A year before my father died, he and I drove my mother’s aging Pontiac to the funeral of an uncle in Wisconsin. My father smoked the first cigarette of the trip in Laramie, outside a gas station/fly store he patronized often. There, some time before, he had purchased his favorite pair of tying scissors, a tool he loved with the devotion of Cordelia. In the store, he took a similar pair from its hook and tested its snip-snip action and sighed like some satisfied lover I didn’t want to picture my father being. “These,” he declared, “are the most excellent scissors in the world.”
At the counter, Dad examined a classic and expensive pheasant neck. He took the neck from its plastic wrapper and stroked the dead bird’s collar. Under the store’s fluorescent light, he scrutinized the smallest feathers and nodded approval. Along with the neck, from the connected convenience store, he purchased a small box of saltines for me and for himself an ice cream sandwich and a bag of nut mix. He declared “Road Trip Rules,” meaning he could eat what he liked for the duration — cholesterol, fat, and calories be damned, although he wore his guilt like a dark and heavy cloak. He had already told me that at the funeral, he would have to keep his suit coat buttoned in order to hide the fact that he was unable to fasten the matching pants.
The dead uncle we traveled to honor was a native of my mother’s hometown. A sweet, handsome Norwegian with a resolute singing voice, he had converted to Catholicism in order to marry my mother’s youngest sister more than forty years before. My mother, who otherwise would have made the trip, stayed behind with my sister who was scheduled to give an induced birth to her third child. Technology let us know, months before this baby’s arrival that she would be the first girl in her generation of our family.
My two sons stayed home with my husband. I had tossed my little suitcase under the hatchback of my car, preparing to meet my father in town. “Be gentle with your dad,” my husband said.
“Don’t tell me how to act.” I looked around the house, pansies blooming in the boxes, the mountains behind us a pointillist’s green canvas.
“See you in three days, then.” My husband lifted his hand in half a wave.
“Beg me to stay,” I said.
“Don’t tell me what to do.” My husband chucked me on the shoulder and absorbed my weighty hug. Then he kissed me for real and stood in our driveway like some saintly statue, a son standing under each arm. I longed for everything about my husband then, and also the boys, their untainted breath, their whiskerless skin, even as I kissed them goodbye.
But, I wanted more, I had told myself, the comfort of a good funeral and to feel mortality in the traditional, explicit way. Certainly I had loved the uncle. But also, his death, though expected, was the first in his generation and landed the surviving family members on the respective cusps of new and older age groupings. This shift was a thing I thought I wanted to view from its onset, to see if I could read the faces of relatives, watch their skin wrinkle, their hands start to shake. I wanted to be there for the exact moment we all grew older.
We kept to smaller roads, my father periodically reaching behind my seat to where he had positioned his nut mix. Through the windy wordlessness of Wyoming’s southeastern corner, he chewed and swallowed, sealing the bag and returning it to behind my seat, then retrieving it again, like some Zen master of junk food, with no change in expression or demeanor.
I tipped my head for a view of the odometer and counted. Doing 60, he chewed consistently 55 times and three bites per mile until only crumbs were left and he angled the bag toward his mouth, missing entirely, decorating his shirt with Chex cereal, cashew crumbs, and salt. Face in the bag, for a few seconds he had no view of the road. Perfectly comfortable, he even closed his eyes to fully take in the subtleties of last bite expectation. He swerved gently into the opposite lane, but no cars came from the north, and we were saved by the dull accident of being alone.
For several miles I pondered the exact boundary between West and Midwest, hoping that I might feel the difference, maybe a slight change in temperature, an adjustment of light, perhaps a songbird beating out a dash-dot rhythm with its little wings straight along the invisible border that would let me know we had crossed into the vast, inarticulate area where my parents had been children.
My father, out of snacks, reached under his seat for the only cassette tape there, a practical fossil, its print worn to hieroglyphics. Yet, Peter, Paul, and Mary sang willingly, their harmonies mixing with the air-co in breezy ease. “Terrific!” my father said after every song. “This Train.” “500 Miles.” “Lemon Tree.” “Terrific. These guys are just great, aren’t they? This is my favorite kind of music,” my father said. I used the side-view mirror to stick my tongue out at him while he whistled along with his tape. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”” Sorrow.” My father turned his head to smile at me, we crossed into Nebraska, and Puff, that mighty dragon, sadly slipped into his cave.
