Intersections – My Dad and Robert Frost
My first nickname was Nikki Giovanni. A family friend, a boy in college, called me Nikki Giovanni from before I can remember. That should be enough to explain why I like the poetry of words and books and writing, except I didn’t know who Nikki Giovanni was when I was small. Her name was like a nursery rhyme. I didn’t know that she was a real person.
In elementary school, my teacher lined the classroom with photos of famous African-Americans for Black History Month. That was the first time I saw beautiful Nikki, my namesake. It was the first time I knew she was a poet. It was the first time I knew she was real.
Around the same time, I learned about Robert Frost. When my dad saw me reading poetry, he mentioned that he’d seen Robert Frost speak at his college.
My father attended Rutgers University as an international student during the time before desegregation. African-Americans were not allowed to attend white universities, but black people from other countries could. I should have asked my father more about those years, but I didn’t. I should have asked him about the hardships, but my father was a glass half-full kind of man. He never had hardships. I did ask him about Robert Frost.
“What was Robert Frost doing at your school? Why did you go? Did you like poetry?” I asked. My dad liked books and spy novels and adventure stories. He liked numbers. He was an accountant and a brilliant man. But I never knew him to like poetry.
My dad said, “It was a very big deal. He knew the President. Everyone dressed up. We wore our best suits. The auditorium was full of people.”
“How was it? What did he sound like?” I asked. I wanted details.
My father only said, “It was very nice.”
I don’t think that “nice” qualifies as details, but it was enough to pique my interest. My dad saw Robert Frost with his own eyes. How many people could say this?
My mother took me to Waldenbooks at Northlake Mall where I bought the Collected Poems of Robert Frost. I took the poems with me to Lake Alatoona that summer. We would stay in a cabin and spend a decadent week doing nothing. Our days were filled with choices like lake or pool or ping-pong or books. I lounged by the pool with Robert Frost.
Robert Frost was long dead and very far from Georgia and the shores of that manmade lake. Still, I felt close to him. Maybe he was a mythical creature. Writing is a magical thing that might bring people together who may never meet. I would read poetry and try to untangle some meaning in my kid life. I decided to try being a writer when I was a kid. I promised myself that if I could ever see a famous writer, I would. And I would remember the details.
Rita Dove wore brightly colored nail polish. She embraced me, and welcomed my shy silence when I could not think of any proper questions to ask her.
Pat Conroy’s hands were softer than any I’d ever touched. He offered me his seat. I didn’t take it.
Margaret Atwood spoke of her youth and the nothingness of her summer days. She showed a slideshow of her childhood journal. She was a writer who liked nature and art.
Joyce Carol Oates was pale with dark hair. She made delicate and hypnotic gestures with her hands. Her humor surprised me since I expected her words to be as sharp and terrifying as her fiction. When she spoke of Robert Frost I held my breath. Then I laughed again.
I am the namesake of Nikki Giovanni. My father had once, only once, seen Robert Frost. There are other authors I have seen and will see. I usually wear my best dress. I try to make each occasion a very big deal.
My dad is gone. His birthday was this week. He would have been 81 years old.
I never knew Robert Frost, but I often have miles to go before I sleep.
If I really looked at the details, I would see that neither of them were perfect. Maybe that’s why I write. Nothing makes such a beautiful story as broken things and hope. I can still hear their voices. I wish it was always a happy thing, but it’s not. Today, it is a terrible absence and connection. I’ll try to remember all the details I can. I’ll try to keep my glass half-full.
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.