Daddy was the only piano tuner in the area, and he sometimes took me with him when he tuned pianos at the local churches. I loved exploring the dark, empty buildings with their peculiar smells and sacred objects, but I was never totally alone, hearing my father play a single note over and over in the distance. Some of the churches had lots of pianos. The First Baptist, a grand place, had thirteen.
One Saturday my father and I drove into the country and down a dusty little dirt road, then pulled into the bare, sandy yard of the poorest, smallest church I had ever seen: an old wooden frame structure with peeling paint, held off the ground by cement blocks. There was no one around, and Daddy went in and started on the piano. Outside, the hot Florida sun baked the yard and the deserted road, and, hearing the single note again and again, I wondered what might have brought my father to this simple, desolate church. When I asked him, he said that since he knew which churches could afford a piano tuner — those who hired him — he also knew which ones couldn’t. He tuned them all, one way or the other. I asked him if the churches knew he did this, and he said he didn’t know but that it didn’t matter.
Daddy was ultimately run out of his piano-tuning business because my family was friendly with African-Americans, so he started pumping gas, an occupation he truly enjoyed. He used to exchange secret code words with fellow Masons who were driving south on U.S. 27 to Disney World.
My parents are old now and not in good health. A few months ago I told my mother what an inspiration it had been to discover my father’s secret good deed that day at the little church in the woods. She laughed and said it hadn’t been more than two weeks since he’d tuned a piano in a tiny church just starting up with no money.
My father is a quiet man. He has spoken to me all my life through a single note played again and again.
My dad and I never really got along. I thought of him as a tyrant who said no a lot. I didn’t feel loved by him, and his explosive temper scared me.
At twenty-two, I decided to move away to Florida. It felt wonderful to say, “I’m leaving!” but it was a struggle to break free. My dad said he would take the auto train down with me and fly back. I was grateful for his offer, but on the trip we were like two strangers, sharing polite conversation and the discomfort of having to spend three days alone together.
After we got to Florida, I took him to the airport. As he approached the gate, he stopped and turned to me. I kissed him quickly, awkwardly, and said, “Thanks, Dad, we’ll see ya.” He lowered his head and reached out to me, blinking back tears, unable to speak. I was stunned. “He loves me,” I thought.
Lowville, New York
The words “father and daughter” scare me. My father began molesting me when I was three. He didn’t stop until my parents divorced (for reasons unconnected with the abuse) when I was fifteen.
This same father taught me how to build a fire by gathering small twigs first, then meticulously laying on larger and thicker pieces of wood, lighting the fire from the center, protecting it from the wind until it blazes into life. Teaching me to ride a bike, he spent hours running behind me, holding on so I wouldn’t wobble, letting go as I cruised down the sidewalk. When he worked on our ’51 Ford he let me crawl underneath and hold the light for him, saying, “Atta girl,” when I got it just right.
When I was eight, my father pushed me against the wall in my uncle’s garage, held his hands over my ears, and stuck his penis in my mouth. My head knocked against the wood, blood pounded in my ears, and I couldn’t breathe. Afterward he was angry, saying I had nothing to cry about.
He gave me to his brother to use sexually and warned me that if I told anyone, they’d know I was a liar.
Will he ever apologize or even admit he hurt me? At seventy-eight will he have a death-bed conversion? Doubtful. All he says now is that he’ll sue me if I tell anyone, that I must be crazy to hurt an old man, that it’s best to forget the past.
Dante wrote in The Divine Comedy that Paradise is about learning to live with paradox. I love my father and I curse him. I hate him and I forgive him. I try to understand what made him who he is and I still hold him responsible for the pain he inflicted on me. Is this Paradise? I’m not sure, but it’s better than being at war with what I feel, better than having to pick and choose which childhood memories are acceptable, better than denying who I am.
Our family’s weekend sailing adventures took place on the San Francisco Bay. While my middle sister spent most of these weekends seasick, my older sister and I did our best to anticipate my father’s bewildering requirements as to pulling and securing sheets. Why they weren’t called ropes, I couldn’t understand, and why it mattered if you wrapped them clockwise instead of counterclockwise, I could never remember.
By the time I was a teenager, I had a love-hate relationship with sailing. I loved sitting as far out on the bowsprit as I dared, leaning over the water, tempting fate with each crash of the bow into the wind-whipped waves. I loved the salty spray and the excitement of the boat heeled hard on the wind. But I hated the endless demands, impatiently bellowed by my father at the helm, and my impotent rage at my own lack of mastery. As the wind blew harder, the boat’s rigging would stretch tight as a drum and hum, as if warning of an impending snap of my nerves.
In my twenties, I took a job helping a friend’s parents transport their boat down the eastern seaboard. It was the first sailing I’d done without my father, and I felt quite grown up and more than a bit scared knowing I was the experienced sailor in the group. Things ran smoothly for the first couple of days, but then we encountered a storm with gale-force winds. The crew began to panic until I heard, out of my own mouth, a string of commands, barked with authority and implying dire consequences if a moment were wasted. It was my father’s voice roaring, the voice that had caused me such ire and that had very likely just saved our lives.