In a Scotts Bluff diner, we sat ourselves into a waxy booth as if we had not been sitting for the previous five hours, granting ourselves artificial relief at this change of background, this new and momentary reference point, this release time from the perfectly shock-absorbered sedan. All around us, paneled diner walls bowed behind photos of historical Nebraska presented in crippled dime-store frames.
Eight hundred some miles from the nearest ocean, my father grinned at the grandma-waitress and ordered fish and chips, the familiar Friday food of his formative years. Then he beamed at me, really beamed like I was some kind of prize. I contemplated and decided against releasing the news of my pregnancy, but decided to take my chances with the Mexican food hoping the grease might settle the nausea just now starting its parabolic curve into the third month.
After delivering our plates, the waitress sat, propped up her soft beige shoes in the adjacent booth and pulled on a Kool Filter King. I forced back gags at the smoke, but the Kool package, like the ashtrays waiting on every table, appeared as a relic, an object turned important because of its will to survive in memory. Like a foregone conclusion, the crumpled green and white encased in cellophane registered as traditional, established, and household — an entity antagonist, like fear of falling, tagging up with my reptile brain.
Kool had been my father’s brand all the years he taught high school drama, including the year he cast me as the scolding mother and washed-up beauty, Amanda Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie. From the back of the cafeteria we used for a theater, he lounged across the top of a banquet table and inhaled deeply while he listened and watched. With no understanding of maternal or 1930s cultural ethos, I reached in my teenage heart and tried to astonish my father with compassionate grasp of the role.
“Again,” he said, flicking his ashes. Hundreds of times, he made me repeat my line, “You are the only young man I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present the past and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” This was to practice at a Southern lilt he knew I couldn’t achieve, but wished me to appreciate the importance of all the same. At that time in his life, he favored menthols because (I realized this years later when a friend full of nostalgia explained to me at a class reunion) his students had to be hovering at the edge of DTs to want to bum one.
Now it was Marlboros or sometimes a generic grocery brand, something in a red soft pack. I stopped paying attention, and somewhere between my adolescence and this here and now, he had become more secretive — possibly more ashamed — and smoked regularly outside behind my parents’ house. Or (I knew because I had caught him once in such a pose) if he was at home alone, on a stool leaning over the stove blowing the smoke up into the kitchen fan. He didn’t leave empty packs lying around anymore, not even in the trash.
For dessert, my father chose a sagging slice of banana cream pie, this presented by the waitress with her arthritic hands, foreboding talons shaking and curling around the pale green edges of a slippery cafeteria tray. “Want some?” my father offered. Burrito hit my stomach like a rock lobbed into a pond, and I left him to pay. Outside, a wall of lifeless air hit me square and hard. My body searched out equilibrium while I walked the 30 feet to the car, sweat pouring down my legs like lost pee. On a slab of old concrete I stood and brooded in the company of a few hopeful weeds pushing up through the cracks.
The summer before, it had been Dad’s idea for the two of us to take my boys fishing. We crammed into my station wagon and drove to a nearby lake where he coached as the boys threw salmon eggs from a low dam because they were still too little to cast flies. The sky turned quickly dark, but my sons were persistent, even in the face of heavy wind and looming thunderclouds. They didn’t want to leave without having caught a trout. A few little rainbows glided up near the shore, but we caught nothing and all hurried off the dam to the close crack of thunder.
Dirt under their fingernails, ball caps askew, heads together in the back seat, the boys slept on the way home and slept on in the car after we pulled in the drive. I left the doors open for air, and my father and I fussed with the equipment, straightening lines, emptying hooks, untangling reels in preparation for next time. We had outrun the thunderstorm easily. “I just have to say something.” I delivered this ineloquence to my father as I had rehearsed it hundreds of times.
Dad never looked at me. I remember staring at his sun-browned neck, trying to bore into his psyche as if it was located there, but receiving instead a perfunctory glint from his sunglasses. The rest of the scene we carried out as if by rote, how anyone would imagine it. For the kids. For me. For mom. So many of my friends’ parents already gone. How selfish to treat yourself so poorly. The risks. Why go on like this? It feels like you don’t love us.
My father was a gentle man, not prone to visible anger. I knew when I cracked this delicate, creaking door that his feelings would rush out inadequately armed and be summarily blown to smithereens. It was a sucker punch to say that it seemed like he didn’t love us. I hoped to bring my father to his knees.
