Friday, June 17, 2011

day 28
Daddy Redux
In honor of my dad and Father's Day I am reposting my essay which appeared in the Washington Post Style pages:

A Father and Daughter, Forging a Belated Bond
By Wanda E. Fleming
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 7, 2008


It's 3 a.m. and it's raining, the kind of rain that stabs the pavement with noisy diagonal needles. The telephone rings. This should be a horror movie but it's not.

George Lloyd Fleming
The voice on the line is my father's, and my father does not use the phone. That is my mother's province. He is shy, and throughout my childhood I rarely saw him call anyone. "It's bad," he says. "Mom had a heart attack." It's a month before my parents enter their 45th year of marriage; my mother is dead.

Though ultimately she was the tiniest person in our family of towering members, my mother was clearly the most formidable. Think of the dignified beauty of Clair Huxtable, the nerve of Donald Trump and Joan of Arc's will, and you have the picture. My mother once confided she had wanted to fly fighter planes as a teenager. She held a college degree at a time when few women even attended. Her curtains were starched white, her lemonade made fresh from lemons we rolled across the wooden cutting board together. And late at night, curled up with her Shakespeare or a presidential biography, she smoked cigarettes, lots of them.

By the time we had cremated her, the cherry blossoms were whirling above the street. I had stopped crying into the night. I had started wondering what would happen to Dad.
The truth is I barely knew him. Was it the two jobs he had worked all those years I was growing up? Perhaps it was simply his personality. I saw him as achingly private, and by the time I was 39, I had but a tiny cache of memories of him. They blurred with his tentative smile and sparse, quiet words.

There were the Sundays at Mass. He would sit with his eyes closed, though I don't believe he was ever asleep. Indeed, if any of the six of us children began to whisper, he would gently admonish with a "Shhhh," then jiggle his hand.

There were the report-card conferences. One by one, each child would come sit next to him on the oak staircase, and he would comment on our progress.

There was the scorchingly hot day I, a petrified, profoundly unathletic child, learned to ride a two-wheeler. Dad ran me up the hill and back. Perspiration coursed down his burnished face, but he stayed until I turned into the alleyway. Even as I careened into the neighbor's new station wagon, I shrieked and waved wildly.

But an encounter as an adult is what I now recall resoundingly. Dad was washing dishes as my mother polished the dining room table in the adjoining room. I had just graduated from college. I tortured myself about next steps. Should I pursue a paralegal position at a patent law firm or an editorial post in a juvenile justice agency, where I could research and write articles about troubled children?

Mom did not proffer advice, but it didn't matter. She always telegraphed her ambitions for me. She wanted me to find a paralegal job, apply to law school and become a lawyer of some note and repute. She had cast her hopes for me, and they were wide and unwavering.

Dad washed the good china cups and handed them to me. I dried. His eyes focused on the dying suds. "Do what you really want," he whispered. "Try to do it now while you can."
The next day I took the job in juvenile justice. I never told my mother how I decided. I never repeated what Dad had said.

My mother's strength cast an imposing, opaque shadow. She propped us up and prodded us all, my siblings, my father, her friends. Yet, her shadow also blocked the sun's strongest rays, draining her spirit and keeping me from seeing my father.

In the seven years since my mother's death, Dad and I have spoken on the phone hundreds of times.

He lives exuberantly. With the gifted precision of a scientist, he plans his annual garden. He forces his seeds and simmers his stews. He notices everything, what lipstick I'm wearing, the chair cushion I've sewn and stretched to perfection, how tall each of my children has grown. At Christmas, he painstakingly chooses and carries through the yard a seven-foot fir. He decorates it with the glossy apples and the papier-mache doves my mother loved most.

On days when he is morose and silent, I spy what made my mother feel lonely even when he was at home. When he is funny, however, it startles and sparks me in the way an unexpected gift might.

Today, Dad has brought me pink and white peonies from his garden. There are so many I comb my kitchen cabinets for vases. When he leaves and strolls to his car, I wave wildly. I wave the way I did when learning to ride my bike.
A blinding swath of orange sun threatens to separate us, but I cup my hand to my eyes. I see Dad now. I finally see him.


Copyright, Wanda Fleming 2011

1 comment:

Cate said...

Beautiful, Wanda. Really beautiful!

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