A few months after I returned from the trip, my father asked me to join him for a midday sail. As we puttered out of the harbor, I was struck by the ease with which I moved on this boat, my weekend home for so many years. My father and I worked in unison, saying little. As we raised the sails in the channel, I asked him if I should ease the main sheet a tad to quiet the luff. He turned to me and quietly said, “Hmm, yes, good idea.”
Fort Collins, Colorado
When I was eight years old, my father missed a turn and crashed his car into a huge, old tree. His brain stem snapped; he was dead when the medical rescue team found him. But they revived him, and for the next thirteen years he lived in a coma, first in a hospital, then in a nursing home, then in my grandmother’s cramped and smelly apartment. He finally died of complications from a lung infection two months before I finished college.
I realized early on how difficult it was to explain a coma to my schoolmates. By the time I reached junior high, I simply told most people that my father was dead. To me, he was. That shrunken person in the hospital bed bore no relation to the black-bearded man who had invented spelling games for me, taught me Spanish, turned my jump ropes, listened to endless Bob Dylan albums, and played special songs for me on his guitar.
My brothers and I hated visiting him at the nursing home. The old people there frightened us; they were so happy to see children that they seemed predatory. The tracheotomy in my father’s throat also frightened us. He was fed a thick, canned formula through a tube in his stomach.
It was worse when he was moved to my grandmother’s home. Strange women called aides, who knew too much about my family, were always bustling about, as were people of God — one denomination or another — who believed in miracles and believed one would happen to my father. I was unconvinced.
At my grandmother’s house, I couldn’t pretend he was dead. I had to talk to him in front of everyone and pretend to agree with my grandmother that he knew what was going on when his eyelids fluttered or a moan emanated from his twisted body.
During my fourth year of college I was seized with an urge to visit my father. I went to my grandmother’s house, and she left me alone with him for the first time I could remember. I held his hand, which was, after all, warm, living flesh, my father’s flesh, and I spoke to him and cried.
The next time I saw him he was dead. I met my mother, my brother, and my uncle at the hospital. My father’s body was lying on a high table. I was shocked at the difference death made. Since the accident I had always thought of him as dead, but I had been wrong. The absence of life now was as clear as the tag on his toe in the harsh hospital light.
Canterbury, New Hampshire
My father is one of the kindest, most generous men I’ve ever known. But he’s kind to a fault. He can never say no to anybody, even when they’re terribly wrong.
I was eight or nine when my mother went after me in one of the worst of her screaming rages. She got out the wooden paddle, as usual, and began hitting me on the bottom. Fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three. . . . My father finally came into the room to stop her. She bit back at him in anger, and he turned and walked away as she kept hitting me. As he left, something in my heart gave way.
Twenty years later, I needed his help one day. Suddenly, all the rage from that earlier betrayal came flooding into me, and I felt my mother’s anger become my own. It’s impossible to say which has been worse: hating the parent who abused me or hating the one who could have stopped it but didn’t.
My father has apologized for what he did, and sometimes I feel compassion for him, but also resentment and rage.
Recently, at the bank where my father and I both keep accounts, the teller told me what a nice, nice man my father is. I know, I thought to myself. I know just how fucking nice he is.
My father died of cirrhosis of the liver the day after Christmas, 1984. It took him forty years of drinking to kill himself.
By the time I was eight or so, he was always out wining and dining prospective clients, making only pit stops at home. As a kid, I preferred the man in the idolizing family stories about his college football career and Marine Corps heroics in World War II to his actual presence. When he’d hit the door, you never knew who he was going to be. His cast of characters was large, their scripts clashing. They were all monologue artists, upstaging everyone else with their alternately charming, brooding, vengeful, genial, silently enraged, sexy, icily remote, sarcastic, and jovial routines. You learned fast that to win even a bit of mutual engagement from him meant you had to be an “interesting” foil: quick, amusing, and as chameleon-like as he. Slow-thinking and shy with him, I was scared and bewildered by his manic changeability. But our family’s adulation of him, his public reputation, his size, looks, charm, and the increasingly rare chances of encountering him all conferred on him a personal magnetism that was irresistible. Winning his attention and approval remained the uppermost of my childhood desires.
He liked “good-time gals”: joking, quick-witted, sassy, self-assured, and flirtatious. I was emotional, serious, observant, rather pedantic, and shy. I closely watched and tried to mimic the performances of my more quick-study siblings during their attempts to get his attention. His reward of laughter, approval, and interest increased my jealousy and desperate longing for his acceptance.
But I was a piss-poor performer. My fear of making mistakes escalated whenever I was with him. I panicked, stuttered, or completely forgot what I wanted to say. My father responded to my desperate and pitiful attempts with a deepening remoteness. He took to calling me “the little old lady,” a slap at both me and my mother, who was sliding, new baby after new baby, into the nether world inhabited by those shackled to alcoholics.
