Memoir Piece 2: “Ashes”

Ashes

The land is in pools, mirrors. As if there were a flood and only islands remain, islands with the trees from my earliest memories–the wild apple blossoms, their pink and white petals falling like snow. I imagine him under there, in the shade of the silky blossoms, leaning back on an arm, picking blades of grass, his long legs muzzled in by the sweet alysum growing. His blue eyes look up through their long, long black eyelashes–the lashes I’ve inherited–and into the blossoms, into the purple sky. His reflection is still on the water. Peace. He’s found peace. He still wears the cream colored shirt with the brown vees from the shoulders to the chest, heavy in his strange scent that I can still smell if I remember really hard.

The white farmhouse, falling apart and filthy, stood on a sunken, lush lawn with wild apple trees that snowed pink petals.  He built us a swing under one of them, taking turns going higher and higher into the pink fragrance.  There was a hammock tied between the two trees and we spent afternoons lulled in it by the bees, fat and humming.  We picked from the plum tree, he pulled us in a wagon behind the rider lawnmower, we climbed ancient tractors, we walked in the fields with the big, round hay bales.  There was a pig in small barn, I loved the thick mud and even the suffocating smell.  Family came and went as if they’d never grown up and left home.  Most of them were alcoholics, some of them were borderline pedophiles but they were eventually pushed out of the circle.  My grandpa Leo was an old white haired man with a huge gin blossom nose, sitting in his chair.  Drinking.  The kitchen was warm and old, with a large wooden fork and spoon above the oven.  My grandma Helen had chipped, blue China plates.  The floor rolled in hills and we road our trikes around.  I don’t remember him ever leaving our side on those weekends he had us.

