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Posts Tagged ‘death’

You know how people always say the dead look like they’re sleeping? I even remember thinking that myself about Grandmother Joss, who died when I was nine, and whose hard cheek they made me kiss in her coffin. But Daddy? They’d put too much makeup on him, I thought; too much blush, and it looked a little like he was wearing eyeshadow, and pink lipstick. He just looked dead. Like a painted husk I could blow away with one good breath. They put his glasses on him, and the tie clip from his father, who’d been a Mason. Daddy had tried to join the Masons once, but they blackballed him. Just as well; Benedict Arnold was a Mason, and look where it got him. A rule of thumb: never put anything shiny on the chest of a corpse. It has a way of catching the light, so that when you walk past, it looks as though the person were still breathing. Even though you know they can’t be alive, waxy makeup-faced and stiff, a caricature of the person you knew and loved, cheap navy suit and sideburns all funny, even then, when that Masonic tie clasp catches the soft overheads in the funeral home, it looks for all the world like he’s still breathing. Much as I love my father, much as I miss him already, the thought that he could be lying in this polyester satin-lined box and still be breathing scares the living hell out of me. Dead folks need to stay that way. 

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Seventeen years.

Yesterday was one of the anniversaries in my life. My father died seventeen years ago. I was eight months pregnant with my first child, single, staying temporarily with my mother (they had divorced many years earlier) at a yacht club in New Jersey. A friend had taken the train up to visit from Washington, D.C., and the three of us had gone on a hayride that night. We arrived late back at the condominium where we were staying, tired and laughing, and hadn’t been home long when the telephone rang.

Unless you are in the midst of a terrible fight with someone you love dearly, or waiting for news of a child out past curfew, the ringing of the telephone late at night is almost always bad news.  Do I remember exchanging worried glances with my mother when the phone sounded that night, or have I edited that into the memory after-the-fact? I don’t know this, but it feels true. Anyway, I was the one who picked up the handset.

“Sweetheart,” a voice said, “this is your Uncle Don. Your dad’s gone, Honey.” I know that afterward he gave me the few details he had on the massive heart attack that took my father, assuring me that no decisions would be made regarding the funeral until I arrived in the small town where my father spent his life, but I don’t really remember any of what was said. I know my mother and I cried, and I do remember being surprised that she was as stricken by the news as I was. I wonder if even then it occurred to me that I’d run out of time to make him like me.

My mother remarried just a few years ago after having been single for nearly thirty years, and in the swoon of new love announced to my sister (through whom I sent a message to my mother to please for the love of God to never say it to me) that with this new husband she had found the first love of her life; that she never actually loved my father, that she hadn’t known what love was until she met this new man. But I was there when she wept, inconsolably, for a man she had met and married so long ago, and from whom she had been divorced for nearly sixteen years, and I know for certain that she had, indeed, loved him. I don’t know if she would recant if asked, now that the bloom of her new marriage has faded, after a few years of sharp words and dirty laundry, procrastinations and the day-to-day grit of life together has worn much of the shine away, and I’m not going to be the one to ask. I don’t know why hearing, second-hand, that she had denied loving my father hurt me so much, but it did, and I think of it still.

My father wasn’t a ‘hands-on’ dad, or maybe he was, if you include the physical contact of corporal punishment. He was big on spankings, whether with his hand, or a hickory switch, or one of his shoes, or that all-time favorite, his leather belt. He enjoyed threatening with the belt nearly as much as using it – folding it in half and making a loud cracking noise as the leather slapped against itself. You knew it was going to be your hind end it smacked against unless you did whatever it was he was demanding at the moment. He also liked to smack you up-side the head at the dinner table, often hard enough to knock you out of your chair and onto the floor, but not tell you why. So you picked yourself up off the floor (knowing better than to cry, or he’d do it again), sat back down, and tried to figure out what you had done wrong. Were you holding your fork wrong? Did you forget to close your mouth when you chewed? Did you forget to say please, or thank you, or did you just look at him wrong? So you’d carefully begin to eat again, and like as not, he’d knock you out of your chair again. This would continue until you figured out what had him angry, or all the food was gone. Dinner wasn’t over until everything had been eaten. I often wonder if this contributed to the weight problem I have dealt with all my life. You never know.

My father had a cruel sense of humor, and his approach to his children was a punitive one. He believed children should be seen and not heard. He wasn’t much different from the fathers of the other children I knew, in that way. He cheated repeatedly on my mother, bought and sold firearms under the table, liked to hunt, got into fist fights and even beat people for money. And I hope he loved me. Women invariably found him charming, and he was handsome, green-eyed and dark blonde, like me, like my sister. My mother, who is French and Cherokee in heritage and looks, didn’t even resemble her children for most of our lives, though as we all age, I find that we look much more alike. I know for sure that I loved him, and will until I die. For better or worse, he was my father, and I so wanted him to notice me, to approve of me, to love me. My first child was born not long after his death, and I named her after him. I’m not sure what my beliefs are about the after-life, but I’d like to think he knows, and approves. Finally.

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