By age ten, I gave up and tried to hide from him (and from the shame of my failure), easy to do amidst many brothers and sisters vying for his attention and companionship during his brief stays at home. During these “hiding years,” I spent a great deal of time alone in the woods behind our house, wishing for my father to slow down long enough to experience the steady part of himself that I experienced in myself; then we could truly meet, without any words, any performances at all.
I didn’t know at the time that I could lose my connection to that place inside me, or that, once lost, the passing of the years could make it seem as if it had never truly existed, as if one’s only refuge and reality was to be found in a cast of characters. I didn’t know that this is what had happened to my father, and would happen to me. I only knew that we had never met, and my growing shame told me I was to blame.
Before he went into his final coma, his nurse did a twice-daily reality check with him to determine his lucidity. She would ask, “Mr. Arata, what year is this?” and, “Mr. Arata, where are you now?” On Christmas Eve, one of his last good days, as I sat next to his bed, holding his hand through the steel slats, his nurse questioned him. After a long pause, he answered that it was 1942 and that he was in the hospital for a football injury to his knees. Then she asked him, “And who is this sitting here holding your hand?” My father, as unknown to me as I to him after thirty-four years, turned his head, looked into my eyes, caressed my hand with his own, and said, “This is my daughter Susan, and I’ve missed you very much, honey, missed you very much, missed you.”
Fargo, North Dakota
The last time I left the States for Guatemala, I sat on the plane feeling guilty for leaving my father in New York, eighty-four and alone. Just then a uniformed airline employee came down the aisle with an envelope in his hand; he seemed to be looking for someone. Important, I thought. He glanced at my seat number, asked my name, and handed the envelope to me. Inside was a note from my father wishing me a safe and happy journey and telling me that he loved me. How did he manage that? I wondered. Once again I was five years old, all big grin and bruised knees, and Pop making me feel like a movie star.
I used to mourn the childhood I’d never had as the eldest in our immigrant family. I was in elementary school when I started taking the subway alone to Manhattan to help my dad with sales and delivering merchandise. Though he knew several European languages, I knew English, so I was in charge of writing invoices, checks, and letters, reading documents, and talking on the phone. When I was old enough, I also took over the driving.
Today, at forty-five, I feel grateful instead of resentful. In the era of “the absentee father,” I had the opportunity to be with my dad and to learn things that have helped me ever since. There was never any doubt that, even though I was a girl, I was competent in the world. Taking the subway on my own, dealing with different kinds of people, and watching my father cut deals all gave me a leg up when I later traveled in other countries. I can go anywhere, haggle in any marketplace. More than anything, my father was a model for me — a model of survival.
When my father was still a boy in Poland, his father died. Instead of getting an education, he had to work to help the family. He lived through World War I, typhus, a bullet in his back, and the Depression. Then the Nazis came. Everything was taken from him: his wife and three children, his property, his business, his mother and eight brothers and sisters. He spent five years in concentration camps. Later, at a displaced-persons camp in Italy, he remarried and started a new family with a woman who’d lost her husband and two children. At forty-five, he started from scratch in America, with a little girl who became his “right-hand man.” That little girl saw him climb up and down the stairs when he couldn’t stand up straight, his back held together with a steel-belted corset so he could keep working.
Whenever things seem hard in my own life, I remember that I’m my father’s daughter and keep going.
Asheville, North Carolina
April 1992. Jordan is in a highchair, playing with May’s keys. May and I have been talking about the people at my job. We used to talk about people May worked with, too, but now she stays home with Jordan, so when I ask about May’s day, we talk only about Jordan.
Then May says, casually, “You know, I wouldn’t mind going back to work. You’re lucky to get to be around other people all day.”
“Really?” I reply. “I’d love to stay home with Jordan.”
December 1992. Now I stay home with Jordan. May works. We talk about the people at her job.
I love staying home with Jordan. She plays, totally absorbed, forgetting about me. Eventually though, her toy loses its magic. She looks around to find me, comes over, smiles, and pats me gently on the knee.
Sometimes when I clean up after lunch, I hold her in one arm because she wants to watch what I’m doing. I think she’s just watching me clean up, then I see out of the corner of my eye that she’s looking at me. I look at her, and she smiles and pats my back.
On these gray, dreary, winter days when it’s bone-cold or wet and we both know we aren’t going anywhere after lunch, we cuddle. She finishes lunch, I wipe her hands and mouth, and she sits in my lap. She leans back against me in her tickle position, and I tickle her legs and belly and underarms, and she laughs and squinches back up so she’s sitting. She leans over into her kissing position — head flopped over to one side, arm up so I can kiss her side — and I kiss her with silly kisses, and she laughs and wriggles her whole body. Then I pull up her sweatshirt and blow raspberries on her side, and she laughs harder and tries to push me away, until we’re both laughing and flushed. Sometimes, between tickles, she just rests her head on my shoulder and relaxes her body into mine, and we sit quietly for a minute. It’s so quiet and peaceful, and she feels so calm and trusting, like we’re the only two in the world. I never, ever thought it would be like this.
