Death of a Salesman playbill from The New York Times.

I have previously written about how in being at my father’s funeral I felt like a patron in Harry Hope’s bar with so many people talking about dreams and dreaming. In my re-reading of Death of a Salesman I thought about Linda Loman through the lens of the women in my father’s life–many of whom were in attendance at his funeral.

Linda was responsible for managing the family’s domestic life. This required that Linda consider what her family would eat and when; that she maintain the home so that it was clean and that appliances were well-maintained and functioning; that she make arrangements for medical appointments; that she help the children with their school work. It was clear from Linda’s reports about the family’s finances that though Willy earned the family’s money, Linda’s responsibility included her management of the family’s finances. This was what my grandparent’s marriage looked like. My grandmother was the person who managed their checkbook.

My father would claim to have used my grandfather as a model for how he set out to define himself as a man. As much as he would have liked to be like my grandfather, when it came to how he treated women,  my father was not a good student. My father didn’t trust women. So while he might have turned to whatever woman was in his life to dole out some of his money, he never would have shared rank with any woman in the home. My father saw married men in his life, particularly my grandfather, turn to women to write checks but he did not pay careful attention to all that this meant. In my grandparent’s home, my grandmother’s job in managing the home and thus the money and the children did not diminish her. It made her an equal partner in running the family. In my father’s life, women who occupied the wife’s role were like servants. They catered to the man who stood in as the husband. When my father hustled, I thought that his girlfriend or wife (my father was married and then divorced one time) felt the need to be submissive to him because of the uncertainty of how successful his night had been. Since she didn’t know what kind of mood she would find him in, she had to be careful. Appearing to take charge after a bad night might be a sign of disrespect. My father was volatile at times so being careful was always a good strategy. My grandfather was never volatile. My grandmother was never uneasy around him.

I am not convinced that the women in my father’s life shared my critique of his patriarchal and abusive tendencies. When my former step-mother and I talked about him some days after the funeral, I was shocked when she imagined how good things might have turned out had she stayed. As I reminded her, my father didn’t even think that! As he told her, he understood that she had to leave him. He knew that he wasn’t good for her or to her and couldn’t have been at the time. She suggested to me that by leaving him, her actions suggested that she didn’t believe in the person he would become. This sentiment conveys a view shared by many of the women in my father’s life. Somehow it was important that they show how much they believed in his dreams and supported his dreams just as much as he did. I am beginning to wonder if such commitment isn’t a sign of an unhealthy relationship. If not that, it might at least be a trait of very insecure people.

Every woman who spoke at my father’s funeral was not a romantic partner, though many could have been,  they all talked about his dreams as though they were plans. As distraught as I was, I noticed this theme and wondered about it: Why were so many people putting so much emphasis on his potential? How had my father managed to get people to see him as he could have been rather than as who he was? How does one’s could have beens become their achievements? What are the consequences of this kind of commitment? What view of achievements operates to obscure a more nuanced view that might conceive of a successful life through terms other than career goals and public tokens?

Unlike Willy, my father had accepted responsibility for his limitations and had made peace with them and tried to make peace with those who he had hurt as a result of them. This is why I thought that when my father died, he did so as a success story. My father would die a dreamer, and I think he was fine with that. Many of the women in his life, though, were not at peace with the loss of this dreamer and his dreams. His dreams stood in for what was most important in their lives. When my father was in a relationship with a woman, he was all there was. He was always suspicious of their friends and their family. Those women never had outside interests in the church, school, or community. In Death of a Salesman, Linda doesn’t seem to have friends or interests outside of home. Willy and his dreams are her central occupation. That was certainly how it was for the women in my father’s life. His dreams represented all that might have been and they were fully in support of what could have been. As far as his dreams went, they were firm believers and that’s how I read Linda Loman. She believed in Willy. It seems to me that even when believers encounter the limitations of the dreamer, they don’t analyze them. They treat them as humanizing aspects of their hero’s biography. It made sense to me that Linda was stunned that Willy had killed himself because she had assumed that like all heroes, he would prevail.

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