Dear Lily June,
It is my father’s–your grandpap Edward’s–birthday.
This day of the year is always a loaded one for me–weighted as it is by joy, sorrow, memory’s mediation between subjective interpretation and objective reality. Half the weight is in knowing the day is supposed to be celebratory, a commemoration of my father’s life, and the guilt that I’m not feeling the right way about him on his day.
And I do love him, Lily June. I’ve loved him even when I’ve hated him, even when I’ve feared him, even when I’ve wished for any other father, even when I haven’t been speaking to him, even when I’ve wanted, more than anything, just to understand him, even when I’ve feared, in my anger, in my humor, I am becoming him. Even when I’ve desperately wanted to feel as if he loved me, too–or even just knew me–even just saw or heard me.
Remembering my father’s life is like looking into a portrait of him in a frame that’s been dropped, so the glass splinters over his face obscuring the details, making me want to look a little closer, all the while knowing it is dangerous to handle. I have to be careful how I do it.
My father is abusive. Parts of this he can admit aloud; other parts he can’t accept even within himself. We like to think of abusers as insensitive, callous, stoic to the feelings of others. But my father is also an expert guitarist who could tell you that callouses build only after a lot of painful practice, and having them is the only way to be able to continue playing. And for some people, not playing just isn’t an option.
I think I mean to say that, in the best of lights, I look at my father and see how deeply it would wound him to accept how much he’s wounded others. He himself was once harmed irreparably by one of his own brothers. I think a callousness has grown over the place in him that needed love itself–that warped in the practice of reaching for it and reaching for it, even with a strangling grasp.
This does not excuse my father’s behavior.
He is sixty-one years old now, and he lives alone in Florida. He will occasionally get into a romantic entanglement long enough for the woman to discover what’s under the callouses, the throbbing need in him that contorts into demands of her. And all of the women my father has ever loved have left him. Part of me is relieved when they go, as I know, physically, emotionally, they are safer without him.
But I cannot explain the other part of me, the almost motherly ache for him to find someone who will take care of him. It’s not just a surface fear that if no one else does it, it will eventually fall to me. It is a deeper fear that a man can live an entire lifetime with no lasting love to show for it. He is sixty-one years old, and all the women my father has ever loved–in his deeply flawed and volatile ways, have left him.
In more ways than I can easily explain, I am one of those women.
Now that you are a toddler, I keep reliving this memory I have of sitting as a toddler myself in my family’s kitchen. It is early and dark, the kind of crisp, chilly dark that makes me suspect it is sometime in October. It can’t be later than 5:00am, maybe even 4:30. My father is in the shower, getting ready to work for a law firm he hated–one with fellow lawyers who groomed him to become a cocaine customer, to fall deeper into the well of his alcoholism and addictive behavior.
He had become a lawyer because he was scared, because his degree in philosophy didn’t translate elsewhere, because he’d gotten his nineteen-year-old wife pregnant, because he was raised to do right in that situation, because he’d watched too many episodes of a show called The Paper Chase, a series based on a film about, at least in part, a law student who falls for the wrong woman.
Until today, I’d never seen any part of it, but in watching the film’s trailer, I caught a glimpse of Edward Herrmann (at around 1:18).
I only know of the actor because he played the part of Richard Gilmore in a show called The Gilmore Girls, a series I have watched and rewatched over my lifetime, gorging on all seven seasons once when I was on maternity leave in 2015, and all I had to do with my life was hold and feed you.
I held you on my chest, breastfeeding and cuddling and indulging in the guilty pleasure show about a mother who is best friends with her daughter, but has a toxic relationship with her own mother and father. Herrmann played that father.
But I digress. In the memory, in the kitchen, I am a toddler, and I am leaning across a cold Formica table to inhale the scent of my father’s rich coffee, so dark and so bitter. I cannot, at that time, stand the taste, but the scent electrifies me, makes me feel awake and alive in ways I don’t have the vocabulary to explain. That’s the whole memory.
I am just waiting for my father to get ready. Because he does so in the dark, he is a mystery to me. Because he drinks a drink so strong and bitter and quickly before he leaves, he is fascinating. Everyone else in the house is asleep, and I’m worried I’ll get into trouble for being awake, for waiting for him. I have no idea now if he even acknowledged me then on his way out the door, on his way to the place he hated to go in order to be able to bring in the money to put food for me back on that Formica. I just remember waiting for him.