Carrboro, North Carolina
When I am thirteen, my science teacher shows a film on baby hyenas born with open eyes and sharp teeth. The babies attack each other in a frenzy, until flesh, teeth, and bones are gone. I spend next period with my head over the toilet bowl. The hyenas remind me of my parents.
“Go kill yourself,” my father taunts my mother. “Run into the street and get hit by a car.”
My mother carefully folds the New York Times in thirds after she turns the page. She even sips her coffee, but spills a little in her lap.
My five-year-old brother Bobby opens the refrigerator door too hard, and it bangs against the wall.
“Take what you want and get out.” My father’s bared bottom teeth are the color of corn.
“I don’t know what I want.” Bobby looks in the fruit bin.
“Well, I know what I want,” my father says. “I want you the hell outta here.”
Bobby opens the freezer.
My father slams the refrigerator, and the calendar, show tickets, and other pieces of paper slip off their magnets and fall down.
“Pick them up. Pick them all up,” my father shouts, kicking the papers across the floor.
“Leave me alone,” Bobby says. “You did it.”
My father pushes him against the wall. “What did you say?” He hits him in the shoulder with his knuckle.
My brother whimpers and pushes back.
Before my father’s fist can land, I am between them. I carry Bobby upstairs, his arms around my neck.
My father takes out some cream cheese and bagels and drops them on the newspaper my mother still holds. “Make me something to eat. I’m hungry.”
Twenty years later I am back in my father’s kitchen. He lifts my daughter so she can see what is on the top shelf of the refrigerator. I cringe when my father kisses her, and I can’t swallow any food in front of him. Yet sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t see him more often.
Bobby just got married. He bought a house right behind my parents’ home; a path connects the two back yards. He says I am too sensitive.
My father was fifty years old when I was born. I was the youngest of four daughters by seven years, and he called me the child of his old age. He was a judge, and while he studied cases in his office at the courthouse, I would amuse myself in the halls. He and I played tennis and watched college basketball together. He cried when I got chickenpox because of the scars it was leaving. Every Sunday evening we had a date to eat out at Griffin’s Quick Lunch. It was an old joke between us.
When I was fourteen, he got sick. My mother said it was hepatitis and sent me off to camp. Two months later, he was gone.
I was so self-absorbed and caught up in my social life that I went to a school dance the next night.
I later read that fourteen is the worst age for a girl to lose her father. I wonder when the best time is. I would give anything — my youth, my health — to be one of his seventy-five-year-old college buddies with whom he stayed close all those years, and who remember him better than I do.
Leicester, North Carolina
My college girlfriend and I had endless conversations about our future children. When would we have them? (After we’d both finished our Ph.D.s.) How many would we have? (At least three.) Would we raise them as Jews? (Probably.) Would they be vegetarians? (Possibly.) If we had boys, would they be circumcised? (She insisted on it. I prayed for daughters.)
I left that relationship to be with a man. One day, my lover woke up, turned to me, and said, “I dreamt you had a daughter named Elizabeth.” It didn’t seem too strange, because I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t go back to being with women. After all, everyone had always told me what a wonderful father I was going to make.
That relationship lasted a year. The next time I fell in love, three years later, I thought it was for good. He was brilliant, charming, and Jewish, too. One morning he turned to me, still half, asleep, and said, “I dreamt you had a daughter. I think her name was Elizabeth.”
A year later, when that relationship ended, I began to dream about Elizabeth. I’ve been dreaming about her on and off since 1976. She’s almost five now. Recently, I dreamed she had a craving for ice cream. We wandered all over the West Village looking for the particular flavors she wanted. When we found a place, she marched straight to the counter, stood on tiptoe, and told the girl the two flavors, the order in which she wanted them scooped, and the kind of sprinkles she wanted on top. I found myself teary-eyed at how very much her own person Elizabeth had become. “What’s the matter, Daddy?” she asked between licks. I didn’t know how to tell her, and I woke up, still crying.
Brooklyn, New York
Aunt marien sends scolding letters telling me how ungrateful I am and how my parents grieve for me, and I’m determined to maintain my distance from this insane bunch of people who call themselves my family. Aunt marien has a thing for dead animals. My dad has a thing for speed and alcohol. Aunt marien’s boyfriend jim has a thing for four-year-olds, and that sure as hell wasn’t good for me when I was four years old. My mom doesn’t see anything; she just blinds herself with more booze. I make sense of their craziness by putting my memories into writing, and I decided a long time ago that none of them deserved capitals in their names. It’s been two and a half years since I cut off all contact with my family, but correspondence from one of them sends me right back to early childhood.
I’m four. My dad can’t hold a job, and he needs money or else mom’s going to leave him. He sticks me in the car with my stuffed Doggie. He gives me a lecture about how expensive it is to raise a kid, and how I’ve got to help out by doing a little work around here. Kids owe their parents, and I might as well start paying now.