Truly, I knew my father’s love like an old movie, the scenes of it coming one after the other in a steady, predictable, comforting way that left a daughter’s heart happily bereft of longing. Yet once I saw the change in posture, his small cowing under the back-lit shame of everyday life, I let fly, respect and deference retreating with the thunderheads. My skin pimpled up with the perceptible, acid pleasure of spelling out my father’s likely fate for him while he held his head low. He pretended to be invisible maybe, still fiddling with his grandsons’ all-important monofilament lines, leaving me to soliloquy and childish tears.
Back on the road after lunch, I reclined the velour seat and slept while we crossed into the central time zone, losing an hour of daylight while my body took up the arduous task of forming a central nervous system. I imagined this third baby of mine as I dozed, feigning real sleep to avoid expending energy on conversation. The microscopic organs would just now be starting to differentiate duties, the transparent skin adjusting its fit daily, the hunched kidney bean I couldn’t yet feel inside me starting to make me love it. Through my eyelashes, I peeked like a cheating child, watching my father’s chubby knuckles on the steering wheel as we headed east, air conditioning droning, the Pontiac like a silver scavenger, nose to the ground hoping for information or food.
The previous spring, my youngest son turned five, and I had turned 40. I had hidden my longing for this third baby like chocolate in a bedroom drawer, scared a late pregnancy might be difficult to achieve, and frightened that mentioning the thing would apply a permanent jinx against it. Here in only the eleventh week, I hovered between pending joy and the threat of early miscarriage, at once feeling myself to be the fecund queen of all the world and also fearing that to sneeze would be to spontaneously abort the inch-long life inside me.
I sat up to the Sand Hills of Nebraska rounding their bellies casually toward another sunset. Ten miles over the speed limit, the car nosed over and through the duney landscape. Between the hills dark little lakes gathered like misgivings.
The cranes named for these hills, were of course absent in June. One pair had been nesting near our house, returning this spring like every spring with their rolling calls working down a little sage brush draw to the west of the property. I had tried for several years not to be attached to their arrival, not to have my happiness depend upon their throaty braying, the marvel of their wings measured against the sky. “Do you know,” I said to my father, “I have never actually seen our sand hill cranes’ nest?”
“Your sand hill cranes?” My father studied the road now, as if they might be going to appear suddenly in front of him.
“The pair that lives by the house in summer. You’ve seen them. They fly down the valley about dinner time.”
“Do they nest on the ground?”
“Yes,” I said, “I think so. Then migrate south as a family. Then, when the baby’s old enough to be alone, fly back and start over somewhere around here, maybe, in the spring.”
“They’re tall,” my father said, “look like people standing in the grass.”
“And loud,” I said, “doesn’t seem like a good survival strategy.”
“What would kill a crane?” Again my father peered out the windshield.
“Maybe a coyote would eat the eggs.” I was filled completely with longing for not just any cranes, but the very cranes of home, which were as indistinguishable from other cranes as were these sand hills one from the next, a steady salvo of lulling landscape. “I don’t know. I worry about them,” I confessed. My father pointed out the window to a pond managing to shiver under the hot breeze. A bunch of mergansers bobbed on the surface. “Well, there’re some ducks for you, anyway,” he said cheerfully.
My uncle’s ashes sat at the front of the church in a pine box he himself had made a few months before. Flowers were laid about, and worked into wreathes, and giant pink carnation hearts. During mass the priest said and emphasized the word “creamains,” often enough that I began to keep track by folding each of my fingers over first one thumb then the other until I ran out of digits.
From the balcony, my uncle’s brothers and sisters sang, their big Scandinavian voices sending out the protestant hymns my uncle must have grown up singing and for which the priest had given special prior approval to have sung in his church. My cousin wept freely, throwing herself across the front pew after her brother carried the ashes back down the aisle. Her little daughter, a five-year-old, stood by her, stroking her mother’s hip, tears making the whole journey of her face unhindered and leaving streaks on her gauzy dress.
“How great thou art,” my father sang out. He couldn’t hold a pitch even if I sang the note directly into his ear. But he loved to sing, and to cry a little, as he did then sincerely. For a moment I took in his broad, kind face. He looked forward and searched with his hand for mine to hold and with his other hand adjusted his jacket to cover the top of his pants as my very much-reduced uncle was carried away.
