Dear Dad // No. 13

Dear Dad,

I didn’t think much about bravery when I was young. You either were brave or your weren’t. I didn’t think about the different facets there could be. How being brave didn’t necessarily mean being daring in the face of danger, but could instead mean leaving a life and a job behind to find adventure somewhere new. No job, three kids. Just jumping and trusting that life would see you through.

I still remember the address to our first house in San Diego. White stucco again, with a two-car garage and an odd, squat palm plant in the front yard, spiky leaves jutting out like knives over the walkway to the front door.

The living room was Mom’s studio, where we put her massive blue table, mat-board bins so big J, C and I could all three fit in them, and a shrink-wrapping machine. Mom framed your paintings and prints, worked full time to prepare for each weekend’s art show. That’s how you made a living now. Teaching was over. You and Mom went to outdoor art shows on the weekends, set up the art racks and print bins, and sold your work to the people who browsed the show.

J, C, and I stayed with various people while you traveled: Grandma B, who lived on the other side of town, or a neighbor. I liked staying with Grandma B okay, except that she made me sleep on the pull-out sofa in the office. The portrait of your deceased stepfather, who none of us ever met, peered down at me all night, making my skin crawl.

I hated staying with the neighbors two doors down more. They let their kids beat up on us. We were kind of small, C, J and I, and maybe even a touch ragamuffin in hindsight. (We liked to play in the mud, and none of us really liked shoes. At three years old, C had a habit of running around the neighborhood stark naked. We never got into any trouble, but we were wild in our own wonderful ways.) We told you and Mom about the kids’ cruelty, and after that we stayed with Grandma B more. I convinced her to let me sleep with J and C in the queen bed in the guest room sometimes; other times, it was me and the portrait in the office all night.

One of our neighbors was named Happy. He was an older man, with a tidy yard and small house on the corner of our cul-de-sac. Every now and again he came outside while we played hide-and-go-seek and chatted with us. He liked that we had an old casing from a bullet from a WWII plane in our garage. I don’t know why we had that thing, but Happy thought it was really interesting. I think he was a veteran. He didn’t have anyone who lived with him. I always wondered how a person named Happy, who was, as far as I could tell, very happy indeed, could be alone all the time.

Because you and Mom worked at home now, it behooved you to get us out of the house some. Three bored children could fill up 1,200 square feet with complaints and restless energy in a heartbeat. You took us to the beach a lot, to a place near La Jolla we called Dog Run because it was an off-leash beach. We didn’t have a dog, but we wanted one badly. La Jolla had big cliffs with fancy houses clinging to the edges, houses with lots of glass and crisp edges and looked like they were four of our neighborhood’s houses in one.

Whenever we went anywhere, J got shotgun most of the time, which left me in the back—until C was old enough to sit in the front, and then it was me and J in the back. Most of the time we stood up and held onto the back of the driver and passenger headrests, which was fun because you could see out the front window then, but you had to watch out for cops and be quick to duck down so they wouldn’t notice a couple kids standing up while a van drove down the road.

Driving over winding roads with the windows down and the salty air blowing through our hair…I’m pretty sure that’s what perfection feels like. My favorite view was when we came around a massive hill and the road curved inland for a second and just before it cut back out the ocean burst into view, the sun ricocheting off the surface like a bowlful of pennies falling to the floor in the middle of the summer sunlight.

Once, after a trip to Dog Run, we were driving through the heart of La Jolla and came to a stop at a light. J had shotgun. C was in the baby seat, which was secured between the driver and passenger seat with bungee cords. You were driving, of course, so I was in the back of the Aerostar lying on the floor under the windows so that the sun shined onto my face. I closed my eyes one at a time and watched the light change from orange to yellow to blinding white as my eyelids opened and closed. I had your straw hat on my head. I loved that hat because it smelled mysteriously floral and earthy in a way I didn’t yet understand but identified with home.

While stopped at the light, you looked out the window and started laughing to yourself, this kind of chuckle that started in your throat and came out of your mouth with a lot of feeling and knowing behind it. J unbuckled himself and C hopped out of the car seat and I scrambled over to your headrest and we all peered out the window at what had you laughing like that.

