Funny how there hasn’t been a word from my father since I visited in September. I wrote him – hand wrote – two letters within a month of returning. I didn’t want to be romantic, but clearly something had gotten into me, handwriting my father two letters. He didn’t answer and I snapped out of it.
When I spoke to my mother on the weekend I didn’t ask about him. My mother is Gossip Central and I usually ask for news of father and sisters, people I don’t want to be in touch with but have idle curiosity about, like thumbing through People magazine at the check-out counter.
I have a chapter ready to review sitting on the Desktop of my computer, but this morning it felt too hard, like I was up against some hard unyielding surface. I didn’t open the chapter. I left it for another day. In the shower it had seemed easy – oh, just take a look at that chapter, brush it up, it’s ready to go – remembering reading something Hemingway had written about how he always left something half-done at the end of the day so he’d know where to start the next morning.
Instead I went for a walk with Tamar, hoping that would stir things up. Thought about how the stakes are so artificially high around this manuscript, how it feels like I must complete it to prove something and it becomes like writing in front of a firing squad.
I pick up wood as I walk, can’t resist the pieces lying around that will fit the fireplace perfectly. I could go buy a bunch of wood for $20, but I enjoy the treasure hunt, picking up these scraps for free.
The way my mother used to pick up cigarette butts. She’d pick them up on walks, bring them home, dip them in alcohol to sterilize them (she’d been a biochemist) and smoke them. “If I buy a whole pack I’ll smoke them,” she said.
That was the year my father was living in England. I was in third grade. It felt normal for my father not to be at home. Even when he was home my father wasn’t of the home the way we – my mother, sisters and I – were. We had no other place to go. My father clearly had lots of choices. He was always happy going on business trips and his living in England just seemed like an extra-long business trip.
I had always wanted a father who came home at night, who was there. When I said I wanted a coming-home daddy my father laughed. He liked that one. He liked very much that he was not a coming-home daddy, an ordinary person. I had just confirmed it.
When my mother asked if we should go to England too I said yes. Of course. My father was the life of the party. Without him it was just us, sitting down for hot dogs and potatoes and broccoli and a glass of milk at each plate in the kitchen. Going for walks with my mother while she picked up cigarette butts.
I felt I was in grown-upper hands with my father around, someone more part of the world. When my mother drove she always missed the exit, always subjected us to long extensions of what was already a dull trip as she navigated back onto the highway in the right direction. My father didn’t do that. He drove with confidence, even and especially into the city. He could drive into the city – be it New York or London – without getting lost. He could take us to a restaurant or a theater. Not my mother. She didn’t take us to places like that. She took us for a walk in the woods, at most to a local movie. She stayed at home, and made sure everyone was in bed early.
Years later, after England, she’d get up and go downstairs to where my father was still up in the living room. Whenever she did that I knew there’d be a fight. I hated hearing their voices filtering up as I lay in bed. “You ruined my life,” I heard my mother shout once. He didn’t shout during those times though I knew he wanted to. But he didn’t want to be like her, shouting and crying. He spoke in measured tones that were so monotonic you knew they were tiny atom bombs, waiting to explode.
Once I went downstairs during a fight. I got up out of bed, went down in my nightgown. “I want a glass of water,” I said.
“She just wants us to stop fighting,” my mother said with a little laugh.