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Excerpt: ‘The Middle Place’

/ Source: TODAY

"The Middle Place" by Kelly Corrigan is a funny yet heart-wrenching story about being a parent and a child at the same time. It follows the real-life story of the newspaper columnist, who, at 36, discovers a malignant lump and soon after learns that her father has bladder cancer. As Corrigan tells it, the experience propels her past that "middle place" into full-blown adulthood. Here's an excerpt:

The thing you need to know about me is that I am George Corrigan’s daughter, his only daughter. You may have met him, in which case just skip this part. If you haven’t, I’ll do what I can to describe him, but really, you should try to meet him.

He’s Catholic. That’s the first thing he’d want you to know about him. Goes to church many times a week. Calls it “God’s House” and talks about it in loyal, familiar terms, the way the Irish talk about their corner pub. It’s his local. When he was seventy, he became a eucharistic minister, so he helps Father Rich hand out the host a couple times a week. Sometimes, a parishioner named Lynnie looks at him with a certain peace in her eyes, and when my dad tells me about it, he gets misty.

You also need to know about the lacrosse thing. He’s in the Hall of Fame, partly because he was an all-American in 1953 and 1954 but mostly because now, in his retirement, he marches up and down the field of my old high school, Radnor, side by side with a guy thirty years his junior, coaching the kids who want to be lacrosse stars. I’ve watched a hundred games sitting next to him; both my brothers played for years. Not being an athlete myself, I am amused by how attached he is to the game. He remembers every play and can talk about a single game for hours. The words don’t mean much to me, but the emotion needs no translation.

And he’s a Corrigan. He was one of six loud, funny kids who broke out of a tiny house on Clearspring Road in working-class Baltimore. All athletes, except Peggy, who was a beauty, and Mary, who was a comic. The others, the four boys, played ice hockey in the winter and lacrosse in the spring. The house had three bedrooms — one for the parents, one for the girls, and one for the boys. There was a single bathroom where they bathed, one kid after another, in an old tub of lukewarm water once, maybe twice, a week. My uncle Gene, who made a career out of college athletics, often jokes that the real appeal of sports were the hot showers and new clothes once a season.

And I guess it helps to know that my dad was a sales guy. He sold ad space in women’s magazines for fifty years, before there were sales training programs, Excel spreadsheets, and cell phones. He just settled into the front seat of the Buick with a mug of Sanka in his hand, a map on the passenger seat, and a list of his accounts in his head. He kept a box of fresh magazines in his trunk at all times, always prepared to turn a casual acquaintance into a new account. He’d call in to the office from pay phones along I-95 to tell his secretary, the nearly bionic Jenny Austin, how many pages Noxzema signed up for or ask her to send the Folger’s people a mock-up of next month’s magazine or see if the guy from Stainmaster Carpets called back yet. People loved him.

Toward the end of his career, he changed jobs and got a new boss, a well-trained MBA who favored e-mail and databases. My dad didn’t type. He didn’t show up for weekly meetings. He couldn’t tell you the address of his buddy at Cover Girl and didn’t know exactly how to spell his last name. But some months, he sold a quarter of the ad pages in the issue, so who could complain? Despite his billings, he frustrated this particular boss every day for five years, until finally, at sixty-nine, he retired, writing “Bye Gang!” in the dust on his computer screen.

So there are a few people out there who don’t like George Corrigan. That boss is one. I think another might be Bill, his neighbor. Bill yells at his kids, really berates them. Weekends, holidays, snow days, it doesn’t matter. I think my dad finds this unforgivable. Or maybe it’s that Bill is unamused by my dad. He may even think my dad is nothing but a joker, what with that huge easy chortle of his that floats over to Bill’s backyard in the summer when we’re out on the deck having a Bud Light.

But the neighbor and his last boss are really the only two people I can think of offhand who don’t like my dad. So for thirty-some years, I have been stopped at the gas station, the farmers’ market, the swim club, to hear something like: “You’re George Corrigan’s daughter? What a guy. What a wonderful guy.”

I think people like him because his default setting is open delight. He’s prepared to be wowed — by your humor, your smarts, your white smile, even your handshake — guaranteed, something you do is going to thrill him. Something is going to make him shake his head afterward, in disbelief, and say to me, “Lovey, what a guy!” or “Lovey, isn’t she terrific?” People walk away from him feeling like they’re on their game, even if they suspect that he put them there.

He does that for me too. He makes me feel smart, funny, and beautiful, which has become the job of the few men who have loved me since. He told me once that I was a great talker. And so I was. I was a conversationalist, along with creative, a notion he put in my head when I was in grade school and used to make huge, intricate collages from his old magazines. He defined me first, as parents do. Those early characterizations can become the shimmering self-image we embrace or the limited, stifling perception we rail against for a lifetime. In my case, he sees me as I would like to be seen. In fact, I’m not even sure what’s true about me, since I have always chosen to believe his version.

I could have gone either way. As I said, I was not an athlete, and just an average student. I was a party girl who smoked cigarettes, a vain girl who spent long stretches in front of the mirror, cutting my own hair, as necessary, before parties. More than once, I stole lipstick or eye shadow from the pharmacy. I used my mom’s Final Net Ultra Hold Hair Mist without permission and to outrageous effect. I was suspended from high school for a week as a sophomore for being drunk at a semiformal. I had fallen down the staircase, baby’s breath in my hair, new suntan panty hose ripped up the back. A wreck of white polyester.

My dad came to pick me up. As I recall, he was unruffled. It would’ve been ludicrous for him to say something like “I am very disappointed.” He wasn’t disappointed, or even surprised. This kind of thing happens every so often with teenagers.

My mother, on the other hand, was truly beside herself. She had grown up in a strict German household, where behavior of this sort would have merited a month, maybe two, in the cellar. She had put in a lot of long hours making sure I was not the kind of girl who’d do something like this. I remember hearing my parents argue the morning after the dance.

“Mary, you can’t ground her for a month. She’s going to be so embarrassed at school, you won’t have to punish her.”

“You must be kidding me. Are you telling me you think it is okay for our fifteen-year-old daughter to get drunk at a school function?”

“Mary, come on.” He laughed as he said it. “You think she was the only one there who had a few beers before the dance?”

“Absolutely not. I am sure that ninety percent of those kids had something to drink before the dance but Kelly fell down the stairs, George. She didn’t have a few beers. She was drunk.”

So what I heard my dad say is: she’s fine, a normal kid. What I heard my mom say is: she’s wild and getting wilder.

The truth was that I was wild but on my way to being fine.

About twenty years later, having become fine, I called my parents from the maternity ward and cried through the following: “Mom, Dad, it’s a girl, and Dad, we named her after you. We named her Georgia.”

Three years after that, almost to the day, I called home to tell my parents that I had cancer.

And that’s what this whole thing is about. Calling home. Instinctively. Even when all the paperwork — a marriage license, a notarized deed, two birth certificates, and seven years of tax returns — clearly indicates you’re an adult, but all the same, there you are, clutching the phone and thanking God that you’re still somebody’s daughter.

Excerpted from “The Middle Place” by Kelly Corrigan. Copyright (c) 2008 Kelly Corrigan. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Voice, an imprint of Hyperion.