The man in the car next to us was your splitting image. Really and honestly, Dad. It was like looking at a you living a different life. He had your same smile lines around the edges of his eyes, your tan skin and straight white-gray hair and beard, your wide nose and square face and broad shoulders. He wore your same signature straw hat and Hawaiian shirt and jeans, only I don’t remember if his jeans had holes in the knees or not. It was hard to tell because the car got in the way.

That car. He drove a brand-new bright red Ferrari with the top down. A young girl with blond hair sat in the passenger seat. I don’t remember anything else about her because all we did, the three of us kids, was peer out the van window around you and laugh and point at the man and make jokes about how much he looked like you.

You laughed, too, and said something like, “Oh, hey. Look! It’s me in another life. That’s my rich life, kids. Look at that. Somewhere out there I’ve got a girl like that and drive a car like that.”

And we all laughed and laughed. And the man driving the Ferrari looked at us and laughed too.

When the light turned green, the man and the blond drove away, probably to one of those big houses by the beach with all the glass. I remember wondering if he lost his hat, driving like that with the top down. At least in our van you didn’t have to worry about that.

We sold that van some years later, when we moved cross-country again. I always pictured someone else driving it to the beach in San Diego, and wondered what they did about the lack of seats. Wondered if they were the same kind of brave that we were. Brave enough to stand up while the car’s in drive and let the wind rush through the open windows into their hair. Brave enough to leave everything behind for adventure, and to trust the journey to take care of them.

Love,

Ash

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Dear Dad // No. 12

Dear Dad,

Despite the odds, we made it to Arizona. We moved into a place on Rainbow Avenue. What a glorious name for a road when you’re five. Full of wonder and magic. Our house was a white stucco one-story on the top of a dusty hill, a few scraggly trees and a single cactus in the backyard for vegetation. A long strip of sidewalk ran down the street, connecting our house to the one at the bottom of the hill, neighbors we soon befriended (they had five kids, one my age. And a pool). Theirs was the only house in the neighborhood with grass, and I used to run down the hill barefoot, gritting my teeth as the heat scorched the pads of my feet, until I reached their grass. Green as green could be, damp from the sprinklers. Like mana from Heaven.

You spent your days painting in the garage (begrudgingly; the location was not up to par but would have to do) and your nights teaching at the community college. On the weekends you sat in your Director’s chair next to the kitchen counter and railed on about how the heat had fried everyone in this godforsaken state’s brain, how no one in your department at the college understood what you were trying to do. Maybe they didn’t. I was five. My concerns were threefold: First, whether Mom would let me wear my favorite purple-striped shirt two days in a row; second, why the beautiful white fish you kept in a fish tank on the kitchen counter, right next to the Director’s chair, continually tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the tank onto the counter while we weren’t home; and third, what the boy who threatened me on the playground each day really meant when he said, “I’m going to get you.”

One morning I pitched a fit so grand, so grossly out of character, that Mom took note. There were no toys wonderful enough on the planet to make me set foot in school that day, the day the boy who’d trailed me down the halls and chased me into corners on the field during recess for every day since we’d moved here was finally, in his words, “going to get” me.

It’s funny now, but I don’t remember your reaction to this event. I can easily recall the terror that slipped through me at the boy’s threat. The vagueness frightened me. What, exactly, did he mean by “get”? Did he mean hit? Push onto the ground? Something worse even? If he’d only been specific, I might’ve been able to summon the courage to meet my fate head-on. But the vagueness plagued my imagination. I could conjure many ideas, each one worse than the other, about what he might do once he “got” me, but there was no way to know for sure until it happened.

The day I finally exploded my first-grade temper all over the living room, Mom called the school, her voice firm as she ordered them to find out what was going on. But nowhere in my memories are you. I suppose you left things to Mom, because no one could get things done the way she could. That’s the way Mom is. She’s the woman you go to to get things done.

Somehow, the school figured out who the boy was. I never saw him again, and I always wondered what became of him.

There are other things I remember from Arizona. The time you took us to the lake and told me that the bridge crossing it was originally from London. I thought you were pulling our legs, the way you did sometimes. (Like when you convinced us that the gold ring you wore on your right hand was your direct connection to Santa Claus and that we should whisper into it all of our Christmas wishes. Good one, Dad.)

