The memories of my father are like dreams. They exist in the ethers and have a floating sense about them. They come from younger years, when I thought of him as “daddy.” He wasn’t enough a part of my life to ever become “dad.” In my time of adolescence and angst, he was missing in action, thousands of miles away from me, never picking up the phone. When I left home, I always thought of him the formal sense of “my father.”
Looking back, I try to figure out what his absence wrought and what his presence gave. I cling to the romance of ghostly memories that have formed into stories that light up my imagination. There is quality of longing to the stories. I can see him, but he’s not there. I can feel him, but can’t touch. The stories are what I have left from our fractured life together. They console me; let me know that in spite of distance and circumstance, I really am my father’s daughter.
One story stands out like a favorite fairytale. I recall it again and again because of the magical qualities it holds. It’s 1958 and I am visiting him in Glacier National Park, Montana. I’m six-years-old. He has spent a week in the woods. He was studying something, maybe notating it. I’m not quite sure what it is that park naturalists do, but I know that my father is brave, because he knows how to talk to animals, and animals talk to him. Those things make me feel proud of him.
He’s fascinated by the natural world. Sometimes his work takes him away for a while and I stay with my brother and sister in the cabin, waiting for his return.
This time, when he came back, he came back with marks. I stared at his face, a little afraid. Both of his cheeks reveal long, red scratches that have scabbed over. “Did you fall on branches?” I asked him, trying to think of what would have caused the injury.
“No,” he replied. “I was making friends with a bear.”
I thought of my Goldilocks book. The three bears in that story were made-up, because I’d seen real bears in Glacier and was pretty sure that they didn’t sleep in real beds or eat porridge. A real bear pulls the kitchen rug off of the clothes line, taking it up a nearby tree. A real bear wakes you up in the middle of the night trying to break into the trashcan. And there was one real bear who stole a huckleberry pie off of the kitchen table where it was cooling; reached right in through the open widow. He ran off into the forest with it, leaving my sister in tears because she’d worked all day to gather those berries and then bake them into a pie. Those bears weren’t our friends, so what did my daddy mean? “How do you make friends with a bear?” I asked.
“The fellow came to where I was camped every morning, a small cabin, like this one but just big enough for one person. I saw the bear through the open window and he saw me. I was excited to see him.”
“Weren’t you scared?” I asked.
“No. Bears don’t like to get too close to people. There was no screen on the window, but I wasn’t worried. I was curious and so was the bear. So I sat there for a while talking to him. I spoke in a soft voice and I asked him how he was doing.”
I could picture my dad talking to the bear in his calm voice. I’d seen him talk to animals before. Before the divorce, a raccoon that he called Wilbur, used to visit our house. My dad would sit in his chair on the front porch and talk to her.
“Did the bear answer you?” I asked.
“In a bear sort of way,” he said. “He stood up on his hind legs and sniffed the air. He wanted to catch my scent and know whether or not I was a threat.”
I tried to imagine the little cabin, big enough for only one, and my father leaning on the windowsill having a conversation with a bear. I wanted to talk to a bear sometime. When that one bear took my sister’s huckleberry pie, I stood on the back porch with her while she cried. I yelled, “You’re a stupid bear,” hoping it would comfort her. I don’t think that my daddy would ever call a bear stupid.
“He looked like a young bear,” he continued, “and I was happy for the company.”
“But didn’t he get mad at you?” I asked, pointing to the scratches on his cheeks.
He shook his head. “No, he didn’t get mad. I think he just got brave.”
I wrinkled my forehead.
“Every morning he came by at the same time. I was alone up there and appreciative of the morning conversations. I pulled a chair up to the window and rested my arm on the sill. I drank my coffee while we talked. He mostly stood on all fours, but sometimes he’d stand up and move his head, as if he were trying to understand me. After we’d talked for a time, he headed off toward home.”
“Where does he live?”
“Probably in a cave on the mountain.”
My little girl brain pictured the large bear with a bear family living in a cave, but coming out every day to talk with my father, as though the bear were going to work.
“But how did you get the scratches?” I asked again. “Did the bear do that?”
“Yes, he did. Every day for a week,” my father said, leaning forward toward me, “the bear and I talked. I noticed that he kept coming a little bit closer to the cabin each day. On the very last morning that I was there, I’d packed up my gear and was sitting in the chair by the window. I was waiting for him while I drank my coffee. Along came the bear at his usual time. I said good morning and he studied me. He was closer to the window than ever before. The sun was shining. The air felt warm and I felt comfortable with this beautiful bear. As I was telling him goodbye, telling him that I’d be going back home to be with my family, it was as if he understood. He stood up on two legs and moved very close to the window. He was just inches from me. It was breathtaking to see him that close. I smiled at him and that’s when it happened. It was so fast. The bear raised both of his arms and moved forward, placing a paw on either side of my face. It startled me and I pulled back quickly. That’s how I got the scratches.”
“Was the bear was trying to hurt you?”
“No. I think that the bear was as curious about me as I was about him. I was alone and I got too comfortable with something wild and I forgot how unpredictable the relationship with wild things are, so I got hurt. But I don’t think the bear meant harm.”
“What did the bear do when you got scared?” I wanted to know.
“He got scared too. We both remembered who we were.”
I didn’t understand that answer for a long time. How could you forget who you were?
“Did the bear go back home?” I asked him.
“He probably went back to his den. Or maybe he roamed the mountain looking for food.”
“Do you think he’d remember you if he saw you again?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
And that was the end of the story. The bear. The scratches on my father’s cheeks. It was the thing I remembered most about that summer. My father was not afraid of the animals. He knew how to talk to them.
In late August, he put me on a bus with my sister. She’d return to Glacier, but I would stay with my mom. That’s the way things were now, my siblings lived with my father and I lived with my mother. My mother and I lived next to a city park, but there were no special animals there. I told the bear story to a little boy at school and he called me a liar. After that, I only let the story belong to me.
When I was a young woman, I dreamt about my father and the bear, but I was the bear in the dream. I reached to my father’s face and put my hands on his cheeks, but he pulled back in fear, and my hands left deep scratches.
Looking back, I see that my father felt a kind belonging in the wild that he didn’t get anywhere else. He dedicated his life to studying the natural world and preserving natural environments.
When I think of him now, I think that in some ways he was afraid of getting too close to me. Maybe he saw that after a few years, we would stop being a regular part of each other’s lives. Maybe he thought his heart would be broken. I never got to ask him why we drifted so far apart and why it was at such an early age in my life.
When I saw the movie, The Horse Whisperer, it reminded me of how my father could talk to animals. I wish that I could tell him now that I’m proud to be the daughter of an animal whisperer and that I know how to whisper to animals too. Then maybe we’d both remember who we were to each other.