My father is telling me, again, what I should say about him at his funeral. He has been doing this for years, though he is in perfect health.
He is a man of habits. He has a small set of stories he tells, over and over, like the one about sitting next to Paul Reed Smith on an airplane, the one about how he believes he came up with the adage, “With nonfiction you get facts, but with fiction, you get truth,” or the one about the dietary importance of rapeseed oil.
My father buys his T-shirts, underwear, and socks in plastic-wrapped multi-packs from Hanes. This is not unusual. I understand that many people find something they like—jeans, shirts, whatever—and then buy lots of them. This is sensible, forward-thinking, and economical. I’m completely for it. What is noteworthy about my father’s method is that he draws symbols on the socks.
Let me explain. Let’s say, for example, he buys a pack of socks in 1995, and then another in 2006, and another in 2013. It’s like with new money. These are like different printings of socks, you see, different generations all in circulation at the same time. My father does not like to mix his generations. He does not want to wear a 1995 on one foot, translucent and faded as it is, and a 2013, stiff and bright, on the other. And so, the symbols. When he bought the pack of socks back in 1995, each one got a little X drawn on it in Sharpie. O’s on the 2006s, squiggles on the 2013s, and so on.
“This is eulogy material,” my father says as he explains this logic. He preps me, teaches me what to say, how to stand. “Remember how he used to draw symbols on his socks,” he begins, and mimes the progression of tears and laughs the story will elicit from the crowd gathered to mourn him. This part will come after I speak at length about his fondness for Starbucks: his daily cappuccinos, the way he always lined up the opening in the cup’s lid with the seam running up the cup’s paper side. How he never left a mess on the condiment bar, God rest his soul.
I think he is partly joking. But as my father points out these moments that he says I should remember him by so often, I wonder if he really does want to make sure I have something to say when he dies. That I represent him properly. He could just as well be saving me the responsibility I will surely try to shirk.
I do not recall, when I was young, my father being so weird. It is possible he has gotten weirder, more particular, with age. Certainly my mother and I have become less tolerant of his behaviors, the more we have been made to witness them.
Not all of my father’s habits concern his feet. But many do, and it should be noted that his bare feet have, in the 26 years I have known him, never touched any surface but his bed, the insides of his socks, and his shower floor. Not sand. Not grass. Not carpet. He has a system. Socks go on first thing in the morning, and immediately the feet go into slippers. If he goes out, he pulls socked feet out of the slippers and slides them into shoes. The socks come off only when he steps into the shower, or into bed. The socks themselves have never experienced anything beyond the insides of my father’s shoes and slippers. Aside from sweat, there is nothing inside the shoes that wasn’t there when he got them.
When I discuss my strange father with my friends who have met him, they are surprised, and so I provide some examples to back up my claims. Then they agree, shocked. “But he seems so normal,” they say.
If I’m giving a complete list, I should say that the feet have also touched the hands of the woman who occasionally gives my father pedicures. I felt them once, the feet. I was at home for a visit. My father had finished explaining his system for foot protection and wanted to prove to me how clean and soft the feet were. These, the purest of feet. He pulled the ankle of one sock down over his heel and I extended the pad of one finger. They were very soft.
My father gave his own father’s eulogy in 1999. I was 12. The only story I remember him telling was of how he listened late one night to the sound of his parents fighting. After the house settled, his father opened the door to his room and sat on the edge of my father’s bed. He stroked his young son’s hair, curls dark like mine, and was quiet for a moment before he spoke. “You know,” he said, “you have the best mom in the whole world.” He always did this.
I remember weeping at my grandfather’s and other funerals, feeling some abstract sense of loss. But I also felt like a fraud. I remember my grandfather; I did not know him. There is a difference. I had no stories to share, nothing that I could tell myself or others, no evidence I could point to, to prove that I knew him, that he knew me, that our relationship was special or that it happened at all.
I can tell you many biographical details about my grandfather, but what I really know of him, what sense I have of the kind of person he was, comes from stories others have told me. He hated getting up early and saved everything. One day, when my father was a toddler and up early making a lot of noise, my grandfather rose, too, trying to play the dutiful husband and father. He brought his son downstairs and fixed him some toast with butter. Except he was only half-awake and mistook for a lump of butter the ball of leftover soap slivers in a little dish by the sink. My father took a bite and, too young to explain the situation reasonably, began to wail.
Who hasn’t imagined what people will say when we die, longed to hover just a little while, to listen, before going away forever? How disappointing it would be to hear nothing, or something different than you meant, from those you trusted yourself to. Alexis de Tocqueville once called the United States “a nation full of memorials,” physical and figurative stories to commemorate lives. Our museums and statues, our holidays, our plaques planted at the bases of trees. What are our lives but the stories we tell ourselves, the stories others tell about us?
My father sent me a package recently. Inside were a number of items: some form of ginger-flavored crystallized drink from a recent work trip to China, the head of an electric toothbrush, several travel-size packets of Kleenex. Each item was encased in an appropriately sized Ziploc bag that contained a note. The notes had been typed on a computer, printed, and cut into long rectangles. One, in the bag with the toothbrush head, read, “I assume you need this as you didn’t respond to my queries, you little shit.”
When I saw him, a few months later, he asked, as if to remind me, if I liked the note he sent. Did I remember how he put each item in its own appropriately sized Ziploc bag?
We all do this. Not the bag thing. We emphasize parts of ourselves, the things we want others to notice, to understand, to remember. When we are drowning, we flail in the water. We try to send a message with our movements, waving frantically at the people on the beach. We try to get them to notice. Because, if no one does, we slip beneath the waves and are lost.
I wonder what people must see, as my father slips his feet into blue cloth booties, the kind surgeons wear, to glide his way through the airport security checkpoint. The TSA agents, the tired, frustrated travelers—what kind of man must they think he is, as he declines the backscatter scanner’s X-rays and the agents radio, irritated, for someone to come do a pat-down.
Do they see only a difficult man and two eye-rolling women? Do they think we will argue about it after, that we try to talk him out of this nonsense? Do they suppose that this isn’t always how things are, that he must just today be sick or senile or confused, or do they see, just for a moment, a man trying to author his own myth, however small?
Rumpus original art by Lara Odell.