Sunday, June 15, 2008

A portrait of memory

"There's something like a line of gold thread running through a man's words when he talks to his daughter, and gradually over the years it gets to be long enough for you to pick up in your hands and weave into a cloth that feels like love itself." ~John Gregory Brown, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, 1994

Somewhere around here is a photo of my dad and I together on a regular day, not Christmas or Easter or anybody’s wedding day, but one of those normal days when nothing much of interest took place. It’s not a photo you’d ever be inclined to put into an album; we’re probably not dressed well or my dad hadn’t shaved that day. Maybe that explains why I can’t put my hands on it… it may not even exist, really, at least not as anything more than my imagination.

In this photo of my dad and I, you’d see a certain amount of ambivalence between us, but we clearly love each other. There’s a similar expression of bemusement in our eyes and an easy comfort together, but no obvious signs of warmth, at least not if the photo was taken after I turned 11 or so. Before then I might be seated on his knee or reaching a hand up to meet his as we walked together somewhere, maybe back to the car after ice-cream.

Mostly we stand awkwardly together, not sure what to do with our arms or our affection. It was always that way. Other than the customary goodnight kiss or the kiss on saying hello or goodbye, our family was very reserved with any outward display of feelings. Somewhere in life both of my brothers have become huggers, but that’s not anything we’d learned at home. Their hugs surprise me still, but I’m learning to like them. Maybe for them the hugs communicate some of what we’ve always been too embarrassed to really say to one another. It’s that way between brothers and their little sister, I guess. When I was a kid it was the “affectionate” flicks on the ear or the “friendly” swats on the back of the legs with a wet towel; now it’s hugs so strong they force the air out of my lungs. They still seem to take some perverse sort of pleasure in causing me pain, I think.

In a more recent photo of my dad and I, you’d see that our relationship had changed and grown into something else. In the time between when I’d moved out of his house and he moved into mine a few months before he died, we’d found something like a mutual deference to each other. Deference isn’t really the proper word for it; I would always be a bratty kid as far as he was concerned, but my dad and I discovered a way around his old-fashioned ideas about how kids should behave with their parents and which totally confounded my brothers, who thought I got away with the world. There’s something Garrison Keillor said to explain that once, but I can’t exactly remember it. Something about a father being a hostage to his daughter, like a pat of butter in a frying pan when she asks for his counsel.

I see that in my brothers now, with their daughters, and it’s a cause for joy... maybe now they’ll understand and will stop teasing me for being spoiled. I also see their easy affection with my nieces and I’m happy for those little girls growing up with dads who aren’t too formal or too preoccupied to love their daughters openly and affectionately.

There weren’t any photos of my dad and I from that time just before he died. I’m glad for that, glad there’s nothing to challenge my memories of him. I still see him self-important and angry at some injustice done to me. He’s still strong and ready to slay the monsters under my bed, still competent and able to rescue me or my brothers from some mistake of our own making. The mistrust and worry that had wrinkled his face with every adventure or new friend are gone as he stands proudly aside to watch us discover who we’ve become.

This photo in my memory is of us passing the hours together at the kitchen table, talking long into the night, the coffee pot on. Those gab sessions made up for our lack of touchy-feely-ness somehow. We talked about everything under the sun, at least twice. I see us there, smiling uncertainly at each other, not sure what to talk about next.

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Memory is part make-believe anyway, isn’t it? We use what we remember and combine it with what we believe to be true, embellish it with what we wish for and what we need, and then stitch it all together into something that comforts us when a loved one is gone.

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Everything you can imagine is real. I believe that.

Happy Father's Day.

Other Father's Day posts here and here.


Susan Gets Native said...

What a post.
I think my and yours were from the same "old school" of fathering. My Dad wasn't comfortable with affection after I reached a certain age. I had been a cute little girl and then suddenly I was a young adult woman. He had no idea how to relate to me.

Memory is a tricky thing. I choose to piece things together and make my own stories about Dad. Stories I need to believe are true.


bunnygirl said...

What a lovely and thought-provoking post. How we relate to our parents as adults vs as children can be so incredibly complex. Perhaps that's why memory is so faulty. It helps tweak the ambivalence into a story that makes sense and brings us peace.

Jayne said...

It's a complex relationship for sure. Very poignant post Laura.

Mary said...

I had to think and remember for a while before I commented here. Laura, I don't believe I hugged my younger brother more than four or five times until we became adults. Our family didn't hug often, either, but we talked like crazy. There was affection but not the type I often see in other families.

This is a brilliant post and has my eyes brimming with tears.


Lynne said...

I had to go away and then come back to this post Laura. It brought immediate tears to my eyes as I had a hard time remembering my Dad's voice yesterday. I come from a family of huggers and kissers. Respectful language toward parents and other elders was mandatory. It was difficult to find a safe topic to joke around with my Dad.

I'm stomping though this comment, but your post, again, was so beautifully writtem.

NCmountainwoman said...

What a great attitude. I wish more people could "remember" things this way. It would make their lives so much easier.

Lovely Father's Day tribute.

LauraHinNJ said...

Susan: Yeah... stories are powerful. Writing them down helps me remember, too.

Bunnygirl: It didn't seem so simple then, but memories have a way of reducing things to what matters most, maybe.

Mary: I'd always felt like my family wasn't typical that way, but maybe that isn't so true.

Sorry to bring tears.

Lynne: Sorry again! Joking with dad felt like stepping on eggshells usually. He was usually so stern it was hard to tell his mood or if I could get away with poking fun.

NCMountainWoman: Thanks. Time changes things, too, I think.

KGMom said...

Aww--Laura--so sweet, so complex. Perhaps your brothers becoming huggers is a way of speaking without words.
I remember your previous posts on your dad, and this one peels back another layer in your complicated relationship.