My Papa’s Waltz

I am enjoying another month of somewhat light reading. I can’t simply say “light reading” because I am encountering twisted or barely-conceivable plot elements, putrid and gory dead bodies, cockroaches, and an occasional virgin or two. One pleasure I find is references to Los Angeles, whether by a struggling script writer or a grizzled homicide detective.

I left Los Angeles in 1968 but have nurtured a nostalgia for the city since the early ’50s. I have admitted this before when discussing the Philip Marlowe stories. I was born so I could experience the Los Angeles of ’30s and ’40s just as that world was slipping away. My college years at the university, my struggles of (too) early marriage, and a 1950 MG TD with the doors tied together by a frayed rope and a rag-top permanently fixed in the down position, gave me further insight into the city. My most vivid image: riding in that MG down Wilshire Boulevard in a misty rain with an large umbrella held over my head.

Times have changed in the last fifty years. As I read in James Brown’s memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries, much of the Los Angeles I left behind in 1969 has been erased: the original Brown Derby, Swab’s Drugstore, Tiny Naylor’s. But as Brown makes clear, the one element of L. A. life that is still going strong is traffic.

But while reading Brown’s memoir I was struck by the familiar title of one of the chapters: My Papa’s Waltz.  Brown writes:

I was in college when I encountered “My Papa’s Waltz, Theodore Roethke’s short dark poem about dancing with his drunken father.

I hesitate to consider Roethke’s poem “dark.” Roethke was my passion at university. I even did independent studies for credit, what might have been considered a senior thesis. I discovered Roethke in a modern poetry class my second year at college. He was unique in that he was the only poet in our fat anthology that was dead: 1963 if I recall. I still have collections of his letters, his biography, and pretty-much all of his published work on my bookshelves.

Ted Roethke and my High School girlfriend are the two memories I have maintained through the years, tying my youthful bushy-blond surfer boy to the current cantankerous old man with the wobbly walker and the teeth in the jar on the bathroom sink.

My Papa’s Waltz
Theodore Roethke – 1908-1963

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

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