We get to jim’s big, old warehouse in the city, and dad takes me up to jim’s office where jim and aunt marien are waiting. It’s a plush office, with nice furniture and a big oak door. I’m really scared now because when I’m around aunt marien and uncle jim, it usually means I’m going to get hurt. An old man is with them, staring at me. He smells bad; I can smell him across the room. I’m clutching Doggie really hard, and I want to get out. They tell me I have to take my clothes off; uncle jim takes them off, and he hurts me as he does it. I’m crying very hard now, and my dad’s getting mad, telling me to shut up and not be a baby. They take Doggie away. They shove me toward the old man, and as they close the door I hear aunt marien tell dad that the man won’t hurt me, he just wants to look. The old man has his clothes off, and he’s masturbating. He creeps over to me, and I can smell his hot, stinky breath. He tells me in a very low voice to do things; I know I’ll be in big trouble if I don’t do what he says. I HATE HATE HATE. The old man’s done now. Aunt marien unlocks the door, and the man gives her money. Aunt marien gives my dad two hundred dollars. I put my clothes on, not really well, but I don’t want jim to touch me again. They don’t have to tell me not to tell; no one would believe me anyway. Mom gives me a bath when we get home. I’m crying, and dad says I’m a spoiled brat. The bath is a lost cause, because I know that no matter how hard I’m scrubbed, I’ll never be clean again.
Everything most people believe about life seems to conspire against my memories: fathers don’t do that to their little girls, aunts and mothers are nurturing and protective, women don’t abuse children, child prostitution does not exist, kids make up stories. Come back into the family, aunt marien’s letter says. Your parents miss you; how can you abandon them in their years of need? I have heard this before. Apparently I incurred a debt when I rode in my mother’s womb, and the sacrifice of the rest of my life is the very least I can give my parents in return for their original gift of life. My presence saddled them with a burden. Now the sacrifice of my childhood is not enough; my sanity is also requested.
For as long as I said my childhood prayers, I ended my litany with “Goodnight, God. Goodnight, Daddy. Goodnight, Jesus.” That’s the kind of company my daddy keeps in my head.
Everything I know of him is borrowed from other people’s impressions, and if anyone was ever unfavorably impressed by him, they’re not talking. He died at fifty-one of a heart attack, while he was in bed reading the Bible. I’ve never been able to convince myself that a guy like that would be much interested in me, even if he’d lived past my thirteenth month.
There’s one photograph of just the two of us, without any of the other kids. He’s holding me in the air, a little away from him, and he’s looking straight at the camera, smiling but a little distracted. I look serious. Also, there is an entry in his small engagement book on January 28, 1957, with my name, followed by a dash and the word “born.” My name is misspelled. Or, since he named me, maybe that’s the correct spelling and we’ve all been misspelling it ever since. I treasure these two pieces of paper as hard evidence that he thought about me at least twice. There are no family anecdotes about the two of us, and although I have tried to remember him, the best I can do is imagine I remember him.
I know there are bad fathers, men so evil that their children pray for their deaths. I know that even the best of fathers are disappointingly human. I know that the loss of a beloved father to a child conscious of that loss is a pain I have been spared. My sister, who was ten when my father died, said that when they told her, she thought, They might as well just cut off our legs. If she is an amputee, I am someone who never developed legs, who grew, say, wings instead. I don’t miss legs, exactly, but my life is defined in part by what isn’t there.
My father’s name was Joe. I cannot say with certainty that he loved me or that I have ever loved him, though I have wished desperately to believe both. But I feel proud of him and proud to be his daughter. This pride, that shame: my patrimony.
Daddy is for me the most exotic, taboo, fascinating, seductive, heartbreaking word in any language. To say it out loud, even to whisper it alone in a room, makes me blush inside my skin. I feel as if I have no right to say this word, no right to these thoughts.
Harley Jane Kozak
Los Angeles, California
One fiercely cold day in February, I had a school administrators’ meeting in another part of the city. Uncharacteristically, I stopped on the way back to my school to have a thick slab of cinnamon roll, the kind they bring in a wheelbarrow, with cholesterol warnings attached to the frosting. As I was ordering, I realized the person next to me was familiar. My seventeen-year-old daughter blurted out, “Daddy, what are you doing here?”
“Well, I was wondering the same thing about you,” I responded.
She and a girlfriend had taken off from school for an hour that day, ending up with the same insatiable desire for a cinnamon roll that had moved me.
We laughed at the coincidence of two hearts, with similar DNA material, arriving at the same place at the same moment.
William C. Shuttleworth
I remember running down Alicia Avenue at five o’clock to jump into my father’s arms as he turned onto our street after work. I remember waking him by grabbing at his covered feet, and how after a while he’d sleepily rise and give the littlest cat a ride in his shoe.
And I remember my father smashing our house to bits. On the buckling cement of our back porch in New Jersey, I listen to the breaking and shattering sounds inside, each one startling as a rifle shot, and try vainly to see in through the curtained back-door window. Later I am on the front steps, sitting next to my father on the red brick stoop. He holds his head in his hands and shakes it from side to side. I cannot connect him with the shocking noises I heard. I open the screen door behind him and it bumps his back.
