavens some heavily emotional subject matter with a razor-sharp sense of humor that will help readers smile through the more painful passages... A vividly written, compassionate homage to a beloved and eccentric parent."—Kirkus
- "[A] funny, tender, and compassionate narrative in which Alterman-while living and working on the West Coast and starting her own family-helps her parents navigate this new phase of Ira's life amid his declining mental capabilities due to Alzheimer's."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "A memoir that includes stories about writing sex books with her once-prudish father might sound hilarious, which it is, but Let's Never Talk About This Again is so much more. It's also a sweet, tender, and heartbreaking sendoff to her dad that's full of so much humor and love it's almost impossible not to smile, then laugh, then eventually cry."—Dan Marshall, author of Home Is Burning and Life Hacks for Dads
- "It's a little ironic given the title but Let's Never Talk About This Again tackles difficult topics with warmth, candor, and humor. Sara Faith Alterman explores the biggest topics, literally ranging from love and birth to loss and death with intimacy and charm and the exact right number of references to Dunkin' Donuts. Every chapter gleams with a skill and level of perspective that make me think: 'What a great brain she has! I'm so glad she squeezed this book out of it!'"—Josh Gondelman, Emmy Award-winning writer, comedian, and author of Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results
- "Page after page of the most hilarious and heartwarming honesty. Sara Faith Alterman turns cringeworthy surprises in family life into sweet comedy gold."—Kevin Allison, creator of the RISK! podcast
- "A laugh-cry memoir about family myths, unreliable narrators, and forgiveness. Alterman's story about her father is packed with empathy, honesty, and the sharpest New England humor."—Meredith Goldstein, author of Can't Help Myself: Lessons and Confessions From a Modern Advice Columnist
- On Sale
- Jul 28, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing