Excerpted with permission from Poetic License: A Memoir by Gretchen Cherington. © 2020 Gretchen Cherington. She Writes Press, a division of SparkPoint Studio, LLC.
About the Author
Gretchen Eberhart Cherington grew up in a household that—thanks to her Pulitzer Prize–winning father, the poet Richard Eberhart—was populated by many of the most revered poets and writers of the twentieth century, from Robert Frost to James Dickey. She’s spent her adult life advising top executives in changing their companies and themselves. Her essays have been published in Crack The Spine, Bloodroot Literary Magazine, and Yankee Magazine, among other journals and newspapers, and her essay “Maine Roustabout” was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. Cherington is a leader in her community and has served on twenty boards. Passionate about her family and friends, she most enjoys spending time with them at home or in wild places around the world. Poetic License: A Memoir is her first book. Learn more at https://www.gretchencherington.com.
POETIC LICENSE by Gretchen Cherington
We all must square the gifts and harms from our original families—better done, I wager, before leaving home, not in our forties. I hoped I’d find in my father’s letters bits of family history I hadn’t known, strands of evidence that might support a coherent story of him. Confused by the outward symbols of our privilege—our homes, travel, my father’s friends, life on elite college campuses—alongside my inner loneliness from his inattention, his neglect, I didn’t know what would surface.
I came from a family of storytellers, of mythmakers, a family perhaps a little too in love with itself. Both parents were superb entertainers; they regaled their visitors with righteous descriptions of their friends, their original families, their children, their hired help, their connections to kings and presidents, a chance encounter with a drunk cousin on Main Street or a store clerk in Boston who happened to read Yeats. I loved their stories. Everyone did. Repeated regularly, a story drawn out by Mom or Dad, or the two together, was funny or poignant and sure to pack a punch. Over cocktail parties in living rooms and on island beaches in Maine, stoked with bourbon and gin, tossed and tumbled, their tales calcified into myth—myths of improbable beginnings in Minnesota and Boston, of wealth created and sometimes lost, of ten-day blizzards and first-row tickets to the theater, of the highest levels of literary achievement and the bastard critics who didn’t understand. These accounts seemed special, and I felt special in their reflection. Joining their legion of admirers, I subscribed fully.
Dikkon, five years older than I, inherited their skills. He could spin an adventure as tight as a new ball of string—epic, swashbuckling inventions of pirates and maidens on the high seas, of musketeers and flagons. He could carry on for an hour, even as a teenager, spellbinding my cousins Kate and Susan Butcher and me as we rolled ourselves in moth-eaten blankets under the stars by a fire on the beach in Maine. “Go on!” we implored, and he did.
I envied all three members of my family their talents, their way of tossing reality to the wind in favor of wild imagination. My family of origin held in high esteem anyone with those skills. By the age of ten, I could recite my father’s CV, I’d heard it so many times, but by my late thirties, I’d begun to question some of the accounts.
All I ever wanted to know was what was real.
By the year I started looking through Dad’s letters, a dissonance about who my father was had lodged between my ears and eyes, a dissonance too jarring to ignore. One warm, blue-sky fall day in 1995, the fourth year of reading in the collection, I took my notes outside and spread them out on a picnic table, along with my lunch. The air that afternoon smelled different, with the aroma of pine pitch. While tourists mob New England for its maples and oaks dressed in royal ruby and gold, I’ve long loved the smell of pitch hardening on the trunk of an evergreen, pausing its growth as it gathers itself for winter. My mother had died the year before, at eighty, after living forty years with epilepsy. My father, at ninety-one, was hale and still writing. Hesitantly, I’d begun putting my own thoughts on paper, mostly about Dad, but about Mom, too. I still felt no right to question my father, to poke at the edifice that had grown up between him and me. I finished my sandwich, and I thought it was time to remind him of what I was up to. It was a quick trip to where he lived, and a beautiful afternoon for a drive through Hanover.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” Dad asked. Seated in his green wingback chair, he pointed for me to take a seat next to him. He leaned toward me—a lean I’d seen many times when he tipped his weight and attention toward a famous writer and got pulled into literary conversation. I turned away from him and looked out the window at the fading afternoon sun.
“I’m trying to figure things out, Dad,” I said, my mouth dry.
“I’m trying to figure you out. So, I’m writing about you.” His wide eyes encouraged me. “I’d like to read you a piece.” I’d never shared anything I’d written with him, not even as a kid; he’d just never seemed interested. That day, he looked riveted, which shouldn’t have surprised me, since he always was his own favorite subject.
“Speak slowly, Gretch. I want to hear you,” Dad said, propping his hands on his knees to listen, while leaning closer to me. I’d written a piece about his childhood years in Austin, Minnesota, an innocent enough starting place. I read slowly, enunciating and emphasizing words, emulating his reading style as best I could.
“What’s it like to have me write about you?” I asked, after finishing.
“I’ll never get through all the boxes, Dad. You kept so much!”
My father smiled, unabashed at being called out as the packrat of our family.
“Will I find any surprises?” I asked.
Dad paused for several seconds. “Well, if you do, won’t that be interesting?” He raised his bushy eyebrows, eyebrows a friend of his had once called ferocious because his thick tufts went every which way, but as a teenager, his raised eyebrows seemed flirtatious.
“When you look back at your long life, Dad, do you have any regrets?”
My father took his time considering my question. Time enough, I thought, to scan nine decades. Time enough for me to scan a line of white birch trees outside his room, their yellow leaves fluttering in the breeze. I thought of Frost’s poem about birches and of Frost himself sitting in the green leather chair in our living room in Hanover with his thick thatch of white hair. A chickadee hopped from branch to branch, creating quite a poem itself.
“No,” he said finally.
Really? I thought. I had so many regrets.
“Is there anything you don’t want me to say?” I asked.
“No,” my father said. “Your only job as a writer is to tell the truth.”