finalist of the 2011 creative nonfiction contest
To my father
Water is our first story. Of the lake, I will say it is gilded by morning light. We are camping. On the white sand, our rowboat is a beached creature; the oars rest against its sides like tired fins. We have unzipped the flap of our green canvas tent and are now in the pine-scented air slipping each oar in its lock, sliding the rowboat out, hearing its flat bottom scrape across the grainy shore. We glide as if the lake is our life ahead of us. The water so placid it pictures the land, begins mirroring the trees, sky with its puffy clouds adding even a flock of birds to its look. While the oars are the wands tapping these glassy surfaces, as we glide outward, continuing across. As if water is a world we are not afraid to enter. As if the whirlpools behind us become, in a sense, like small moments gone by. And the lake is unnamed. And the water is cedar. Like with onyx, our faces appear in its glassy dark. As if the lake is there to define, redefine, keeps taking us to it, keeps giving each look of us back. We do not say much that morning. Only small words: see this or look there. The story ending this way, now, because, it has simply completed itself. Because the moment has been just that, of our row-out one morning, into these moments of rowing; becoming them.
It was said to me the reason we returned the second summer and the third and the fourth year to the same campground, was because of a mere piece of driftwood which floated ashore. That the small wood of a tree had washed upon the white sands of our site. It drew in near to where a wave flapped down in exhaustion. There, it began drying out in the sun. That I saw the driftwood as a boat I could play with. I do not remember the moment. It was told that I found a piece of string and wound it around the front of this makeshift boat, a part called the bow, and towed it all day in the shallows. That for hours I played among the low pools of tannic water, tugging this wooden vessel, only stopping to moor it for a snack. It was said you felt the scene held significance, in the way my little mind could grow alive, for long hours, alone. And so, we kept returning. Each August, our family of three pitching our tent at this site, near to where the water could seep through and shape me, could lay out a certain education upon the untamed areas of our earth.
Of air, of the whirrrr of the sled. Because of a candle. Because you showed me how to wax the metal runners. That red sled, and my speeding down the hill then of your speeding down, the street blocked off by silver garbage cans, how the neighborhood was all outdoors, everyone piled on sleds in that place. Of that night. Of that hill of sleds on a street called Tomlinson. Of air, of the sled and its swiftness, of the whirrrr, of the broken candle I kept in my pocket to slick the runners now and then. Of our taking turns; of the runs we did together, double-decker, flopped on your back–how I would not let us stop, kept wanting the rides to go on. Of the sky, its endlessness. Of it being so dark that night so whitened by snow.
Air again. How it carried the first cold, the March storm in which I was born. Snow so hard it knocked the wires down. So that when I was only four days old and it was time for you to take Mom and me home from the hospital, we had no electricity. My first week of life was spent in a cradle in front of a fireplace at my aunt and uncle’s house. But really, it was suggested, it was more like you were beaming so much, giving off light that we didn’t need heat.
That patch of lawn. The brown on top of your head. Not the earth’s. Not the bright green blades of summer. Yours was an inch high–all the strands soft, growing straight up. I am five, my fingers keep scissoring through as if I have found a lush place to play. I am eight and still love that it tickles my palm. Nine, and have come to know its stubbornness, that it never lies fallow, I can lay a hand flat across–squash it to a pancake and see it spring up; push down again, release my small hand and laugh. Ten, and my fingers are still clipping through only now they are longer now I am questioning how it rises in air, all the hair aiming upward toward sun, every piece the same height all the time. Russet-colored, autumn-looking. This crew cut, your signature. Sturdy as stalks in an open field that won’t give in, not even in rain.
Of fire, there is not much to say except for the annual campsite, the wood that we burned. The revealing of stories in front of its flames. Remembering, how the three of us talked but you were the one with the greatest tales. Making them up as you went, in a manner so natural they seemed suddenly real. Or maybe the fire was helping in a way, in the way your eyes were aglow with ideas from watching it. Or how your eyes glared into the orange tongues which rose in a language, as if fire was a being that wanted to speak. So that whatever the flames gave became your own story. Fire-maker. Story-teller. Our camp, with its orange light at night, and the tales.