“Daddy John” as we called him, after the divorce; the only time I saw him mad

When he died, my sisters and I were to go through his house alone and pick whatever we wanted. We had passed through his empty, cold kitchen (checked the fridge for beer, and sure enough–no food either) and through a yellow blanketed door, the blanket that used to close in his side of the bedroom at the old farmhouse when we were little toddlers, and into his room. A bare mattress, like before. I remember thinking of the time I broke into his house when I was in my teens, because I was angry, because my stepfather was watching me shower and because I had recurring memories of molestation from the early early years. I was angry. Angry because he left us. Because he left us defenseless to him. Because he was a serious alcoholic. Because he had been so scared and shy and gentle when we were so little. We got what we wanted, he shushed us, he was too embarrassed to help us in the bath–Grandma Helen had to wash us. Because when he tried to quit drinking in order to have visiting rights, he showed up at our house in tears because he couldn’t, and because he wanted us. Our parents were at the door talking to him and my sisters huddled in the kitchen, listening and crying and looking at each other. We weren’t thinking ‘he couldn’t do it’, we were thinking ‘he still wants us…someone truly wants us–they’re crying for us.’ When he went away, rejected, we went up to our rooms in the creaky house, and sat by ourselves. I wasn’t surprised that he couldn’t stop, my mother had told us how it was a disease. I was surprised that after these ten years, he still wanted us–enough so that he cried. And as we went through his messy room, we bee-lined it for his closet and each took out a shirt, smelled it, and sobbed. It was hardest for Nikki, my older sister. I’d never seen her like that before–in shock. Her daddy (she was his favorite; actually for awhile he denied Jodie and I were his, he’d carry her when she was two to the old bonneville and make me crawl in the dirt across the driveway, my mother yelling at him from the porch). Her daddy she couldn’t save was gone.
The worst, saddest part was not only how he left this earth but what his life had come to in the end. He died on the bar room floor from alcohol poisoning. He was forty-two. His last ten or so years he had become a liqour-sploshed brain, the town drunk. He had a schedule at each bar from ten or eleven am until close. He showed the bar tenders the bent, worn pictures of us from his wallet. They didn’t believe we were really his. He bragged about us. I know this because when I was eighteen or nineteen (when I was an alcohol and speed-freak myself in another city), I decided to find him to question him–and I didn’t know for sure why. But when I finally found him at Tim & Sandy’s, I couldn’t resist his slim, hovering body, alone at the bar in his old Packer jacket. He wore the same brown-framed glassed that only magnified his beautiful eyes in a seventies fashion. I pulled up a stool next to him and said “Hi, dad.”
He looked to me and his eyes swam around for a moment and then the somewhat enibriated yet genuine affection and pride in his eyes. He hugged me. I can still smell him–right now as I write this, and I want to cry. “I love yous, I love yous” just like he always used to say. His voice was soft and sweet, like a hushing mama bear. He told me my and my sisters profiles–where we were currently working, what we did, how we did in school, what city we lived in. I didn’t ask how he knew. But again I wasn’t surprised by this knowledge. I was surprised by the fact that someone in this world wanted to know about our lives, and it seemed to be the only facts he cared about above anything else. My heart ached. He bought me a beer. Coors Light. I drank it because it smelled like my childhood with him, and how Grandpa Leo used to sit us on his torn black leather recliner and give his toddler grandchildren sips of Old Style. I can still taste that too. Funny how fragments of your earliest years are so strong in your senses.
I decided to be nice to him. I decided I still loved him and hurt for him. He yelled to the bar tender “Tim, see? This is my daughter, I told ya, I told ya” and Tim walked over and said “I never believed those pictures in your wallet were real, John. Good for you!” I could tell by his tone and inflection that he saw John as ‘special’, as many people have I assume, because even before the drinking got too big for him, he was mentally slower than most. I thought that only made him more endearing. More safe–I found safety I’d never known with just him. I can still hear his “shhh it’s okay” when I spilt milk at Grandma’s table. He carried me to the couch and hushed to me and wiped my tears away and let me lay there until I was okay.
I filled him in on what I was doing in Eau Claire, what I wanted to do, what my sisters were doing. “How’s your mom?” and he asked it without bitterness or any tension or anger. He really wanted to know. “Good. Busy at the motel.” “Oh that’s good. Boy I miss yous.” “We miss you too, dad. I love you.” I sat there for awhile but was never satisfied, because I had witnessed the alcohol poisoning, how his brain was soaked and his memories blurred. He still sort of seemed to see us as little girls. We were little girls in his mind, in his heart.
It had felt strange telling him I loved him because the last time I spoke to him I cornered him in his kitchen, bitter and biting like my mother, and demanded he tell me who molested me when I was little. He looked like a frightened deer. He backed up and put his hands up. “I dunno Amy, I dunno, I dunno what you’re talking about. I love yous.” I left him like that unsatisfied then too. And angry. But I wanted a parent to feel as bad and rotten as I did. I wanted him to hurt. To at least know what happened to me. Because deep down, I knew it hadn’t been him. It was never him. He was frightened by us and yet in love with us–always had been. I left his house crying, walking aimlessly down third street, and I remember the change I felt just then–one of many particular moments of change: I began to not feel. My tears were suddenly fake. I just wanted someone to see them. To stop me and to help me. I was going numb inside. That was the year I stared into my basement bedroom mirror until I couldn’t see myself anymore, and I never could again. I just see a body, someone I should be, the form I fill out, and it’s like a vapor, I don’t see me. Who am I but no one and yet so many beings?
There was another time, when Nikki graduated high school. It was another time I sought him out in the town bars. I found him and threatened him that if he didn’t show up at her graduation–just hers–I’d never goddamn forgive him. I was yelling. And again he backed up like a cornered, frightened animal and said “okay, okay tell her I love her, I love yous” and I stormed out. And he showed up. I watched for him the whole time, holding my breath, even during my mono. I found him up in the bleachers, alone, in his Packer jacket and big brown goggle glasses. I swear I could see those eyes across the gym. As the graduates and family went outside he came gently out of the crowd and waited for Nikki’s attention. I said “Hi, John” rudely. He hugged Nikki “Congratulations, I love you Nikki, my girl all grown up.” Nikki didn’t know what to do. I still wonder if I ruined the moment for her because I forced him to come. She was quiet and distant the rest of the day. I did manage to take a picture of him hugging her.  I still have the picture. One of maybe four that I have of him. And now I feel pangs of guilt that we’ll all always have–why didn’t we help him? Why didn’t we put our heads together and get him into treatment? I know the answer: we didn’t know help like that was real. No one had ever helped us, saved us, redeemed us. Our mother’s anger and siding with our perverted step-father put all kinds of walls up in our family, big solid walls, loaded with germs and fungus and decay. We didn’t believe in help. Or maybe we didn’t believe he didn’t deserve it because no one seemed to deserve it: people were hurtful and fucked up and cruel and unfair and that’s the way life was–that’s what we believed–we weren’t worth it. We had spent so many years trying to make him small in our minds, small enough to disappear. When he died we cracked open. I had a nervous breakdown from just about everything and had to move home (the beginning of my PTSD and psychosis), Jodie fell silent and never talked about him again, and Nikki grieved and grieved all alone. Her self-reliance hardened. She was left to grieve all by herself, and she had been the oldest, she had really been his, he had really really loved her. That’s a picture of her as a bald, button-nosed baby sleeping next to his bearded face, no glasses, him sleeping too. Without his glasses you could see how handsome he was–the high cheekbones, the full lips, the straight teeth, the big eyes and lovely lashes, thick brows.
We had him creamated. The only way we could pay for his funeral was by having the bars throw benefits. That secretly kind of dug at each of us, but what choice did we have? My Uncle Ed, dad’s brother, took us out to White River, just outside of town at the bottom of the highway’s deep hill, and we put his ashes into the water, followed by rose petals. We were told that was where he liked to come out and sit. I imagined him sitting there, wanting to ponder things, and if I thought about me, and if he ever cried like he did the day he tried getting us back. I liked the idea that he sought peace by himself in nature. I get that from him. One day I wandered away from my mother’s house and went to the baseball diamond’s park and sat on the swing with my ipod, and Our Lady Peace’s song “if I don’t make it, know that I loved you all along, just like sunny days we ignored because…we’re all dumb and jaded and…I hope to God I figure out what’s wrong…” and sat on the swing and bawled my eyes out.
I didn’t try to make our relationship into something that it wasn’t. I thought about how he had loved us, all along. I wondered what he was thinking those last moments in the ambulance at 2:44 one October morning. I felt my daddy die. The man who I was from. I was from him. Part of me is because of him. I remind myself of that sometimes, when I don’t want to seem bitter like my mother I pull for the gentle side of my father. When people show my sisters and I love and affection, I imagine we look like he did–a shocked, frightened animal, backing away, but so ready to accept it even if we’ll get rejected, which we assume will always happen. Because everybody leaves. Even if they don’t leave in body, like our fathers, they leave in spirit, like our mother.
I felt guilty, like a small, evil creature in a dark alley, for all the things I did to him. There was one thing I did that he never knew about though, and it was the hardest time I had had. I broke into his house when he was out at the bar (after he had lived in his car). I snuck upstairs and found his room. It reaked of him. I was disappointed and somehow empty when I saw all the pictures of my sisters and I on his wall—the only pictures in the room. His mattress had that damned yellow blanket again. Next to his bed were piles of papers. Letters. Letters I recognized right away–they were all from us from over the years, worn and soft. Then I saw, right on his nightstand, the cassette tape of me singing Patsy Cline’s album from when I was five or six. I knew every song by heart and my mother taped it. My Aunt Carol told me he used to listen to it a lot. When I heard that I cried myself to sleep that night–because, again, of that just-missed love we were out of reach from, none of us knowing for sure why.
I imagine what it’d be like to have him, in our lives now, sober. I don’t know why, I don’t like to imagine things to be the way they’re really not. But sometimes I’m sentimental, or just desperate for a daddy to take all the hurt away with a hush. I fell in love once, and the man broke my heart after nine years. We have a daughter together. He continues to hurt me, and yet in it I also hurt myself by the feelings of rejection and abandonment again. But I sometimes pretend I had a dad now that would tell me how great and beautiful I was, and that I deserved to be treated with only love and respect. I pretend now that he tells me that, so that I can believe it myself. I believe I have a dad out there, who could guide me into love, and assure me that it’s there, that it exists, and that when you’re really loved, those that love you never, ever back out. Because love is stronger than that. That’s what he teaches me, now that he’s gone, leaning back into the alysum, pink and white petals falling, reflecting in his eyes, so quiet you can hear them softly caress his cheeks and his shoulders. He is smiling, his eyes are clear. He is with us, we are in the petals, kissing him.

