Mercy is a bridge from soul to soul.
— Phoebe Finley Pack
I PUSH the lawn mower across the grass, and memories of my dad fly up like little green blades:
Let’s start up that mower. You’ve got to prime the pump first. See that lever? It adjusts the wheels up and down. Don’t hit any rocks. Here, put these sunglasses on for protection. You don’t want something to fly up and hit you in the eye.
When I was seventeen I came home from school one day and found Dad painting a picture of a tree struck in half by lightning in our backyard. For canvas he used a piece of split wood. Two days earlier he’d been released from the hospital. He was very ill — in fact, he was dying.
I looked over his shoulder and said, “I like your painting.”
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” he replied. “I’m on my path at last.”
What path was that? He’d never mentioned a path before. He had once told me, “All men need a purpose.” Was painting his? Now, when his life was almost over?
The next week, early on Sunday morning, my mother knocked on my bedroom door and, in a strangely relieved voice, said, “Your dad finally died last night. He went peacefully. It was a blessing.”
I stayed in bed, letting the news sink in. My father, whom I both loved and hated: gone. His death was a blessing. It was. I stared out the window at the gray Vermont sky. The house was quiet with the presence of death.
My mother wanted my younger brother, my sister, and me to carry on as usual that day, but I refused. I dialed the jewelry store and said, “My dad died last night. I won’t be in today.” I could feel my boss’s shock but not my own.
Dad’s name was Camille Frank Vozar. Everyone called him Cam. His beginnings in Chicago were poverty-stricken. His father died when Cam was only six weeks old. His mother took in ironing from the church. Three older sisters dominated him; his early male role models were Catholic priests.
Cam was Catholic in name only. He sat at the head of the supper table, pausing to stub out a cigarette before beginning his mealtime antics. First he rose a little, spread his cheeks, and farted loudly. Then he announced, “We will now say grace”:
Our Father who art in jail, Eating peanuts by the pail. Along came the Holy Ghost, Who in hell ate the most?
He snorted and farted again. God bless him.
He was the type to cry, “Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!” when he was right and you were wrong. Annoying as hell, but that’s how he was.
Cam had the looks of James Dean. He drank hard — two cases of beer in a single weekend — and played hard, jumping up and dancing the twist, the boogie-woogie, the Watusi. “Limbo lower now,” Chubby Checker sang, and Cam just about broke his back going under the stick. A gut-splitting laugher, an extrovert, the life of the party. I could see why Mom had married him. On a good day he went around the house shaking his head and mimicking the Beatles: “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah! / She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!”
One time, when I refused to get him a beer, his soft brown eyes turned black as olives. He squeezed my arm meanly and said, “Get. Me. A. Beer. Now!” I buckled.
People didn’t use the word dysfunctional back then. I can imagine myself asking a mental-health worker — had there been one to ask — “Why is he this way?” Today I know that he was at least partially insane from toxic doses of alcohol.
Soft brown eyes and leathery hands. Only forty-three years old. Gone.
My mother was on the phone to relatives in Chicago, assuring everyone that Cam was at rest now, finally, at last. She was holding up pretty well.
Our neighbor Celine came over carrying a plate of warm cinnamon rolls. She was practically a member of the family. Spoons and cups clinked and scraped. Celine paged through the address book, deciding whom to call next. Mom put the phone down, dangled her loose hands over a stack of paper napkins, then began folding them, end to end. Celine and I helped.
Another neighbor came over. Full of purpose, Mr. Betit stood in the kitchen wearing a black overcoat and chewing the stub of a cigar. He held a plate of ham. His presence in our house always meant something was wrong: a broken furnace, a flat tire, a clogged sink. Whatever the problem, he’d find a way to fix it. Mr. Betit gave my mother a long, sober look. “You’ve had a terrible shock, Lea. Let me handle this for you. The wife is putting together some supper for tonight. Have you called the undertaker yet?” My mother stepped aside as Mr. Betit made phone calls and arrangements. He even emptied the trash.
We took a night flight to Chicago, where Dad’s family cemetery plot was. The airplane was as dark as the inside of a coffin. How was Dad getting to Chicago? Was his body packed in with the luggage?
Dad took up smoking at the age of twelve and never stopped. He rode the Chicago subways endlessly as a boy because he liked to fall asleep in the rocking cars. I’ve often thought of him riding those cars, finding comfort in the soothing rocking sensation he couldn’t get at home.
