Month: July 2013

Looking for my father

In the midst of The Great Monstrous Organizing All the Family Memorabilia and I Mean All of It Project of 2013, which looks to keep me busy ’til about three years after I die, I ran across a clipping Grandma had saved of the column I wrote after Grandpa died and we rushed to and then from New Mexico. Like all such family events, it was a chaotic, unexpected and unprepared-for week. In recent years, I’ve been pretty hard on my father; don’t know why. Maybe, as (I think) Rainer Maria Rilke said, I am too much alone. Dad and I did have a complicated relationship—from my viewpoint, not his. He was a great guy in so many ways and a remarkable man, and I often don’t credit him with his virtues.

Here’s that column, by way of the long-defunct but still worthwhile Fairness Doctrine.

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My dad’s empty shoes, scuffed, blunt-toed, sawdust-smudged, soles rolling to the outside, frayed laces straggling, wait where he placed them against his closet wall for his summons to begin their workday.But he’s not there, and they don’t know he won’t be needing them.

My father’s pocketful of loose change, Case pocketknife, crumpled red bandanna, and plain gold wedding band rest on the dresser he’s had since I was a child. Loading the change and knife into his pocket was an inviolable part of his morning routine, so I know he’s not in his bedroom. Neither is he in the living room or kitchen, nursing a bottomless cup of coffee, or outside checking on his roses.

That afternoon, my mother shows me that my father rests on a cot in a mortuary, his professorial goatee and relaxed expression at odds with the chilled flesh and telltale lividity that finally make real to me that Dad has left us.

But my heart doesn’t find him on the mortician’s cot any more than it did in the house; his body’s cold, rigid flesh repudiates everything my father was: warm, skilled, opinionated, generous, annoying, kind, funny. . . alive.

That body is my father. . . and not my father. His shell is there, but my dad is elsewhere.

Later, I watch my three young men clean out their grandpa’s greenhouse for their grandma. Dad must have been near the end of this particular plant-growing cycle, the latest in the horticultural fancies that over his lifetime ranged from carnivorous plants to bonsai to orchids—the latter a point of great pride since he’d been repeatedly told they could not be grown in southern New Mexico. Plants were one of the few constants in a life marked by many sequential interests.

Now his begonias need pruning. Elderly succulents show the wrinkled skin of neglect. His philodendron and begonia cuttings have a leggy look, deprived of sufficient light.

Dad’s formerly prized orchids, resting on a bed built especially for them, appear weary and discouraged, as though forewarned that the caretaker who once lavished on them the most meticulous attention, provided them with pure sweet water and just the right tropical humidity in the desiccating desert, who was so proud of the velvety blossoms they produced, had gone.

Dad’s plants. One of which he gave to me when I first moved to California as a young adult, so I could carry with me a little piece of home. A plant I treasured and watered with lonely, homesick tears.

That man who understood my homesickness was my daddy, my teacher, my buddy, my worst critic and greatest champion, my enemy and my dear friend. But I do not find him in the greenhouse amid the sad disheveled lot of plants that look like—and now are—orphans.

While cleaning, I carry a box out to Dad’s workshop and pause while the silence, so elusive with relatives and friends bulging the house, strokes my soul. I inhale the sharp, rich scent of walnut, the wood Dad loved above all others. In this blessed moment of solitude—for I am my father’s daughter, and seldom seek the company of others—I squint against the heavy afternoon sun shoving through the shades. I peer through the gauze of dust-motes dancing in the shafts of light.

And there’s my dad: his red bandanna tied around his head, turning on his work stool to face me, his sinewy forearms sifted with sawdust, a big smile lighting his eyes and a cheerful, “Hi, honey!” on his lips.

Here I find my dad—my dad, who could fix anything, no matter how badly broken, so you could never see the repair—surrounded by the beautiful woods he so loved, by the tools he used to shape the slow, patient souls of those trees into things of surpassing beauty and delight. The woods to which he gave voices, to say to his loved ones what he could not: “I made this for you to show how much I love you.”

Here is my dad, and here, finally, my tears can come.

The workshop is where Dad spent his most content hours, crafting the precisely matched dovetail joints, the invisible seams, the finely sanded and polished planes that became bookcases, violins, tables, cellos, clocks, cabinets, inlaid boxes and chess boards, and much, much more. Even a 16″ schooner model, for which he carved each plank as well as functional block-and-tackle assemblies. He hunted for four months before he found for the rigging thread that was to scale. So the sails could be raised and lowered, you see.

As a child, I could not understand why it took my father so long to finish a project. Any project! He should, I thought with a mental foot-stamp, just finish it! I’m sure my get-it-done, goal-oriented approach baffled him equally.

As an adult, I realized that to him, the doing, the process, was the fun. He loved the challenge. He didn’t care about the time it took; he concentrated at each step on making that particular part, however small, as perfect as he could.

Dad’s pieces were filled with love of and respect for his materials, and a joyous delight in sharing with others what he discovered as he revealed wood’s soul.

Most people thought him an odd duck, and he was.

Dad lived his life the way he worked. He didn’t worry about what he was “supposed” to do. He just lived each day, quietly, unobtrusively, giving it the best his faulty body would allow him to give, unconcerned about how it would turn out, concentrating on the time at hand.

He was no saint. A stubborn, hard-headed, fiercely independent old coot, he refused even to consider a cane for himself, though with his pain-racked knees he could barely shuffle along.

He did, however, pronounce to elderly relatives that they needed walkers and were foolish not to use them.

He had a ferocious temper when roused, though that was seldom. He could be rigid and intolerant. Children bewildered him, his own daughter as well as his grandsons. He was wildly opinionated and not very sociable. He could holler and lecture with the best of them. He had little patience for people whose views differed from his—if they insisted on sharing them.

But mostly, he was a quiet, peaceable guy who loved good stories and good music (he took up cello at 68!), who rescued and nurtured strays both animal and human, who simply wanted to be left alone to live his life the way he was comfortable living it. His drummer played a very different rhythm, and Dad followed that rhythm without noticing its peculiarity.

When the process of Dad’s life ended, he’d reached the same goal he had for woodworking projects: a life seamless, well jointed and finished, gleaming, sturdy, durable . . . complete. Not a flawless life, but the best he could craft.

At his memorial service, my dad has no eulogy. The only people who know him well enough to eulogize him are listening to the near-stranger Mom has asked to officiate. A certified hermit, Dad would have laughed about that.

Afterwards, I return to Dad’s workshop. Again, in my mind’s eye, he turns to smile at me, to welcome me into his quiet, solitary world.

And my tears dry, because as I remember his strong, capable hands in that workshop, the lovely and love-filled things he built in it, and the pleasure he took in the making, I understand that in some essential way, I haven’t lost him.

I smile, say, “Bye, Dad. I love you, too,” pick up a wood chip, and put it in my pocket.

To carry a little bit of Dad home with me.

Posted by wordsmith in Family, 0 comments