lundi 18 mai 2009

Praise with elation

Morning has broken, beautiful


And, I have nearly finished with a guest room suitable to receive a visitor. My half-sister. My father's last child. Another story I haven't told because it's one that might not stop. I haven't seen her since the day her mother asked my father to have us come for the afternoon and dinner to tell us that there would be nothing for us, my sister and I, my father's first children. We never saw him again, not on purpose. I saw him once more across a crowded Greyhound station in Syracuse, NY about a year later. I wasn't sure it was him. He looked so much older. "Dad?" I called, not very loudly. I didn't want to be wrong in front of all those people. He didn't hear. I continued to walk towards him, carefully, and called a little louder, "Dad?" He heard. His head made a sudden movement toward me, his eyes looking at the faces around him.

"Dad." They found me.

"Jackie?" He looked uncertain. I nodded. Yes, it's I. He walked over to me. Did he hug me? I don't know. "What are you doing here?"

"I just got back from visiting my cousin Kathy at North Adams. Mom's waiting for me out in the car." He nodded. We said good-bye, and I never saw him again. I called from college over the years, but he was detached. Drifting like a space lab with a broken arm. I wanted him to talk; I wanted him to sound proud of me. Once, he told me that he had been in NYC with his wife, to see the doctors at Columbia Presbyterian. She had already seen the best neurologists in Syracuse, but she wanted a physical cause for her searing headaches, not a suggestion that she see a therapist when they found none. She asked for the best, and they referred her to Columbia.

"Why," I asked him from my dorm room, "didn't you call me? It's only a couple of miles from me." I knew the answer. I wanted only to ask the question. I had to ask. He didn't answer. He told me about the doctors in Syracuse, the doctors in NYC, the pain.

"They found nothing," he said. "They suggested she see a therapist, too, for possible emotional causes. She refused." I listened. "They said the only way to make the pain go away is to cut the nerves to the left side of her face, which would leave her paralyzed, like a stroke victim. That, or try seeing a therapist."

"So, what is she going to do?" I knew the answer.

"She asked for the surgery." He sounded flat. Worn out. Disbelieving. He didn't get it, but he couldn't decide for her.

There were so many things I ought to have said rather than leave his bubble intact. I didn't know. You can't change a man. Remember, that, Jackie. You can't ever change a man. My mother had told me that so many times, not that she ever stopped trying herself. It's hard, I suppose, not to want to try. I let my dad be. I think I was wrong now. There are things one should say if the other can't.

I called him the last time in the early summer of 1983, 4 years after I saw him for the last time in the Greyhound waiting room, when he didn't try to talk to me longer. Didn't offer me a Coke or offer to tell me why he was there himself. Didn't come out to see my mom and tell her he'd bring me home, that he'd call and come to get me soon to spend some time together. He let me go.

I called to ask him to sign the adoption papers.

"I always knew," he said, sounding empty, "that I would never see you or your sister again." Why? "I passed out in the kitchen the other day."

"What did the doctor say?" He hesitated.

"You did see a doctor, didn't you?"

"I --," he stopped.

"You didn't see a doctor?"

"No. It doesn't matter. I am going to die soon anyway." He let me go, and he was killing himself. Three packs of unfiltered Pall Malls a day for 30 years should do it. Eventually. There were things I should have asked, but, I must have thought, Why? He had made a choice. He made it the day his wife put her hands on his shoulders from behind his easy chair in their split-level ranch and said, "Bob, you have something to say to your daughters, don't you?" and he turned white. As white as his shirt. He looked trapped.

"Bob, you had something to say to them, didn't you? she prompted again. He continued to look at us on the sofa with the comics spread on our knees, our half-sister playing on the floor between us, his wife's daughter looking on, and no sound came from him. He was frozen.

"Well, then, girls, the reason we called you here today is to tell you that there will be nothing from us for school, or anything." She had dared to say it. Dared to say what my father couldn't, and she knew he couldn't. We listened, quietly. Me, 16. My sister 3 years younger. I nodded politely. Our father sat perfectly still, perfectly white. She couldn't see what we saw from where she stood behind him, her hands resting on his shoulders. He didn't love her. He wasn't anymore. If he were to love her, then he had to become another man, one who couldn't know us. "Dinner's ready. Come to the table," she finished. We stood up, and we walked to the table. I didn't ask him to drive us home. Right now. I was polite.

Always polite.

He sat at the head of the table on my right, facing his wife, my sister on my left, facing, our step-sister, our four-year-old half-sister to her left. At dessert, our stepmother said to her older daughter, a year younger than I, "Why don't you go upstairs and get all the nice clothes your dad bought for you to show the girls?" I looked at my father. He was paler still. Absolutely silent. Where had he gone inside himself? Why, I asked myself, doesn't he stop this? It was a set-up. She had planned it all out. A theater piece to show my sister and I who his children were, and who they were not. We had nothing. I bought my clothes, paid for my lessons -- everything -- with my babysitting and waitressing money, and I was saving for college. He sent nothing. Once, I asked for $20 for track shoes because I wanted to join the high school team. He offered me one of my savings bonds. I thanked him and bought them for myself.

