Sunday, June 19, 2016

Remembering Dad (1925 - 1985) - Happy Fathers' Day

It is Sunday and I am almost four years old. Mom has gone to the hospital and in a few days she will be coming home with our new brother, Jean. With Mom away, I've been feeling lonely and so, when I can, I attach myself to my father. A short shadow, I hold tightly to one of his pant legs with one hand while the other is clenched into a fist, thumb firmly in my mouth.  I don't care that my brothers tease me, my thumb brings me comfort that they cannot.

This morning the house is a flurry of activity as Dad lets everyone know that the car will be leaving for mass in 10 minutes and we are all expected to be in it.  I am alone in my room, a room I will soon be sharing with my new little brother. I've already started dressing myself, and have found some tights to wear. Pulling them on, I navigate my toes down to the reinforced toe of the tights - first one foot, then the next. It's only once both legs are in that I can tell I've got them on backwards - no matter how I try to unwind them on my little stick legs, the heels bump out over the tops of my feet like little flattened marshmallows. I know I should fix them but I don't want to be late... I start to cry. Quietly the tears spring to my eyes and I blink them back, and I'm hot and as I put my dress on it feels hot and itchy, and now my nose is running.  I wipe a sleeve across my eyes, leave the stockings and finish buttoning up my dress.  The little white buttons are lined up down the front of my blue dress like the stones beside the garden. Quickly combing through my hair with my fingers, I run to join the stragglers at the kitchen closet and reach up, pulling my coat off the hanger.  The wire hanger bounces from the coat's release and falls into the boots below. Ignoring it, I find my rubber boots and slide my feet in, the heels from my stockings pushing into the tops of my feet and my ankles. My boots feel like they are on the wrong feet.

Not quite last out the front door to the car, I am too late for the front seat so I go into the back and climb over the seat to go into the very back of the station wagon, where the groceries go on Saturday. I lean in, back to back with my older brothers and sister who have filled the back seat, each in their own quiet on this early Sunday morning.  When the last car door slams closed, the quiet feels heavy on me. I'm relieved to have this space for myself though, and I watch out through the streaks of dirt on the back window as we pull away, our house and then Tetroe Road getting smaller until it disappears around a bend.

Checking the pockets of my coat, I find a button, a small white die, and a dime. The button is a beautiful, small white plastic flower with five petals, and two holes cut through the center where the thread will go.  I bite it, just to see how hard the plastic is - my teeth make no dent. The die is white also, and the dots are each filled with black, except for one of the dots on the sixth side, so it's more like a second 5.  I think this is the missing die from the Snakes and Ladders game.  I had meant to return it to the game but must have forgotten it in my pocket.  It's the dime that takes most of my attention on the ride though.  The boat is so pretty, sailing away, I wonder where to? I hold the dime out between my thumb and forefinger, framed by the diffuse light through the filmy back window of the car.  I am on the boat, and the boat is in a storm that pitches it back and forth, through seawater and rain, dark and storms and lightening, pitching and rolling each time the car goes over a rough patch on the pavement.

Finally the car slows and I know we've arrived at Church.  Tucking my treasures back into my pocket, I duck a little more behind the seat and hope no one will notice that I don't go in with the rest. My feet still feel like they've been squished into someone else's boots, and I just don't want to go in. With a sick feeling I realized that I've not even washed my face or brushed my teeth this morning. How am I ever going to learn to be a big sister if I can't even do that?  My head gets hot again as tears spring back into my eyes, and I let out a sob.

Suddenly, the motor for the back window of the car groans as the window squeaks and lowers, and I jump. I see my dad there, peering in at me, as he lowers the window.

"Hey little Monik, why are you still in here?"

I scrunch back against the seat, trying to disappear right into it, feeling badly now that my Dad has had to come back to find me.

"I... I don't want to go in," I stammer, unable to really say why although this feeling I know has taken over me and I am lost in it.

"What's wrong?"  He persists, his dark eyes narrowing as he looks to see signs of any obvious wound.

"I... I'm sad..." I manage, through a fresh stream of tears.

He reaches his arms out for me, in through the back window, and with no hesitation I crawl across the clutter in the back of the car into his waiting arms and out the window.

My Dad's arms. The safest, warmest place in the world.  Strength, calm and gentleness. Smelling of tobacco smoke and Old Spice aftershave, his calm seeps into me and comforts me almost immediately.

