On Sunday nights we watch Father’s old home movies – reels of 8 mm film that didn’t seem to add up to much of anything at the time he shot them, but eventually document the short time we had together. Side by side, we sit on the living room floor with a woolen blanket draped over our legs. You remind me that this is the blanket Father had accidentally brought home after your anniversary trip to Big Sur, the very trip that brought us Baby Daniel. Over the years, we learn to love this blanket, as though it is part of the family, like a pet. Still smelling of Father and you, the blanket creates a sagging bridge between the uneven headlands of your knees to mine. And underneath this bridge, we lock our hands tight, eager to see Father, once again.
In these movies, we bear witness to only the best parts of our lives, the lazy satisfaction buried deep in the belief that it would never end. In the earliest of films (July, 1946), Father, the ever-excited filmmaker, runs around your bed, capturing my very first days – every yawn, every blink of the eye, each bubble of spit that escapes my newborn lips. At first, these clips are far too long, boring even. Frame by frame, nothing more unfolds than my quiet breath, rising and falling in sync with yours as I lay naked upon your chest. Compressed into quick time, my nose rounds and then flattens in the early morning light, taking on odd shapes in a sort of time-lapse photography. My eyelids flutter like the wings of a hummingbird as I resist falling asleep, something I will learn to do for the rest of my life.
“My God,” we hear Father whisper behind the camera. “She’s growing right before our eyes.” But it is when he starts whistling I see the Moon that you squeeze my hand harder. Teased by the sound of the old Irish lullaby that Father had loved so much – the one he sang over and over again when he was standing on top of the world, not buried beneath it – we imagine how he used to be back then. So alive. So full of vigor. Hearing this song, I close my eyes and pretend, even if just for a moment, that he is not gone, that he is simply standing in the corner of the living room, mixing a drink at the bar and whistling his favorite tune. But when I open my eyes, he is not there. Father is nowhere to be found except as a two-dimensional ghost cast out upon our living room wall whistling to us.
I look over at you, but your eyes are shut tight. You are not crying. But you are not watching Father anymore. Maybe you are trying to find the same moon that he is whistling about behind the dark curtain of your eyes. Wanting to what you see, I too squeeze my eyes tight and in the darkness I continue to listen to Father as if he is lulling us both asleep. But soon, his melody is swallowed up and spun out onto the take-up reel – only to be heard from again the next time we watch this particular movie.
In the next clip, we see that silly old Father has put the camera down on its side next to a pile of books. And because he has accidentally forgotten to turn the camera to the off position, we lean our heads over so that we can make out such fuzzy titles as On a Darkling Plain, The Naked and the Dead, and Witness. Beyond these old books, we see a rumple in the bright white sheets as Father climbs into bed next to you. The sheets look even whiter on film. They look impossibly bright. Impossibly white.
“Gosh, do you remember how absent-minded he was, birdpie? It’s a miracle he even remembered our birthdays.”
Watching the two of you wrestle around under the sheets, I nod in agreement, though I have no such memory of his forgetfulness. Instead, I only remember the slow melodic beat to our life back then; how easy it was when all we had was each other. Nothing more. Nothing less.
“Scoot over, darling,” we hear Father’ voice call out from underneath the sheets. And from across the living room, I almost do what he asks. I just about scoot over when I realize he isn’t talking to me. Well, not the me who sits here now cross-legged and watching these films, but the baby me caught on film.
“Make room for Papa,” he says as he picks me up off your chest, laying me carefully in the empty drawer that sat next to your bed. Despite what Grandmother Caroline believed, the empty drawer from your dresser made a fine crib and was the same nest where Baby Daniel would sleep before he decided to sleep forever.
Father pulls the sheets back over your heads and from across the living room we watch the two of you tussle around in front of the camera, laughing while the sheets flaps around like a bright white flag of surrender waving in the wind.
“Oh, Lyla,” you say, pulling the wool blanket up over my eyes. “You shouldn’t be watching this at your age.” But you don’t get up. You can’t resist watching how much fun you were having. Hiding behind the wooly curtain that you have drawn before my eyes, I can feel your body leaning forward like a racehorse wishing to be free of the gate. It is as if you want to crawl across the living room carpet and back into the film itself. Back to an easier time.
