Friday, April 15, 2011

A Visit From Dad

My father came to visit me this afternoon. I was sitting in a coffee shop, staring off into space, thinking about what to write, half-listening to the two girls behind me talking about their boyfriends, when he came walking in the door. The sun was glaring off the windshield of a car in the parking lot and at first I thought it was a trick of the light, but it was him. He looked just the same, a little older but not much, and maybe even that was more a failure of my imagination than an actual change in him. He pulled up a chair and sat down like he thought I would be expecting him.

What do you say to a man you haven’t seen in so long? A man you worshiped as a boy, but who turned out to be someone different than the father who raised you. Not different to you, but to others. Different in a way that was not so much hard to understand as hard to accept.

“Hey,” I said. I thought I might look a little flustered. “You should have whistled.”

We had this family whistle, passed on from grandfather to father to son, three notes---up, down, up---like you might hear from a songbird. When one of us whistled from across the golf course, other golfers would think it was a mockingbird or a dove. Only we knew what it was. A love song.

“How are you hitting them?” he said.

“I don’t get out much anymore. I miss playing with you.”

“I’m thinking of getting new sticks. Something lighter. What do you think?


“How’s your mom?”


I thought he might look away at my bluntness, but he didn’t. I don’t know why I thought he might. He never had.

“She made it another thirty-five years,” I said.

He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Camels. Unfiltered. Coffin nails.

“You can’t smoke in here.”

He shook a cigarette out of the pack and thumped one end on the table to pack down the tobacco. I wondered if he still had the silver zippo lighter I’d given him. He held the cigarette between his fingers but made no move to light it.

“You were pretty tough on her,” I said.

He just looked at me. He had this way of looking at you with just his eyes. His head would be almost bowed and he would look up, as if from reading, and all you could see would be his eyes. They were blue and cold. He wasn’t cold, at least I didn’t think so, but his eyes were, or not his eyes, exactly, but the unrelenting way he looked at you.

“She wouldn’t even come to the hospital at the end,” I said.

He worried his unlit cigarette, touched the end of it to his lips and then lowered it.

“Do you know why?” I said.

“She was in a pretty bad way then.”

“Susan. That’s why. Susan.”

“Susan was a good doctor.”

“That had nothing to do with it.”

“What happened to Presenting Italy?”

“I told the importer we couldn’t take shipment. I told her you were dead.”

“Did you go back to Florence?"

“I took Meg to Harry’s bar to meet you. We had those little cheese sandwiches. We toasted you with Campari tonics.”

“Would I like her?”

“We’ll never know, thank God.”

He laughed that way he did, a series of quick little sneezes. I always thought it was a cool way to laugh, even emulated it myself when I was a boy. It sounded like a pig routing around in garbage.

“You probably don’t remember this, but when you couldn’t talk anymore, you had me hold up a board of letters and you pointed to them to spell out what you wanted to say.”

He watched me steadily. I remember watching my own children that way when I thought I might know what was coming and wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it.

“The last thing you spelled was ‘Jesus.’”

He cocked his head slightly. I thought I saw a flicker of a smile, but he was sucking air through the little gap in his front teeth the way he used to, and maybe it was just the way he set his mouth to do that. His lips were pale.

I waited, but he didn’t speak. He never went to church. I never did either. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to ask him now if he had found religion in those last hours. If he had seen Jesus. If he had asked him for forgiveness. Of course, Jesus had nothing to do with it. It was my mother he should have asked for forgiveness. Not just for Susan. Not even for all the other women I found out about gradually over the years after he was gone, the ones who came around looking lost, looking like they needed someone to whom to confess. I don’t know if they saw my father in me. I don’t look like him.

He said he had to go to the bathroom. I pointed to the corner where it was and he got up and went there. He was wearing a grey Harris Tweed sport coat, even though it was very warm outside.

I wondered what he would say about my mother when he returned. He had always made me feel something was wrong with her, that that was why she got so emotional, why she had to go off to that hospital for a few months the summer I was fourteen.

She lived the last thirty-five years of her life alone, growing stronger each year. By the time she died, she was the mother I remembered, the one who drove me to Florida where my dad would be stationed in the Navy. We rode in an old Dodge and the windows were all open, the radio playing loud, and she was singing. I was five. I kept holding my little blue woolen cap out the window, watching it flap in the wind. It blew out of my hand and she stopped and went back for it and brushed off the dirt and gave it back to me. We got going again and I held it out the window. She laughed and told me she wouldn't stop again. It blew out of my hand, or maybe I let it go, to test her, to test myself. She didn’t stop. She didn't scold me. She smiled at me and patted my bare head, as if to reassure me that she understood my need and respected it, even if she could not indulge it.

When Dad didn’t come back after a while, I went to the restroom and knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again, harder. I was wondering if he was all right. I called out to him, tested the door. It was unlocked. No one was in there. The bathroom smelled like cigarette smoke, I thought, but that could have just been my imagination.


  1. Lovely, sad and sweet.


  2. This one is gorgeous -- is this going to be part of a memoir, Mac, or a short story, or a novel? So compelling -- I 've read it through two times, and I know I'll want to read it more, because I love the way the story opens out and reveals more and more, so quietly and aptly. By the end, I feel that I understand so much about this man, his son (the "I"), the mother. That story at the end, about the blue cap out the window, is perfect, and makes me happy for the mother and the boy -- she gives him fair warning, and he understands; she understands and respects his wishes, but she can't stop the car for him. She has drawn her boundaries, made them clear, and she's singing.

  3. Thanks, Carol and Harriet. You are always so supportive. I'm not sure where all this is going. I've written a novel that fictionalizes some of my past with my father. Then there are the musings here about my own relationships with my children. Maybe I'll marry the two. Maybe I'll just keep groping. The writing is fun, anyway.