I’m peeling Granny Smith apples for a blackberry-apple pie, my husband’s favorite, when I suddenly flash on a memory of my father. I slice myself a thin piece, pale green peel still on, and sprinkle salt, something he used to do. The flavor takes me back to sunny afternoons on the prairie, in the small Canadian town where we lived from when I was 7 to when I was 12. It is here that I have the most memories of my father.
He would put salt on watermelon too. He had tales of getting water from a well. In some ways, he was a foreigner in our family, culturally dominated as we were by our Welsh mother. To us, growing up in North America, it was normal to put boiled eggs in egg cups, with a tiny crocheted egg cozy to keep it warm, and to have a cup of tea after school with a scone or biscuit. He was the anomaly, squashing his egg onto his plate, drinking his own concoction of instant coffee mixed with cocoa and sugar.
My father was born on those prairies although far south, in a small town in Kansas that I have never visited that I remember, in the years just before the Great Depression. He was one of 10 children, 9 of whom survived to adulthood. He left it as soon as possible, moved first to LA, then to Canada, then to Ethiopia, England, Lebanon. He was a bit of an adventurer. He spoke 7 languages to varying degrees, loved to read and study. I’ve heard stories from his old friends, men now dead, about his work in Ethiopia, and how he had to write his sister using a disappearing ink recipe from their childhood and get her to communicate with someone back in the US that it wasn’t safe for him to return to Ethiopia. There were other stories, of trips into unsafe areas, risk taken and adventures sought and found.
Why didn’t I write them down at the time? They’re fuzzy now, and I have no one left to ask. He was 47 when I was born, already grey. I was a great shock to both my parents, but although now I imagine the news of pregnancy would have been greeted with mixed emotions at best, they always swore that they were thrilled, nothing but thrilled, at my arrival. I never doubted their absolute love for me and joy at my existence.
He died when he was 62, suddenly one night after a lifetime of perfect health. He was fit and trim, his doctor happy, never sick, suddenly dead. I was 15. I will spare you the details of that night.
When you lose a parent as a child, your entire world collapses around you. It remains the worst experience of my life, and I am forever changed by it. I can still recount in painful detail how slowly, oh so slowly, our family recovered and healed; that first Father’s Day, first birthday and Christmas, my friends clumsy around my grief because they were so young and had no experience with it themselves. I was the only child left at home–my brothers were adults and out of the house. My mother leaned heavily on me for a long time and we developed some fine co-dependent attitudes that were hard to break. When I lost her 3 years ago, it was totally different. For one, I was an adult with family of my own. She had Parkinsons for years and I knew it was coming. I grieved her in stages; now she can’t walk long distances, this will be the last time she travels to see us, she’s forgotten the recipe for Grandma’s salad dressing, etc. Her death a release for her.
For years, as a young adult, I almost forgot about my dad. At my wedding, my oldest brother walked me down the aisle. He returned in sharp focus when I had my own kids (he would have been amazed at the twins!), and again when we went overseas, following in his footsteps, hoping to live an extraordinary life of our own.
Our relationship never had the chance to develop and that’s what I hate the most. I look at his relationship with my brothers and I envy it, bitterly, because I was still a child and they had the chance to know him as older teens and adults. (They also went round the entire coast of Africa on a tramp steamer, when the family moved from Ethiopia, because they were leaving and it wasn’t much more expensive and it was a great chance and they took it. I wasn’t born yet. I resent this, illogically, because that is just so cool, and I have no claim to it.) When my brothers were in college, they’d bring huge groups of friends home, and I’d notice the young people staying up late in the night to talk to my dad. They sensed a wisdom about him, some of them told me later.
When he died, he was working as a high school teacher at the same school I attended. (He had many different jobs; he taught high school, university, and was a pastor as well) Last year, I reconnected with someone on Facebook who remembered him from that high school. “I still want to be your dad when I grow up,” he told me. I have very few people in my life who knew him; he died in May of my 10th grade year and the next fall I went to another school in another city. Donn never knew him. This, as much as anything, helped me make my peace with Facebook.
I believe death is unnatural and that is why it is so horrible. We were not originally meant to die. But it’s also good to have left such a mark on the world that people still miss you nearly 30 years later. And it’s good to know that someday, we will reunite and catch up on the intervening years, which will turn out to have passed in a blink of an eye.