After searching for my mother's name for twenty years, I realized I also did not know my father's (person)
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Tue May 28 2002 at 8:19:43
This year, when my father tries to get me up at dawn, there is just no damn way. He sends the poodle in to soul-kiss my ear, but I shove her off the couch, yipeing. Fuck this, I agreed to this plan yesterday but now I'm in no mood. I snap at my father and make him go away. By the time I drag into the kitchen he is on the sports section, which he only reads in emergencies of extreme boredom. I say
, but I don't mean it. It's such a quick slide back into being sullen and crabby. Back to being seventeen.
We don't talk in the car. I stay quiet on purpose, so things will blow over quickly. This method of handling conflict is not nutritional but it is efficient. It's not a long drive but we're good at this ellipsis. Ten minutes later we are walking through a field and it's too pretty out to be pissed off; we forget. It's a low sky, wide, overcast in a dramatic pale gray way, with a quick breeze that scatters the clouds and wakes me up. The trees bordering the field are adding their slender blossom scent to the air, little pastel honey streams.
No prelude: my father launches right into heavy ramble mode. He tells me that life is like goldilocks and the three bears, and the moral is, if you are too hot or too cold, you will be left alone in peace, but if you are just right,
the world will eat you up
. I almost ask if that why is he is such a damn weirdo. I don’t.
The berries deny the drought; they are lush. It seems an innocent topic. I say, they're perfect this year. My father says, Maybe you're doing it, maybe they are perfect because you are touching them. He stands up and looks at me. You're
, he says.
He touched her once and she turned into a golden creature. He never touched her again.
I am crouched, reaching into the plants, suddenly scared stiff like a bunny in trouble. It's too much. He really talks like this. It's
. Everything's out of whack. I don't know what to do with what he is saying and he looks so old and he looks so sad. He looks down, lifts a leaf and says something quiet and harmless about ants.
Two days ago. My mother gives me this weird look when I ask what closet the photo albums are in. Infinite rerun: I keep trying to be a daughter and she keeps looking at me like Huh,
That's So Weird.
Then she wants to hug me
later, when I don't want to be touched
. We approach each other at exactly the wrong time, all the time. See, I can dissect it but it's still there. She says
. Top shelf. Her voice is bewildered, almost offended; somehow I am always hurting her a little with my curiosity. Jesus God I'm sorry I tried. But I still want to see the pictures.
Here's their wedding day. Dad in
y professor’s jacket with elbow patches and big goofy grin. After two decades of courting he finally convinced her it was a good idea and he looks like he knows it was the best idea he ever had. He is visibly stricken by her, hand-over-heart wounded, beaming. He is jumping down the courthouse steps, holding her hand high.
He's got cake
in his gigantic stoopid mustache. Loose optimistic stride.
My happy hippie dad needs a haircut.
Here is my mother’s same concise smile. Conservative footsteps in sensible low heels. Her dress is simple, pretty, cream-colored, brown buttons, no grand contraption, no veil, no lace. They met at the courthouse in the middle of the day, taking only my mother's sister as witness and photographer. She says Yes
I was happy that day. It could be true.
When I am putting away the photo album, I find a long suede coat in the back of the closet. I thought I'd stolen all the good stuff but I've never seen this before. I interrupt my mother’s compulsive Gameboy Tetrising to ask her where it came from. She smoothes her hands down the soft grain of the sleeves. She folds it in her lap and smiles about it. It takes her a few minutes to start telling me the story. I want to sit on the floor at her feet while she is telling me, but that is of course too much so I take a chair.
She says she bought it in Turkey in 66. She says it was tailor-made, that they didn't cut the leather until she paid in full. She says it cost twenty dollars, which even at the time was a steal. She says the tailor was so intimate and thorough in his measurements that she blushed. She keeps touching it. She smiles and she sighs. Before I married your father, she says.
I almost don't try to get it, but it is so beautiful and I am jealous and she can’t wear it anymore anyway. I don’t even have to ask if I can have it – I slip it on and we can both see that it is mine now. I’ve had leather clothes but never anything that felt so obviously like skin before. It’s supple, shiny on the elbows. She says she wore it every day. It curves in and flares out exactly where it should, and I realize that
my body and my mother's body
at 26 are the same. Primarily this reminds me to do six hundred jumping jacks every day for the rest of my life. Also I want to put my hair in
and appear to her as a forlorn ghost, but what in the world would I say.
I guess this coat causes me to suffer an illusion: a moment of real connection. I ruin it quickly enough. I ask where her wedding dress is, and she laughs. Oh I threw that thing away ages ago. Then she sees my face and changes the story to, Gave it away. She says, Why would I keep that?
I feel so sick. I hope it got burned up. I don't care who or how. Burned up is less lonely than molding in a landfill. I look at her the same way I always look at her, which is I Cannot Believe You Do Not Understand This. She gives me the same thing. She looks so tired and she looks so old and I think, I did that. I am doing it right now.