“Don’t go in,” he says. “You don’t want to see that. You can’t believe how bad it is.”
I look down at him, his familiar fingers showing through his shiny, black, gray-threaded hair, the well-loved line of his jaw. “It can’t be that bad, Daddy,” I say, and I bump him gently with the door again, so he moves slightly to the left and I slip inside the vestibule.
Instead of the carpet there is dirt and chunks of glass, thick, sea-blue, and textured, like my mother’s blue-glass collection. Some green shows through, but it isn’t the carpet — it’s the stem of a plant whose twisted neck my eyes follow to its exposed white roots. A piece of a chair, a lamp, and my grandmother’s antique sewing machine lie on the floor. I pull the door shut softly and go back outside to my father.
“Is everything broken, Daddy?” I ask. He looks up at me from the sooty circles around his eyes, and cannot lie, as usual, and nods.
After that, there is a long car ride. I sit on my father’s lap and steer while my brother sleeps in the back seat. Eventually we arrive at a country house surrounded by rolling green lawns, where a sweet-smelling lady comes to the car, embraces my father, and looks at my brother and me with concern. There are many people at this house, laughing, carrying glasses around, and eating things off toothpicks. After a while we are put to bed.
I wake in the chilly, gray pre-dawn and stare at an unfamiliar ceiling. My chest rises and falls in its borrowed, adult-sized T-shirt. Then I hear someone sobbing and am confused for a moment because I have never heard this sound before in a male register. It is my father. I slide out of the high bed, my feet almost instantly numb on the cold wood floor, and pad down the hall to the next room. He is sitting on the floor, crying. His head is down and his body shakes. He drags the back of his hand across his nose and sees me.
“Oh, God,” he says.
I sit down next to him and put my hand on his warm, hairy leg. “What’s the matter, Daddy?” I say. This makes him cry harder. The sounds seem to be coming up from the earth, venting through his body. I understand for the first time how much grief there is in the world. “Daddy,” I say. I maneuver our bodies so that his head rests on my lap. I put my arm over his shoulder and stroke his head. He’s warm, alive; he smells of sweat and sleep. He goes on crying. His tears begin to soak into my T-shirt. I pray that I am soaking up his pain. Finally, he says, “You shouldn’t be seeing this. You’re only a little girl.”
I can make no sense out of what he is saying. In seven years I have found so many things to adore. When I go out to my swing set on a Saturday morning, its wooden seat is already hot, and the smell of sun seeps from all its cracks. There is a big whorled knothole on the left side of the seat, bigger than my eyeball, and the rusty chains are black and friendly: when I twist them to spin the swing, they click together. If I scrape my toe in the worn spot underneath the swing, it shows brown, then red, and a lot of ants and bugs go scurrying. My mother’s mountain laurel, when it gets overgrown, closes around the swing and brushes against my legs as I pump to make the swing go higher. When the swing feels like it’s soaring, I let my head fall back and close my eyes, and the smell of roses and laurel and apple tree and ivy swirls around me, and I open my eyes to see the sky opening in a swinging blue curve above my head. Of all the things that God has created, my father, with his crazy rhymes, his salty smells, and his terrible tenderness, is the most absorbing in the universe, and it seems to me entirely just that I should have come into this world to comfort him.
I remember my father lighting his Camel cigarette. Years of smoke fogged around him. He coughed and hacked until my mother left him; then he quit.
They tried to retire him early at work, but he fought them. They tried to make it hard for him, but he gave them two weeks’ notice and walked out, his head held high. People called him by his last name, never “Mr.” or “Bob.” He liked it that way. “Never let them get too close,” he always said.
Now he tells me his only friend from work is sick. He talks in the same tired voice he used when the last of his six brothers was dying in the hospital.
His friend has to have forty radiation treatments on his prostate. “They cat-scanned him all over, even his penis,” my father gasps.
He has not been to a doctor in seventy years. He doesn’t trust them. He says he’s got the same symptoms as his friend. He says they’ll never get their hands on him.
I invite him over for next week. I want him to be here, to see the kids, to see me.
Brewster, New York
Say what you will about married men having affairs, I give my father this much: he always gravitated toward women who stood apart from the majority. Crossing the bay on Friday nights — with the drinks, the poker regulars, and the San Francisco String Quartet — must have heightened his sense of adventure. Of all the women moving up the plank of the ferry, their umbrellas stretched open over their heads, he would have sought out the one wearing a fluorescent raincoat or cowboy-boot galoshes.
The city was always my father’s world, much more than Sleepy Hollow must have been. And yet, he’d come home. Every night he’d find himself, for the tenth, eleventh, twelfth year, walking up the curved path that bordered our lawn and ended at the porch step. We’d hear his keys jingling, see the doorknob turning, and then he’d be standing in the entry hall whistling his usual two-note signal.
What I did next depended on my mother’s state of mind. If she was in the kitchen wearing makeup and an apron so as not to spill anything on good clothes, I’d shout, “Dad’s home,” and unfold myself from the couch, leaving the television on. On those nights, he’d usually bring home a box of peanut brittle or a violet paper bag of candy. I’d jump up around his neck and tell him about my day.