I sneak a corner of the blanket back down from my eyes just as one of your bare legs kicks free from the sheets.
“No, Lyla,” you say again. “This is definitely too much.” You try to get up and turn off the projector, but I stop you.
“Wait.” I grab your arm. “Look how beautiful you were. Are,” I quickly add. But the look you shoot back confirms something you’ve long since believed in yourself. Faith in your beauty has all but disappeared now that Father isn’t here to remind that you are the most beautiful woman in the world. As if on cue, Father pulls the sheet off your head and grabs hold of your long red hair, the shock of red against the white sheets almost shines through the monochrome of the film.
“Goodness,” you say, when Father buries his face into a fistful your hair, drinking you in. “He was something else.”
It is true; Father was something else. He was hungry. He was alive. And he had always loved your hair, declaring it the most decadent thing he had ever laid his hands on. When the movie is over, we don’t move but continue to stare at the blank wall. The projector light is still on, and the film is clicking and clapping against the reel, making a continuous thwack, thwack, thwack in Father’s absence. It is then that you make a confession. You tell me that you had cut off a lock of your hair and laid it across Father’s lips before you had him cremated. You tell me that, together in the oven, your hair and his body disintegrated into one grainy mass.
Resting my chin on my knees, I remember how we took Father’s ashes out on the boat and gave him the burial that nobody could have ever imagined possible. It was just before Halloween and it was cold and brisk and bright. Uncle David had sailed Father’s boat around the headlands, steering it up and over the ribbons of swell that swept all the way down from the Aleutians. Bundled in our thickest sweaters, we held onto the rails, tight as Christmas wishes. And when we rounded the lighthouse, I remember taking a handful of gritty clumps, letting the excess of bone and skin and hair sift through my fingers like course sand. Downwind, I threw the ashes over the rails, not knowing I was also scattering a piece of you too out into the cold, blue Pacific. I do not tell you this, but I am angry with your confession. How could you not have asked me to give something of myself? How could you have not thought that I would have liked to burn a piece of me too?
One Sunday night, you bring down another movie from the attic. You remove the film (August, 1946) from its aluminum canister and carefully line the sprocket holes of the film onto the teeth of the projector. Father has not told you how to do this; you had to figure it out for yourself. There are many things that Father had failed to tell you before he left, but this, threading a film projector was not even on the radar.
“How hard can it be,” you first said that first night we had rummaged through the attic looking for the old machine and the suitcase of his movies. That night, after we finally summoned the courage to sit down and watch the very first movie after Father died, you had forgotten one important step. You forgot to lower the roller arm and secure the filmstrip in place. Remember how when you flipped the metal switch to the on position, the filmstrip immediately bunched up on itself and jammed the machine? How the film just became one big tangled mess?
“Damn you,” I remember you had said, biting at the film with your teeth like a lion, tearing the rest loose from the machine. You didn’t even try to untie it. You didn’t try to fix the mess you made. Instead, you held the jumbled ball of film in your hands and said, “Here’s looking at you kid,” and chucked that portion of our lives into the wastebasket as though it wasn’t worth recovering. You do not know this, but later that night I snuck into the living room and retrieved the discarded film, swearing that I would tape our lives back together again. But I never did. The snarled filmstrip still sits in the shoebox underneath my bed along with a host of other things that remind me of Father – his dog tags, a signed baseball from when the Giants moved to San Francisco, and a collection of newspaper clippings about his days on the high school baseball team, his return from the war, and, of course, his obituary.
But now, things are different. Now, you know exactly what to do. You can thread the machine like a pro. You’ve read the instruction manual a million times – something Father would have never done. Remember how Father always threw instruction in the trash, retrieving them only after gut instinct failed him? Now, when you attach the tail of the filmstrip to the take-up reel, you take your time. You do it slowly and methodically, reciting the instructions, step by careful step, as if you are disarming a land mine.
“Voila,” you say and flick the switch. You run back to where I am sitting with my back against the sofa, but you stand in my way as Father’s image suddenly brightens our living room wall.
“Move over,” I yell. “You’re blocking my view.”
