When he was well up into his seventies my father, William David Phillips, once confessed (although it wasn’t really a confession) okay, he “revealed” to me that he had an imaginary life. This is something quite different from just day-dreaming, I believe, although it is related. An imaginary life is something fully realized, detailed, compelling, complete to the last detail, in which the imaginer can immerse himself (or herself) at will. In her journals, L.M. Montgomery reveals that she had an imaginary life, that was as rich as her real life, and quite a bit more satisfying.
In my father’s imaginary life, he was a young enlistee in the U.S. armed forces. I can’t remember which branch, but in reality my father enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served on a destroyer escort in the Pacific, never seeing battle. They patrolled the “beep line” in the South China Sea and went ashore on Okinawa, where he saw corpses in caves. He rose to the rank of Chief Petty Officer, a non-commissioned rank comparable to sergeant.
In the imaginary life, he was pulled out and sent to a special unit because he was adept at languages, as a Louisiana boy might be. Then he was sent behind enemy lines in occupied France, where he took refuge at a chateau and became the lover of a widowed countess.
He told me only a tithe of what this imaginary life contained. I asked him during the one conversation we ever had about it what the name of the main character was. Thinking like a novelist, I assumed it was a novel he was endlessly working on. He looked at me like, “Haven’t you understood a word I’ve been saying?” and answered, “William David Phillips!” In his characteristic high-pitched indignant voice.
He was living in Connecticut then, far from his piney woods upbringing. His six siblings were all dead, not that they had ever had much to say to each other in the best of times, and two of them died before they turned twenty. They were a silent clan.
Which is what made me think of my father’s imaginary life this evening. It’s a windy, cloudy spring afternoon in Tennessee. A robin is nesting on my porch. I don’t want to sit out there because I don’t want to chase her off her eggs. I can’t sit in the backyard because it’s spitting rain every once in a while. So I am sitting at the desk in the kitchen, looking out the back door, watching the birds have their evening baths. They are all amorous, which makes me want to call all the bathing females Bathsheba and the males David.
And I remembered how my father once told me that his own father, my grandfather, a lanky silent man who owned a “general merchandise store” in Glenmora, Louisiana, had liked to “just sit on the porch and meditate.” I can remember him doing that. It was a long porch, perfect for sitting, looking out at a railroad across the highway.
And my father just sat on his porch and meditated. And I just sit on the porch and meditate. And make up stories.