fathers

in disguise

We are traveling in a little tribe tonight – my friends and their daughter; me, my daughter and the boy. We drive out to Warren in the van and go to the store with the shiny, sparkly things. The boy spends his time in front of a low table covered with costume jewelry rings. A rhinestone-encrusted skull. A bright pink flower. He puts one on each finger, runs over to me where I stand, absently caressing the scarves. “Do you recognize my fingers, Mommy?” he asks as he wiggles them in front of me. “They’re in disguise.”

After, we all pile into a booth at spot nearby, and order pasta and beer while the boy busies himself at the pool table in an elaborate game, the rules of which are unknowable to the rest of us. He walks around the table’s perimeter, slides the cue ball back and forth across the green felt. His face registers delight each time he reaches down and extracts it from the pocket into which it has fallen.

It is dark one night when I get up from bed. I cannot sleep and wander out into the living room to find my father sitting on the couch by the light of a single desk lamp.

He sees me right away, says, “Hey bunny,” and gestures for me. I climb up next to him. Spread out on the coffee table in front of him are neat rows of tiny white balls that have been rolled up from bits of tissue paper. “I’m saying my prayers,” he says, although I have not asked. “Do you know what this is called?” I shake my head. “This is called the rosary. Each little bead is a prayer and you say each prayer until you’re done with all the little beads.”

He goes on: “I used to have real beads,” he says, “but I lost them. So now, I make my own.”

My mother’s tortoise-shell reading glasses are on the coffee table, alongside a glass with just a bit of amber liquid left in it. There is a little fabric doll that she brought back from Mexico years before. The doll’s hair is made of black yarn and is braided in two long plaits with a bit of ribbon trying each end. There are blue loops of yarn on the doll’s white face. To represent tears. Why, I remember thinking every time I saw it, would anyone want a doll that is crying?

He asks me if I am having trouble sleeping and I nod. Bad dreams? Even though it is not nightmares keeping me awake, I say yes, because it seems a reasonable response and the one that he expects. He kisses my head, whispers into the top of it: Go away bad dreams, and don’t come back.

“Do you want me to tuck you back in?” he asks. I say yes and so he does.  

The boy falls asleep on the ride home. P. follows me home in the van so we don’t have to wake him twice. When we get to the house, he is awake but confused. He walks in small circles on the front lawn while we transfer the car seat. Inside, he takes off his coat and his shoes. I head upstairs to get his things ready for bed. I hear him running after me, and in the hallway, he stops me.

“Mommy,” he cries, his eyes filling with tears. “I am so sorry that I didn’t want to hug you this morning.”

I had asked him for a hug when he got up, but he was coy and ran away when I reached for him.

“I wanted to tell you,” he says, his voice quivering, “that I changed my mind.”

We hear the front door creak open and we both run downstairs, shouting “Daddy!” We weren’t expecting him so soon. W. tells him about the trip, and about how he was in disguise. “No one could recognize me,” he says, glancing sideways at me to see if I am paying attention. “Not even Mommy.”

When I come downstairs from putting the boy to bed, M. is in the kitchen and the coffee is made. There are still a few more gifts to wrap, and I work on those. “Stay in there for a few minutes,” I tell him, and I hurry to put the last few things I’ve bought for him in boxes. He’s put some music on, something we used to listen to a long time ago, and for a moment, it stops me short. Like seeing a photograph of yourself from a time you can barely remember. You, but a different version. You have to look close to be sure. 

My father was tall and lanky. When I was small, he carried me up on his shoulders and I would grip his hands so tightly as he walked. He would make a big deal of ducking down under tree branches or through doorways. He’d wobble a little, say “hold on tight,” and breathe a huge dramatic sigh once we were clear of the particular threat. “You OK up there, bunny?” he’d ask, calling out loudly as if I were very far away. “You still there?”

Yes.

Still here. 

skate park

We take the boy to the woods. The air is cool. He runs on ahead of us, exhilarated by the open space, the fallen leaves, the vista – bright with possibility. I catch up to him – my instinct always to hover a bit too close, to urge him: “Be careful, sweetheart,” but the warning itself is habitual, generic. Be careful of what specifically, I can’t say.

We are with friends and their boy, who is a little older, a little more fearless than ours. He bounds up the face of giant rocks while W. holds back a little, calls for help. “I grew up with rocks,” his friend says, by way of explanation. “Rocks are like my family.”

I was a cautious child, tentative with my body. I preferred to remain close to the ground, move slowly. This has not changed much as I have gotten older. I remember a story I read about a woman who jumped from planes. She came close to death when on one jump, her parachute did not open. She was in a coma for several weeks. Recovery was slow and torturous. As soon as she was able, against the advice of her doctors, she was jumping again, from planes.

There is a fine line, it seems, between bravery and recklessness. I do not mean this as a defense of my own fears. We all, I think, develop our own ways to test our limits – to take risks with the lives we know.

In the spring of the year I was seven, my father was out of work. Finding himself with long stretches of afternoon hours, he decided it was time that I learned to ride a bicycle. My mother was too anxious and fearful to participate, so it was my father who walked the yellow bike – bought at the church sale along with a stack of paperback mysteries – across the street from our apartment building to the park. There, he’d prop me up on its seat, steady me, and walk behind me, hunched over to hold onto the back of it and me, as I wobbled along, inch by hesitant inch. These were rare hours alone for my father and me. He seemed quite determined that I should master this important lesson of childhood and this seriousness – in someone who typically exhibited a more casual engagement to the people and things around him – lent a solemnity to the afternoons. We were on a shared mission, my father and me. We were not to be trifled with.

Before the school year ended, my father moved out – temporarily this time, he’d be back again before the final separation some years later. But his leaving interrupted our lessons and when he returned in the late summer, he did not pick them up again. The yellow bike remained leaning against the wall of the hallway closet, partly obscured by winter coats and a few forgotten rolls of wrapping paper.

Not far from the track near my house, there is a small skate park on the grounds of the local high school. Usually, I pass it in the mornings when it shows no signs of life, except for perhaps a plastic bottle left half-full of orange soda or a few stray newspaper pages twisting in the breeze. Over the weekend, I went for a run in the late afternoon and in the waning light, the park was alive – dozens of sweatshirt-clad youth throwing themselves up and down the concrete hills on their skateboards and their bicycles. I knew better than to stand and gawk at the scene, but if I could have remained there, unseen, I would have spent hours, just behind the chain link fence, bearing witness to these life-affirming acts. Now, as the mother of a young son whose body seems to quiver with energy even in sleep, I am anxious about what is to come – about the ways in which he will test himself and even about the ways in which he might not. I am not proud of my own fearfulness, and although I hope not to pass it on to him, how could it not already be written into his bones and his blood? What doubts have I already imprinted on him that he will now be compelled to carry in his own small heart?

Back in the woods, the boys pretend to fish. They take long sticks and collect leaves to use as “bait.” They perch precariously on the rocks that jut out over the water, and we call out to them, “Stay right where you are, don’t go out any further.” And: “We don’t have any dry clothes for you, so if you get wet, that’s it.” We hope that this deters them and for the time, it does.

It is a beautiful, clear morning. We watch our sons from a distance and make plans for dinner parties we’ll have together. We make up our menus – oysters and raclette for New Year’s eve. We’ll order macarons and meringues. We daydream there about the long afternoons we will have, with the boys content in the world they’ve created together. How they will leave us free to indulge in meandering conversations about writing and art – the ones in which we can forget, for a time, that our lives are flowing past us and that we are standing there in the middle of the current, watching them flow.