“Oops, sorry, birdpie.” You say and sit down. On the wall, we see Father playing a game of peek-a-boo with me behind his handkerchief. Too young to smile, I gape at Father with the same curiosity that I have now. Taking him in, I struggle to make sense of who he was. Father is smiling hard; so hard that he looks like he wants to gobble me up. He then looks directly into the camera. And it is then, we can see he is about to cry.
“Oh, here he goes,” you say as Father chews on his upper lip. But it is his eyes that give him away. They always do. And then as if on cue, a small army of tears spill down his unshaven cheek.
“So damn beautiful,” he says to the camera. But the longer time slips by, we become uncertain as to whom he was referring to when he uttered that last word, beautiful. At first, we are convinced he is talking about you. How could he not? He is looking right at you. Yet, the more we watch these movies little fissures of doubt start to surface.
“You were the one that was everything to him, Lyla,” you say. Of course, I don’t believe you. Logic has always told me that if this were true, he would still be here today; that he would have never left us in the way he did.
“Time is a funny thing, Lyla. Enjoy it while you can.” But like the many drowned-out words you utter when we watch these movies, I have no idea what you are talking about. Like waking from a dream, your words feel immediately solid and sound, easily within reach. But as the seconds go by, the clarity of your advice fades further and further away until one point your untethered wisdom becomes nothing more than a jumble of fuzzy nonsense.
You will not say so in the movie, but even back then, I can see that you knew it wouldn’t last. Not that Father would kill himself, but the days of me lying on your chest – our breath, rising and falling together – would be as short-lived as the summer that passes through the early frames of Father’s camera. You knew I would grow up good and quick. The same is true of Baby Daniel’s first year. More so, even, because he never had a chance to grow up. Not like me. Yet, Daniel’s first year is documented much like mine; long, dull trails of footage recording every single milestone: his first smile, his attempts to roll over or to feed himself.
In the next film (February, 1948) watch Baby Daniel’s tireless body as he, time and again, crawls away from you and towards the camera. How could he not? Father has the camera so clearly focused on him, his little king. In front of the lens, we see Father’s fingers leave a trail of breadcrumbs, coaxing Baby Daniel to crawl towards him. That cheater!
“Who’s your Daddy?” Father asks as Daniel scoots his way on his butt across the carpet, palming the breadcrumbs into his mouth. We then hear your voice from across the room.
“The chunks are too big, Charles” you say, cautioning Father. “He isn’t Hansel, you know.” Behind the camera, we hear Father’s hearty laugh as another breadcrumb is tossed out on the floor which is gobbled up in a hurry.
“Charles.” You respond more firmly this time. “He might choke, and that is not something we want caught on film.” As if you’d want to catch it at all.
Before Father has a chance to clean up his mess, I do it for him. My two-year-old hands sweep in and the grab the chunks of bread from the floor, making Daniel cry.
“No Daniel,” I say, pushing my baby brother out of the way. I had only meant to protect him, but he falls over onto his back, his arms and legs flailing above him like a helpless turtle. It doesn’t take long before you sweep in and pick Baby Daniel up.
“Lyla May!” You yell at me. The camera follows you, and there we see the alarm and anger in your eyes as you rock Daniel, hushing the tears out of him. “How could you do such a thing?”
“Christ, Louise,” Father says, coming to my rescue. “She was only trying to help.” Then the film goes black. The movie hasn’t ended, but you’ve turned off the projector, claiming that you need to use the bathroom. In your absence, I wonder what else was said in that moment of fierce protection – you of Daniel, Father of me. When you return, I ask, but you claim you don’t remember.
“Oh, that was a long time ago, birdpie,” you say and flip the projector back on. But I don’t believe you. The alliances were so clearly defined. Even now, I can see it in your eyes. I see that you think it was all my fault, that I had made them go away. I hate that look more than feeling the accusation itself.
In the next clip, we cringe as Daniel latches onto your breast with such ferocious hunger; so fierce that neither of us will want to watch. It looks too painful. Nonetheless, the camera zooms in, catching that raw look on your face when Baby Daniel refused to let go. Just like Father, Daniel always wanted more.
“Will I have to do that someday?” I ask.
