Saturday, December 15, 2007

Family: Chapter Eight- Forward, then Back

My daughter and I visit my father in upstate New York. It is early spring, but still chilly enough for a jacket in the Finger Lakes. My father had a stroke recently- he claims he is fine- but I go to check on him anyway. The visit is pleasant and we spend the first few days cooking out and talking about how old everyone has become. I don’t want to talk about my illness, and anyway this story is not about that. My daughter, the aspiring gymnast, spends most of her long weekend upside-down in some way. At the barbecue, relatives exchange the usual pleasantries. Over the years my father and I have grown more alike than I would like to admit. It troubles me to think of his passing, and I realize I am wrestling with guilt about this for some reason. In any event, we enjoy each other’s company, drinking too much and laughing at each other’s racist jokes.
In the morning we plan a project together. We begin assembling a patio umbrella in the bright April sunshine. It’s early for me and I’m a little hung over from the previous day’s party. Like all respectable men, we completely ignore the instruction sheet.
“No, no....” he says, “the wide end goes on top.”
“Oh!” He’s right. “Shit, I already bolted it.”
“Just bend it....” he suggests. He’s in a good mood.
“Hold on....if we lay the plastic part in the sunlight.... maybe it will be easier then....”
“Ah! No wonder you make the big bucks!”
“I don’t know about all that....”
“At Toyota they tell you not to read the instructions?”
“Not when they’re in fucking Chinese!”
I yank the plastic base free with a loud snap. Miraculously it does not break.
“See? I told ya....”
Some hours later, quite pleased with ourselves, we enjoy a beer beneath the new deck umbrella. After a brief lunch, I sense the house is becoming smaller. That is to say, I feel as though we all could use a little break from each other. I imagine it’s not east having me underfoot for three days straight.
It’s only a short drive to my uncle’s house in Phelps so we leave right after lunch. Upon arriving my daughter rudely insists on going to the park; my uncle’s cool so we head up the street.
About three blocks up, there’s a place called Redfield Park, I used to play there when I was a boy. I know every step of this walk; the uneven sidewalk beside the abandoned vineyard, the shattered slate walkway at the corner, even the faded steeple of the church.
Few things have changed in the three decades since I played here, a new slide, a jungle gym..... But still the park I could walk blindfold. It was set aside as a common area by settlers in the 1890’s, I think. There’s a marble obelisk that says so, anyway.
“Let’s go daddy, let’s go....” She runs off toward the swings.
“Hold on!” I say but she ignores me. By the time I catch up she’s already swinging. She’s nine now, strong and agile, a kid far beyond the need for a push from Dad.
“Get on!” she says, and I comply.
“I am too fat,” I insist, but start anyway.
I lean forward, then back; gaining momentum. It seems so familiar.... as my height increases, I try to touch the tree branch with my toes as I have always done. My shadow lengthens on the ground. I swing into my shadow, then out. The black shadow spills on the ground like a cartoon version of me. My mind races back and I can hear my own father, his voice muffled by the years. Push me I say. You can do it he says. It’s easy. You can do it. Use your body weight. Forward, then back.
“Look Daddy!” my daughter says, “I’m winning!”
“You punk kid! I’m way higher than you.”
“That’s cause you’re bigger.”
“Fatter you mean.” My heart pounds. It’s 1973 again; my dad is drinking Genesee Cream Ale with his brother George in the yard. I go higher, higher, racing the little girl. She says something but I can’t quite hear it.
Later we make the walk down Main Street to my Grandmother’s house, passing the liquor store where my cousin and I did shots after the Sauerkraut Parade. The waterfall roars.
“We’re almost there....”
“Aren’t you glad we walked?”
I touch her head. “I’m just glad I am with you honey.”
After a brief visit with my aunt and grandmother, Sarah and I go outside. She wants to see the graveyard next door. It’s a little morbid but she likes to read the stones. What can I say?
“Let’s go before it gets dark.”
We walk between the stones holding hands. Some are legible and some are not. This cemetery is old and full of important town names. Some of the dates are from the early 1800’s, men and women who died before the Civil War. Towering obelisks dot the grassy field, crumbling memorials to important yet forgotten men.
“Hey, this one has a poem.” We read it together; it’s a threnody eulogizing a father, husband and friend. A large crack runs between the rhymes. The long years have almost erased his epitaph. The sun is going down.
“Look! Look!” she cries.
I walk over. She has found something fascinating.
It’s a faded grey stone, hard to read. The inscription bears the name Sarah Elizabeth.
“Hey that’s my name!”
I look closer and run my fingers over the engraving.
“1822-1831.... that can’t be right.” My mind reels at the bizarre coincidence. “She was nine.”
“I’m nine,” she says. “That’s creepy.”
Suddenly I hear a noise, the sound of great wings beating. This can’t be, I think to myself. I look up and I can see my grandmother’s house. My car is parked on her lawn. A dizzying rush of images comes. My daughter’s fourth birthday. My father inflating a rubber raft. My uncle loading a potato gun. The swing set at Redfield Park. One day my name will be on a stone like this. Who will take care of my family?
I can hear a voice, closer now. You can do it, he says. It’s easy. Forward, then back.

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