I lost my father on a Sunday in the sixties when I was in grade school and he was fifty-four. He didn’t die. Despite a lifetime of unfiltered Camels and a high-fat diet, he was remarkably healthy physically. No, I lost him to a paranoid hatred and to a war that ended before I was born.
The black and white RCA console crackled in a corner of the slightly shabby living room of the house that was our home. The flickering light touched my father’s six-foot frame reclining in a Naugahyde Laze-boy and highlit the omnipresent cup of coffee in his machinist oil-blackened fist. My grandmother sat erect as always in the rose-printed wing chair inherited from my aunt, her neatly-clad feet crossed firmly at the ankles, and the television light danced patterns on the convex lenses of her cataract glasses. In those days before cable, rabbit ears jauntily enticed the picture emerging from the snowy screen that Sunday after church.
I don’t remember which program the news bulletin interrupted. I remember the familiar room, the windows warm with September sun, and the shock of the black and white horror spewing hate sharp as shrapnel into our lives from the innocuous box in the corner. School photos flashed across the screen. Their names. Their ages. Four girls. Sunday School girls with perky hats and white gloves and little purses so like their mothers. Without warning on a golden morning, their lovely black skin suddenly bomb-burned, the flowers on their hats now funeral flowers, four so very abruptly dead from hate. If little girls were not safe in a house of worship? Why, I myself had just sung in the choir of our own steepled white clapboard church. How was it different? I was still wearing my Sunday clothes. Patent leather shoes. Like the dead girls. The immediacy was too personal, horrifying. Sisters. I felt I had known them.
My grandmother said nothing, wearily shook her head from side to side, and tsked her teeth as if she had long expected such atrocities. But my father, who believed wholeheartedly in God country and family, who never swore and only drank when offered a snort on the most special of occasions, who had never raised his voice to his womenfolk, my father sprang bolt upright in that cheap recliner. The leatherette itself squealed in protest as he yelled. “Good! Kill ‘em all! Get rid of the bastards! Goddamnit!” He punched the arm of the chair in defiance. The coffee erupted. “That’ll teach ‘em!” His bland face was contorted in rage and hatred. I trembled for the girls already dead. I grabbed my dog and buried my face in his furry neck, something tangible, safe, a trustworthy protector, for my father in an instant was no longer my father, but an alien wreck of a man. The bombing in Birmingham had shattered our house in Maine too.
This decent working man who called me Squirrel Girl and taught me the proper use of tools, who took a second job to buy me a Christmas doll, who chauffeured my friends and me to the movies when it was raining without hesitation as if he had nothing else to do, it was this man along with the paranoid bigot that I ceased to love. I could not separate the two. Often after his mill shift was over, he would sit at the kitchen table with his head in his hands for long minutes when he thought he was alone.
What was the mystery in his brain? What secrets did his mind hold that caused it to spit out such vehemence? While he lived, I never dared tempt fate to ask those questions, fearing that to know the answers was to plunge further into dark realms where part of his soul unpredictably visited, where violence against the innocent gave some warped solace, where the bombs of war still echoed. He and I were polite and civil and when I went off to college, he patted me upon the shoulder. I was his only child.
Throughout the years we continued our mutual civility in that way that WASPs do, never getting to the heart of any matter lest we release the hornet’s nest. Cards and gifts were dutifully exchanged.
Into his early eighties my father remained a big man sound of heart and body, but gradually his mind eroded until the war veteran, the deer-hunter, the tool-maker became increasingly paranoid, sailing his minesweeper back to the Straits of Iwo Jima, and ultimately he lay drugged and restrained to a VA bed, his finally-clean fingers tracing frantic ghosts of words in the air. On a February day, nearing the end, he struggled to reach me with his air words as his mouth gaped reflexively without sound. I read his air words and it was I who finally spoke to him, to tell him that I knew he loved me and that I loved him, and he, in his institutionalized haze, seemed to listen, and I did take his hand and I folded a Valentine in it.
There are acrid smells in the recesses of my brain where my father lives. But the smells of cordite and grief from an atrocity in a certain city in the south on a day of horror are gradually replaced in memory by gentler scents — morning bacon, Old Spice, wet wool, fresh-cut fir. The aroma of graphite and stale-coffee breath greets me to this day when I lift the lid of his machinist chest where I store my art supplies. And throughout the years the pastel chalks have absorbed the metal and machine oil odors and it is no longer his box with the many sliding drawers and the worn oak top. It is ours. And that is right.
That self-conscious pat of my father’s hand on my shoulder. What would I give to feel that again? And just in remembering it, perhaps I do. Perhaps he is now here with me, protective in his way, neither of us understanding the other, not at all.
(At 10:22AM on Sunday September 15, 1963 a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and killed four Sunday School girls.)
An edited version was published online in Huffington Post, June 2011
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