****

That Our Lady Peace song I listened to on the swing after he died:

Our Lady Peace “4am”:

“I take a deep breath and listen to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” –Sylvia

The edge…there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. -Hunter S. Thompson

Comments

  1. nikki says

    This describes us…almost to well. It’s all so true, sad, but true. I never knew you did that for me Amy, thank you.

    • says

      Your welcome, Sputnik. To those of you that don’t know, this is my sister Nikki responding. My heart goes out to you Nikki for your great loss–your daddy.

  2. Emma says

    Gorgeous, gorgeous writing Amy. You’ve evoked so much through your words here, you’ve managed to take me back to my own childhood and adolescence through the sights and smells…the details that you’ve shared. So much beauty here to accompany the relentless aches of the unanswered…I know it well. Thank you for sharing.

  3. says

    powerful and raw but also endearing – a great balance to your telling of this story. I too, was brought back to the times in my adolescence of hunting dad down in sorrid bars at the manipulation of my mother – the site of him on the barroom floor as well, he had blacked out in the middle of talking to me, mid-sentence, and fell off the stool hard to the floor. The kicker is no one seemed to care. they kind of glanced our way and turned back to their drinks. I thought he had died and screamed for someone to call 911. No one did. He came to several minutes later and hopped back on his barstool like nothing happened. crazy shit!

    • says

      I replied to this before but I don’t think it saved :( sorry –but yes that is CRAZY SHIT! What was your reaction? What did you say? How did you feel afterwards? Damn we have a lot in common!

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