“Only if you want to, sweetheart.”
I then watch the pain in your eyes as Daniel bites down harder than before. “No, thanks,” I say. “I’d rather own goats.”
You laugh so hard when I say this. But I am dead serious. Watching this particular movie, I decide I will never be a mother. I am convinced it will hurt too much. “What’s the point?” I ask.
And I think you start to wonder that yourself. Why you ever did it? Why you put up with Daniel’s brief pain? Or Father’s?
“Maybe you are right,” you say to the black and white film projected on the wall. “What was the point?”
But before you can answer yourself, we see Father bouncing Daniel on his knee, playing the horsey game. Daniel is laughing as his big head wobbles back and forth like the Charlie Brown Bobblehead that sat Father’s desk. Daniel’s young neck is far too frail for such rigorous bouncing. But that was how Father played, always a little too rough.
“Easy does it, Captain.” We hear the budding anxiety that eventually takes up permanent residency in your voice. You often called Father by that name, Captain, especially in those early years. The name fit him, and when it didn’t, we still pretended it did.
When Father turns the camera around on himself, we see that look on his face, the one where he knew he was caught. “Whoopsie Poopsie,” he says, pursing his lips into the camera like an old lady. You tell him he looks just like his mother when he does this, and soon we adopt this goofy look whenever we are making fun of Grandmother Caroline behind her back, mocking her continual disapproval.
Later, we watch Father kiss Baby Daniel on the top of his bright red hair – red like yours – declaring him to be the perfect son. The way that he says this, it finally hits me. He had wanted a son so bad that after Daniel had died, this is who he wanted me to be. I was to become his perfect son.
After this last film documenting Daniel’s short life, there is a great big gap of time until Father is allowed to shine his camera on the two us again. In the kitchen one night, I had overheard you telling Father that you just couldn’t bear it, that you didn’t want to be reminded of Daniel’s absence. And so, there is a point in my life that long goes undocumented, memories I will never be able to recapture no matter how hard I try.
After Baby Daniel death and then Father’s, time seems stuck in geological terms. Moving at glacial speeds, time never quite marches fast enough so that we can lick our wounds and move on – as though that was is possible. Inch by terrible inch, we grieve over their deaths, never really understanding why they had to leave so soon. At some point, Daniel becomes a distant memory to me. Like a character in a long forgotten childhood fairy-tale, Daniel eventually shrinks into the dark shadows of my memory bank where, in contrast, Father’s death forever looms large under the brightest of lights.
One night, we don’t even bring a film down from the attic. We just sit on the living room floor with our backs against the sofa, our heads resting between our knees, as though we are Olympic athletes trying to recover enough oxygen from an impossible feat of athleticism. But we are not athletes. We are just two people in the midst of a head rush, trying to keep ourselves from passing out on the floor.
“Why did you do it?” My face sinks deeper into the dark folds of the blanket as I argue with Father. “I hate you for what you did.” The heat of my words leaves a sweaty mustache above my lip.
“I know, birdpie,” you say, rubbing quiet circles on my back. “I have asked that question a thousand times myself.” I don’t realize how good it feels when you rub my back until you stop doing it – not just that one Sunday night but when you stop comforting me altogether.
Questions about Father’s death are questions that we harbor inside us for the rest of our lives. They will never to be answered except in the brief seconds when we are both asleep, dreaming of him. One night, I tell you that he came for a visit, that he whispered to me in the quiet thoughts of my sleep. The easy confidence in his deep voice, the sheer beauty in his graveled laugh, wakes me up with a jolt, shocking him away. I want to fall back asleep and bring him back. But it is useless. I can’t make him come back to me now. I am no magician, with a host of tricks up my sleeve. I am just a 12-year old girl wanting her father more than ever. When I crawl into your bed, I confide that he seemed so real.
“He was right there, Mom. I swear I could feel him sitting on the bed next to me. I could even smell him.”
You tell me that you have had that very same dream nearly ever night since he left. And together, we close our eyes and try the impossible one last time. We press our eyes tight, believing we can magically make him reappear. But when we count to three and open our eyes again and look at each other, we concede that he can only come back to us in our dreams or in the 8mm films cast out against our blank living room wall. We are told that this is normal. That everybody feels this way after someone dies. But we argue differently. There was nothing normal in what he did.
