Portrait of a Friend: Happy Father's Day
Unlike most friends, this friend has been part of your life for as long as you can remember. He figures in your earliest memories, and there hasn’t ever been a stretch of longer than half a year when you haven’t been in his presence.
He’s a tall man, a big man. He has a big presence and a giant voice. His laugh, when he gets going, will fill a room and make all those around him shake their heads in admiration. This is a man who likes to tell a story.
He’s good at telling them, too. At the diner, where he goes every morning to meet his buddies for coffee, and where you go when you’re visiting, they sometimes egg him on.
“Did you tell Alison about the woman who propositioned you at McDonald’s?” one will say.
“Jesus H Christ!” he’ll say. “No I didn’t!”
“Are you kidding me?” you’ll say. “A woman propositioned you at McDonald’s?”
He will shake his head, that mighty laugh beginning to rumble out of him.
“Tell her,” his friends will say. “Alison needs to know.”
They will wink at you, and grin, while he looks down at the formica diner table, still shaking his head, still laughing. And then he’ll tell it, in that giant voice, so that the whole diner ends up listening. And laughing. And shaking their heads.
He is a man who has never been accused of political correctness. Nor has he, unlike most people in the world, ever tried to be anything other than exactly who he is.
Sometimes he would come to visit you during the four years you spent at that little college in Vermont, where most of the other visiting adults wore pearls and linen dresses and suitcoats and polished shoes.
Over the Adirondacks and into the Green Mountains he would come, cresting the hill in a big old station wagon. The door would open and he would haul himself out. Those were the years of the neon orange polyester shirt and the polyester pants with the grease stain. Those were the years of your friends, unused to big men with giant laughs, unused to hearing “Jesus H Christ!” so frequently and happily roared out in public, looking forward to his visits.
Despite a lifetime of knowing you, and despite the fact that your name is simple to pronounce, that is how he pronounces it.
“Alison,” you sometimes say, even now. “A-li-son. Emphasis on the first syllable. Try it again.”
He looks up and smiles, a gleeful little grin from a big man.
“Jesus H Christ!” he says. “I know how to pronounce your name, Al-oh-sun!”
This easy give and take, this banter, this happiness, wasn’t always there. When you were little, you were often afraid of him.
Was it that big voice, his height and his bigness? He was a man of enormous physical strength. He often spent entire days chopping down trees, chainsawing them into big chunks, then smaller chunks, then splitting them into smaller and smaller chunks that, finally, were small enough to fit inside a woodstove.
So tough and stoic is he in the face of pain that he once had to lie down on the floor of a doctor’s office and refuse to move in order to convince them that something –which turned out to be an appendix that had ruptured more than 24 hours previously– was seriously, terribly wrong.
You remember him once pouring Clorox over his bleeding arm to disinfect it.
Unlike now, he was often angry.
Like most children, you assumed that his anger was directed at you. That you were the cause of it. That you must have done something to bring it on.
Like most of the grownups close to you, he was a familiar mystery. In retrospect, you didn’t know him well. How could you? Each of you kept things hidden from the other.
You remember late nights when you were a girl, him working at the kitchen table, head bent over complicated graphs and charts, filling in tiny boxes with penciled numbers. He worked for a dairy farmers’ cooperative; he was keeping track of milk counts at various farms. Or he was charting milk tank truck routes; milk has to be taken to a processing plant within a certain number of hours, and winter in upstate New York is fearsome and unpredictable.
You remember him figuring out other numbers, bent over a checkbook, writing check after check, paying bills.
“Where does it all go, though?” you remember saying once, when you were in your teens.
You were talking about the money that he made. It was an honest question, an idle question.
“Where does it go!” he roared. That anger again, or what you interpreted as anger, anger at you. “Where does it go!”