"Daddy," I hiccup into the collar of his white shirt and blue jacket, "I don't want to go to mass today... I'm too sad..."

"Hmmh. Well..." he pauses as he shifts me into his left arm, and puts keys back into lock to raise the rear window back up with his right hand. The window, screeching all the way, salt and sand gritting into the glass as it slowly returns back into place like fingernails on a chalkboard, making me put my fists over my ears.

Then, it happens.

Rather than walking over the to the side door of the Church with me in his arms, Dad takes the three steps over to the drivers door of the car, opens it, and puts me on the seat.  Stunned, I look up at him, wide-eyed.

"Slide over," he gestures with jingling keys, and I slide across the bench seat.  He gets in beside me, and slams the heavy door closed. Pausing, he reaches into his jacket pocket for the small blue and white cardboard package of Players Plain. I quickly lean forward and push in the cigarette lighter, then glance up at him. A smile, and slight nod, and he starts the car, unlit cigarette perched between his lips.  The lighter pops out just as the car turns on to the main street of town, and I watch as he holds it up to the cigarette in his mouth until it glows and smokes.  He puts the lighter back into place and rolls the window down a few inches, blowing smoke towards the windshield.

"Warm enough?" he asks as I hold my hands together in the sleeves of my coat. I nod and look down at my boots, tops against the edge of the seat as my little legs stick straight out. My feet still hurt. I am still staring at my boots as the car pulls into the A&W drive in restaurant.

"Oh!" escapes my lips as I clap and hold both hands together as if in a prayer of thanks for this sudden miracle of time with my father AND the possibility of a Root Beer.

Dad pulls up to one of the machines and I watch as he pushes a button.  The button makes one of the lights on top of the machine light up.  Sure enough, after a moment, the speaker crackles and a voice asks what we'd like.  I hold my breath.

"Pappa Root Beer, Baby Root Beer, and French Fries please."

It seems like forever but finally the lady comes out with our tray, along the covered sidewalk between the cars.  Dad rolls down the window until there's just about 4 inches sticking up, and the lady puts the tray on our window, giving Dad a slip of paper.

"Thanks," Dad says and the woman smiles, waiting.  Dad takes a bill from his wallet and gives it to her, and I watch as she gives back change from silver tubes attached to a belt on her waist.  She has pushed a quarter, nickle and a dime out, one at a time, from different tubes.  She leaves the coins on the tray and returns to the building, stopping along the way at another car to pick up their empty tray.

"How about a Root Beer?" My Dad smiles as he hands me the small, frosty mug with foam on top. I reach for it with both hands.  It's just my size, my little fingers fit in the mug handle and although its full, its not too heavy. It's cold - no, it's frosty. And it tastes like nothing else in this world.

"Mmmm," I say, after my first sip, foam still on my lip as I look over at my Dad.  He smiles at me, and takes a tiny little plastic bright red pitch fork from its paper wrapping and hands it to me.

"For the French Fries," he explains.

We sit quietly together, sharing this treat, this time.  We eat the French Fries so slowly, one at a time, savoring every salty bite. Dad dips his into ketchup but I like mine right out of the bag.  He lets me have the last one, and I take care to stab it with the little fork so it won't fall off.

He lets me push the button on the machine that puts another light on, and the lady comes back out to pick up the tray.  I notice that Dad has left some of the change on the tray, and that the lady smiles when she takes the tray away.

On the ride back to Church to pick up my brothers and sister, I feel so lucky. Not just for the treat of Root Beer and French Fries, but for this time with my Dad.  Somehow he knew just what to do for me today. I feel the dime in my pocket, and think of sailing again, only this time the water is calm and the sun is shining. And my Dad is right there beside me, steering the boat.


Happy Father's Day, Dad. Thanks for everything. Love you always.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


We buried her beside the garden, at the end of a row of green beans. It was October and the beans were done, stalks and stems all brown and crispy, knocked over likely in our hurry to harvest the last of them earlier in the season. I'd eaten more than my fair share right off the plant.  Mom was there, holding Minew in a well-worn towel. Tom was there too, and me. Minew had been hit by a car on Tetroe Road, proving to us little ones that, yes, cars were dangerous, even the ones on Tetroe Road.