“Oh God.” You suddenly get up from the floor and run straight to the hall bathroom, where you throw up with such undeniable violence that I wonder if you will have the strength ever to get up off the floor or whether you will sleep there or worse, die there. You eventually pull yourself together and crawl over the tiny sink in the corner of the hall bath, the sink that is big enough for your hands, but nothing more. There is something ludicrous in the way you hunch over the itty-bitty porcelain bowl, seemingly made for dolls. Suddenly, I want to laugh, but I don’t. I just stare at you. You look enormous over that sink. You look awful.
Because you have forgotten to lock the door, it drifts open and I can see you. You brace your hands against the mirror as though you are trying to push back against your reflection. Like a boxer about to climb into the ring, you look ready to fight back. I don’t know whom it is you want to fight exactly me or him or you, but your momentary hostility catches me by surprise. I want to run to you and drag you out of the bathroom, before you do something terrible. But I can’t get up. I’m too afraid to interfere. But there is something more, I want you to see what I’ve seen for a long time now. I want you to stop pretending that you can keep it all in.
I watch as you start to bang the mirror with the flat of your hand. Over and over, you whack at your reflection and it is then that I really start to worry that you might break the glass, that you will cut yourself so bad that you die, and I will be left all alone. But then, in that wild seesaw of fury, something changes again. You stand up straight and tuck the loose strands of hair back behind your bright, red ears. It is then; I know you are about to cry. Like Father’s eyes, it your ears that give you away. They always do. They always tell me if you are mad, or sad, or if you have just plain had enough. It takes a few seconds, but you finally succumb, and I watch you ball your fists up against the mirror, pushing against your reflection, once again. Your jaw tightens as you stifle what is inside you. Somewhere along the line, you have learned never to cry in front of me, believing it to be a sign of weakness. And over the years you teach me to feel that way too. I learn to feel bad about myself when tears come to my own eyes, believing it to be a fatal flaw, even if for something as simple as a skinned knee.
“Mom?” I call out.
Suddenly, realizing the door is open, you turn and see that I am watching you. With a look of deep embarrassment, as though I have caught you in some despicable act, you kick the door shut with your foot. You probably think that from behind closed doors, I am not able to hear the scream followed by the sobs of release that finally come. But I do. I hear it all.
Later that night, you come to my bedroom with a bowl of popcorn in your hand. You won’t even look at me. You pretend nothing has happened. You are cheerful even as you throw my dirty laundry off my bed at sit down.
“Well, at least I didn’t burn it this time,” you say, grabbing a handful of popcorn and sit down next to me.
I take the bowl and cradle it in my lap, shoving handfuls into my mouth, as though I haven’t eaten in days. You even remembered to shake the garlic salt and red pepper flakes on top, just how Father liked it – with a touch of heat. At one point, we reach our hands into the popcorn bowl at the exact same time, and it will be then – my hand touching yours – that we begin our silly little tradition of our Who is the Mother? Who is the daughter? game. We hold our hands out in front of us, admiring the beauty of our skin and ask these questions, as though it isn’t completely obvious. We learn to laugh at this joke for decades before my hands start to age at a faster rate than yours from too many summers spent in the hot, California sun. At one point, it will be almost impossible to tell the difference.
Years later, after you marry Al, we decide to stay home and watch several movies in a row, something we haven’t done in a very long time.
“You don’t want to go out with your girlfriends?” you ask.
I shake my head, telling you that I’m too tired. “I just feel like just staying home tonight. That’s all.”
Because its been years since we’ve watched these movies, you don’t press my decision. You look over your shoulder at me as you slice the onions for dinner, suspicious as to why a teenage girl would want to stay home instead of going out. I always want to go out, but not tonight. Tonight, I’ve been dumped by my boyfriend on the telephone and I want no part of all the inevitable questions that follow in the wake of a high-school break-up.
You look up at the clock on the kitchen wall and then back at me, calculating the time between when Al left to go bowling with his buddies and when he is due home. Since marrying Al, you feel that you have to watch these movies in secret. He has never said you couldn’t watch them, but you feel disloyal if you do.
