by Carole Hemingway | Submitted Photos
I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1984, and given at the most, six years to live. The stress of my mother’s deathbed confession and a looming divorce had not only attacked me emotionally, but physically.
The search for my true self began in February 1985. Imagine if you can, my sense of loss of roots, when my mother’s secret was revealed to me back in July 1981 on her deathbed. In a raspy voice, she told me that she’d had an affair with a rugged man, a famous man—Ernest Hemingway. Shocked, I sent myself on a 15-year odyssey of looking for Papa Hemingway.
My journey began in Key West, Florida. I looked for him in the only way I knew, trying to find his spirit in his home on 907 Whitehead Street.
Freshly-divorced, feeling drained and emptied when the plane landed in Key West, I leaned against the hot glass window, touching it with my shaking fingers. I chose to come here because I had to be in the place where he had lived and worked. I had to find the thin string of my heritage that connected us together.
My first night, in a clean, well-lit hotel room on the beach, I turned the key in the door to my room, undressed, showered, and collapsed in a pile of fresh, sweet-smelling linens, naked, the way I came into the world. Exhausted, I then realized I hadn’t slept in over 30 hours. Sleep came; I did not dream.
The early morning sun found me the next day, the heavy smell of frangipani outside my balcony window, while the Gulf of Mexico rolled outside like a big water bed. I rolled over onto my back and groggily looked up at the blue cobalt sky, and thought about my mother. For 40 years, she had me wrapped in an invisible cocoon, insulating me from the truth of who I was. There must be a time when a person wants something so badly, that price or condition cease to be obstacles, and I had wanted my father, most of all, and for him to love me.
It was here that I assembled the pieces of my life, and began to learn how to become whole. I felt safe enough to begin to thaw out inside, and to connect with my emotions. I was about to live a completely different and new life, to learn about my self-worth, how to nurture it, and protect it.
My first visit to his house on Whitehead Street felt like I was coming to pay my last respects in a quiet, dignified way. Even from the grave, I felt he was constantly testing my strength and courage, because it was what he looked for in a woman.
What would he have wanted his daughter to be like? He admired spirit, courage, earthiness, and authenticity. His generation produced women like Beryl Markham, Amelia Earhart, Isak Dineson, and Marlene Dietrich. I’m sure he would not have found Madonna or Cher attractive, but I think he would have adored Sophia Loren.
My need was strong for him in 1985, my grief hard. How often I sat in his garden in silence, while tourists roamed around me, thinking I was just another tourist—if they only knew. I found a new strength and purpose in Key West. My life became less pressured, and more grounded. To this day, my parents’ enduring strength has been passed on to me, and has helped me to survive. Key West was a floating hospital, the end of the line. A survivor’s camp, a mere 90 miles from Cuba. A waiting room.
Over time, I began to learn about my father. He wanted the direct experience of living life. I doubt very much if Papa would have been satisfied to go to a therapist for his problems. Too much analysis has prevented action. There were so many great writers born in the 1890s, and if they had all been in therapy, we might never have had this great burst of literature. He believed that direct experience was the final test for determining the truth of any matter. I often wonder what Papa would think of the Fortune 500 group, or could he have tolerated the 24-hour news cycle? Would he understand the term “couch potato,” when his real power, a man’s power, was all in physical expression? I think not.
Carole Hemingway is an internationally regarded author, speaker, and historical researcher. She currently lives along the coast of Maine where she is writing a book about Gettysburg, and waiting to publish another book on her father, Ernest.