On days when blotches of red crept slowly from Mom’s chest to her neck, though, I’d be in my bedroom buried in books before I even heard Dad’s keys outside. From my room, that sound was faint enough to turn me cold; I knew what lay in store for the rest of the night. I’d sleep very little, and I would rise for school the next day, dull and grainy from their fighting.
One afternoon while he was at work, a motel bill came in the mail from Lake Tahoe. He was supposed to have been on a business trip to Georgia those four days. I joined my mother on the phone, waiting for her to say, How could you do this to your children? Then I asked him why he had done it, not understanding the kind of line I was crossing. How must that have felt, hearing his ten-year-old daughter turn into someone else — one who watched, scorned, had no desire to understand?
One night when I was in high school, after he had been living in his own apartment for a few months, he took me out for Chinese food. He was nervous, dropping his chopsticks and clearing his throat too much. Finally, he got it out: how would I feel if — what he meant to say was — it’s just that he didn’t want me to feel like it was at all a reflection of his love for us kids if maybe he went out, now and then, on a date. The divorce was, after all, final.
I never paused in my eating. I allowed him time to breathe, then said, Sounds great to me. Maybe we can double-date. I loved saying it. I loved that he loved me for saying it. I wanted so badly just to know, to understand everything.
My commute across the bay is rough. It’s winter. I look up from my writing to see a pin-striped businessman — one of dozens on “The Party Boat,” as this particular Friday-night run has been christened. He is facing me, leaning over his seat somewhat unsteadily to see what I’ve written. He is waiting for me to notice him and to allow him to buy me a drink. He is perhaps twenty years my senior. I end up reading my story to him, up to the turning-point scene in the restaurant. By the time I have finished, we’ve reached the dock and people are gathering at the great, wet doors like lead shavings drawn by a magnet. The businessman helps me get my raincoat on, then holds one of his hands over my own for the briefest moment. Your parents, he says, must be very proud of you.
I grew up with three brothers and no sisters, finding girls largely incomprehensible. Even my wife, whom I have loved for twenty years now, always seemed a tiny bit alien in some fundamental way. When we had three daughters and no sons, at first a part of me yearned for a son to play ball with, to take camping, or to see the Mets at Shea. But my daughters finally showed me how spiritual and intellectual kinship can transcend the limitations of gender.
My wife and I had almost despaired of our oldest child’s ever learning to ride a bicycle. She was clumsy and frightened, but what she lacked in balance she made up for with a determination I had to struggle to match. For long hours, over the course of several weeks, I would run alongside her, shouting encouragement while she pedaled briefly before the inevitable crash.
At last came the day when she didn’t fall, but wobbled on ahead. “I’ve got it!” she shouted, ecstatic. At once she doubled her speed and raced ahead, far faster than I could run. She never looked back, her tiny legs pumping up and down as the bike tilted from side to side. As she disappeared down the bike path, a part of my life rolled away with her. Now she could go by herself to the ice-cream store, to a friend’s house, to . . . a future without me. Someday, I thought, boys would admire her as she pedaled past on her bicycle. They would see in her a reflection of their own yearnings, but nothing of her essence, nothing of the weeks of struggle that put her on that bike. In that moment, as I felt my age yielding to her youth, I identified far more with her than with the men who might someday gaze at her. For the first time in my life I was more than a man. I was simply human.
Nathaniel S. Borenstein
Morristown, New Jersey
About twenty-five miles south of Huntsville, Texas, a road curves east off the highway past a little town where for years there hasn’t been much more than a service station and a barbecue shack and a fifteen-unit motel. When I was a kid it was called the Little Shamrock Motel; back then, there must have been hundreds of drive-right-up-to-the-door motels like it all over Texas. Thirty-five years later, the Little Shamrock is still there, going by another name, storing secrets in its cold, stone walls.
In those days, law enforcement in the piney woods of east Texas was the business of a handful of sheriffs and my dad, the FBI agent for the area. Sometimes he’d let me ride with him when he needed to go to Huntsville State Prison or to stop here and there to question people. My dad and the sheriffs pretty much defined criminal behavior in those parts and acted on it when they saw fit.
Late one Sunday afternoon, on the trip back from the prison, with me along for the ride, my dad pulled off the road into the gravel lot of the Little Shamrock. In his characteristic silence, he got out of the car and went into one of the rooms for a minute, then came out and got me.
That night, at age twelve, I was stripped and tied up with rope. With a gun laid between my knees, I was for several hours the object of some sordid entertainment and picture-taking by a half-dozen strangers, a lawman, and my dad.
Nothing like that had ever happened before, nothing like it happened again, and neither of us ever spoke of it. For more than thirty years I managed to forget. When my dad died three years ago, the secrecy seemed to die with him.
Now the frightful memories sometimes pass through my mind. I wish, instead, that they were like the brief glimpses you get of towns and little motels as you pass by, out on the highway.