Across the airplane aisle, Mom wore a numb smile creased with sadness. I imagined her thinking: Look how well I’m holding up. She whispered to a stranger, “My husband died yesterday. We’re going to his funeral.”
Grieve, I thought, but she wasn’t the sort of woman to do that publicly. Not in front of us kids, either.
My older brother and sister flew in from Detroit. We stayed with relatives in Oak Park. Evelyn and Elia’s house had dark columns and tall ceilings that reached for the heavens. The place felt like a funeral home. At the dinner table that night, there was laughter, gaiety. For dessert Evelyn served up a sweet cake, but then her face turned sad and she pushed her slice away. “Cam was so young,” she said. “Too young to die.” Silence followed. We sat at the table, all remembering our strange relationship with Dad. Then Evelyn, who’d known Dad in better days, when we’d lived in Arkansas, rescued the conversation with a funny story. I remembered some stories of my own.
Arkansas. Third grade. I got in trouble at school. A dirty word was passed around on the playground, and I’d done the passing.
After recess, Mrs. Reeves yanked me into the hall. “When you get home, you must say that very word out loud to your parents. I’m calling them first thing tomorrow. I hope they wash your mouth out with soap, you filthy girl!”
That evening Dad sat in his green upholstered rocker, sipping a beer and watching the news. I stood at his side, ready to choke on the word. “Dad, I said a bad word on the playground.”
“What word, Linda Lou?”
The word sat on my tongue like a bad burn. Heads rolled when he got pissed off enough; this could be one of those times.
“It rhymes with truck.”
“You said that word?” He caught himself smiling.
“You’ll never say that word again, will you?” he said, still holding back a smile.
“No, sir. Never.”
“No more monkey business on the playground, understand, Linda Lou?”
This was a switch. Both my parents could hand down severe punishments for the slightest wrongdoing. To receive no punishment at all was confusing. I hadn’t yet learned to sometimes expect the unexpected.
We moved to Michigan, where Dad turned volatile. Alcohol evaporated from his pores. He didn’t like his job, didn’t like living in the suburbs of Detroit; he stopped doodling, stopped dancing, stopped having fun. It was as if he’d fallen down a deep well and taken all of us with him.
Around this time, when I was ten or twelve, I told my mother that Dad drank too much. Couldn’t she make him stop? Couldn’t she do something about his drinking?
“Like what?” she asked.
“Divorce him,” I boldly suggested.
She slapped my face. My eyes bugged as I held a hand over my red cheek. Expect the unexpected.
Five years later, we moved again, to Pennsylvania, where Dad was fired from a management position at a chemical company for drinking on the job. He took a low-paying job in a polyurethane factory. His work clothes smelled foul, like synthetic rubber. This was not his path; not even close.
In Pennsylvania I made friends with the Morrisons. They were the perfect family, with four kids and a dog. They lived in a small mansion and gave lavish parties. Stephanie invited me on family vacations in their Buick station wagon. We played goofy games and told jokes and pantomimed singing the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love.” Mrs. Morrison was pretty and smart and fun. Mr. Morrison played golf and smoked cigars and was a sharp dresser. He looked like JFK. He drank but never got drunk. His kids adored him.
The time came when, to be polite, I had to invite Stephanie to my house. I dreaded her spending the night, but what choice did I have? I was at her house so often.
It took all my nerve, but I asked Dad to change out of his smelly work clothes before Stephanie came over. I wanted him to put on something smart and crisp, like Mr. Morrison wore.
“What’s wrong with my clothes?” Dad asked.
It wasn’t just the clothes that embarrassed me, or even the drinking. Dad had strange habits. For breakfast he ate two raw eggs, broken into a Scotch glass and beaten with a fork, with a dash of salt and pepper. “Down the hatch!” he’d say and swallow the runny yellow mess. Watching this made us all gag. “There’s something wrong with your father,” my mother would say, “but I don’t know what it is.”
Dad hated to bathe. He washed up at the sink and soaked his tired, stinky feet in a white enamel pan after work. He shaved five mornings a week and one time even shaved his armpits, airing them for all the world to see. But bathe in the tub? Take a shower? Dad got a haircut more frequently than he bathed.
Having Stephanie over multiplied my worries by ten. What if she saw Dad drinking his breakfast or staggering around the house, slurring his words? Sometimes he was a nice drunk; sometimes a mean one. Expect the unexpected.