“Let’s do it,” You say, quickly untying your apron and turning off the stove. “We’ve got loads of time before Al gets home. We can even watch a couple of them if you like.”
Together, we run up to the attic, giddy like thieves on the lam. Rummaging around for the old suitcase of movies, I finally ask you the question that I have harbored for far too long.
“Was it me?” I say, moving a heavy box of books out of the way.
“What was that, darling?” you ask, pretending not to have heard me. But you do; you’ve been waiting for me to ask this question for a long time. How could you not hear the tight words caught between the tiny wisps of my faltered breath. What is strange is that you do not answer.
“Was it my fault?” I ask again with more determination. At some point along the line, I have learned to believe that I should have never wanted that stupid tire swing in the first place. If I had never asked for it, I have always concluded, he wouldn’t have killed himself.
“It is. I know it.” I finally say, cementing my feet deeper in a certainty that it was my fault. After all, I was the one who climbed in that tree and hung the rope around the branch, the very rope he tied around his neck. I want you to correct me, but you don’t. You keep moving boxes around and around, looking for the dusty suitcase of movies, ignoring me, as if that is what is important – finding a box of stupid movies.
“It’s got to be somewhere around here,” you say, never taking the time to relieve me from my guilt, because in your heart you don’t know what to believe. And in the absence of your conviction that night, I wrap myself tighter in that ugly blanket of shame.
Downstairs, I ask you why you didn’t answer me. “Did you even hear me?”
“Oh, sweetheart,” you say. Sitting down next to me, you begin to aerate my long black hair with the tips of your fingernails. It feels so good when you do this that a wave of goose bumps washes over me. It is the same feeling I used to get when Father had pushed me on the tire swing, a thick mass of goose bumps spreading over my arms and legs like a strange but wonderful disease. All these years later, I can still conjure the cold in my guts when he pushed me high and hard on that swing, my body lifting off the tire, weightless, even if for just a second in time. I wonder if he felt the same weightlessness when he stepped off the tire and into the darkness.
“It’s best just to think of the good times, Lyla,” you say, combing the knots, one by one, out of my hair.
I lay in your lap, begging you not to stop. We lock eyes for a moment – neither smiling nor crying – just holding each other’s gaze for what seems like the rest of the night.
“God, you look so much like him,” you finally say. I smile back, but I will always wonder if that is a good thing or bad.
Suddenly, we realize the projector isn’t working properly. All this time that we were sitting there staring at one another, the projector has been trying to grab hold of the filmstrip, but it won’t take. The loose end is thwacking against itself, suddenly startling you into the realization of what we had meant to do. We had only meant to watch these movies, not beat ourselves up with guilt and shame. The whipping of the film against the reel is alarming. It is like being woken up in the middle of the night by a phone call telling you somebody has died. Like when Uncle David called you.
Scooting my head off your lap, you crawl over to the projector and flick it off. The slapping of the film comes to a stop. Although you do not know this at the time, this will be the same sound as when you slap my face a couple years from now, a night when I come home drunk, so drunk I will accuse you of being the one who drove Father away. Not me. I will have no evidence for it, of course, but I will be tired of shouldering the blame all by myself. I will scream at you. You made him do it! It was all your fault. I will simply try reverse the unspoken line of fault with a few boozy words – as if it will be that easy. After I yell at you, I will fall to the ground and throw up on my bedroom floor, all over the very carpet that I had ridden around on Father’s back as a horse, whinnying in circles until I fell off. You will not make me clean up my mess, but will put me in your bed, making Al sleep on the couch. But that will be many years from tonight, at a time when I will begin to wear heavy black makeup around my eyes and start smoking cigarettes, a time when I will start treating you like a stranger in your own house. Brick by brick, I will build a fortress between us until one day we can hardly recognize the enemy on the other side. But for now, such ghastly behavior will seem impossible, ridiculous even. For now, we have each other. Even if we don’t.
“I think it may be too much, birdpie,” you say. “Maybe we should call it a night.”