Outside the church, having said their prayers, a group of men who had been my uncle’s closest friends enacted a different kind of communion. Like grouse to a lek, they made their way across the lawn, mocking lush with midsummer luxury, and around the side of the stone walls to the place where, especially here and under these circumstances they could not deny themselves the nerve-calming solace of a cigarette before going graveside. My father stood with them shoulder-to-shoulder, heads down, each now and again flicking ash away from their colonnade of dark trousers. My girl cousin had made her way out and collapsed to her butt on the church’s concrete in her dress, staring at them and looking small.
That morning my niece had been born. A simple birth, so easy the nurses miscalculated, and the doctor had arrived too late to make the catch, the baby already out and healthy. My father took the call with as much joy as he could muster, smiling at the phone receiver and at me, for a few moments suspended in awe of a baby hundreds of miles away, a first granddaughter, wailing at the world from the start, like everyone.
He nodded and mmm-hmmed as I imagined my mother filling in details. He had convinced her to leave this town and go west with him to teach school and fly-fish. Now, he sat on the side of the motel bed, fastening and unfastening his watch, looking around the room as if there might be blocking cues on the walls telling him where to go, what to do. Sit on the bed. Stand up. Take two steps left and gesture. Pause, now one step back toward the table. Sit again.
He stretched his legs out in front of him, pointing his cordovan wingtips to the ceiling then out flat, listening to the news from home. I opened the curtains on my mother’s hometown. Some kids a bit older than mine pedaled by making a casual slalom course of dried worms on the sidewalk.
When my father had lain for several hours, more than a day surviving by breathing tubes, medications, and nurses, I was not moved to religious reaction. Still, I very much felt the hovering of spirit, the reassuring separation of life from not-life, the distasteful yet soothing fruition of all my predictions. But in the minutes surrounding my father’s death, the agreement to pull the plugs I had readily agreed to proved no match for the fact that I had to this moment always known my father as a person who breathed.
Like I know math, I knew that he would die. But his not breathing was a physical detail I had neglected to expect in the same way I had neglected to expect, even the third time, that when my babies were born they would scream. I thought of my children when my father died, of course. I did not feel that their souls would replace his, and refused to believe that we would be fine, or not fine, without him. But I did link up the generations in my head, moved myself again a step up some rickety, metaphorical ladder.
At the cemetery in Wisconsin my father and I walked past the graves of my mother’s parents where petunias struggled to keep their heads up in the heat. The grass swayed, the ground swayed; any sense of balance puttered behind me a day, still trying to find its way out of Nebraska. I thought of my sister having just spit a little girl from her body. Like a junkie, I looked forward to the splitting open. The coming forth a violence like no other and exhibited like an ode to stubbornness, and collective, foolish addiction to repetition itself.
We stood away a little from my uncle’s grave. My father looked on, and his profile again moved me back to when we had done The Glass Managerie. On performance night, he sat in front of me in the school alcove we used for dressing. He applied grey streaks to my hair, used grease paint to wrinkle my face, made me look tired. He put his finger on my chin to turn my head each way then looked at my face and said, “You’re just perfect. Beautiful.”
I doubt very much my father was flashing on Amanda Wingfield as one of my uncle’s children lowered the box of ashes. He winced as my cousin scooped a shovelful of dirt from a wheelbarrow, scratched and ordinary, and tossed it in. Although grateful for the lack of a body, I felt claustrophobic at the smallness of the hole.
In a gas station bathroom at the edge of town, I pulled on baggy shorts and a too-big T-shirt. Then I called home to leave my husband a message on the land line. “You will never leave me,” I stage whispered, “Never. Understand?”
My father unhooked his belt, hung his suit coat over the back seat, and said he would drive. Oak trees and maples along the roads shuddered their full summer leaves at us as we headed toward Minneapolis, basically silent, trying not to upset each other with our habits and farts.
A few hours west, we traded places. At a rest area by a river, I peed, and he smoked. “Probably a big muskie sitting right under that bank over there,” he said. He pointed across the brown water to where he imagined a great fish to be, lurking like knowledge. My father winked at me as if we were not alone. On a worn road atlas map, he pointed the direction I should take, then leaned the passenger seat back to full recline. As I drove, I watched his chest heave with the burden of snoring, watched his fingers fiddle with his shirt buttons in his sleep. I adjusted the knobs and listened to talk radio until reception disappeared somewhere in the Nebraska Sand Hills.