Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Something of My Father

Businessman father giving hand to a childHe 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.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Joy to the Choir

iStock_000031593808XSmallIt wasn’t fair! For two years in a row, Shannon Adams got to be Mary and wear the blue veil and hold the baby Jesus doll in the Christmas Pageant. Shannon Adams stepped on my feet whenever she could. When we were in line and waiting to go into assembly, she would turn around stomp on my one of my feet, laugh, and then turn to the front of the line again like she hadn’t done anything. No way she should have been Mary two years in a row!

I sang in the choir, directed by Mrs. Luella Parsons. Mrs. Parsons had bluish grey hair that she sprayed into a helmet on her head. Her face was powdered to look like “a porcelain doll” as my mother called it. But I thought that she looked more like a powdered donut.

Each year our school, which was a private school, a fact that my mother liked to share with relatives in a way that didn’t make it “private” it at all, put on a Christmas Pageant. The local television station invited us all down to their studio and filmed the entire thing. It was the big event leading up to each winter break and we were all excited to participate. Mrs. Parsons gave instructions that we were to be like angels, look directly into the camera and smile as we sang. So ever wanting to be the good girl, and rarely succeeding, I held these instructions dear in the hopes that Mrs. Parsons might notice me and cast me as Mary next year.

It cannot be easy for a normal, mortal person to have to deal with 60 first through fourth graders who are excited about being on television and who have just eaten the robust supply of cookies, candy and brownies that the television station has put out for them. Like fat little puppies at the trough, we practically licked the floor when the sugary treats were gone.

Mrs. Parson’s got very upset with Leonard, a little boy in my class who regularly put his hand under his shirt and flapped his arm in such as way as to make loud farting noises. I never laughed at such things, because little girls were not supposed to, but secretly I thought Leonard was a very funny kid. On this particular day, Leonard had eaten several sugar cookies and a fair amount of candy. He stood before Mrs. Parsons as she tried to straighten the large white collar and enormous bow on his choir robe. I saw it happen. As Leonard listened to Mrs. Parson’s intently he got a mischievous smile on his face and when she smiled back, Leonard let rip a real fart, loud, rolling and fragrant. Leonard started to laugh. All of the kids around him started to laugh. Mrs. Parsons blanched and became visibly upset. She grabbed a handful of her helmet hair so hard that you could hear it crunch in her grip. For the rest of the day she had a dent in one side of her hair.

Now Mrs. Parsons had to avoid Leonard, because whenever he saw her, he started to laugh uncontrollably and that brought on more laughter from other kids, with the exception of the group of girls that included Shannon Adams, who stood in a small pack of prissy girls and glared at Leonard to show their disapproval.

Finally our choir was lined up to sing and I remembered what Mrs. Parson’s had said about looking right into the camera and singing with a smile on your face. So along with the rest of the choir, I sang the Reader’s Digest condensed version of The Hallelujah Chorus, Away in a Manger, and Jingle Bells. Each time the camera went by I looked right into the lens, and without really meaning to, leaned slightly forward and smiled as big as I could. What I didn’t know at the time is that none of the other kids followed Mrs. Parson’s instructions, so they didn’t look right into the camera and they didn’t smile, and none of them leaned forward each the camera went by. On the last pass of the camera as we were all singing Silent Night, I leaned forward a little too far and fell onto my face taking three other kids out with me. It is to the cameraman’s credit that he did not follow the descent with his lens; and to Mrs. Parson’s credit that she didn’t put another dent in her helmet hair. As I went down I could hear Leonard laughing in the background.

On Christmas Eve my mother, my aunts and my cousins and I watched the televised Christmas Pageant, and as we did my aunts were laughing and calling me a little ham. I scowled my best eight-year-old scowl and said, “I did exactly what Mrs. Parsons told us to do and I was the only one, too.”

“You were definitely the only one sweetheart,” said one of the aunts with a laugh that she tried really hard to keep to her self. With arms folded across my chest I watched the rest of the program as took out three kids in the fateful fall of Silent Night, hearing the none too stifled laughter of Leonard in the background. At the very end, the camera panned over to our principal who with a stricken look on her face wished everyone a “very Merry Christmas.”

I know now, that as I was watching the Christmas Pageant on television, somewhere in another part of the city, a powdered Luella Parsons with dented helmet hair was probably on her third martini.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Barefoot Wild

Happy little girlTangle and wild is what birthed me. The first few years of my life were in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where my father was the Park Naturalist. An early photograph shows me standing in a back yard of desert, cactus and sky. I am wearing a sombrero and a diaper, sucking on a bottle. It would be a familiar pose later in life too, sans the diaper. Blond hair, tanned skin, and life was good. My family swam at the river, sat in the caves and walked the surrounding area in search of prickly pear, which is a cactus blossom that my mother made into jelly.

At four my parents divorced and my father relocated to Glacier National Park, which presented a whole different pallet of nature than Carlsbad’s desert. In that park, I climbed up the steep hill next to the cabin and ran to the bottom, arms out stretched as if in flight. I gathered huckleberries for pies that my sister made and stood at the kitchen window watching a bear cub take our rug off the clothes line and carry it up a tree.