But I shake my head. “No. I want to watch his movies. I don’t want to forget him,” I say, punctuating my thoughts with the same inevitable sigh that Father used to make when thinking a problem over in his head. In the end, it will be the sound – his deep inhalation in and out – that I will remember most.
In the movie (Summer, 1952) we are at Grandmother’s house. It is the day I that I hung that stupid swing. On the living room wall, we hold our breath as I climb into that old oak tree.
“Oh Lord,” we hear you say. But it is not the you talking now, but the you caught on film. Uncle David has the camera pointed right at you. “It looks dangerous,” you say to the camera, unaware of what was to come. At the time, you had only believed that I would get hurt climbing the tree – that I might fall. Watching the film now, you wish that were all that had happened. Not the rest of it. Life would have been so much easier if I had simply fallen out of the tree and broken my arm. Behind the camera, we hear Uncle David’s great hyena laugh, just like Father’s, telling you that you worry too much. But now we know. You didn’t worry enough.
What we cannot see in the film is how Father had coaxed me up into the arms of that massive tree. It didn’t take much – a simple urging, and I complied. I told Father that I was too scared to climb that high, but he shamed me into it.
“Don’t be a chicken, Lyla” Father had said, clucking around the dirt, flapping a pair of makeshift wings. Bwack, bwack, bwack, he laughed. He was only joking. He did not mean to make me feel bad, but, of course, he did. I felt so terrible that I immediately got down on my belly and crawled out onto the branch, scraping my knees and chin against the rough bark with the word chicken bumping around in my head. To this day, I have carried that word around with me like heavy luggage before an international flight. I am weighted down by his bad joke. And for the rest of my childhood, I will always believe it to be true – that I was a chicken. Not he.
But Father eventually praised my work. “Job well done,” he had said, as I jumped back down into his arms. But like the word chicken, I learn to guard this phrase – job well done – like truth. After he is dead, I carry those three words around with the steadfast belief that I had tied a knot strong enough to hold not just a girl’s weight, but that of a grown mans. Job well done, Lyla. And soon, I eventually learn to blame myself for tying the knot that killed Father. I see that you blame me too; only you will never say it. I just see it in your ears.
Before the movie ends, I wonder if Father knew what he was doing. Did he know, even back then, that the knot had to be strong enough to hold his own weight or whether such thoughts had yet to register in his troubled mind? As I grow older, I often find myself awake in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep. Inevitably, my thoughts dance around the dangling rope. I bring my hands around my neck and start to squeeze, slowly at first, and then tighter and tighter, inching my way closer to Father. In some perverse way, I want to feel what he did. But when it is too much, I let go. And on those nights, I fall into the deepest imaginable sleep possible. I dream of nothing, not even him.
The movie concludes with a bouncing image of your bare feet as you walk across the lawn to the back fence still. From there, you gain a better perspective of the strength of my trust in Father as he swings me high over the dropping hill. Like a rodeo rider, I take one hand off the rope and wave to you before Father cautions me to hold on with two hands.
“Easy Does it, birdpie,” he says in his best John Wayne drawl. “We can’t have you falling off in front of Mother, now can we?”
With that, I hold the rope tighter than before and smile back at you. My hair swings in my face, but I can still see that little look of worry you give our Captain as he swings me even higher. Even now, I see that same look of worry in your eyes as we watch the movie, the look that eventually evolves into one of sadness before it finds a home in a glare of hostility. I see how you look at that rope with hatred and learn to believe you reserve that look for me.
What we do not see in the movies are all the weddings that we attend over the years – Cousin Robert’s, Aunt Sophie’s (though she is not really an aunt) and Margaret’s. Even your second marriage to Al goes undocumented. You never thought it possible, a second marriage, not with Father’s love still covering you with the weight of an x-ray blanket. When I ask if you want cousin Stephen to record the ceremony, you say no. You insist that nobody even takes so much as a photograph, as though your wedding to Al is somehow disrespectful to Father.
Unlike Father, Al is small and thick, built like a tank. He is not much taller than you, but he is tough – sturdy enough to endure your brief episodes of depression and all of our inevitable feuds. Al has a tattoo on his right bicep – an anchor with a number below it. Despite what you initially think, the number will not be Al’s naval identifier, but the total number of men killed in the Pacific during his tour. He wears it as a reminder of what was at stake.
