My father decided that after his hernia operation he should stay home from his June trip to his Newfoundland house on the cliff, to heal. We compared gardening gut-pull sensations on the phone on Father’s Day, both interested in the scientific and Brother Ass (the body) ways of regarding the body.Won’t stop him from shooting more groundhogs with blunt-tipped arrows as they steal into his bean patch. I see him in my mind, sneaking past the apple trees, aiming, practicing the old skills, sending the ‘hog off profoundly startled. Then perhaps back in with a bunch of onions to fry up, help Mom (“Herself”) with a rug design, then to the computer to work on an article in his writing room, the one that used to be Matt and Robin’s bedroom, then Amber’s. He used to have to go out to his studio, upstairs of a detached garage, to get the peace and quiet, but now with only him and Mom, it’s up the thirteen stairs and to the right. Sloping centurion roof, walls painted forest green, window looking out over the Forbes’s Holsteins grazing, through the branches of the new sugar maple tree.There used to be two, and when we could get around to it we would tap them for sap, boil it down on the wood stove. Replanted after some of us left for college, it’s already thirty feet tall.
He goes downstairs to help Mom with lunch and dishes, fifth stair creaking, unless he steps around on the memorized soundless path, for fun. Egalitarian husband, despite the family structure having a traditional framework. Mom taught until she got married, then was mother and housewife while Dad worked nine to five as a civil servant. Six kids to manage, clean up after, provide for, an old house in the midst of dairy lands, with all the native flies, dust from the road, plus dishes, messes, crafts, laundry. Why should your mom have to do all the work? he’d ask, towel in hand, as we’d take off from the strip-mined supper table to do our own thing. Always giving reasons, never commands. Didn’t always work, ’cause we thought of reasons not to help. Mom never insisted, probably knew we’d balk, and she’d rather have us run off and read, play, and be out of her hair between meals. Over the dishes they’d talk about church politics (whether and how to shake things up), the critters they’d seen that day in the wood pile or at the bird feeder, religion, us children.
Dad survived an axe cut through the calf, a bout of prostate cancer, miles and miles of icy driving, walking, hiking, canoeing, office politics, midlife crisis, death of a child. He’s almost eighty. He has always visited old people, but now they are his contemporaries. When will I see him again, will I know how to connect in a new way, remember the questions I always wish I’d asked him? Will I get the chance to know him better, tap beyond the surface of that man’s thoughts and being? Yes, I’ve read his memoirs, to age twelve. And the book he penned about his father shows his family, river and woods roots. Is he waiting on the second volume for any particular reason? Not sure how we’ll take it? Did he really…? How did he handle…? Will he say things about me?
He’s had a full beard since I can remember, and to me that’s always been part of his countenance, and the reason bearded men seem to me more safe, more approachable and fatherly than the rest. Years ago when he proposed shaving it off, I discouraged him, though he’s heard it would take ten years off his look (beard then turning grey). But I didn’t want him to change, in case I didn’t recognize him. Would I like his smile? Would there be too much revealed? How long to adjust?
If he’s like me, my father wants to be known, and loved for, perhaps in spite of, who he really is. Yet he’s nervous at trusting much of himself to others openly. His self expression has always been by oblique means (which I also prefer). Essays, philosophical discussion, questions, painting. Yet in almost a half a century, he’s still a mystery. Admired, loved, appreciated anew as I go through life’s stages, but fundamentally a separate being. As are we all. Hard enough to understand ourselves at times–how to understand others? Heaven, I believe, will be different. Then we shall know fully, even as we are also known.
As his sixties came on, Dad said he needed less sleep than he used to, and that he supposed it was part of a continuum, leading to a time when he would wake fully. And he showed me how heaven was intimately related to Earth, had to be, since Earth was such a wonder. Such a wonder. “The world is so full of a number of things; I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”
He said he didn’t want too many medical interventions when his time came to go, that he might just toddle off to the woods. With his flat-bottomed camp teakettle, I want to add. The kettle always being part of his woods gear, I know he would manage a last tea fire, no matter what season, with strips of birch bark to light the kindling. Despite a tendency to let go of things he has owned–a special series of hardcover classics (There’s always the library), or worked at acquiring–photos, for one (Isn’t the reality what I ought to be experiencing?), I think he’ll still have that kettle handy. Vestige of his days surveying Newfoundland forests, and what he learned from his father, a guide in the Gander backwoods. Every time we’d trek to the woodlot, summer or winter, I remember a small fire and tea being part of the ritual.
I would like to see more of your face, after all, Dad. Even the parts I’ve never seen. And whatever else you’d like to share. Perhaps it won’t be so unfamiliar after all.