I saw my father one morning as I crossed Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. There he was-a skinny old man with a little island of hair on the top of his head and a patch of suntanned skin on either side-sitting at a table under the umbrellas of Caffé di Marzio. He was finishing off a cappuccino and smoking a cigarette; his old man’s body curved in an arc over the table while he read a newspaper, Corriere della Sera.
I was surprised. I would have expected a working man like him to read Il Messaggero or possibly Il Manifesto.
We took a table, my little boy and I, not far from his as the bells in the tower rang ten times. I drank a cappuccino and Nico ate a cornetto while I watched the old man smoke cigarette after cigarette and slowly turn the pages of his newspaper. As much as I felt the urge, I didn’t speak to him. My Italian isn’t that good and I wouldn’t want to make a mistake. What would I say to him anyway, after all this time? “What are you doing here? I thought you were …” But I couldn’t say that, not in any language.
Besides, this isn’t the first time I have seen him in Rome. Sometimes he sits outside the Bar San Calisto in the late afternoon. I’ve seen him there with his friends and I’ve heard him speaking in perfect Italian and also in Roman dialect. I’ve seen him there drinking a clear liquid, which must be grappa, in a clear glass that looks extraordinarily fragile in front of him. He’s a rough-looking man with deep crevices in his face, but he has small and delicate hands. I always thought of him as a beer drinker, though I’ve never seen him drink it.
In Spain he drank wine. I saw him once there, in Madrid, at a sidewalk restaurant. He looked just like one of the two photographs my mother keeps of him. In the picture he wears a dark suit with a white shirt and a narrow tie. His hair was thin even then, but it was short and carefully styled. You can see that he had intense eyes, dancing eyes, blue eyes that lit you up when you looked at him. In Spain he looked at me. His sharp, blue eyes looked right at me and I felt it. I felt his charm, his ability to make a person feel lucky to be there, lucky to know him.
After he left the table, I saw that he had eaten some kind of stewed meat for lunch and had ice cream for dessert. He had ordered a bottle of Rioja, but only drank half of it. I followed him into a market and I watched him buy pears and a piece of queso manchego. He spoke a beautiful, lisping Castilian and he joked with the man who sold the cheese. He turned to me and in Spanish he told me to count my change and they both laughed, so I laughed, too.
I didn’t see him in Berlin. That city is so crowded with ghosts, I don’t know how I would ever spot him.
The first time my mother saw my father he was on her neighbor’s roof. He was running across the peak of a Victorian row house with a hammer hanging from his belt loop. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. He had blonde hair. And those eyes, she could see from the ground, were the most beautiful shade of blue-more like ice than sea, she once said.
This was in Toronto just after World War II. He already had three children with his first wife, and in 1948 he and my mother had a son. And then another, and then a daughter, and then two more sons barely more than a year apart, and then a stillborn girl that they called Theresa. In 1963 they had me. In 1964 his heart stopped.
My father had a friend who came round our house a few times afterward. My mother says that I crawled up to him and sat in his lap. He was old-looking and wrinkled with skin as tough as worn leather. He had blue eyes and a receding hairline, just like my father’s.
For me, my father has never existed. He is only an echo of memory, more faint even than the memory of the house where we all once lived together. When I was five or six and desperate for something more tangible than a story, I asked my mother if we could dig him up. She told me that all we would find were bones and teeth, maybe hair. I would have liked to see those things, whatever remained of him.
I’ve heard that he could be terrifying and sometimes mean, that he drank too much and scared everyone out of their minds. He wasn’t easy to love, though everyone seemed to love him. He was one of three sons of Scottish immigrants, all hard drinking, brawling men who wanted to move up in the world, but had no idea how. They knew how to pour a drink and how to enjoy it. And they knew how to talk-talk about the future and their plans and the big house and the fine car that would one day be theirs. They were rich in dreams and they knew how to talk about them.
My father was a carpenter. I’d like to say more but that’s the only solid fact I have. Everything else I know about him is someone else’s version of the man.
“You’re the lucky one,” they tell me, my siblings.
They think the quiet and relative stability that ensued after he died was better than the presence of our erratic and charismatic father. They think it all stopped once he was gone. But his influence lingered and is here with me now, present in my restlessness.
Through all the houses and apartments where we lived, through the streets and alleys of little towns, along the shore of the lake, and through the maze of the public housing complex that took us back to the city, stories of my father trailed us and left me feeling that I would one day see him, this person who was present but not here, that he would turn up again. I would wonder sometimes what he would make of me when we met; then I would remember that we’re not going to meet. Still, that feeling would return with every story. Until one day the thud of finality hit me and I realized that I would never see my father.
Yet since then I have seen him, from time to time, in the places where I go, in the cities where I have lived. Sitting near him in the Caffé di Marzio I took a napkin and brushed the pastry crumbs from my son’s lips. Nico laughed. “It tickles,” he said, his blue eyes reflective like ice, his blonde hair so brilliant in the Roman sunshine.
We left the café first. I didn’t even try to catch my father’s eye.
That night, after a late supper with my husband and a glass of wine, I opened my Italian grammar to work on some verbs. I know how the language works and I can follow its rules, but I’m still waiting for it all to make sense. For me, there is only surface in this language. Things can only be exactly what they appear to be. But the wine made me too sleepy to concentrate and soon I went to bed.
I slept well and deeply, but toward morning I dreamed about my father. He looked as he did in the second picture that my mother keeps. In this photograph he is standing in a field wearing baggy pants and a loose shirt and he looks old and worn out. It was taken the year before he died, when he was 46.
In the dream, I saw him standing in the field in dark corduroy pants and a white shirt, only partly buttoned and untucked. There was a stream behind him. He picked up a stick and started to walk along, poking the stick in the stream. I tried to keep up with him but he seemed to want to get away. He shook the stick at me.
“Leave me in peace,” he said. “Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
“But I need to know a few things,” I told him.
He stopped walking, which seemed to suggest that he was at least willing to entertain a question.
I wanted to say, “Stop, please, and look at what I’ve done with my life. Look at it and tell me, what do you think?” But that’s not what I said when I finally spoke.
“Where did you learn to speak Italian?” I asked, at last.
This made him turn towards me. He looked at the ground and gave me a chance to catch up. Then we walked along together while I waited for him to answer.
“There’s something I’ve wanted to say to you,” he said at last, “but you never give me a chance.”
I apologized and urged him to tell me what he wanted to say. But he didn’t speak. I waited. I stayed quiet while we walked along the stream so that he wouldn’t change his mind. Finally, he spoke.
“Don’t look back,” he said.
Only my father could know of my tendency to go over and over and over the past.
“Once it’s gone it’s gone. So don’t lose time. Just look ahead and do something interesting with what’s left of your life.”
He ran through a number of such platitudes that are nonetheless true despite being so worn.
My father stepped right in front of me and looked me in the eye, and then he told me to sort out the Italian subjunctive.
“Just use it,” he said, in a voice that was soft, though not so terribly kind. “You know how, you’re just being shy. You are afraid, but you’ll never be fluent if you don’t practice.”
He looked at me with those sharp, cool eyes.
“Penso che tu stia sognando,” he said with such clarity that his voice still rings painfully in my head: I think you are dreaming.
I nodded. He was right, of course, about everything. But I was grateful for the advice even though there was still so much I wanted to know. When I woke up I was asking another question. The words were there, I had said them aloud. But the room was empty. I was talking to myself.