"People" Artist: James McNelis
by Brenda Carter
In one photo my father is an eight-year-old in knee pants, a Canadian farm boy absorbed in the task of keeping a hen tucked under each arm while a guinea pig peers out from under the lapels of his jacket. In another snapshot he's a laughing young man in an overcoat, perched in the lap of a bronze King Neptune. On their wedding day, he stands close to my mother. His chest and boutonniere are thrust out in pride, but the smile on his face is relaxed and easy. As a fond father, his eyes are fixed on the toddler me rather than on the camera. Then the pictures stop. He died after his car crashed on a foggy November night; I was three-and-a-half >years old.
I think I have memories of my father, but I can't be sure. The scraps of my earliest recollections are all mixed up with the photos, my mother's many stories, and a few keepsakes. My mother likes to remind me that my father and I were so close it sometimes made her jealous. But if I was ever a daddy's girl, it was so long ago that I can no longer even imagine loving another parent more than I love her. I know that I've missed my father's presence in my life, but it's difficult to recall just what that presence was.
I seem to remember the country drive when my father stopped the car to give me a look at a roadside farm. We got out so that I could "feed" the turkeys a bit of grass, and one of the gobblers bit my finger through the wire fence. In my mind, an enormous flock of turkeys stretches out as far as I can see. The turkeys and I stand eye to eye; we are close enough in stature to be peers. But I've heard about this turkey bite so many times from my mother that I can't be sure whether it's her words or the actual event that I recall.
I still have the toddler paper doll set my father had almost finished cutting out for me when he died, so I know that it really existed even though I have no memory of him at work with the scissors. The twelve-inch dolls, a girl and a boy, have remained in the same manila envelope since his death over forty years ago, an envelope with directions to a Detroit address scribbled on it in an unfamiliar handwriting which I assume is his.
I take the two pudgy babies out of their manila home and search their bland faces for clues, but they are unquestionably children of the fifties, and revealing hidden truths is not one of their strengths.
I examine their clothes: brightly colored dresses with full skirts and puffed sleeves for the little girl and suspendered shorts with prissy shirts (one reads "I am a good boy") for the little boy. All I learn is that my father was patient enough to cut out two paper wardrobes for an eager three year old who bent the dolls' cardboard arms before he could finish the job. I hold the evidence in my hands, but I don't remember a bit of it. I only know that I loved paper dolls throughout my childhood and amassed a vast collection which now resides, along with the manila envelope, in a box in my attic.
The clearest memory I have of my father is simply standing with him at night in the library. For some mysterious reason I can still find a door into that brief moment when we paused together in front of the check out counter. The room is hushed and the lights are low, but I can see through the windows that it's even darker outside. All the rest of this episode's particulars have melted away over time, leaving nothing more substantial than a tantalizing sense of my father's presence. The library tableau turns out to be more of a feeling than anything else, and if I try to visualize it clearly, I start adding details that feel more like inventions than real memories.
How can I sort out what might have occurred from what actually happened or who my father might have been from who he actually was? I don't want to be the archaeologist of my father's life; I want to be his daughter.
When my son Evan was in nursery school, the mother of one of his classmates died quite suddenly. Evan's preschool was a close-knit co-op where the parents got to know each other as we shared the work, but I had little contact with Paula because her husband took on most of their family's day-to-day responsibilities at the school. Their daughter Alice had been one of my favorites. She had a certain wariness, a tendency to observe a scene closely before jumping in, that I felt a strong kinship with. I suspected she was a lot like I was as a child.
After Paula's death that autumn, four-year-old Alice grew quiet and spent a lot of time on grown-up laps. She seemed so defenseless against the enormity of her loss. I found that I couldn't separate her from my own young self, and the grief I was incapable of processing as a three-year-old rose to the surface. I wasn't consciously mourning my father or remembering how I felt when he died, but Alice's pain flowed through my veins, and my old childhood pain was swept along with hers. At Paula's funeral, I wept as though it was my own mother who was about to be buried. I felt a little guilty about using Paula's death this way, but I truly mourned her family's loss and I thought that she would understand about mine.
Paula's passing awakened my curiosity about my father, and I realized that most of the people who had known him were well into retirement and aging rapidly. If I wanted to ask them anything, I'd better not put it off. I gathered together the addresses of my mother's five siblings, more distant family members, and old friends from long ago in Detroit. I planned to send them each a Christmas card with a brief note asking for a memory of my father. But when I sat down to write, I found myself explaining how Paula's death had affected me and thanking them individually for the love they had shown me after my father's death and the specific ways they had enriched my childhood. I had stumbled upon a way to replace one of the missing arcs in the circle torn open by my father's death.
Almost everyone responded, adding new details to my mental portrait of my father and enabling me to see him through different eyes. Each letter gave me a unique glimpse of my dad: stretched out on the sofa watching the 1952 Republican convention on television, telling my mother how beautiful she was, eating his favorite avocado-and-bacon sandwiches, repeating the Twenty-Third Psalm through teeth clenched in pain on his deathbed. So many people wrote of some quiet act of generosity on my father's part, that the old Bissell carpet sweeper he gave my late grandmother has become one of my most treasured possessions and a symbol of his open- handed nature. My Uncle Bob drove up from San Jose through sixty miles of morning commute traffic so that he could explain in person how deeply my father had influenced him as a teenager. Over the breakfast we shared together I learned for the first time how my father's emotional warmth, love of the arts, and deep commitment to Christianity had given my uncle a much-needed example of how to live a more expressive life as a man.
A new, deeper understanding of who my father was emerged from these stories, but no magic would ever turn the recollections of others into memories I could call my own. And I couldn't help thinking that Alice's future would hold a similar void. All that holiday season I was nagged by the question of what she would be able to remember about Paula when she grew up. What would remain of her dead mother?
As the weeks passed, and my emotions had a chance to percolate down through the new facts I had gathered, the answers I sought gradually grew clear. When I was a new parent and turned frequently to books by childrearing experts for advice, I had read repeatedly about how love and security in the first years of life play a crucial role in the formation of a child's personality and sense of self. I now considered this idea in the light of my own history. Sidestepping memory and feeling my way along into the subterranean darkness of my heart, I asked myself whether I felt the absence of such love. When the answer emerged, it was unmistakable and certain: I simply didn't feel like someone who had been forced to do without. The same kind of start I had worked so hard to give my son had also been given to me--the fundamental sense of deserving to be cherished, heard, and protected has been the firm basis upon which I've lived my entire life. I knew how to pass this legacy on because I had a chance to learn from those who passed it on to me, and I know exactly who those early teachers were: my mother--and my father.
Today, when I look at the old black and white snapshot of my father laughing at me with delight, I have no way of knowing what sparked that particular laugh, but I recognize the tenderness and unrestrained delight in his smile because I've always carried them within me. In the end, it turns out that I have the memory of my father that I long for most of all, the memory of his love.
Brenda Carter lives in El Cerrito, California where she is currently searching for a job, an LTR and a writing group. She plans to just stay tuned and see how it all turns out.
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