Of the shhh from sashaying down the mountain which was really not a mountain, just the big name we gave to Pine Hill. Night skiing. The rope tow in constant motion. The pause before using it–to wedge my skies in the tracks, feel the rough twine through my glove. Then, the sudden clamping of my hand that jolted me forward. I could then bolt upward without any effort, simply by holding on. Going up, under the bright spotlights which lit the white hillside. The snow on the ground glistening, as if thousands upon thousands of rhinestones have spilled, scattered to make all the jewelry this white earth could ever wear. Once on top, we push off with our poles, knees bent, our legs knowing to lean, how to, what angle, our bodies in a remembered rhythm as if we have always known how to ribbon this hill. To the left, turning then, to the right: shhh shhhhhh. Wrapping it like a present. Knowing how to weigh down to slow, how to lighten and race. Down to where the lodge is, where Mom is. It’s about sensing the snow, learning to navigate, to overcome obstacles. How not to get hurt suddenly. It’s about mastery and the finish, and the breaths needed before getting back into the line. It’s about the rope as a life line–the fact that you and I want it again and again.
The story is of water, the lake, its flat surface and we are on it again, riding across into its wide range of possibilities. Behind us are the blue and green tents coloring the shoreline like fallen handkerchiefs casually dropped from the sky. It is our third summer and we have rowed way out and are now returning. Earl, an older man, your friend, is waving to us from his site. Earl is standing where his feet sink at the water’s edge.
In this scene of our rowing, I am in the bow. You have the back called the stern. We glide in and I remain in the sand, not saying anything for what seems a very long time. Seems Earl and you have a lot to say. There is a friendly talk for quite awhile until I somehow get involved by speaking of the boat, and that I like sitting in front, in the bow. Earl, he is suddenly harsh with me. No, he says. You are not right. The front is the stern! He is abrupt, too quick to correct. His tone is wearing an anger that isn’t necessary. It is a curtness I don’t hear often that makes me confused. But because I have been taught the parts of a boat and am very sure of these parts, I say it again. I say respectfully, I think the bow is the front, the back is the stern. Earl’s eyes do widen. Then they squint at me, his eyes piercing downward like a hawk’s. You’re wrong! he says, as if it is final.
I feel queasy. My legs tingly from the tug of the tide. More so, from the heart that is hurt. I feel like disappearing, wading out, but the extra gravity which comes from the water washing up over my feet and drawing back keeps me sinking in sand, anchored to shore. I say nothing more. I cannot say anything.
The story is of water, its fluidity. We have pushed off once more, are gliding out, leaving Earl’s site, rowing back to our own. I keep my own hurt inside. Keep to myself, in fact; because now I have to switch things around, flip flop the nautical language I love, the way I have imprinted a boat in my brain. Because of what happened, I must believe I am not in the bow, the back is; that I am in the front, now called the stern. It is as odd as someone trying to tell me I am not left-handed, because there can be no such thing. I feel this way until we land, pull the boat in to our site and you quietly retrieve an old dictionary from the back of your car. Until now, you have not said anything of our time with Earl. On the picnic bench, we look up the parts. See clearly for ourselves that what I originally thought was right but, really, the moment takes another turn and the learning becomes something far greater than that kind of knowledge. Wise-man, you are looking at me, readying yourself for words that would arc over into older years. You handled it right, you said. You are not to argue. And by that I learn–what we now know of the boat, we know for ourselves. And too, I learn–what we just left we are simply unmoored from. A small talk, but profound. Reason enough for my life with you.
In this story of water, in which we our rowing, I am in the bow. We set off each day, go drifting about, and each time Earl sees us, he calls us in. I watch you closely noting what you know but give no sign of. That you never show him your dictionary. In fact, the parts of the boat are never mentioned again. I did not think they would be.
Of fire, there is still nothing much to say of firelight, except if I think back to some old stories, I remember the blue and the red paisley handkerchiefs Mom starched for you, to bring to work. And when I think of your working, I think of your love of the trains. Trains that you drove and those I learned of, that you fueled during the final years of the steam engines before the appearance of the electric locomotives. And that you started working with the steam engines, as a railroader, at the age of sixteen. And that at age sixteen, your job on the railroad was that of fireman. For the firemen back then, there was danger in that the embers would fly up and burn their skin. And so it was, they wore the paisleys around their necks as protection. And so it was, they became known as neckerchiefs. Even with the switch to the electric trains, you still took those square cloths with you. Even though the cloths returned themselves to your hands.
It’s about the water. It’s about our skating on its frozen surface. And the crisp wind and what I learn from making pirouettes on Newton Creek. I am older now, twelve, wanting to go off on my own, or with friends. How the ice keeps teaching me of love in the body. Because it is more than skating on ice–it is about the word graceful, the sensual nature of one’s very own limbs. And it is about the buds on my chest aching to bloom. It is about twirling and saying to myself how I am spinning into something beautiful, wanting that for myself. While the blades make calligraphy, spinning myself into a swan. My father, you have gone over to the banks of the creek this time, are looking distant there, but not quite fading. You, with your lit cigar. And I am off spinning to discover myself.