Right from the beginning Stephanie was bored to death. There was no singing, no goofy jokes, no family fun. Friday night we went to a school dance, and when we got home, Dad was already in bed. She was supposed to stay all day Saturday, but by midmorning she was so bored that she called her mother to come get her. I should have felt relief, but in my emotional adolescent state, I pretended to feel insulted.
That morning, to please me, Dad had changed into clean pants and his loud Florida shirt with the yellow palm trees. When I saw him, I felt such tenderness and guilt that I almost couldn’t bear it. Still, I didn’t introduce him to Stephanie.
When Mrs. Morrison drove up in her Buick station wagon, I hustled Stephanie out the door, but Dad was already wobbling fearlessly across the front yard, not to be overlooked. He pumped Mrs. Morrison’s hand and invited her inside. Mrs. Morrison pulled a cigarette out of her bag. A flared match trembled in Dad’s leathery hand. They sat talking, or trying to talk. Dad’s face was all tragic charm. Nothing he could do or say would have made any difference in how I felt.
As Stephanie left with her mother, my shame turned into rage. I went out to the garage where Dad stored his beer, popped the lids on two and a half cases of Budweiser, and poured them onto the ground by the side of the house. (What I didn’t know was that Dad kept bottles of gin hidden throughout the house. For months after he died, my mother kept finding them in his sock drawer, his golf bag, under the front seat of his car. “A little memento from your father,” she said, producing a gin bottle from an old bowling-ball bag.)
Dad never noticed the missing beer.
“He’s lost count,” my mother said, when I told her what I’d done.
The next year, Dad and I had our worst fight yet.
“Why can’t I go on a date?” I wanted to know.
“Because I said so, that’s why,” he slurred.
We battled back and forth until we were screaming. I picked up a heavy leather shoe and threw it at him. The shoe hit him right in the eye, hard, nearly knocking him out.
He stumbled against the wall for balance. “What was that for?”
“For being a drunken bastard of a father.”
I was certain he’d ground me for months. He didn’t, though. He pulled another switcheroo.
“I just want us to get along, Linda Lou,” he said with drunken sincerity.
My emotions weren’t that flexible. There was no backing down. “If you’d stay sober once in a while, maybe we could. Right now, I hate you.”
“You really hate me — your old man?” He worked to keep his balance.
He leaned against the wall, rubbing his hurt eye, then staggered away with a smile on his lips, as if he were proud of me for standing up to him. I gained my freedom that day. I went on the date. Dad even shook the boy’s hand and said, “Have her home by eleven o’clock.”
We patched things up. His eye turned black and blue, and every time I looked at him, I thought, I’m sorry. I thought this many more times than I said it.
My school bus stopped to pick up kids who lived near the neighborhood bar. One morning a classmate got on and said, “I saw your dad last night. He couldn’t even stand up. They kicked him out of the bar, and he fell flat on his face in the street!”
“Not my dad. You’ve got the wrong guy.”
A few days later I came home from school and found Dad passed out at the bottom of the stairs. He’d fallen and gashed his head. Blood ran down his face. I thought he was dead. I shook his shoulders. “Dad, get up! Wake up!”
He groaned. I let his shoulders drop to the floor. I’d never seen him this drunk. My younger brother and sister would be home from school soon, and I couldn’t let them find him like this. I wiped the blood off his face and got him onto the sofa — first his top half, then the bottom. And there he stayed until late the next day.
My mother began attending Al-Anon meetings, trying to build her own life. She kept Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlets hidden in the desk drawer. “There’s something wrong with your father, and I don’t know what it is” was replaced by “Your father has a disease, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
One night at 2 A.M., she kicked him out of the house. He pounded on the door, but she held firm. That week he slept at the Y.
Then, suddenly, he got help. He went for a long stay at Chit Chat Farms, a rehab center somewhere deep in the Pennsylvania woods. At the end of a month, we drove there to pick him up. Everyone at the Farm was wired on coffee. We walked the grounds, dressed in our Sunday best. I was very nervous to see him. I expected a big change, and that’s what I got.
He was a stranger. A “dry drunk,” as the condition is known. Dark rings circled his eyes. He wouldn’t or couldn’t look at any of us. Didn’t talk. Didn’t smile. He seemed so depressed, a nocturnal animal forced to walk in daylight. I wanted to scream, Would somebody please give him a drink!
