I am fascinated when I run across an example of my father’s school-taught penmanship, that modest but authoritative hand so remote and yet so close—almost forty years after he’s gone. I never wanted to write like him. I really never wanted to know him until after he was gone. Even now, when I see a piece of his writing, I shudder a little and do not want to continue. It is the only thing left of him—except for mannerisms in myself, ways of speaking or clearing my throat, which I recognize as his, as well.
An envelope arrived recently, during a low point in my life when I was feeling more orphaned than usual. There was a cover letter. It was business-like, formal, typed on what we now call an old typewriter, from Muriel Weeks, who said she had hired a detective to find me and was acting on behalf of her deceased mother, Mrs. Molly Weeks, a woman whom my father, it appears, had once known.
The second enclosed letter was a small square sheet of pale-blue paper, with embossed white angels hovering at the top. In a shaky hand, the deceased mother Molly Weeks had written: “For his son in California when the time comes for him to have it.”
The third enclosure was several sheets of faded yellow legal pad in my father’s neat Palmer script—a literary endeavor and in a tone I’d never heard before. It took me a while until I realized he was talking about his own mother, who, at an early age, sailed into dementia and out again like a ship at sea. The first voice is hers, the second his. The younger person he is writing about is Molly Weeks, his early love.
“That will do, William. Stop rocking that chair. Listen to the trees. That could be your father coming back. Maybe it’s time. You want more hot water? Stop rocking, Billy, the cat wants to sleep. Your father’s in the tree. The wind’s blowing from the north and warm, with just the hint of coolness, of Fall, of pumpkins and black corn, and the smell of oak and eucalyptus and bay laurel, the old ones with the close rings, boat builders’ wood, hard as steel, but sweet to the touch, stuff you’d want your oars to rest on, your leathered oars, back and forth across the cheek pieces out of high elevation California laurel. Thole pins and grommets.”
“You want more tea, Billy? You better not. Not before going to sleep. Those heavy blankets, the quilt. Kick it all back and lie heavy like a sounding lead and feel the breeze sinking you down, pressing you into mud, with nothing to hear, no carriages, no cars, just the wind in the trees, like the sound of the river.”
I would wake in the morning and lie suspended between sunlight and dreams, bird songs and the sound of a falling apple, a deer moving through the dry hemlock, the sliver of a moon, the planet star, the glowing pearl of morning.
On the porch outside, stepping between cats, I would find her, the woman who raised me, fed me, taught me, talked me to sleep in the Fall when the wind was still warm, with just a little cool, coming out of the North, flowing over my father’s bed—which he had left forever, and which became mine. And me, sprawled out width-wise, a young leaper in mid-flight, held down by after-sleep and the sound of leaves moving in the morning light.
She often slept on the porch, in the chair I’d left her in. Her cup set aside, her long braids falling over her youthful breast, her eyes closed, and private.
I would feed the cats, moving the screen door quietly, pouring food slowly, whispering to the cats to take their places, wait their turns. Then I eased off the porch and crossed the lawn, over the short mown hay to the black pond to look for fins, to see what was happening–watermen, popping up, swimming down, the sudden swirl of bass, their v-ripples across the surface—then calm.
I checked the sky for mare’s tails, measured the color of the sun, calculated. Would it be hot, how much water was there to go around, for the corn, the garden, the upper pasture, the Angus, and the washing?
When I returned to the porch, the cats were usually gone, disappeared into their daily prowls, or motionless in a field. She stood before the stove, watering her snowy cactus, talking to the red ants, turning down the gas, and poking red onions around in the black pan, olive oil and pepper.
We ate toast, drank rose hip tea, smeared applesauce on black corn meal bread, Indian-style, we imagined.
“This is the way your father liked it,” she’d say, and frown, and then not go on when she read something in my eyes.
At night, before the fireflies, she would sit on the porch, her book would drop down, and then her head, and I would stop mowing and tuck away the scythe on a rafter in the shed and let myself be led to the porch by this cat or that. And I would check her eyes to see how much she was there and how much she could see, especially when my love came and sat in her white dress, looking special for the evening and maybe, when I look back, for me.
We talked, and sometimes my mother would say, “If Billy would stop rocking just a little, we could hear the wind. It’s coming from the north like it should in the fall. My how you smell the fields.” And sometimes she would say things like “…and the pain of others…” or “…the old Chippewa your father knew taught us black corn and onions and how to sizzle it.”
I myself had only eyes for Molly, the way her arms came away from the shoulders where the dress stopped, and the beginning of her breasts there and in front, all brown from the summer, and the pendant of blue that hung there—giving you an excuse to look.
I watched my mother, calculated the depth of her sleep, then rocked forward and kissed my love’s young lips, which met mine—kisses that lasted dangerously long.
Sometimes she would say, “If you would stop squeaking that chair long enough, we could hear the wind.” And sometimes, I just saw her head sink back down from looking, and there was a smile on her lips, and I felt then that she really did still care about my father and that she wanted me to be like him, in every way–including this.