He cut an imposing figure, tall with a shock of thick dark hair. He smoked a pipe and wore tweed jackets. We met on several occasions–a few summer visits in which he took me to my first baseball game, my first ballet and introduced me to the wonders of the Smithsonian. He was most comfortable when he was teaching me something, an ongoing discourse about this subject or that. During the work week, he was fine leaving me alone to fend for myself; five dollars from his wallet and directions to the swimming pool. I knew the lifeguards at the swimming pool better than I knew him. Or maybe they knew me better than he did. Either way, I was at home with my ten-year-old independence and confident in my ability to order breakfast at the counter of the local diner.
Once he took me to see a movie, “The Ten Commandments,” with Charlton Heston. I am not sure why he chose that movie. He wasn’t much for religion. As the screen bursts into a flaming sunrise, the voice over pierces the silence: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.” My father leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Promise me you will never believe that, Stephanie.” And I nodded my head in agreement, knowing that I was lying, because I already believed in something bigger, in sunrises that were miracles, in conversations I had in the dark with the God of little children. But I wanted and needed to have some sort of agreement with him, something that made me feel that I was his daughter.
As I grew older, I saw him less and less. From the age of twelve until I was twenty-four I only saw him once. It is an archetypal story of the un-fathered daughter, who did not know male protection and was left with a discontented curiosity in lieu of relationship. To this day it is easier for me to “do it myself” than to rely upon anyone, even my husband who tries to do things for me and often ends up being thwarted by my unrelenting and fierce independence.
My father has been gone for over 30 years now. My brother, sister and I wrote our pieces for the funeral, shook hands with people we didn’t know that had worked with him and gave some semblance of being a family, concealing well the fractures and fault lines of what had long ago broken. It was especially difficult for my sister who chose to sit in her hotel room alone the night after the funeral, without sleep, grappling with the grief of having known him well and now missing what would never be again. As for me, I drank straight shots of tequila with beer backs at the local bar with my brother and we did not share our thoughts or feelings. The next morning I was so numb that I didn’t even experience the effects of a hangover.
It’s odd to me that I never really felt angry with the father who was hardly there. Instead I sometimes felt sad. I keep a photograph of the two of us taken when I was twenty-five and he was sixty-something. In it I am leaning against his broad chest. He smiles directly into the camera, an arm around me, holding his pipe. My eyes are closed and I am nestled against him, a brief lingering of surrender and unrequited hopefulness.
I unwrapped a picture today. It is a charcoal drawing by an unknown artist. As my siblings and I went through my father’s things at his death, I found four such pictures. I remember the story that he told me about being in Germany in 1945, just after the war and how he made friends with a group of artists. He purchased pictures like these for Hershey bars and cigarettes. I had the four pictures framed, but it is really only one that speaks to my heart. The drawing is of small cabin in the woods and two deer are grazing at its front. The picture is serene and peaceful and I can I am taken by the artist that captured it in midst of decimation that the war had wrought. I imagine my father, buying this particular picture, a young soldier, touched by the peace that in conveyed. I would like to believe that what compelled him to long for such beauty among the rubble is within me too. It is the “something” of my father.