Dear Dad // No. 7

I have known the taste of salt water,
And the smell of decaying forests,
And the cracks in hundreds of sidewalks.
I have loved the gas pedal,
And the airport concourse,
And the ever-changing time zones.
In all of these places,
I thought I could find a home in not having one;
I have chased the sun across the sky so many times,
Not yet ready to admit,
You never catch up.
– Unknown

Dear Dad,

When we spoke the other day, you said to me, “You know, I’ve been thinking about moving.”

God how you love to move. It’s in your blood, a restless energy that even now shows itself, after everything you’ve been through. Does it originate from the same source as your creativity? I’m sure someone out there has written something on that subject. I’m going to guess that it does.

You and Mom had been married only a few months when you moved for the first time. Within your first year of marriage you moved twice. From Sandbridge, VA, to Marathon, FL, and then to West Palm Beach, FL.

Marathon was the place I remember most from those early moves. You’d always wanted to live in the Florida Keys, so that’s where we went, to a house on stilts over an inlet of water.

Your mother came to visit us there. Grandma B was a squat, stern woman with a deep voice and fluffy gray hair. She’d been married twice, once to your father and once to a man who was the splitting image of Clark Gable. She was strict in a way I didn’t understand, because her voice was laced with more than just her Italian heritage. It was laced with a history and prejudice I couldn’t comprehend.

I recently made a copy of the VHS tape Grandma B recorded during that visit. The shaky film begins as she pans around the living room, which is packed from wall to wall with art supplies. A massive table sits in the center of the room, covered with paper, tools, and mat boards. Against the wall are Mom’s two giant mat board bins stacked one on top of the other. They’re so tall they almost touch the ceiling. There is no room to walk, no surface uncovered. How did we live in that, Dad? Atop a little table is the TV, and then the low-sitting square coffee table that I cover with my blanket and lay upon each morning (because there is no couch) while I watch Jem.

Grandma B moves the camera over the room. Your voice is in the background.

“Save some film for outside, Ma. Take some pictures of the water.”

“I already did,” she answers.

The tape cuts to the balcony. The house sits on a canal lined with speed boats, crystal-blue water meandering by lazily. You’re off the screen, telling Grandma B how barracuda swim down the inlet beside you as you do your laps. Her voice comes in over yours as she mutters to herself, “I can’t believe this. This river, right outside your house.”

You walk J over to the merry-go-round horse you’re painting. It’s one of the greatest things in the world to me, that there’s a merry-go-round horse on my back porch. You sit J atop the horse and try to get him to wave at the camera. He smiles, his right eye slipping inward. The doctors have told us that J’s eyes will need surgery, but you refuse. People shouldn’t mess with things just because doctors tell them to, you say.

Grandma B pans the camera down to a cat on the balcony by the sliding glass door. “Is that yours or hers?” she asks.

I pause the tape and rewind it, listening to this again. Wasn’t the cat both of yours? The question implies separation, as if your lives weren’t fully merged with your marriage. I try to hear your response, but I can’t make it out.

Mom always said that Grandma B hated her. As a child, I didn’t understand this. Why would this woman hate my mother, her son’s wife? I never saw it. But on the video there’s evidence I’d been too young to notice.

Mom’s voice sounds from somewhere off-screen. She’s giving your mom a suggestion of something to record. Grandma B ignores her. Another time Grandma B snaps at her in response to something. I can hear Mom striving to be involved in the conversation, to point out something wonderful to Grandma, but she can’t win.

Here it is on film, the evidence that two people can have such varying experiences with the same person. Grandma B would go on to become one of the most honest people in my life, an honesty I always respected. Yet on this tape I can hear the disdain in her voice toward Mom. I try to balance the two Grandma Bs in my mind, to recognize that she is both of these people and that they can exist at the same time without compromising my good memories of her. I have to do this with most of my family members, Dad. Most of all you.

It was at Grandma B’s insistence that we left the house on stilts and moved into a condo in West Palm Beach owned by your uncle, Tommy. By that time Mom was working two jobs, one as a waitress and one as a hostess. The two of you did a few art shows on the side, selling your paintings. We lived in the condo for such a short period of time that I don’t have a single memory of it.

When you mention relocating now, Dad, I can’t help but think back on all our moves. What were you looking for, each time you uprooted us? What were you running headlong in search of?

Success, maybe. Recognition for your art. Peace enough to counter your restlessness. A home that you couldn’t find. A home that you wouldn’t allow yourself to find, because to find it meant settling, and there was too much openness left to explore. Too much sky to see. How could you possibly pick one single place to stay when you hadn’t seen them all? When the possibility of something better existed right around the corner?

And so you consulted your beloved I-Ching, and away we went. Each time we moved, we carried part of our previous homes with us, a nugget of wisdom gleaned, a lesson learned, a prejudice gained. Like I’ve done with Grandma B, I’ve had to reconcile each place for what it is and what it contributed to our long, twisting tale. To how it shaped me into who I am today.

I don’t know if you ever found what you were looking for, Dad. You dreamed of a life you couldn’t find, a truth that eluded you until you lost hold of it in your tumble down the stairs last fall, when life took hold of you and changed your course.

Trust me when I say to you now, Dad, that you don’t need to move. You need to stay with your doctors and, for the first time your life, be still. Be still in the here and the now, and in exchange, I’ll tell you about the moves. Maybe that will be, for now, escape enough for your wanderlust.

Love,

Ash

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