Home from Chit Chat Farms, Dad attended AA meetings. There he met Heinz, a diminutive, toothless old drunk with white whiskers whose only daughter wanted nothing to do with him. Heinz slept at the Y or on the street until Dad brought him home. Heinz spent many nights on our sofa.
“Does Heinz live with us now?” I asked my mother.
“Apparently so,” she replied.
Heinz was old enough to be my father’s father, and Dad treated Heinz as a loving son might. Suddenly Dad’s life had a higher purpose — he was helping another man get sober.
Heinz liked to mow the lawn, but I liked to mow the lawn, too. Dad said we had to let Heinz do it because “all men need a purpose.” That summer I watched Heinz do my job.
Dad’s sobriety didn’t last. By mid-August Heinz had disappeared from our house. I was sorry to see Dad return to the bottle, but at least he was my Dad again, and I could mow the lawn.
Dad died in Vermont, our sixth and final move. His last job was as manager of a packaging plant. To unwind after work, he drank; he tried to fix up the old New England house where we lived; he danced and mimicked the Doors: “Come on, baby, light my fire.”
Shortly before he died, I visited Dad in the hospital. He’d been sitting up in a chair, but just as I arrived, two nurses were helping him back into bed. His bones stuck out everywhere, as though they might puncture his skin. The nurses spoke sweetly to him, almost in baby talk, and too loudly, as though he were deaf. I was seventeen. My adult life was just beginning. Dad’s life was ending before my eyes.
The nurses laid him on the bed and covered him with a sheet. He looked like a little boy under a white tent. I swallowed my sobs and looked away. On the table, I saw some doodles he’d drawn on a napkin. From time to time Dad would open his eyes and look for me. I sat holding his hand, thinking of all the turmoil we’d endured, all the places we’d lived. Surely he’d meant to find his path before the very end? I love you, Dad, I thought, but didn’t say it out loud. His eyes blinked, focused on me, then closed, and he fell back to sleep.
Hushed, murmuring voices passed by in the corridor; the elevator bell rang faintly. It was almost night outside, and the light at the window was a purplish gray. A cold gray frost lay on the branches of the trees.
Dad woke up and gestured to the glass of water by his bed. I held the glass out for him, but he was too weak to take it.
“Just wet my lips,” he said. “With tissue.”
“Wet your lips?” I repeated. “All right. I can do that.”
I dipped a washcloth into the glass of water. Leaning forward, I patted Dad’s lips, squeezed a little water into his mouth, and smoothed away the crusted dead skin. My hands trembled, but I told myself to keep doing it.
“Thank you. I feel better now,” he said, and he fell back to sleep.
I looked at the doodles on the napkin. I wanted them. I picked up the napkin and left.
I push the mower across the grass in New Mexico, where I live today. My husband appears and hands me a letter from my mother. “It’s too early for this year’s Christmas story,” she writes, “but I couldn’t wait any longer.” She’s sent the latest chapter of her memoirs. I haven’t been able to read her stories lately because she leaves all the difficult emotional moments quietly unexplored. But, out of duty, I begin to read this one.
To my surprise, it’s about Dad’s last Christmas, how she didn’t want to serve up the roast turkey and dressing in front of him because he was too ill to eat. I’m moved to tears. I pick up the phone and call her.
My mother says, “Every one of you kids has called me to say how much you liked my story.”
“You finally wrote about Dad,” I say. “You got emotional.”
“Really? Do you really think so?”
“Mom, do you remember when I threw that shoe at Dad and nearly knocked him out? I was fourteen and so pissed off because he was drunk, and I wanted to date that boy. Do you think he’s forgiven me for that?”
“Of course he has,” she says.
“But I hit him in the eye. Hard. I know I hurt him. Remember his black eye?”
“Well, you didn’t mean to hurt him, did you?”
“Yes, of course I meant to!” I begin to cry. “And that time I asked him to change his clothes when Stephanie Morrison came to spend the night, and then I avoided him all weekend. I can’t believe how cruel I was.”
“I don’t remember that. Anyway, it’s all ancient history — and you know Dad. He always wanted to make things right between the two of you.”
I hang up and go back outside. I push the lawn mower up and down, making narrow lanes, tears streaming down my face as the mower blasts out exhaust and the smell of freshly cut grass. I imagine the tops of Dad’s leathery hands next to mine on the mower’s handle.
Here, put these sunglasses on for protection. You don’t want something to fly up and hit you in the eye.