Sifting through time I look for the truth about my father and grasp a handful of memories, slippery and elusive as fish hiding in shadows.
July 19, 2012: The writing on the envelope is my mother’s. My stomach clenches. This must be news that my father’s cancer has recurred and I must visit, or that he is dead and I must attend the funeral. I rip open the flap and freeze as a folded brochure tumbles out. My eyes see, but my mind balks. “No,” I whisper. “No, no, no. NO.”
Time slows as the paper drifts downward.
Date unknown, circa 1963: I’m around 2 years old, naked and sitting next to the sink in what I will later realize is the trailer where my parents started married life in England. I know I’m in trouble, but don’t know why. Mother will later surmise this is the day I went through two, maybe three, complete outfits due to an ill-advised fascination with a mud puddle. My father looms over me in a dark jacket with shiny buttons. He scolds me and then gives me a French fry nicked out of a pan on the stove top. I eat it, and suddenly I’m aware that I am distinct from the sink and the French fry and the shiny buttons. I am me.
Summer mid-1960s: We are taking our annual camping holiday preceded by our annual aimless wandering through a maze of British B-roads, my parents squabbling over who’s to blame for the navigation failures as the gas gauge hovers near empty. We reach the campground late at night only to discover someone’s forgotten to pack the tent pegs, although we seem to have brought pretty much the entire contents of the kitchen including china and cutlery. I drift off to sleep only to wake up the next morning in a perfectly pitched tent. I go outside to see what miracle has occurred. My father smirks with quiet pride as he points to the ropes neatly held in place by crisscrossed knives and forks.
June 16, 2012: It’s the day before Father’s Day and I am sitting at my desk in the corner of my Berkeley dining room with the nagging feeling that I should call my parents’ home in East Texas. I haven’t spoken to either of them for months; I don’t even remember how long it’s been since my mother called to tell me that my father had been seriously ill but was recovering. I pick up the phone. It rings and rings and rings. My father’s voice comes on the answering machine, Texas twang interlaced with his native Welsh accent as he invites me to leave a message. I hesitate. But I have nothing to say. I hang up.
Christmas Eve, 1970: I stand at the window in my room looking hopefully at the clouded night sky and praying devoutly for snow. It’s cold, and the night crackles with expectation. Christmas can be tricky in our house since my father, an enthusiastic adherent of an obscure Protestant sect known as the Brethren, splinter of the slightly less obscure sect, the Plymouth Brethren, doesn’t really agree with celebrating the paganly rooted festival. But I’ve cunningly told my parents all I want for Christmas is a Bible with a concordance. I’m expecting to get that and a whole lot more, and I do. I hear the promising rustle of wrapping paper followed by a metallic clanging from the basement. The next morning I discover my father has taken the curved frame off my sister’s old perambulator and bolted it to a board, creating a workmanlike sled. We spend Christmas afternoon toiling up and then swooping down the hill across the street from our house, shrieking with laughter as we carve our way through the crisp snow.
Summer 1972: We’re standing in the center of the English market town where we live. My father and a couple of other church elders are playing hymns from a George Beverly Shea record on a PA system. The song ends and the preaching begins to the mostly heedless crowd of shoppers and commuters passing by. I’m standing on the sidewalk, evangelical tracts in my hand, yellow straw Sunday-go-to-meeting hat on my head, making my own supplication. “Please don’t let anyone from school walk by. Please don’t –“ My prayer goes spectacularly unanswered as two of the cheekiest boys in my class walk by, pointing and giggling. I blush bright red beneath my yellow halo and thrust my tracts behind my back. “Is that your dad?” they ask, half incredulously. “No,” I say.
Spring 1974: It’s a weeknight, probably Wednesday, and my father and I are supposed to be at Bible study, but we play hooky and go fishing. We are living in Richmond, Virginia, my father having taken a temporary overseas job transfer that will ultimately lead to our permanent immigration. We fish from a public boat launch and haven’t been at it long when I get a bite so strong it bends the tip of my rod to the ground. I’m not much of an angler and my father calls out a warning not to let the fish wrap itself around the timber of a nearby pier. We decide to make a run for it and both grab the rod as we thunder up the ramp, our catch, a good-sized striped bass thumping along behind us. My father quickly guts and cleans it and we take it home where I bake it with an orange-scented bread stuffing.
July 19, 2012: I hear the faint susurration of paper on wood as the brochure touches the floor. I bend to pick it up. It is the program from my father’s funeral, held June 16, two days after his death. There are copies of the eulogies given by my sister and my niece. I’ve been left out, excluded, disowned. “Don’t cry. Don’t you dare cry,” I tell myself fiercely. “You didn’t call. Don’t even cry now.”
I do cry — harsh, gasping sobs that punch their way up my ribs.
Fall 1977: I’m in the living room of our three-bedroom ranch house in a Dallas suburb working up the nerve to tell my father I’ve quit the job he got me working the night shift running tapes at a big computer company across town. It’s a terrible job. I’m a teenage virgin working with two dozen foul-mouthed men. I drive the 30 miles home at midnight in an unreliable ‘69 Chevelle. The plan is for me to get an engineering degree during the day. But math reduces me to tears. I say I’ve decided to go to back to my job at a department store and study journalism at the junior college near our house. “Really?” he says in pained surprise. “I didn’t realize you were such a quitter.”
Summer 1982: I’m in my last year at university and living at home for the summer, working an internship at a nearby metro newspaper. My father and I have somehow got on to the subject of people who die as unbelievers never having heard the gospel. “Do you ever wonder,” I say, “why God would create so many people knowing they were going to end up burning in hell forever?” “No,” he says. “I don’t.” This is as close as I ever will come to telling him I do not share his view of the universe. That for all my years of prayer meetings, bible studies, baptism, communions, I never really did. Unspoken, the truth lies between us like a knife.
June 21, 2015: As I do most years I will think about my father on Father’s Day. Was our anemic relationship my fault? His? Ours? What would be less bearable – that he asked for me at the end and I wasn’t there? Or that he didn’t.
Thoughts race through the brain, unruly, uncontrollable.
I look deep in my pool of memories, and I see a freckle-faced girl clasping hands with a dark-haired man, running into the soft Southern twilight, laughing.