Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Kind of Icarus

Icarus--by Gregory Borse

"You laugh," she said, drying the last dish and placing it into the dish drain. "But it's true. Look at your father. He's afraid of death. That's the only way to explain the behavior of a man. He's not changed since the day I met him and when I married him, his mother told me that he hadn't changed since the day he was born." Now she looked at me directly. "Whether it's the reason they drink, the reason they work, the reason they mess around, or the reason they don't mess around. Men are afraid of death. Your father is a man and he's afraid too. So are you."

So he had me there. But she hadn't told me anything I didn't think I already knew. But that's the way it is, too. I always think that whatever somebody just said was something I thought of a long time ago. Probably the result of coming from the womb. Coming from a place already complete and whole and into a world all incomplete and fragmented. Coming into a place where they told you it was your job not only to find out who you were but to make up who you are too. But here she was talking about my own father and it occurred to me for the first time that she knew him better than I did. And, for that matter, she knew me and men in general better than I did. And that meant too that she was a person. And that had really not occurred to me at all. How can your parents be people? How is it that you are supposed to handle becoming a person yourself when all of a sudden, whily you're sitting at the kitchen table, you mother turns around, all gorgon-headed, and decides to let you know that she had an entire life before you were ever even born?

So, I thought about my father.

And I thought about how angry I had been at him. How angry I was that he wasn't more than he was. How angry I was that people laughed at him behind his back because he wore the wrong colored socks and drove the wrong kind of car. How angry I was that they knew what a great guy he was. How angry I was that he laughed at their jokes just to make them happy--even though I knew that, while we walked through the parking lot at the high school after my sister's basketball game (in which she had made a pathetic fool of herself by trying so hard sh had run into the wall going for a rebound), they laughed at his brown polyester pants and white socks and our 1979 orange Vega--no kidding. And how angry I was that he didn't care because his happiness had nothing to do with the kind of thing that motivated theirs. Because all he thought about then was putting an arm around my sister to let her know that he was proud to be her father, on that night and on every night.

So thta makes me think about how I can live up to a man whom everyone loves and who can keep a car running on nothing but hangers and duct tape. No air conditioning in the Vega and Mom says Dad's out scouting garage sales for a window unit he can rig up to the cigarette lighter. Loading up in our Sunday finery, and Dad yelling: "Everyone in the car, it's time to go to church! Everybody in! Cindy, Laura, Greg, Sarah, Chirs, Robbie, Linda, Emily, Kate!?" (He always called out in order of age, from oldest to youngest). "Good! Now--somebody keep a foot out of the car to make sure we're grounded! Hey!! Take that foil hat off of Robbie's head--that's not funny, that's just dangerous!"

Or that time we were leaving the Meijer's Thrifty Acres and Dad took a turn kinda fast and Sarah just kinda flew out of the car. But didn't she hit the pavement running--and holding on to the back door handle too. I'll never forget her face--eyes as big as saucers, her mouth open wide and nothing coming out of it. And then the screaming cacophony from the back seat--everybody stepping on everybody else's DAD, DAD! SARAH! STOP THE CAR! SHE'S! YOU GOTTA . . . AAAAHHHHH!!! And then all of a sudden a thunderous "SSSHHHUUUUUUDDDDD---UUUUPPPP!" from the driver's side of the front seat as a great arm swept from left to right (ours, not his) striking whatever happened to be in its path and he expertly driving and smacking his kids without even turning around. An expert. And then it was--as Faulkner would say--tableau: four kids in the back seat (Chris still sat on Mom's lap in the front and Robbie through Katy had yet to try out for the circus, so to speak) leaning forward in the seat to look at Sarah--who still ran beside the car, looking at us with an expression of amazed fear and perhaps a little curiosity too from trying to figure out why we were all making the same expression she was and we weren't even running. Until Mom turned her head back so we could see that Mom expression--you know, the one that says "You kids" and also says, but this time couldn't quite articulate since she caught a glimpse of her then youngest daughter running about twenty miles an hour beside the car, "you know better than to make so much noise while your Father is trying to drive," because instead it contorted into an expression that exactly matched all of ours before she could scream "Oh, Lanny!" before degenerating into an indecipherable mother-tongue understood without any need for translation by everybody and which itself had the power to bring the car to a sudden stop. But then, after we'd gathered out almost lost member back into the car and she had displaced Chris in the front-seat lap (making a couple of us wonder if Sarah had negotiated a stunt), and my Father had sufficiently satisfied the couple who had followed the scene in the parking lot thta it was not, indeed, appropriate to call the authorities, my Father--this man--didn't yell at us. He apologized. My Mother later told us that if we were more quiet in the car then screaming might be understood to inidcate an emergency. But the important thing to me--at least later on--was that he could have done a million other things. But he apologized--to Sarah and to the rest of us.

So, now I'm wondering how you live up to a man who is willing to admit a momentary weakness in front of how own children? And I can see him now too. Sitting there, his hazel eyes looking over the top of his black-rimmed Buddy Holly glasses, thinking of that word that fits just right as he works another cross-word puzzle, not even noticing that he is old and the skin around his elbows is baggy. And I see, too, if I look into my own dauther's eyes, his own motivations and his own drives, his own weaknesses, just as I see them in myself. Beccause I've discovered that having a father--whether you know him or not--is inescapable. Not the way a mother is inescapable. Somehow differetn. Somehow always more distant and hovering but always there. We can point to our mothers and say, "That is my mother." We point to our fathers and utter an acf of faith.

When I was little I used to dream that I could fly. But I never flew high up in the sky. I never even flew outside of my own house. In my dreams I would drift effortlessly around my home--an Icarus without the danger of the sun.

My earliest memory of my Father must be of him when I was about one or two years old. I remember sitting in my high chair in the kitchen and my father walking through the door. I see him framed there. Those same Buddy Holly glasses. The hair black instead of white. Khaki pants and a t-shirt. No baggy skin around the jaw, nor around the elbows. I remember his pausing in the doorway and I remember asking him if he could touch the ceiling. I can see the muscles of his chest and his stomach as he reaches both hands upward, his fingertips resting gently on the white cork board above him. And I remember being amazed.

My Father could touch the ceiling.

But now, I think. He wasn't just touching the ceiling. He was holding it up.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Man was meant for Woman

There's no way to explain the order
Otherwise she had been first;
Man was meant for Woman
Or else he'd be the worse.

She came after as equal
But also his--how should I say?
A partner, superior, and teacher
Who most cruelly shows the way.

He sees her first a Helen
Then a Fury--Lilith, or Salome,
And at long journey's end, a real Odysseus,
He meets Penelope.

She teaches him a humble way
And makes him close his mouth.
In the nuptial bower, however, there,
Reveals to him a truth:

You are not everything you seem
Nor are you what you lack--
Nor are you merely what you've done,
For truth will draw you back

In disguise, perhaps you'll learn
A thing or two 'bout youth
But from me, alone, you'll learn,
And naked then--
Something of God's reproof.

(image: Odysseus and Penelope, by Francesco Primaticcio, 1563)