I always hated Father’s Day. Did I need to be reminded that I couldn’t remember my father? My eight-year-old daughter, Ella, is older than I was when my father died, so if I die she will remember me better than I remember him.
As a child, I kept expecting more people to die. This is what grown-ups did, right? I wondered—with a regularity that now seems neurotic—who would take care of my brother, sister, and me once my mother was gone.
Ella will never meet my father, who shared my red hair, liberal leanings, and rebel spirit. He will never take her hunting in the woods of Northern Michigan, never teach her how to weld or navigate by the stars. He never did these things for me, either, but I like to imagine he would have.
My father favored tomboys like my sister, and Ella is a girly-girl, but he would have loved her anyway. He would have taught her to make white bean soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, the way he taught me. He would have taken her for walks in the forest, expecting her to keep up with his pace, four steps for every one of his. It makes me tired just thinking about it.
He would have inspected her room for cleanliness, breaking her snow globes and music boxes if she left them on the floor (“That’s the last time you’ll leave clutter laying around.”) He would have made her eat all the fat and gristle on her meat (“Something died to feed you.”) He would have tolerated no crying ever (“You want me to give you something to cry about?”), but especially not on Father’s Day.
When my brother read this, he said, “You remember more than I do.”
“But you’re older,” I said.
“All I can remember is him publicly humilating me,” he said. “And I’d rather not.”
“Having Ella makes me remember when I was her age.”
“I know,” he said. “That’s why I don’t have kids.”
When I tell people, especially parents of young children, that I don’t remember much about my father, they don’t want to believe me. Won’t their children remember every moment of their time together? They’ve often given up jobs, friends, hobbies, passions, and even sex lives in exchange for memory-making moments. It’s an investment they hope will pay off with reminiscences around holiday tables, at least.
I should tell them that their children probably won’t need to block out memories the way I did. Of watching my father drive for hours on the highway, steering only with his knees, as we all braced for a crash. Overhearing my father refuse grocery money to my mother if he thought she was too fat. Shielding my eyes as he punished our puppy by throwing him in the street. Swallowing the spoonfuls of whisky he thought would toughen us up. Hearing him tell everyone he would take our little sister hunting instead of my older brother, because she was more of a man than he would ever be.
These memories floated back to the surface after I read The Wilding. In Benjamin Percy’s powerful novel, Paul takes his forty-year-old son and twelve-year-old grandson hunting for deer in Oregon, and they end up being hunted by a bear. When my father took my five-year-old sister on a trip to kill deer, the deer killed him.
They were still winding their way Up North, driving the four-hour trip in the fog before dawn. A buck ran in the middle of the road, the soft-top jeep crashed, turned upside-down, and crushed my father and sister. My sister survived, physically.
Was he driving with only his knees? Probably. Was he wearing a seatbelt? Of course not. Did he act, his whole short life, as if he were invincible? Absolutely.
Paul, the patriarch in The Wilding, is a force of nature, a bully, a dictator. He dismisses indoor pursuits as tame and effeminate. Paul brought my father back for the space of 250 pages. Reading the book was like experiencing the three generations of my family that will never meet, like taking Ella on the hunting trip with my father and me that has become mythic in my imagination.
My father never saw me turn eight like Ella. Even if he had been alive, he might have missed my birthday party. He worked long hours as a welder, coming home for dinner when we were already undressed for bed. It couldn’t have been easy to make a living, even before the factory lay-offs in the Detroit auto industry, with only one arm.
What would he have thought of Ella’s party, when the boys waged war with rubber duckies and the girls staged a protest, raising balloons in the air and marching across the lawn, shouting: We want peace! We want peace!
Did my father blow off his arm because he was a pacifist? Was this his statement against the Vietnam War, his way of getting an exemption from the draft? All I remember being told is, “When he was eighteen, he lost his arm playing with dynamite.”
I loved the part of my father that was radical. I loved that he gave me a copy of Thoreau’s Walden and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as soon as I could read. I loved that he told me not to forget that grown-ups were phonies.