My parents keep keys. Spare keys and dead keys in every fucking drawer, on every countertop and every end table. No one remembers what locks they match. If they were functional or artistic I would understand it. When I mention gluing them to the wall or making
my parents look at me like I am crazy or foreign. I can’t look at these keys, and they're everywhere.
They keep sacks of bread crusts in the freezer, for eventual birdfood and bread pudding. They keep gas bills from twelve years ago. They threw away my halloween costume from 1984, the one I made. Once I found a saucepan in the fridge, empty, with spaghetti sauce residue crusted inside. My dad walked in while I was washing it and I swear to god he said But I was going to make soup from that!
My mother's family scraped by for years on a tiny ramshackle farm with one cow. My father saw the Depression. I have his book of war ration stamps. Meat, sugar, shoes. I've heard the stories. There are things my parents cling to. I can understand that. But: my father bought a rug in India, forty years ago. It hung in my bedroom when I was little. When I was trying to sleep I would try to count the
birds by moonlight
and I came up with a different number every time. The birds were red and blue and green; the rug was old but never did fade. It's gone.
We sold a house I loved. That had to happen. But we also lost the heavy silverware and the red crystal lamp and the room crammed floor to ceiling with dead TVs. And the mulberry tree and all the fish. When I was ten I slaved all summer behind a motorless push lawnmower, a miserable rusted torture device I'd give anything to have back. When I was nine I used to keep myself from being lonely by talking to mannequins in the basement.
When I was eight I used to wear a top hat
and rimless spectacles to dinner. Books letters dishes, old cracked leather shoes. All these artifacts are lost; I hope they are somehow lost at sea, dignified.
The rows of strawberry plants are very long. Our buckets are full before we've finished picking one row. We walk back to Bucket Hut, which is covered with official notices warning us (I like the ones that say We Will Prosecute!) not to eat berries out of the field. We pick up our fresh buckets with our reddened fingers and grin at the bucket guy with our seedy teeth. He smiles back, he's sixteen and couldn't care. We have been thieving pigs, and we’re not going to stop.
It's easy to be pigs
here. This unfenced bounty invites greed, and we skipped breakfast. It's the beginning of the season but the plants are sagging with already overripe fruit. We are the only pickers this morning; these berries will droop to the ground and rot if we do not eat them or take them home. So we eat our fill, and more.
There is too much perfect fruit here, is the problem. I have filled three buckets, more than we can use, and I am sick of stooping and searching, but it seems a shame to let them go to waste. I want all of them. I want a machine or an entourage to cull all the ripe fruit from this field. We'll eat them, can them, give them away to everyone we know. It's not feasible – the ones I've picked will overwhelm me, I know some will end up atrophied and limp in my fridge, but I can’t stand the idea of leaving them behind. There is always a nicer one behind the one I've just picked. I rearrange the top layer of my bucket, trying to make room for more. I pile them strategically and walk slowly, but some still tumble back to the ground. I squash them as I walk. They're not going to be dessert, now they’re bug food, mulch, garbage. They're gone.
The morning eases away behind us and Dad slides off his soapbox. We regain our good rhythm of talking and not talking. We have just settled into a nice berry- and dirt-scented silence when these three terrible women drive up in an SUV. Truthfully we would hate anyone who comes to the field. This morning is not anything perfect but we are used to thinking of it as
. These women are chatty, loud, irritating, visiting the field not to pick strawberries but just to gawk at agriculture. Who wrote their script? They're perfect. It is easy to hate these dumbass lipsticked tank-top sorority moms. It's simple to get rid of them, too: I start singing
Jimmy Crack Corn
very loudly, bending over and slapping my ass to keep time. That ain't nothin, ladies. They go away before I have a chance to perform a negro spiritual or rub my nipples or expose anything. I give them a little glimpse of asscrack but that is for my father’s benefit, who is leaning over trying to get enough breath to laugh; he's whinnying.
The next time I look, my father is sitting on the ground crosslegged, which, due to crappy knees, he generally does not do. My first thought is (always), He's Having a Heart Attack, but he isn't, of course, again. My father is sitting there in the dirt, admiring the berries in his bucket, just smiling, running his fingers lightly over the top layer.
It comes to me in a rush, now. All of it seems like a gift. It is a gift. It is something I can keep. Fruit dirt father trees time air sky dad. Shut up brain, let it happen. Brain shuts up. It happens. It comes in so quickly I have to sit down hard. Dad hands me a strawberry with dirt still on it and I do not brush it off, I eat it all. It's so good. I wish I could tell you. It is so much more than enough. It is all I require. Sooner or later, if you are paying any attention at all, you realize, you are well fed, your hands are full, you take what you have and you head for home.
I like it!
He touched her once and she turned into a golden creature. He never touched her again.
He put a hand on each of our shoulders; it's a wonder he wasn't electrocuted.
my father, at ease.
She grew a little older, while he was telling her
Better solutions for surname descent
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water pour down on us. trusting me, eyes shut.
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