She stood from her place, and went upstairs to return with shoes dripping from her fingers, a pile of blouses, skirts, pants draped across her forearms, as though she were offering them to us. That was it. She didn't show us each one, or how they went together, how many outfits she could make from them and how nice they looked on her.

"It's time to take the girls home now, Bob." He let us go.

That was 32 years ago.

I found my half-sister, Jennifer, in January, and she asked to come here. She looked like me when she was a baby. She looks like our father's mother now.

"Tu vas la reconnaître à l'aéroport?" my husband asked last evening.

"Bien sur. C'est le visage de ma grandmère, comment pourrais-je ne pas la reconnaître?" He smiled.

"Et elle, elle va te reconnaître, tu penses?"

"Je ne sais pas. Elle n'a vu qu'une photo de moi, et pas très récente, à moins que notre soeur lui a montré l'une des siennes. Horribles, d'ailleurs." I am not photogenic. My mother always said so, You're not photogenic. You're telegenic. The problem is that people don't watch me on television, and there are only a handful of photos that actually look like me, or the way I see myself when I look in a mirror, which I don't do often, if I can help it.

"I only ever saw our father cry twice," Jennifer told me. The first time was when our stepsister's father called to say he could adopt his daughter, if he wanted; he didn't want her. The second time was when I called to ask him to sign the adoption papers. "He went outside and dropped onto a lawnchair and sobbed. He wouldn't talk to anyone." He had done what he couldn't believe any father could.

"Don't think," my sister told her, "that she wanted that when she called. Dad could have said no. She wanted Dad to say no." But, he let us go. He replaced us with his wife's children and led the life we had with him, were supposed to continue to have with him, until he died just 6 years later. Longer, I imagine, than he had hoped.

Tomorrow Jennifer will be here, and I will see him again, in the photos she will bring of him and in her face. How do you prepare yourself for that? He taught her to ski moguls, he left me before I was ready. He left off with me, and continued with her. The skiing, the summers in South Wellfleet, the dances at the weddings. He left her with his flag, to cry for his loss. I think that flag will travel here, and Dad will be there, here in the French countryside in Moosesucks with us.

I am left to wonder about his masters in psychology and the love he developed for photography.

"Did he still hunt?" I asked Jennifer?

"Oh, yes! Right up until he died, although in his last years he'd just have soon have taken his camera as his rifle." And my son, who has inherited my need to photograph what I see. From my father? I knew about the obsession with a perfect lawn. He carried, she told me, his dandelion lifter in his back pocket, just in case he came across one. I asked her to bring me one to replace the only one I ever saw here and lost, somewhere in the garden. I probably threw it away with a bunch of dandelions, before I learned that spraying and soil care is a lot easier than bending down to jam the dandelion thing into the ground and pry them out, one by one.

Somehow, he also learned to live while he was letting go of us, and of life. Why didn't he call us? Perhaps the space lab had just drifted too far, the arm grown too broken to reach back out. If he thought to repair it with the tools he sought in psychology, he certainly also thought it was too late, that we wanted things this way, that that is what I had asked for when I called to ask him to sign the papers, when it didn't occur to me to add, "unless you want to be our father," rather than waiting for him to say, "No, I am your father, and I am coming to see you."

I must go and finish preparing her room. I imagine he knows that I am doing that for her, for him, and I can't even count the number of spiders who gave their lives in the effort.

The white door and trim on the orange walls are about to go Meteorite, too. It was my first idea -- a little more "modern", to go with the pared down simplicity (ahem) of the room --, but it was easy to do the white first and see. Audouin says orange, and I have to agree.

Forever orange.

My arms are killing me, right along with my hands and upper back. Audouin looked at me last evening, folding laundry at 11:30 pm and said, "Tu n'as pas arreté toute la journée."

"C'est comme ça depuis 2 semaines." In case he hadn't noticed.

I exaggerate. It's been like that for 2 days, although I have worked pretty hard for all of the last 2 weeks on this room. And I thought I'd get both rooms done on time. I edit constantly while I zip around like the Tasmanian devil through the multitude of things I feel I have to do, prioritizing on the run, the phrase, "Remember ladies, lower your expectations," running through my mind.

Things I have had to decide to live with:
  1. It's the smaller room that will be ready.
  2. The sea grass floor covering will not be installed because of the various leaks in the bathroom.
  3. The house will not be House & Garden quality.
  4. The pool is still a swamp because I haven't received the estimate I want from the fourth electrician with the middle price and the cheap one hasn't called as he said he would.
  5. The furnace continues to emit foul-smelling smoke, choking and offending us.
  6. The garden is not perfectly House & Garden quality, either, but it's not that bad. I've gotten to most of it, and made a Herculean effort -- ha, get it? Sisyphe making a Herculean effort? -- to clean up after the disappeared workers (another story I haven't had time to tell) and weed some more.
Oh! Did I mention the asbestos the roofer found?

I have to get going. IKEA waits for me, I must finish mowing the lawns (sounds grandiose, n'est-ce pas?), and I have the house to vacuum, the chair covers to decatfur, dry cleaning to pick up, and the list goes on.

I should make a list.

I am too tired to make a list.

I don't even want to stand up. It's 11:45, the clouds have gathered, and I meant to have left nearly three hours ago for IKEA. Time to lower my expectations another notch.

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