My parent’s divorce created an interesting phenomenon in my life: what with everyone’s angst and new beginnings, I became basically, unsupervised. A psychologist might call it abandonment, but it’s not like I was neglected. I was just left alone to the wild of life. As such, I delighted in a summer rain one day, warm and pounding, unleashed from the skies with a great, gray power and beauty. I got this idea that I should be outside in that rain instead of watching it from a window.

Out the back door I went, got on my tricycle, not bothering with shoes, and began riding the streets of Glacier, peddling hard through the puddles and delighting in the warm water soaking my clothes, hair and skin. I was having great fun when a woman, who also happened to be the local sitting judge, saw me, stopped her car and demanded that I get in. She put my tricycle in the trunk and drove me to her house where I was toweled off and given an over-sized shirt to wear, while my clothes were in the dryer. Then she called my father.

The judge was everything un-wild and had no appreciation for the freedom that I found so delicious. I was told to sit in the living room and she turned on the television for me. The show that was on was the Oral Roberts Healing Hour. Oral Roberts was a grainy black and white image that barked about things I didn’t know of. He talked about sickness and injury and told you to put your hand on the television screen and then he would yell, “Heal God, heal,” as though he were talking to a class of canines instead of people. I tried to think if I had a sickness or injury so that I could put my hand on the television screen, but no one would know whether I did or not and I really wanted to feel what would come through the television if I put my hand on it, so I did. And as Oral Roberts was yelling, “Heal God, heal,” with my little hand on the screen, my father walked into the room.

He had on his National Park issue uniform with a plastic thing over his hat that kept it dry. As he looked down at me he seemed to grow taller. Water dripped off his hat and he said, “Am I raising a moron?” I wanted to tell him no, but nothing came out of my mouth. He gathered me up, leaving my tricycle for another day in the hands of the un-wild judge, and we went home. I don’t remember that I was punished. I was probably off into the woods soon after, looking for berries, barefoot and wild.

I was eight or nine when my father was transferred to Washington DC and began working at the Department of the Interior as a program analyst. As in previous summers, I was packed up and shipped off to spend some time with him. And just as before, I was totally unsupervised. I found my way around to swimming pools, bus lines and walking long stretches of highway. I was fearless, and thinking back–my parents were foolish. Still I wouldn’t have traded those wild days for something more structured. Skipping stones on the Potomac River and walking to the airport were among my favorite activities. I could follow the highway all the way to what was then D.C. Airport and spend the entire day watching the planes take off and land. I had wonderful conversations with the stewardesses who were enviably stylish and were nice to me, sometimes buying me a coke and telling me all about the places that they had been. I wanted to go places too and I went home and told my father that I wanted to be a stewardess when I grew up.

First of all I got busted for walking barefoot, of course, to the airport and was told I couldn’t ever do that again. Then I was told that stewardesses were only glorified waitresses in the air, and that was the end of the conversation. I spent the rest of the summer cutting white paper and building a city out of the pieces in a corner of the living room. I was bored from waiting for weekends when I could go to the river with my father to skip rocks. Being unsupervised and being told to stay put was torture.

That was the last summer of my wild. . .for a while anyway.  As I got a little older, I became interested in being like other girls and matching shoes and belts became more important than exploring new places. Though by the time I was 17, I was ready to leave home and explore again. Seventeen is way to young to leave home, but having learned self-reliance at such an early age, it wasn’t that big a deal. I got into a lot of trouble when I left home and just like riding a tricycle in the rain, some of it was great fun.

Now in my sixties, the time of silver reflects upon the path that I followed, illuminating those wild times. It’s not so much a past as it is a state of mind. And I no longer confuse recklessness with wild. It is more an authenticity that speaks truth without worrying about what others may think. It is the rawness of heart that drinks in the world.  Wild is crying when the full moon rises and the geese fly overhead. I was born into the wild and I know it will carry me home. Something about the journey and the embracing of knotted, wild places, tangled in weeded flowers and planes taking off comforts me to my core.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

I Am A Little Fish

It’s not so much of a memory as it is a sensation that rises again and again in the summer months. A little girl lies on a towel on the warm concrete, resting for a moment in the sun. She has been in the water for what seems like hours, holding her breath and crawling under the shimmering blue from one sibling to the other; being thrown into the air by her brother and making a huge splash; floating on her back. She is a little fish, and she belongs here.

The water is cool in hot desert sun, and she loves the sun, loves how it feels on her skin. This is her world; A mother and father who sit in lounge chairs and occasionally come into the water to play; a brother and a sister who will stay with her in the water all day; Sandwiches that the mother has packed in a cooler; Cold drinks from a concession stand. It is a family day and everyone is happy.

It does not matter that this world broke apart in divorce and moves to other states; dissolved itself into the mess that is part of adulthood and failures of the heart. What matters is that each summer it comes back—the sensation of the sun and the water, the excitement about going to the pool and swimming back and forth in the lanes for adults. Do they know that when I am in this pool I am not an adult? I am that little girl again, alive in the sensations of summer, the feelings of security and happiness brought on by sun and water.

A bag is packed with towels and iced water, a kindle to read in the lounge chair. All around me are the happy sounds of children playing in the water, laughing and squealing; the sounds of parents who get into the water and play. These summer afternoons retrieve something precious from a long time ago and thrust it forward into a present that allows me to be my purest, most real self–at play in the world, filled with joy, and delighting in kisses from the summer sun.