We used to storm out of our grandparents’ house after heated political arguments. I understood later, when I saw how conservative my grandfather was, that my father had been liberal, and not just because he supported the unions, like so many blue collar workers, but because he believed in spending more money on government services than on defense. I remember him talking about civil rights but never women’s rights. He taught my sister how to shoot a gun, but he wouldn’t let my mother buy a pair of socks or put something in her mouth without permission.
If my father were alive, he would teach Ella how to weld with one hand, how to drive with no hands, how to kill and skin and clean and eat off the land. Because she is a girl, he would adjust his expectations. He would not call her a sissy or a faggot; he would not shame her for being tame. He would give her the slack he did not give my brother.
“I was glad when he died,” my brother said. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s true.”
“You must remember some things better than I do,” I said. Though I do remember his rages, abrupt and manic, a tsunami of anger. Once, the whole family was planning a trip Up North, leaving, as usual, at four in the morning. We scurried to dress and pack, then saw that he had fallen back asleep on the couch. “Daddy, aren’t we going?” I asked, hovering close to his ear. He woke up with a start and yelled, “Now we’re not.”
“Blame your sister,” he told my disappointed siblings. “For bothering me.” After that, I stayed out of his way.
What would my father call my brother if he saw him today–an art history professor who favors tweed and bowties, a vegan opera fan who decorates his house with Art Deco antiques? If he saw my sister—living in the woods with bison and mountain lions, renovating houses and lifting weights—would he say: I told you she was the one with balls? Would he laugh at the way I spend my life behind a desk, or would he smile and ask, “What are you trying to do, write the next Catcher in the Rye?” If he saw my mother—learning to play a musical instrument for the first time at age sixty-five and traveling on her honeymoon to Italy to visit my brother (and eating whatever she wants)—would he recognize the docile girl barely out of her teens who knew she had to put dinner on the table, with freshly squeezed lemonade, the precise moment he walked in the door?
I don’t know what my sister would say if she read this, and I’ll probably never find out. She hasn’t returned e-mails or letters from my brother or me in years, though I don’t know why. “Don’t forget what she’s been through” is all the explanation I get from my mother. It’s the refrain I heard through my childhood, the accident always justifying my sister’s mysterious behavior.
I wasn’t glad when my father died. I didn’t like being the tragic children’s book character his premature death turned me into. My second grade teacher’s attention made me feel like an exotic specimen under a microscope. For circle time, we all sat on the rug and everybody else was allowed to talk about their summer vacations, but Mrs. Taylor made me talk about my dad.
Until now, I haven’t wanted to. “Did you feel sad?” Mrs. Taylor asked, her jeweled reading glasses dangling around her neck, her voice tinged with age and a residual Southern accent, like so many people I knew, Midwestern transplants from Appalachia. “Yes,” I said, because I knew that was the right answer. I didn’t really know how I felt, but now I would call it numb. I didn’t cry, and I knew this disappointed people, so I tried. Envelopes with cards and money came in the mail, and this charity made me feel poor.
I like to think if my father had lived to be as old as I am now, he would have changed with the times. Principals don’t call children to their office with the intercom to give them a paddling anymore, and parents today are told to use time-outs instead of spanking. At Ella’s school, even the boys are required to take dance, and the high school in town has an active gay and lesbian club, with a legion of straight supporters. All the women I know have access to their own bank accounts. My father could have embraced these changes. He was, after all, a man who knew how to adapt, turning his one-armedness from a liability into an opportunity to act like a stuntman.
He could have had a grand epiphany, like a character in a novel, who goes on an emotional journey after which nothing is ever the same. That would make sense because, for me, he is more tall tale than real.
I can imagine, after his fictional turnaround, he would encourage Ella’s natural bookishness while still showing her how to repair houses and cars, purify water from streams, and make venison jerky. He would teach her to make peace without being a phony. He would tell her to be proud of me, her mother, the first girl in the family to go to college. He would tell her she could be president.
Because he died so young, at an age when most people I know are not even married, let alone parents, I can fill in his future myself. I can imagine whatever I want.