And why should I expect anyone to be interested in this piece of writing, when we all have memories of our own, plenty to keep us busy for a lifetime? I shouldn’t. And I don’t. But if I let that question stop me, I wouldn’t have this blog at all. This is, after all, a practice in not stopping… xo
My father was a funny guy. When I think of him, it is with a Camel unfiltered cigarette in his mouth, and auburn hair falling across his forehead.
In what was a typical 1970s custody arrangement, my sisters and I lived with our mother and spent Sundays with Daddy. Sometimes he’d take us to Moon’s Drugstore for hamburgers and sometimes to visit my sister’s horse, at a small family farm way out Hwy 70. The farm was in the country and, while my older sister rode, I wandered the property, smelling the hay and oats, tasting the salt lick and whistling the way Daddy taught me, by blowing through sharp blades of grass I held between my thumbs.
There was a big shady tree on the property, and one Sunday I noticed it was covered in what looked like a bristling black carpet. Holding my hand up to the tree, I let one of what turned out to be thousands of caterpillars crawl onto my palm, where I pet it with one finger. I played with the little thing the rest of the afternoon, letting it explore my hand and wrist, venture up my arm and, when it was time to leave, I kept it because it was just so dear, and in need of love.
Daddy drove us home at the end of the day and as I stepped out of the car, he told me to put the caterpillar down on the ground outside, to set him free. I stared at my father and then at the tiny creature in my hand, realizing what I had done by removing it from it’s home, knowing that I could not, as my father had suggested, just “put him in the grass.”
“He won’t know where he is,” I said. “He’ll be all alone.” But even though I was only six or seven at the time, life with my mother had already taught me the survival skills needed in my particular habitat: Do not ask for anything. Do not inconvenience anyone. Do not, under any circumstances, upset the grown-ups.
Still, I couldn’t stop my eyes from filling with tears. And then somehow, looking down at my muddy white sandals, I managed to ask, “Can we take him back where he came from?”
Daddy started the engine. In utter shock that he had agreed, I slid into the front seat next to him and together we drove in awkward silence back to the tree. I don’t think we had ever been alone before and the silence was scary, only because it was new. Daddy unrolled the window and we listened to Mac Davis on the radio until our wheels hit the gravel road leading to the dirt driveway and, finally, to the wet grass by the tree. In the pitch black, he lit a cigarette and walked with me, as I felt a scratchy tickle between the palms of my cupped hands. When we reached the tree, I returned the caterpillar to where it belonged, to its rightful place among the other caterpillars, to its family and friends and the daily toil of the insect kingdom.
On the way back to my mother’s apartment, we were silent again. Daddy wasn’t a big talker and I was shy around grown-ups, even the ones I loved. He parked and, before I stepped out of the car, our eyes met. “You’re a good egg, Moonbeam,” he said, patting my knee.
“You too,” was my response.
My mother would be awake and waiting, he knew this. She would be angry that we had taken so long. He knew that too. And he knew that she may be drinking, or packing to leave, screaming as she tossed nighties into a suitcase. Then he did the thing that he did every Sunday. The thing that I understand now, a little, but didn’t then, at all. He opened his cupped hands, and left me in the grass, alone.
Years later, when I was a junior in high school, my father and I lived together in an oddly shaped condominium, up a steep flight of stairs. It was actually part of a larger place where my mother, sisters and I had lived until I was thirteen, at which point everyone, for their own reasons, hit the road but me. After that, a wall was built while I was at school one day, separating the condo back into the original two units, one to be sold and one to house the leftover person, me.
Eventually, my father moved in and by eventually, I mean that what happened in the years after my mother left and before he moved in is a whole other story, but this is about my father, not about being left behind. This is about my father who, eventually, moved in with me at a time when I wanted nothing to do with him.
We rarely saw each other. We left notes: Daddy, I have rehearsal tonight. Be home at 10:00. Mag, I have a meeting tonight, D. We shared chores and grocery shopping, living on Kroger’s chicken salad, peanut butter and pickles. He was a plastic surgeon, one of the first to practice in Nashville, but there never seemed to be much money. I was a kid who grew up drinking powdered milk, but going to private school. I don’t know why we lived the way we did, and even after my father died and my sisters and I got a look at all the history and paperwork, it never added up. This isn’t about that, either.
There wasn’t much furniture in our place, but there was a low round coffee table in front of the television, where the two of us ate dinner off paper plates and left our scribbled correspondence. On the table, next to an overflowing ashtray, there was also a Folger’s coffee can filled with scissors, pens and surgical instruments he sometimes used for what he called “chores around the house.”
My junior year, the year Daddy moved in, I had a steady boyfriend, Steve. Daddy knew Steve, but not well because I never let friends up the dark wooden stairs to where we lived. I was embarrassed of the used office furniture, the old linoleum and the smoke stained walls, but the bigger reason was that I didn’t want to give my father even the slightest glimpse into my life. Daddy was all I had, so I was afraid to be angry with him but, at sixteen, I was also afraid not to be. So on Friday and Saturday nights, I would stand watch for Steve at my bedroom window, running down to meet him when his VW bug pulled into the parking lot.
On prom night that year, I got dressed in the tuxedo I had rented for the evening, black tie and tails, to match Steve’s. I was late and groping around under my bed for the high heels I’d borrowed from a friend, when I heard my boyfriend bounding up the stairs. I put on red lipstick, ran a comb through my shoulder length hair and raced out to catch my worlds colliding.
In the hallway, near the wall (yes, that wall), Steve and my father had already said hello. My date, a boy well loved and impeccably coached by his mother, had brought a corsage for me, a cluster of white sweetheart roses that he tried, and failed, to pin on the lapel of my jacket.
“Want me to give that a shot?” My father asked.
Steve might have been embarrassed, but I don’t think so. Daddy had a way of putting himself in your shoes, of offering help without judging you for needing it.
And then my father did the best thing. He went to the coffee can and got his magnifying headset with the light, the one he used for operating, taking out stitches and checking incisions. Lowering the magnifying visor over his eyes, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he pinned the flower in the proper spot, on the tuxedo jacket of his sixteen-year old daughter. I stood rooted, enduring the confusing wave of emotions, blushing beneath my collar and tie.
We made it through the moment, and with a quick hug, said good-bye. I imagine Daddy sitting down afterwards, at the coffee table, to have a peanut butter sandwich that he cuts in half with a scalpel.
That scene in the hallway with the corsage was the corniest moment in my life, and though at the time I would have denied it, I was a girl sorely in need of corny moments. My Dad needed them too, I think. And while it’s true that my relationship with him continued to exist in the realm of the painfully awkward until his death, when I was thirty-three, there are a few memories, like the corsage and the tree of caterpillars, that I have held onto for years. I’m putting them down, not in the grass alone, but here, with others like them, because they are so dear, and in need of love.