I told someone I was writing about my father before I was actually doing it. Still, it was also true, the words were swirling around in my head just waiting to be plucked and then sequenced. Which moments, which symbols, which me? I gave myself the assignment.
My father’s been dead since I was 14 years old, but I speak about him often these days. I think this is, in part, because I never spoke of him growing up. I felt it would hurt my mother, knew it. I couldn’t risk threatening the relationship on which I depended for my life for one that I couldn’t see or feel. Even once he was dead and then she was, the intricate loyalties held, little pinpricks to my heart. I didn’t speak him out; I rarely even thought of him.
I only tell you this because I know that so many other fathers are out there in the fog of lost memories. The mothers, then, a lifeline. I don’t know what that meant behind the walls of other childhoods, the details, but many of us walk in that long shadow, the presence of absence.
He left, so I left. He left, so I searched. He left, I was not worth his time. He left, so I left. It hadn’t ever occurred to me that there could be any other plot line. And, my god, there are worse things, Little One. Laugh it off. He’s no good anyway. No one needed to actually say it. My super power was the ability to forget. I got very good at it.
Then, he began showing up — in dreams, as memory, in the not-quite-formed thoughts of early morning. As others called upon their fathers in our work together, mine also came forward. At first, I didn’t notice, couldn’t pick him out. Over time, though, his wavy hair and delicate hands. What do you want, I thought? He didn’t answer. An hallucination, specter, projection, keepsake, he kept showing up. It finally occurred to me that the right question was, What do I want?
I want the past to have been different. There, I said it.
But when I looked into my father’s eyes this time and saw his reticence, my heart melted. I saw it wasn’t meant for me, wasn’t directed against me. He had done all that he would do. There was nothing more. And it occurred to me that as I looked at him he also looked at me. Could I show him something different? Had I done all I would do too?
What if I did not stop where he had stopped? In the exact place — between leaving and arriving. What if I crossed the threshold? What if I took the paints and the pens and the love and the humor and the intelligence and the little boy’s hopes and dreams and mixed them in with my own? What if I knew these things existed in him because they have always been mysteriously in me? What if I let the veil drop behind him to see that small town or was it Budapest? There, behind them, the place they had escaped, and parts of themselves in the fields, the cries of infants, the sounds of shoemakers’ tools, starving dogs, crackling fires. What if I said, I understand that this is as far as you could be expected to go with what you were carrying? You got here, I was born, I am safe now. I can keep going.
My father was an illustrator — gestural pencil drawings of men’s suits and raincoats, formal dresses and draped winter capes. He was a tennis player, an impeccably dressed man, who smoked sweet-smelling tobacco. When a collar became frayed, he carefully snipped the stitches with tiny scissors, turned the collar around, and put it back with equally fine stitches. He was fastidious in his daily habits. He loved to sail and to fish. He held my hand as we walked down the street in Red Bank, NJ. I wondered how he knew the men who sauntered over to say hello. We used remotes to send the race cars around the track in the Asbury Park arcade. I watched as he tinkered for hours with an intricately decorated train set. He had created a village, a station, clusters of trees with small figures of men and women and children among them. It was unclear how he really lived, what or whom he loved. I listened with him to the horse races on the kitchen radio. And there were the interactions with intimidating men that made him so nervous. Loan sharks, I realize now.
Other moments are more sensation than image. I have come to embrace them too. They are a part of who I am. Even what I cannot quite recall, secret silences that reside inside me. Sometimes my mind slips through the ghostly outline of me, of him. I am not sure. But I look in the mirror and also see him in the hazel of my eyes and the arch of my brow. His hand is gently guiding as I pull the brush across a canvas. Paprika, embroidery, paint, he whispers. His sorrow slowly releases from my body … finally, I can pick up some of the loose threads to stitch color into the horizon.