I remember the morning you drove me to school and asked me if I liked it here, to which I replied that I didn’t know, that the sun was really bright and that it made it hard to see on the playground. The world seemed to move through the desert heat in slow motion. The afternoon sunlight was so strong I could barely stand to open my eyes at recess. On my first day of school, I stood in the center of a swath of concrete as a mass of jump ropes swirled around me, and peered out at the world through squinted eyes. How odd I must have looked to the other kids, a little girl with her eyes closed, standing perfectly still in the midst of the chaos of a two o’clock recess.

There was blessed shade at home. When you weren’t painting or teaching, you took J and me into the garage so that we could watch while you built art racks from lumber and chicken wire. That should’ve been my first sign that we were leaving. But I didn’t know any better.

Somewhere in the middle of the heat and the sand and the watercolor sunsets, we’d found a home when we weren’t even looking. Mom sang while she cooked, her pregnant belly brushing up against the edge of the stove. I learned my multiplication tables while sitting at the kitchen bar next to our suicidal fish, and little J developed such a deep talent for Nintendo that, at three years old, he came dangerously close to beating out a handful of college boys in a local Blockbuster Video gaming challenge. At night while you were away, teaching, Mom and I stayed up past my bedtime and watched Who’s the Boss and Cheers. All of us found our rhythms, found happiness, and found a place to plant our roots, even if the soil was tough and dry and the only time it rained was when storms rolled over the horizon in hot waves, filling the air with lightning and steam before leaving as quickly as they’d come.

Even when C was born, we adapted. C, with her Spanish name and golden curls. C, who as the youngest and most feisty of your children, won your heart from the moment she opened her baby eyes. It didn’t matter if C stole J’s glasses or tore out our hair or screamed until we worried the neighbors would think we were flushing her down the toilet. This ball of energy had burst into the middle of the desert and taken hold of your heart in a way I had never before witnessed.

After all, I’d never seen a father and his biological daughter interact before, not like this. Up close, in real time. The two of you were a thing of mystery.

It was while we lived in Arizona that my biological father, Tom, sent Mom a letter. He’d remarried, and like all things in life, it was complicated. The point was: I don’t believe I’m her father.

It was the last time we ever heard from him.

That previous Christmas, Tom was supposed to have mailed me a gift, per the agreement he and Mom had worked out. When no gift came, you and Mom picked out a dollhouse almost as tall as I was and presented it to me. It was supposed to be Tom’s gift to me, via you guys.

But you also gave me a gift while we lived in Lake Havasu, Dad. A portrait you painted of me, done in your signature brightly colored Expressionistic style. I’m sitting at a table with my arms folded, a glass of water beside my hands. I’m staring forward, as if I’m contemplating something I don’t understand.

This must have been a common look on my face, because there were many things that I didn’t understand about life in Lake Havasu.

I didn’t understand why the boy at my school had tormented me so, and where he went when he suddenly stopped.

I didn’t understand how the other children opened their eyes so wide on the playground, when the sun was so hot and bright.

Why Tom had suddenly decided that I wasn’t his daughter when I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Why even though you painted a portrait of me and no one else, you did not dote on me like you did C and J.

We left the desert when the college didn’t renew your contract. We never did cook eggs on the sidewalk, like you said we could. We took your word for it and saved the eggs. We packed up the house and the art racks you’d built and the paintings and Mom’s framing equipment and our cat, Pebbles, and we left the sand-swept hills and roadrunners and Rainbow Avenue behind.

Twenty-six years later, I don’t have that dollhouse, Dad. But I still have the painting. I would go on to hang it on the wall of my bedroom in our new home in San Diego, because that’s what you do with art. You place it in your home and you contemplate it’s mysteries, waiting for the day when you walk by it and the answer to the unspoken question drifts across the space that separates you, and the pieces fall into place.

Love,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 11

Dear Dad,

Happy Father’s Day. I just hung up after giving you a call. The first time I called you didn’t answer. I’d forgotten that it’s a Sunday and you’d be at mass.

When you answered, you sounded confused. It took you a minute to place me. And I couldn’t help but feel the now-familiar tug of tightness in the back of my throat up into the roof of my mouth, the tightness that comes when you’re on the cusp of forgetting me. But you always manage to find me, and I manage to push through the tightness until it fades.