Earth. You are in the hospital. I have dimes in my pocket because before school, over breakfast, I learn you are giving them a hard time. You won’t sign the papers for surgery. The arteries to your heart are clogged, certain ones, closing up. But, you will not sign. There has been a fight. There has been a phone call to our house from the doctor who tells Mom she better come now. You have been too loud in your room. The doctor is pressuring for surgery, and I have my dimes, I have the phone number to your room in my pocket. In school, soon as the math class ends, soon as the bell, I race from the third floor down into the deep belly of the school, running at a clip down the metal staircase into a red phone booth. Between classes to the basement into the booth closing its glass door. Seems, I am in an aquarium with water, a fish who hears a garbled world on the other side. The hall is bustling. But I am a fish, swimming for the number and coins. I call and your voice breaks as if you are crying and trying not to. Like drowning, aware of sinking and struggling to surface–and what it means to have a lack of oxygen, like you already know. Because, I am scared, you finally say. And I say, But I want you to have it.
Of air that day in October, of the zzzzip I heard while alone with you only five months after your surgery, while Mom runs errands and we are sitting side by side on the bench in the yard. We are underneath the maple, not looking at each other. The wind comes. You believe you are putting on a sweater. Your arms going through the motions of putting one on that does not seem to fit or maybe it is because you are cold that it keeps you imagining. And you are tugging at sleeves that are not even there, are putting on that sweater, making zipper sounds through your teeth zzzzip zzzzzzziip out loud and I cannot watch as I have stopped looking at everything including myself. The wind again and I want it rustling, shaking alive your damaged brain. We have entered the dying season. Autumn, where everything is bared and I am thinning like a twig, and you are wearing the invisible sweater. Together we seem as leaves browning, the color of our lives drained.
Of water, of earth, the lack of air. After the incident, I continue to learn of you. In my twenties, I begin a long correspondence with my uncle, your brother, Melvin. He writes casually of his life on a sea island in South Carolina. He types his letters using an old manual Remington. When I read the type, I can almost hear the plink of the keys. You would have liked his letters and you would have written back; in your own style, of course, slanting your words backward, the lettering scrolled. Melvin writes of the Coffin Plantation, which has long gone and is subdivided into lots. His lot has a ditch nearby where Coffin himself would hide his Gullah slaves to avoid paying the tax collectors. Melvin knows about the Gullah, their tales, coded language, the line of descendents, because he reads everything, and because of a yard sale he went to where he and Aunt Lorie were the only whites and were welcomed inside. He mentions a piglet in the house, sleeping curled on the floor. I have all his writings in a shoebox where I keep them. But it wasn’t until my late twenties that our correspondence began to include you. How gingerly I might ask, What do you remember of my father? And he would reply just as cautiously. Because it hurt so much what had happened, we needed to go back through it soft. Even when uncovering the kindest remembrances. Little by little, back and forth, south to north….We do this for years.
Of the sea, its salt air, the sandy shore–in my thirties, I spend a winter in a sea town in New Jersey. Melvin is still writing. He shares something in the body of a letter, the very middle, where it could have gone unnoticed among his other thoughts. I am staying on the second floor of a house by the bay, reading it, while the sun is putting down some red on the marsh. I am holding the letter when I read, Your father loved flowers. Holding this in my hand with my own sea in me, coming out of my eyes.
It occurs to me how I have gathered other words of you like cigars and trains. Or called up images that hint at pots of coffee; or you with a tin briefcase; of Charlie, the locomotive engineer, who had neckerchiefs and a blue and white striped cap. That I have the nouns of an outer man but these flowers you loved seem like something inside you, a part I never witnessed that died suddenly, from a lack of oxygen during surgery, although you lived on with dementia for many years. Beneath it all, the wreck and ruin, behind the dementia I still have no words for, to think that–against these unspeakable hours–down below, far inside, flowers, at the very core of you.
The sun was giving all its red to the bay. And the quiet of the vacant town seemed right for the ocean to become a fine place to think. Walking the shoreline–I readjust, adding this new you to myself. After all, it is what the elements show, that nothing is constant–changing winds, flickering of fire, or when out upon the ever-moving water, to note how even its images shift and are mirrored. Or the evolving world how, whatever it is given, it adds to itself. Reshapes itself and yet, is still earth. And then on Earth–of us, who seek to bring to our lives something more, but fall short of finding it–there is always this searching. As if whatever we come across, we become that for awhile–and it is that new self that we are, which then leads to the next thing we seek. And of matters of the heart, even those with hurt hearts, they will continue, I think, to shift, survive, as long as they remember to keep looking to the beyond and of my own willingness to seek the distances, ahead, again, there is another story of water. And of backwater, of my life with you, Father, I am still rowing my way out.