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Mr. Phipps

Wild About Harry

I must confess that a romantic couple composed of a woman and a man looks somewhat odd to me. I guess you could say this impression began at age eleven when my mother died.

Just as the fog of grief began to lift, my sister and I met Mr. Phipps. This must have been in 1974. One weekend, my father announced that we would go to the Amusement Park — and there a friend of his would meet us.

I didn’t like the sound of ‘friend’ and worried it would be like the picnic we had been on a few months back with a female ‘friend’ from Dad’s office. Fortunately, as my Dad, sister and I waited by the spinning cups, a man came bounding toward us gushing with joy. Strangely, I was instantly suspicious; I think the overt smile tipped me off. But it was a man, not a woman. Thus, I was relieved. But as I reflect back on it, the relief was more like a suspended, disquieting tension.

Dad then ‘properly’ introduced my sister and I to this very toothy man smiling from ear to ear. I took a good look at him as I reached over to shake his hand. He reminded me of a sailor from the nineteenth century — his face highlighted by long, bushy mutton chops.

“Girls. I would like you to meet Mr. Phipps. Mr. Phipps, my daughters: Gwendolyn and Daphne. Girls, Mr. Phipps and I are going to be business partners.”

Why the formalities? If the truth be told, my father loved pomp and circumstance. He secretly adored tradition (that is, when tradition suited him). Dad, born in England barely before World War II, still retained the influence of his Edwardian parents and family military heritage. (Luckily for my father, his parents were living far away — in the exotic locale of Ecuador — so they didn’t meet Mr. Phipps that week. Frankly, I doubt they even knew about him until quite a bit later.) So, like any good daughters, my sister and I thus addressed him as Mr. Phipps. He always remained Mr. Phipps to us, even as we grew into adulthood all living under the same roof.

After the dutiful introductions, my father was now smiling stupidly from ear to ear as well. Then we all boarded one large cup. And we began to spin. We spun around and around in what seemed like the longest amusement park ride of my life.

Dear Curious Reader, as you imagine Mr. Phipps, my father, sister and I plastered to the sides of a cup, each of us smiling for our own private reasons, let me fill you in on what I am seeing in hindsight. It’s really a hilarious scene:

The two men try to sit upright in the tossing and turning cup of their newfound joy, neither of them making eye contact with each other during the entire ride. Instead, Mr. Phipps giddily chats with my sister and I. The conversation is inconsequential — in fact, I don’t think my sister and I heard a word. Instead, we watch and listen to Mr. Phipps’ sideburns. They are utterly fascinating.

Meanwhile, my father attempts to maintain appearances. He works so hard hiding his real love and enthusiasm for Mr. Phipps that Dad can barely breathe. He wants everyone to get along so badly. Fortunately, the cup keeps on spinning, supporting Dad’s peculiar laughter that comes out in spurts and gasps. Grabbing for more breath and reassurance was natural on this kind of amusement park ride. Or so I think.

Dad’s appearance of studied nonchalance worked back then, at least, for a while. At twelve, I could not fathom what Dad’s desperate laughter was really about. Frankly, I hadn’t seen my father laugh so hard or have so much fun since my mother had died.

As I said earlier, this moment on the historic timeline was 1974. President Nixon stood on the precipice of his demise. Daily, the world gazed upon the American President as he reckoned with a valley of personal and political disaster of his own making.

Everyone talked about the Watergate scandal on the beach, at hamburger stands, over blueberry pie and ice cream on the porch — everywhere by everybody.

To be continued:

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