I wished you a happy Father’s Day, and you started laughing. You laughed and laughed, and then you said, “Oh, how long have they done that now?”

“Done what, Dad?”

“Father—Father’s Days. How long have those been around?”

“Oh, gosh, I don’t know. A long time, I think.”

You laughed again. “First there was Christmas, and now there’s this.” A fresh bout of chuckles sounded through the phone. Then you said, “You’re sweet to remember that. You always were sweet like that.”

It never fails. Every conversation you say something that catches me by surprise. A minute before I’d worried you couldn’t remember me, and now you spoke about me as if you remembered everything.

What do you remember, and what have you forgotten? How do you know I’m sweet if you don’t know who I am? Is it possible for both to exist, side by side, inside your mind?

You asked what I’ve been up to, and I told you about my short story. “Nothing could come of it,” I said. “But I’m enjoying it, and that’s what matters.”

“You keep doing that,” you replied. “You never know what will happen. No, I’m serious. You never know.”

Here you are, on Father’s Day, a day I’m supposed to thank you for everything you’ve done for me—an impossible task, really, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try—and instead you’re filling me up with hope and encouragement.

You went on to tell me a five-minute-long story about a cartoonist for The New Yorker, about perseverance and a dash of luck and circumstance. You couldn’t remember all the details or all the words, but listening to you tell the story of this cartoonist’s success was sweet beyond measure. The happiness in your voice, the encouraging tone.

I should’ve been thanking you for everything you’d done for me over the years, and instead I got lost in the moment, soaking up one more of your stories (you love to tell stories, Dad, you really do).

You would’ve thought it was old times again, the way we chatted. And then you were tired, and we said goodbye. I hung up the phone with your words ringing in my ears.

You never know what will happen.

A million thank you’s, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.

Love you,

Ash

Dear Dad // No. 10

Dear Dad,

Something important happened to me recently. I had a short story published. Its publication coincided with the Camelopardalids meteor shower. This is an interesting coincidence, because my story takes places around a meteor shower, a scene that was somewhat inspired by an experience with you.

In May 2000, I was in high school. These were not our best times, Dad. You and I were on rough footing, staring at one another over a sea of emotions too complicated to navigate. But despite that, you came outside one warm night and stood in the road with me. We craned back our necks and looked skyward.

Halley’s Comet gifted us a beautiful sight that night. Its interstellar debris burst into starlit streaks in the black sky. We stood side by side and watched the heavens open above us, and for a moment all was forgiven. We were just a daughter and her father, two specks of light in a vast expanse of possibility.

As I looked up, you asked if I knew what shooting stars really were. I didn’t, so you explained that shooting stars are not stars at all. They’re broken rock and debris raining down, bursting into brilliant flashes of light as they enter Earth’s atmosphere.

We bonded over this shared knowledge, and I discovered my way into your heart. I couldn’t be as confident as C or as funny as J. I could not embrace the insecurities of a life of an artist, but I could be smart. I could soak up knowledge like oxygen, and your love of academics would see that in me and, I hoped, appreciate it.

Our relationship wasn’t better right away, Dad. But it got there. We worked toward a place of understanding. We worked toward respect and forgiveness. Isn’t that the way it is? We had a choice. We could either abandon one another to the chasm that separated us in that long stretch of time, or we could fight through it, learn about one another, try to understand. And then we could accept. Only after that point did we have any chance for a future.

On the night of May 24, 2014, I went outside at 1 a.m., stood in my backyard, and once again set my gaze to the stars. But a thin film of cloud cover had rolled in while I slept, and there was nothing to be seen. I pressed my toes into the damp grass and waited patiently, but I never saw anything.

I wasn’t too disappointed, Dad. I knew that somewhere beyond the veil of clouds, the sky was alight, whether I saw it or not. Like our futures from that point in May 2000, we couldn’t know what was going to happen, but we could have faith. We could trust that even though we couldn’t see a future in which our relationship recovered, such a thing existed.

It took many years, but we found that future. We took the debris of my adolescence and morphed it into something beautiful: a relationship built on mutual respect and love. Now each time I hear of a meteor shower I think of the two of us, standing in that road with our heads back, watching discarded bits of the universe turn into something wondrous above us.

Love,

Ash