It’s as good as any other memory I have of him, and it resurfaces almost every morning these days, as you lay still sleeping in the bed with your father, and I get ready to leave for work. I wake up at 4, at 5, at 6 am, usually before you’ll rise for your day. I look down into your angel face for a moment, and then I leave the room. I go into another and drink my bitter coffee. I am alone in the dark and the cold, and it is lonely. I think of my father. I think of him going to law school with one daughter already born, one (your mother!) on the way.
I think of the poem I read in grad school by Robert Hayden:
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he'd call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?
My father was white, not blue, collar, and as far as I know, he never warmed the house for me or my sister or my mother. But he did go to work in the blueblack cold. And I never thanked him, either.
October belongs to him in my memory. It’s not just because October 27 is his birthday. It’s because of Halloween, the holiday that is still one of my two favorites, and the gift he gave to me: Whatever costume I might have donned, he went as my father. He would bundle us up against the cold Pittsburgh weather, grab my hand, and he would take me trick-or-treating.
I don’t remember a single piece of candy. I remember my father holding my hand like it was something we did regularly. I remember toddling up to each house without him, him waiting at the bottom of each drive for me. A man who can barely stand to wait in a grocery line, he never rushed me. He’d wait patiently for me to come back to him, put my candy into the pillowcases I lugged around that, when they got too full, he would carry for me. It probably took less than an hour, but I remember those nights as if they lasted forever.
Halloween, to me, is not scary. It’s comforting. Those who have been dead, lost, gone, come back alive for an evening. They walk amongst the living as if they’d always been there. Pumpkins light the darkness. It smells like burning leaves everywhere. Children run around and around and collect and collect sweetness.
My father woke me some mornings, too.
When we’d visit the ocean as a family, I was the only one he’d take to watch the sunrise. I don’t know why he chose me, only that I can remember digging our big toes (of patented Hall size; you’ll see when you’re older) into the wet surf to pull up the clams that would dig, with their tongues, furiously back underneath. He knew they were there, just under the surface. He knew things were not always what they seemed. He tried to teach this to me.
He taught me to skip stones, fold paper airplanes, and that others have “hidden agendas.” He made me tough, put me on edge with men, made me less trusting than I might otherwise be. He never wanted me to imagine a man, any man, even him, would take care of me. I am independent because of him. It is a burden. It is a blessing.
Because of him, too, I also recognize the value of your father, who teaches you EVERYTHING. You do not have to wait for him to acknowledge you, because he always sees you, Lily. Your dad will not be a perfect man to you, little darling, but whatever his flaws, trust me when I say this: He sees you. He wants to. He will hold your hand regularly, and you will watch sunrises together, and go trick-or-treating, and drink coffee (or milk) together so often, you’ll take it for granted.
Do your mother a favor: Don’t. Be better than I have been as a daughter. Thank your father, Lily.
I remember my father waking me on Saturdays. There was a revolving door of women after my mother named all with J’s (I kid you not, Lily)–Jackie, Janet, Jennifer, Jeanette–and he’d wake me whenever he’d written the next one a ballad. He wanted me to hear it, to approve of it, to tell him the next woman in his life would love it, would love him. I mostly just complained about being a teenager who was woken up on a Saturday.
But the sound of any acoustic guitar riff now has my father behind it. Most of the music in my life belongs to him, whether he wrote it, or shared it, or it, in some way, is reminiscent of what he’d written or shared with me. In all my training as a poet, he’d only ever asked me to collaborate on one song, a song about a storm that changes a man’s life, only that storm is a woman. There’s an image of a man staring at his ring finger, the line on it still fading, that I came up with, and my father loved it.
Since he wrote a full melody for it, he’s called me dozens of times to play it over the phone. He sings my own words back to me. This is his way, I think (I have to think), of saying he’s proud of me. And I do love him, Lily June. And the part of him that can, does, I think, love me. And we both know it. And that’s as much of a birthday gift as I can afford to give him. And he’s given me as much as himself as he has to give, too.
And we try, when we can, to let go of the bad parts of our pasts–even the moments when I’ve hated him, when I’ve feared him, when I’ve wished for any other father, when I haven’t been speaking to him, when I didn’t invite him to my wedding to your father, when I didn’t come to see him as his heart started failing, when I left him wondering why I was just another woman who’d left him.
We are in each other’s lives now. We try, when we can, to focus on this present.
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