Later that night he called you out to that kitchen table. On it was a piece of ruled notebook paper. BUDGET at the top of the page. Underneath, line after line with things like Mortgage and Taxes and Food and Gas and Car Payment, each with a dollar amount jotted next to it. Exact dollar amounts, written from memory, subtracted and subtracted and subtracted from that single figure titled “Income.”
“Now do you see?” he said. “Now do you see where it goes?”
Yes. Now you saw.
You didn’t, not really. But later, many years later, when you yourself were sitting up late at night, your children asleep upstairs, dividing a small number over and over again, trying to make it come out differently, you remembered that night so long ago. That piece of lined paper titled Budget.
He was a young man, back then, which is something else you didn’t know. Grownups, those mysterious beings. To a child, a grownup is born a grownup. Could you have imagined him, back then, as a child himself? No.
When you were a little girl you had no idea how young he was. You do now, though. You look back and you wonder at his youth. What went through his mind? What were his dreams? What had he put aside, for four children and the responsibilities that go with them?
Once, when you were about twelve and he was, what, 36, someone asked the people in the kitchen in which you were both standing this question. “If you could start your life over, would you?”
Almost everyone in the room answered immediately: “No.”
But not him. “Yes,” he said. “I would.”
And not you. “Yes,” you said. “I would.”
Looking back, it seems impossible that you, at that age, could have answered that way. How in the world could you have lived long enough, lived through enough, to want the chance to do it over? But the memory is perfectly clear.
You remember looking at him –that big, tall man, often angry the way he was back then– and recognizing that something in him, something he had never talked about, was in you too. Even if neither of you knew what it was.
If he never talked about the big questions, he was full of small ones. When you would return from a day or overnight at a friend’s house, for example, he would quiz you.
“What did you have for lunch?” he would say, “and what did you have for supper? Where did you sleep? How warm do they keep their house?”
He would lean forward so as not to miss anything, and you would describe it all.
“Jesus H Christ!” he would interject, fascinated and needing more details, which you would supply.
He loves a good story, and so do you. He will happily exaggerate if it will make a good story better, and so will you. His love of a good laugh, his keen interest in the people around him, his frustrated anger at his young children when he was a young man, his deadpan humor, his fierce need to make his own schedule, to be free, to get in his car and drive?
All these are in you too. Early on, you felt yourself so different from him. Not anymore.
You remember him coming out of a gas station on a summer day, somewhere in the middle of the two-week road trips that were your family’s annual vacation, his hands full of candy bars, one for each child.
You remember a dusty wooden-floored building out in the country, where every once in a while a polka band would set up. You remember setting your then-small feet on his enormous ones and holding on while he danced you around the room.
You remember a day in a restaurant with him and his mother, whom you adored, and the rest of the family. You remember his mother losing her balance and falling flat on her back and him, then in his 60′s, silently and swiftly scooping her up in his arms and setting her back upright.
Now, these many years later, you sometimes get eight or nine emails a day from him. Almost all are forwarded posts that he’s gotten from others: astonishing or weird sights, political jokes, cute pictures of animals, unusual historical facts. Jokes, off-color in the extreme, that almost always make you laugh.
Usually, the mere sight of a forwarded email, with those telltale and dreaded endless lines of recipients and senders, means an automatic delete. Not so if he’s the sender. You read them all. You respond to the ones you like best.
He likes late night solitaire. Sometimes, when you’re going to bed, you picture him, far away in that house in the foothills, his still-big body perched on a small chair, gazing at the green screen, seven vertical rows of cards.
The sound of a baseball game turned low on a television in the background of a room, or a baseball game on the radio in a car, any car, brings you back to childhood. When you visit you sit and watch with him, arguing about the Yankees.
You’re lucky people. Lucky to have both lived long enough to live through the storms. Not a day goes by that you don’t get up in the morning and sit and bow your head and thank the world for that. For having come out on the other side. For the loss of fear and the gain of love.
In your 30′s you read a poem, this poem:
* * *
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
* * *
You memorized it.