Thursday, March 31, 2011

Borrowed Finery

Paula Fox's memoir, Borrowed Finery, began in the early 1920s and followed Fox's unusual upbringing by numerous people, but rarely her own parents.

Fox's first memories were of the Congregational minister in upstate New York who agreed to take her when the home where she was dumped seemed uninterested. Known to her as Uncle Elwood, the minister's kind nature and devotion to literature made a huge impression on Fox as well as his loving care of an invalid mother. His home, built by his ancestors a hundred years before, sat on the banks of the Hudson River, and this vista, the cold winters, and the crazy visits by Elwood's sister resonated deeply with Fox; however, it was this first home with him that shaped Fox's life and outlook.

Even though her parents abandoned her as a child, for some reason, they made occasional visits in her life -- sometimes it seemed to have no purpose other than to just uproot her. Her father imagined himself as a writer [he did sell one screen play], and her mother just imagined herself "not a mother." At one point, Fox heard her mother tell her father: "Either she [Paula] goes or I go." Finally taken permanently from Uncle Elwood when she was six, Fox's parents transported her from place to place and were only a part of her life in short stints.

Paula's travels included being taken to Cuba by her maternal grandmother, dumped in Florida with a housekeeper she hardly knew, and yet another time in California on the outskirts of Hollywood. Fox adapted to wherever she was. When her parents are eventually divorced, Fox spent time with her father's girlfriend in Nantucket, and even the girlfriend had huge gaps of time where Fox's father was just absent.

After one brief weekend together, she remembered a time that she and her father take a walk, and he proceeded to tell her a story about a giant rattlesnake that chased him from his cot. Fox listened but concluded that "I didn't believe him, but I didn't think he was lying. Or rather, I believed in the power of stories. Perhaps he didn't tell them all to me that day on the beach. Perhaps the stories were told over several days and evenings of that visit, and in later meetings with my father. They struck me as a way of thinking, of finding out the weaknesses of given attitudes and so-called truths inherited by the generations. There was no final truth."

For Fox, there was no truth from her father, a man who passed her around from place to place so that he could "write," drink, and do as he pleased. Fox's resilient nature, perhaps a survival skill that she learned young, allowed her to accept the oddness of her upbringing and the distance that her parents chose to place themselves from her. In no way did Fox present herself as having an unhappy childhood -- she just presented her story for what it was -- her story.

The memoir is fascinating. Her style and approach to her own material is one of disconnect, detachment, and a strange unfamiliarity with what having a "normal" childhood is -- she just had recollections of people and places, some with names, some not, and the real strangers -- her own parents.

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