Getting my husband to talk is not easy. As a child, he puzzled his family by not talking until around age three, later claiming that he’d had nothing to say.
Our two-year-old daughter Lauren is a great talker. The quiet, four-month-old baby I knew throughout my maternity leave became a laughing, noisy squealer on Saturday mornings when her dad got up with her and kept up a constant conversation as he changed her, fed her, and played with her. He became the most animated conversationalist I’d seen all week. The same man who can’t answer simple questions about what he wants to drink with dinner can go on and on about the consistency of the rice cereal he’s prepared.
He reveals to Lauren the secret of how his mind works, describing to her every tangible and intangible aspect of getting dressed, having one’s diaper changed, sitting in a walker. Her perpetual “why”s are all fully and patiently explained until she asks them no more. For example, when she asks why when told not to stand on the chair, the explanation “because you will fall” becomes a lecture on the force of gravity until she has had enough.
In return, he receives his daughter’s unambivalent love and respect. Watching my husband be a father to our daughter reinforces my belief that we learn about and improve ourselves through loving and teaching our children.
Meriden, New Hampshire
On my eighth birthday — two years before my father died — he said he had a present for me. I went into his bedroom, a spare, immaculate, military-looking room, where he brought out a small, soft package wrapped in brown paper, tied with a length of twine. He handed me the present gravely, and I received it the same way, taking it carefully from him, holding it for a moment, a little afraid to open it. He said nothing, and the room seemed very quiet and formal. It was not frightening, but unfamiliar, this small ceremony between my father and me, his eldest child.
Carefully untying the knot and unfolding the brown paper, I found an inner package wrapped in white tissue and a handmade card. He had written and embellished the card himself in black ink, inscribing the words “Happy Birthday, Mary” very precisely and elegantly in the middle, with the date underneath, the words surrounded by an intricate border of acanthus leaves and vines.
Wrapped in the tissue was a long, heavy, white silk scarf, about eighteen inches wide and three feet long, with the initials U.S.N. — United States Navy — stamped in faded black at both ends. Near the center of the scarf, where it would have been wrapped around the neck, was a small brown stain. As I unfolded it, puzzled by the present, not knowing what I was to do with it or what it meant, my father began crying softly. He said the scarf had belonged to a friend, a Navy pilot who was wearing it when he was shot down and killed during the war. I wanted to comfort him but didn’t know what to do. I held the scarf in my hands, and it seemed to me that something important and solemn was happening. But I didn’t understand it, and I still don’t.
Mary Sykes Wylie
Silver Spring, Maryland
My three boys and I were driving from Florida to California to begin our new life after the messy divorce. I was feeling so strong, there wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.
But the car wasn’t as ready for the journey as we were. It would drive beautifully for twenty minutes, then roll to a stop, rest for fifteen minutes, and be ready to go again. We were towed several times and escorted by local police. We hitchhiked in the dead of night and crazy-quilted our way through diners, repair shops, motels, and the gracious help of many strangers.
Because of the divorce I did not have a checking account or even one credit card. I thought I had enough cash to last forever, but all the repair bills, extra nights on the road, and extra meals drained all the money I had.
We arrived exhausted and broke at my sister’s home in Colorado. I had thought I would never need to ask for help again, but I hadn’t lasted two weeks. I did the only thing I knew to do: I called my father. I didn’t really want to call him. I knew he would be wonderful and helpful and calm and strong, but I wanted to be that way.
I picked up the phone and dialed my father in California. When he said hello, all I could do was cry. He asked, “Is this someone I know?” I managed a weak yes. “Is this Peggy? Has there been an accident?”
“Is everyone OK?”
“Yes, we are all OK.”
“Then what is the problem?”
“We don’t have any more money.”
“Money? All you need is money? That’s kid stuff. I can take care of that. Everything will be OK.”
And so it was. My new independence had lasted two weeks. The boys and I paid for the rest of our trip with nothing but a piece of tear-stained paper listing all my father’s credit card numbers. In another week we were home.
La Habra Heights, California
When I was ten, I learned my father had lost a lot of money and was suicidal. I knew a doctor had given him small yellow pills that were supposed to help him. I would find them in his briefcase and sample them to see how they made him feel. I began to write him letters, leaving them on his desk for him to find, telling him how much I loved him, how the money didn’t matter to me, how proud I was of him. I wanted him to stay alive.
One night, I went into his den. He had just told my mother they could not afford the trip to Israel they had been planning. I said to him, “I love you, no matter what. I am proud of you.” He stared at me blankly. “Why?” he asked. I felt myself sink, submerged into a foreign world. I fumbled for words. “Because. . . .” How could I explain my love for this man and not his role, or job? How, at ten, could I explain the love that had nothing to do with status and appearances? A love that withstood the silences, the retreats behind newspapers and radio, the violent shouting behind my sister’s door? That I desperately wanted him not to go away, not to kill himself? “Because,” I said, and walked away.
We received nearly 300 Readers Write submissions this month — an unprecedented number. We wish we could have printed more of them.