My Father's Rising

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Tomorrow, my father, husband, and I will drive an hour or so from here to return to the homes of my childhood.  The first house, in Ashbourne Hills, which I remember for perhaps two or three scenes—a bike, a sandbox, a cul-de-sac.  The second house, in Woodbine, that took me through my twelfth year.  It's a belated birthday outing.  A going home.

In thinking about that today, I recalled this short essay, which first appeared in Big Shoes, an anthology collected by that Emmy-winning weatherman, Al Roker, on dads and fatherhood.  So here's to my father, then, and here's to childhood.

There are photographs.  My father, slim and auburn-haired, just sitting.  My father (somewhat sheepish, almost proud) gone fishing.  My father holding my only child’s hand as they study some unknown miracle on the driveway.  My father asleep in that house near the beach, after a morning of sun and counting dolphins.  My father in photographs is being good at doing little.  But in life my father is something else again:  He is good at doing much and seeking no one’s praises for it.
            We have the same body clock, my father and I.  The same urge to rise in the hour before dawn, when the mind can hold a steady thought and nothing seems impossible.  When I was a child, I would wake to the sound of my father’s rising, wait for the smell of his toasted muffins and melted butter, listen for the snap of his briefcase (such a sound that was, such a pronouncement), then watch through the window as he drove away, his car’s headlights singeing the darkness. 
He wore good suits, well-ironed shirts, the ties my mother bought for him.  He was the only one out on the streets at that hour, save perhaps for furry things.  He didn’t come back home until the world went dark again — the knot of his tie still up near his throat; the cuffs of his sleeves still buttoned, in place; his briefcase heavy with whatever he’d brought home to do that night, while we were sleeping.  If our mother was always his best friend and confidante, his truest trusted advisor, we three kids knew little of the problems that our father encountered or solved, little of the play and pull of politics in his glassy office building.  My father was an engineer who became a manager who eventually sat behind a desk on a corporation’s upper floors.  An oil man before he went into steel.  An innovator of one sort or another.  But what he did all day I don’t think we kids ever really knew, for when he was home, he was our father, and he did not act like someone else.
Hey Dad, how was work?
It was fine.  How was school?
I still don’t get the math.  It’s hard. 
Bring your book, and we will do it.
I don’t remember my father boasting.  I don’t remember any talk of sacrifice.  I do remember that as I got older, I’d join him in the dark— come downstairs to the breakfast table, where it was just the two of us.  Sometimes he would go over the tricks of algebra, trusting me to hold the rules of variables in my head.  Sometimes he would ask me about my friends.  Always he would proclaim that he made the best English muffins in the east, the only arrogance (he liked them charred, he liked the smoke above the toaster black) that he allowed himself.  And then he would pack his briefcase and say goodbye and burn his headlights into the dissipating dark, leaving me awake to the dawn, my own thoughts in my head. 
I was the middle child, and the first daughter.  I was the one who would never lose my father’s habit of rising early, in the dark.  I am the age now that he was then, when we shared the breakfast table, and what I think about now, when I think about my Dad, is how hard he surely worked and how little he’d speak of it.  It was just muffins and butter, in that hour before dawn.  It was just father and daughter, and the day, anticipated.

(originally appeared in Big Shoes:  In Celebration of Dads and Fatherhood, Al Roker and Friends)


Janice Kephart said...

Beautiful, accurate depiction. I think he will get a little choked up if he reads that!

Serena said...

What a great story about your dad. I often wonder if I was adopted.

Jeanie Ashburn said...

Knowing your father now, aware since I met him that through that elegant reserve there is an abiding kindness and the steadiness of Gibraltar -- well, this is perfect.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

I love this tribute to your dad.

kelly said...

Beautiful, and -- can I just say, what is it about East Coast men and English muffins? We must discuss this.

Becca said...

Lovely. Enjoy your day with your father :)

Lilian Nattel said...

Wonderful photo. Enjoy!

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