Dadlandia by Gayle Brandeis
May 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I was sitting by my 92 year old dad’s hospital bed, waiting for him to be wheeled into surgery, when I got the call that I had been named the new Inlandia Literary Laureate.
I wasn’t sure my dad would understand the news. He was heavily medicated–he had fallen and fractured his hip the day before–and was pretty out of it; he kept trying to pull the oxygen tube from his nose, and was speaking in garbled sentences (things like “Did dead fast fish?”) Somehow, though, the news broke through the fog. He touched my face and beamed at me and said “Wonderful, wonderful, honey girl. I’m so very proud of you.” He was still smiling when they took him into the OR.
The timing of the call felt perfect–it brought some light to a hard day, plus it let me acknowledge how much my dad has influenced me as a writer. My dad has always been playful with language, making up his own words (“Schmeernik!” has become our family toast, “Luma lama” our most beloved lullaby), relishing the feel of language in its mouth. I always loved visiting his office overlooking the Chicago River; he had a gigantic dictionary on its own pedestal right by his desk, and I would pore through the thin pages, dizzy with literary possibility, a supplicant at the altar of words. I knew my dad approached the tome with the same reverence, draping its brown satin ribbon down a page with words he particularly loved.
My dad and I discovered the Inland Empire together in 1986, albeit reluctantly on my part. I had been offered a full ride at the University of Redlands, but it took me weeks to tell my parents–I was planning to go to Bard College in upstate New York, where I could be closer to my friends, who were all going to be on the East coast. I just couldn’t imagine living amongst palm trees. Bard, however, had only offered me a partial scholarship; I was unaware at the time that my dad’s business was going bankrupt, and my parents didn’t know how they were going to pay for school. When I let Redlands’ offer slip during dinner, my parents picked their jaws up off the floor and insisted that I at least visit the campus.
My dad and I flew into Palm Springs so we could see his sister and, especially, her husband, who was in a coma. Uncle Al was wearing tennis shoes, as if he was going to wake up and sprint off the bed, but a nurse explained that the sneakers kept his feet from flopping over. We were quiet, sobered, as we left the hospital and drove toward Redlands, but then we spotted the stark, strange fields of white wind turbines, and then we came upon the giant dinosaurs of Cabazon, which I had just seen in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and we were filled with awe. “What kind of crazy place is this?” I wondered. By the time we pulled up to Bekins Hall, home to the Johnston Center for Individualized Learning, the alternative school within the University of Redlands, I was half in love with the area. By the time my dad and I spoke to a few bearded, Birkenstock-sporting students and professors about how I could create the education I truly wanted for myself there, my heart was completely won.
Four years later, I had the opportunity to decide who would present me with my diploma in “Poetry and Movement: Arts of Expression, Meditation and Healing”; I chose my dad. At the Johnston graduation, he gave an amazing speech about how as a two year old, I would bend down to notice little flowers in the grass, and how I continued to notice the beauty of the world. He didn’t say, but I knew, and still know, that he helped me see the world as a beautiful place.
Today, after over eight decades in Chicago and several years in Oceanside, my dad has become an Inlandia resident, himself. This crazy, palm-tree laden, place is home to both of us now, which makes me immensely happy. As I begin my laureateship, my greatest hope is that I can do for the region what my dad has done for me–encourage a love of language, create a safe space to take creative risks, and open people’s eyes to the amazingness of the world around and inside them.
Thank you, my incredible Papa, for giving me this gift. To use your own celebratory word, “Schmeernik!”