|Jul/Aug 2005 Nonfiction|
Because my mother's personal demons kept me at arm's length for much of my life, I grieve the loss of my father in ways that I could not have imagined.
In the several years before they died—and especially as their ages made the potential for death more imminent—I would often wake at night considering how fortunate I was to be of a certain age and still have both parents living. I pondered what it might be like to be without them, and found it hard to imagine how others had managed with less time. I hoped that there would be opportunity to resolve differences as I weighed my father's naivete against my mother's manipulations.
But this account is not about my mother, who outlived Dad by only six weeks; with her death she has finally freed me to write the truth.
I fantasized and secretly wished that my father would outlive her, but it was not meant to be; the child within me imagined ways to re-establish our camaraderie in what I hoped might be a twilight for him illuminated in the gardens of my own home: gardens which could not have been built without the serious agricultural/botanical avocation we shared for 50 years. My love for the earth and all creation came from him. The rose bushes hugging the trellises outside my studio windows are clones of his own, a process through which I learned the obstacles of human trial and error.
Lessons regarding the fragility of life, responsibility to the earth and the miracle of gentle nurturing came in the guise of a gift, to a ten year old one spring evening when he presented me with a clutch of five orphaned bunnies in a peck basket. Rescued from a dog which had ferreted out and killed their mother, none would have lived had it not been for dad's covert lessons in bottle feeding; my youthful effort resulted in the survival of one, and the mourning of many.
A common sparrow—little more than a featherless, beaked yolk when he arrived in a Maxwell House can tucked under my Dad's arm—slept and grew fat on a diet of worms and eggs while nestled safely in the oven for thirty days. Little naked "Georgie" introduced me to the common law that birds awaken at sunrise: a time of day which I previously didn't care to acknowledge. From that simple exercise in husbandry, I learned that even those who have wings sometimes need a firm push to learn to fly.
I would have liked to take my father fishing again, a thing we did most every week through my middle teen years. There were regular times when he'd join his buddies on a huge fishing boat and he would be gone overnight, returning home at daybreak with 50 gallon buckets brimming with flopping fresh jumbo perch. While my younger brother found excuses to disappear, I never minded helping my Dad clean and gut fish to freeze, fry and share with the neighbors. It was just nice to be with him. I can still see him sitting across from me, his bald sunburned head sweating in the sun, as we swatted the flies which buzzed around the growing pile of fish bones on the ground between us. The sound of the collie dog snapping the air and my father's voice expounding the merits of H.P. Lovecraft and Ambrose Bierce—those writers that had caught his current fancy—is as vivid now as that summer day in 1960 when I first realized that I was listening too, to what was unsaid as he peeled the shrunken drying fish scales from his arms.
My father was not a man of letters; the great Depression and poverty set his shoulder to the stone after the eighth grade, but a stronger hunger for books through which he gained self taught erudition—and later a diploma—taught me that it is the insatiable desire for knowledge and its hand over fist acquisition that truly makes a man worthy of respect.
Ars longa... as were the horns of all the rhinoceri he molded and trunks of enough elephants to make even the great Alexander envious of that endless clay procession created by his humble laborer's hands. It was he who first showed me how to hold a pencil, carve with a knife, make paper hats and boats to float in a rain filled gutter. From him I learned the principles of stored energy from popsicle sticks and rubber bands, how to whistle better than any boy, and just when it was important to be as fierce as Bushman, Chicago's legendary gorilla, the most famous inhabitant of the Lincoln Park Zoo.
It is difficult not to be reminded of him. Every volume I open turns a page into the past, and I often think of The Seven Sneezes, a silly Golden Book wherein a paper and rag man propels himself, his horse and cart, and all his rags right up into the sky with explosive nasal exhalations.
The Seven Sneezes may be the most valuable book I've read.
From it I learned the concepts of comedy, absurdity and loving patience by observing my Dad—who read it on demand a zillion times—while he emphasized each rhetorical sneeze with a sidelong glance and a real sneeze of his own, sometimes demonstrating so well, that his glasses flew off his nose. We laughed at each other's antics, and I learned in my earliest years not to take either of us too seriously.
In his wisdom, father has always accepted my choices, but he cobbled the road of free will—ad infinitum—with hidden lessons.
Weeks before he died he demonstrated uncommon generosity and admirable clarity of reason when all those around him had lost their heads. He drew on an astounding strength of spirit to elevate himself in bed to shake the hand of his future son-in-law, and not only delighted at the opportunity, but conducted the usual parental interview in a congenial fashion which gave no quarter to his impending death, thus providing us both with a lasting reminder of his love and selflessness.
Today is Chester's birthday. He would have been 86. His positive humor never deserted him. He was a clever man who believed in himself and in his children, and trusted in the longevity of the lessons he taught by example. Dad kept a keen eye on the future and valued its perception of the past: a noble ethic for any man.
Once upon a time he told me I was beautiful and I know that it is true.
The sun has stretched a thin glow across this winter ravaged lawn. The bare shoulders of maple point to a meander of river rushing below and the air is sweet with new warbling and all the distant songs of children released from the bondage of winter.