I can’t remember my father’s voice, the shape of his features, the color of his eyes. Forty years of separation replaces all of these details. The void, the absence, the longing are what I know when I remember my father. And these have become such a part of my experience that I can know nothing else of him.
But for one moment, to hear his voice, to feel his embrace, oh, how glorious that might be. I imagine us on a spring day like this, low 60’s, blue sky, greening yet to come, meeting on a hill. I would have climbed up, feet unsteady and rushing, heart racing staccato, a miracle about to come true.
And he? I only know he would be on the summit, possibly coming towards me, possibly not. He would have on the canvas brown coat I remember from the few photographs I have seen, the smell of his beloved horse clinging to the sleeves. His brown wavy hair would ripple lightly in the breeze and he would smile wryly, perhaps saying, ‘What’s the fuss about? It’s not what you’ve imagined. Dreamt about. I’m no different than your mother; I have nothing to offer. You’ve longed for no reason. Make peace with it. My living wouldn’t have made any difference to you.’
And he would turn away, looking back over his shoulder for just a moment, the smallest concession, and then fade away leaving me hungry and spent.
I don’t remember my father’s voice. In fact, I have few memories of him, the strongest one being of us walking in the cornfield behind our house, my small hand nestled in his, as my dark brown boots kicked the old cob stalks. It feels like a Hallmark memory, a cozy snapshot of a relationship I barely inhabited.
However, he was my mother by definition and default. As he had had a stroke and lingering disabilities (my mother would say malingering), he was the parent at home while my mother worked two or three jobs. If resentment and anger were a currency, we would have been rich. Instead, as an underpaid teacher in the 1960’s supporting a seven member family, we were incredibly poor, the just barely fed and clothed kind of poor.
By the time I was five, my mother had decided that the marriage was over. She took my siblings and me out ‘to get ice cream’ one sunny day and returned with us several days later to a home devoid of our father and most of our beloved pets. A year later, my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age 49.
There are a number of stories about my father, each shaped by the distinctive lens of the person telling it. Although 40 years dead, my mother still has nothing kind or even neutral to say about the man. Her bitterness overrode any impulse to capture and share his good qualities or to help her five children memorialize him in any way. I was at his gravesite when I was six, and then not again for 19 years, when it finally occurred to me that this was something I could do on my own.
My siblings have shared light and shadow stories, fragments of moments, details or facts about his life that feel like 25 pieces of a 500 piece puzzle. Just enough to have a sense of one corner or discrete aspects of his being, not remotely enough to ground him in place, flesh out the whole.
So I am left to wonder all kinds of things. What would he have done with another 30 years of life? Would he have been a loving parenting presence in my life? Would his living have made a difference in any way for our family? Would he like me if he knew me now?
Because I can’t resurrect him or breathe life into the unknown, I will never have answers to any of these questions. I am simply left to wonder.
The restaurant is European with delicate, antique ironwork framing the white marble facade and large windows. White linen covered tables set for two to four people are spaciously placed on the burgundy carpet, and candles glow like tiny hearths in the center of each one. A large, light yellow vase with purple lilacs sits on the maitre de’s stand at the front door that is open, welcoming in the softest spring air.
My father is waiting for me. He called earlier and asked to meet. It has been so long since I knew him as a part of my world, since I had the infant’s sense of symbiosis, the childlike awareness of other. The last time I was with him, I was given a red rose to remember him by. I have held it close to my heart all these years.
While I had forgotten all the details of him, I know the instant I see him that he is my father. He is seated and then stumbles erect in his eagerness to greet me. We clunk into an embrace, arms tangling briefly, then holding, melding, sighing into connection. His hand reaches up to caress my cheek, then touches the tears streaming down, wiping them away as wobbly laughter bubbles up deep from within his chest. ‘Hey, I’m here. I’m not supposed to make you cry, you know. I came back to tell you I love you, all of you. You must tell the others, you promise?’
And I, soaking in the sweetness of his presence, the satiation of a hunger so old and bone deep, merely nod my head in agreement. And hold on. Forever grateful for this moment of return, this moment of knowing at long last, when I was close.