Mom passed her bundle to Tom, and started in with the shovel. It was a heavy, pointed shovel with a long, straight wooden handle.  Taller than me, and heavy. I wondered how deep the hole would have to be.  We stood, staring down past our rubber boots, watching the shovel pierce the earth as the hole grew.  Tom held Minew close to his chest, as if worried she would jump from his arms and escape.

"Will the beans still grow here next year?"
"Will they taste different?" 

Thomas glanced over at me, eyes a little watery behind his dark rimmed glasses, then looked back down at Minew in his arms. She looked to me like she was sleeping, only... stiffer, somehow.  Like that fox that was attached to my grandma’s coat – kind of stiff and krinkly, not fluid and sleek.  I remember the fox's nose was bent oddly, and the bead eyes sparked strangely from the fur.  It would have made a neat puppet, only we weren't allowed to play.  It was hard to believe the fox had been alive once; it was nothing like any foxes I had seen. Minew's fur was now matted although she had been so good at keeping it clean; her eyes were closed. I touched a paw and flinched as I felt cold, stiff skin.

I wasn't too attached to Minew; certainly not nearly as much as Tom.  I squirmed too much for her I supposed; she didn't like to come to me at all. It had eventually occurred to me that chasing her, or dreaming up ways to trick her somehow into sitting with me for just one moment just wasn't worth my effort - I always wanted more. Besides, when I was too persistent, she would bite.

When my Grandmother had died, I hadn't wanted to go to her funeral.  It was going to be uncomfortable, I thought, and sad, with people crying and stuff.  Awkward. What if I cried? Paul told me later about the sandwiches and squares that he'd had, and juice. Coffee and tea for grownups.  I did feel then like I’d missed out, but not much.  I didn’t ask him about the crying.

I remember that after she died, our living room got filled up with flowers. Carnations mostly. At first I thought they were beautiful, but then as the room slowly filled with them their scent started to bother me until I couldn’t stand it.  The smell of the carnations still make me think of dead people, of death, and of missing Grandma. All those flowers sacrificed too – all picked to eventually wither, brown and die in the living room. It didn’t seem right.

There was a prayer service before the funeral, and everyone was there.  All of my Dad's brothers, my uncles, had come from out of town; all the adults were busy, talking. I wove through the black pant legs and draped black fabric and saw the coffin up at the front of the room where my Grandma lay. They said it was a chance to say goodbye, but for me she was already gone. Her body was there but my Grandma wasn’t. Like the fox, like the flowers, like Minew. 

Death is a curious thing. I had so many questions, and many unsatisfying answers. My Grandma had died while she was away at California, and had come home in a box on a plane. I wondered about that. I thought at first she would have to stay forever in California, but Dad had said no, she would come home on a plane. I pictured her in a bed on the plane, but was corrected.  Not in a bed, in a box. I don’t know where they put her when she got home. I was wondering if she’d stay for a while in our house but that didn't happen. I don't know where she went.  I do know that after the funeral, she was buried in the cemetery, beside my Grandpa that I'd never met.

“If people go to heaven, and cats go to cat heaven, where do dead flowers and plants go?”

My question hung in the air over us for a second, then my words were caught by the breeze and scattered like the falling leaves – also dead, I realized.  I loved that smell. The smell of leaves returning back to the earth, the smell of snow on the air, of winter and endings and hibernation.

“Just back into the ground.”

The hole wasn’t that big, or deep, but it was enough. At Mom’s gesture, Tom placed Minew carefully in the hole and adjusted the towel over her lovingly. I was more sad for Tom than for Minew.  She was already gone, already in heaven, but he was here with me in the garden, missing her.  He wiped away a tear while Mom covered the hole back in with dirt.  I looked at Tom standing there, arms hanging by his sides empty now, and I reached for his arm to hold.  He looked at me again and smiled briefly, then looked back at the place in the garden that now contained Minew. I wanted to cry too but couldn't; felt guilty instead for not being able to cry for this little creature.

When the pussy willows came out along the garden the next spring, I touched them with my fingers. Cool and soft, certainly not cold. I could feel life in them, could see life in the willow bark, red and warm. I smiled, remembering Minew. Then I thought of my Grandma - I took a breath and closed my eyes. I could feel the warmth of her generous hug in the spring sunshine, hear her sweet whispers in the breeze and I felt in my heart that she was close. Death may mean I won't see her anymore, but it doesn't mean I won't think of her, or hear her voice on a warm spring breeze, when life is bursting out from the death and decay of winter.  Its simply how things work...