“You have no idea what it was like, ladies” he lectures us one night at the dinner table, unaware that Father had gone AWOL because he could no longer look into another man’s eye before he killed him.
We even laugh when Al flexes his muscle as he shaves, making the number wriggle around like a fish. And when we watch television, I watch you as you rub your finger along the fading, blue ink, bleeding into Al’s bicep. Al doesn’t even seem to notice, but I wonder if you are thinking Father when you do this. Sometimes, I think you are a traitor, trying to steal glimpses of Father on Al’s arms. One night, I will ask what you are doing. And though you never tell me, it will be obvious. The guilt in your eyes will give you away, as does the redness in your ears.
When you introduce Al to the family, Uncle David is the only one who gives Al his full blessing. He claps him on the back, like an old war buddy. At the wedding, Uncle David ends up drinking too much, giving a hearty, tear-eyed toast to his new brother. As if! He then causes a scene before passing out in the hotel bathroom. Thankfully, Grandmother Caroline is saved from the scene. Because she has declined the wedding invitation she is spared the pain of bearing witness to her remaining son’s disgrace. She eventually learns of the details, but not for some time. In the meantime, she chooses to pretend it never happened – the whole thing, including Father’s death.
During your marriage to Al, you do not age well. Al walks into the living room one night, still smelling of cigarettes and beer as we sit on the living room floor watching our home movies. It is the movie documenting the summer that we spent nearly every weekend on Father’s boat. Seeing the wind catch hold of your bright red hair as we take a late-season sail out to the Farallon Islands, Al leans against the back of the couch and marvels at how young you once looked.
“You look like a movie star.”
Embarrassed, you gather the neck of your sweater with your hands as if you are trying to ward off the wind from coming over the rails and straight into our living room. You look at your hands in the movie as you hold a book. You then look down on your own hands, ashamed at how the rheumatoid arthritis has reeked havoc on your grip. How your knuckles look like nasty burls on a tree. Clenching your fingers back in forth in loose balls, you concede that your hands are working against you. You noticed it first when you began having trouble threading the film on the reels. Such dexterity seems to have escaped you. At some point, you stop trying altogether and leave the films tucked away in the attic where they sit next to the rest of Father’s belongings. These are the things that you will never have the emotional capacity to dispose of, suitcases of old clothing, his enormous shoes, his first baseball mitt, his letters to you from the war. You will be unwilling to say goodbye to his moth-eaten jackets and all his old ties, even though they will be terribly out of fashion. You will say to yourself that it is becoming ridiculous, even after you stop going up to the attic in the late afternoon, trying to take in any remaining scent of Father through his threadbare sweaters. You will be ashamed of yourself when you do this, accepting it as though it is some kind of failure. You will learn to sneak up there when I am at school and Al goes to a Giants’ game or does whatever he does with the friends that he had met before he married you.
One Friday afternoon, I come home early from tennis practice. I call out to you as I lay my racquet down on the kitchen counter and open the refrigerator.
“Mom,” I yell out, but you don’t answer. I pour a glass of milk and wander through the house, still calling out to you, poking my head into one room and then the next. It is not until I finally climb the attic stairs that I know exactly where you are.
Halfway up, I see you sitting on the suitcase of his films, holding one of Father’s old sweaters out in front of you, talking to it as though he is right there facing you. I quietly sit down on the stairs and watch you through the spindles of the railing as you wrap the sleeves of Father’s sweater, one by one, around your shoulders. You arrange the arms in such a way that he is hugging you, and there you sway in the dusty afternoon light, dancing with Father’s empty sweater, humming his old Irish lullaby.
You then do something unspeakable. You lie down on the attic floor with Father’s sweater on top of you. You begin to writhe around, moaning, as though you are making love to him. I know better than to call out your name or ask you what you are doing. I do not want to see you shoot up from the floor, hiding Father’s sweater behind you as you fumble around for an excuse. No daughter needs to see that. No daughter needs to catch her mother in the act of doing something so queer. So I tiptoe back down the stairs, leaving you alone, wrapped in the arms of Father’s old sweater, finding the warmth in his absent arms.