News & Politics » Miscellany

My Father's Voice

I carry in my ear, carry to this day, the memory of him reading to me. Sighting a picture of Babar or a drawing by Beatrix Potter will place me, even now, if only for a moment, deep in the burrow of his lap.

by

comment

Evenings during the last springtime of the last great war, after what seemed to me our happy suppers--gravy, fresh vegetables, plate clatter, talk--my father doffed the jacket to his tailor- made suit and read the paper while Black Mary and my mother cleared dishes. My mother plucked up the white tablecloth by its four corners and carried it out the back door. The sun by then was down, the grass spinach green and shadows purple. She stood on the stoop (where my father had scratched, when the concrete was wet, a lopsided heart, and then inside the heart, "1939: B + C"). She shook the cloth. Up, down. Flapped it, scattering crumbs.

Her teeth gripping one edge of the cloth, my mother folded the linen into a neat square, while far down the block, from Army barracks, soldiers counted cadence. "Sound off, one-two. Sound off, three-four."

"Go to your father," she says. "Go, go, go, go." She shoos me like her mother shoos chickens.

The living room was long; its oak floorboards smelled of wax. We had a Steinway parlor grand, a flowered couch, low tables, Turkey carpets, bookcases stacked with Fortune, Life, gardening titles from England, novels (thumbed, read), a few of my father's law books.

His chair ruled the room. It was upholstered in nubby rose wool, and next to one of its wide arms stood a table with a Chinese lamp that had been his mother's. He was mad for flowers, and breathing noisily through his mouth, he would arrange in a white vase drooping peonies or lilies of the valley.

When I could not get along with my mother, Mary, or my friend Janet, or most often--for I was an only child--when some game of my own abruptly dissipated, when I went numb, null, and lost my way, I would rush in from my room or the yard, where I was trying that spring, in secret and without success, to salt a robin's tail, and kneel on the figured carpet, lay my head on his chair's cushion, my hand in the impress his weight had left. No one else sat in it, and the cushion smelled, not unpleasantly, of his body. Before I could say "Jack Robinson," I would be telling myself, "He will be home."

Every evening after supper I tiptoed to him. Waited.

The newspaper hid his face. He wriggled his giant shoe, signaling that I might straddle his ankle, grab on to his trouser leg, take a pony ride.

I bounced slowly. I could hear my own breathing, could hear his tendons whine.

A lazy bounce or two later he spoke--"Giddyup's over!"--and let fall half the newspaper, showing his face: round, lightly freckled, blue-eyed, grinning. He was 30. His loose red curls had begun to recede.

Six feet six inches tall, 250 pounds, he pushed himself up out of the chair, lifted his arms high, stretched out his fingers (which came close to touching the ceiling), sighed, patted his belly, snapped his suspenders.

He put out his hand. "Dreamgirl." He folded my fingers in his palm.

In the bathroom, he would lift me up, stand me on the toilet seat. Humming a big-band tune (one of which, years later, I recognized as Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls"), he combed out my troublesome tangly hair. Head cocked to one side, light shining through his huge ear, he studied me. His eyebrows bristled, the hair inside his nose twitched. His wet tongue worried the corner of his mouth where a crumb from dinner sat.

He opened the sink's spigot, wet the comb. "One more swipe," he said. His mouth was close to my ear.

From the navy blue Dr. Johnson's can he sprinkled tooth powder on my toothbrush. "Let's polish those chompers whiter than snow!" His own teeth clenched, face wrinkled in a hideous grimace, he brushed.

Then he lifted me down, cleaned my face. "Bury your dear snout in it," he'd say, pinching my nose in steaming terry cloth.

In the hall he took off his oxfords, slipped into penny loafers. We would look at ourselves in the long mirror.

He is behind me. He wears a white shirt, navy blue trousers, striped silk tie (cool, watery to touch), the suspenders. The top of my head skims his knees. I have his curls, blue eyes, his full tremulous, emotional mouth, a pug nose. My nightgown's to my ankles, I've put my feet in his oxfords, and the shoes stick comically out, laces trailing.

"Pretty good-looking, hmm?" Hands in his pockets, he jingles coins.

Under one arm, my father carried the books. He set them on the table, under the lamp, next to the lilies of the valley.

Mary clinked one china plate onto another. Pots clanked. "Blessed assurance," she sang, "Jesus is mine." ("We have ourselves another Marian Anderson," my father would say.)

Farther off, at the hall's far end, my mother might talk on the telephone, her voice rising, falling, rising. Outside, the hup-two-three had ended. People called dogs home.

After he sat down, I would climb up his blue serge calves onto his knees and fall into his lap. His legs extended miles beneath me.

Off the cover of Poky Little Puppy the milk-white mongrel of the title streams light.

"Take as much time as you need," my father says. "Never let yourself be rushed.

"Five little puppies dug a hole under the fence and went for a walk in the wide, wide world."

From far above, my father's voice comes down to me, telling how against their mother's orders the five puppies dig a hole under the fence and escape their yard. Four of the puppies stick together, but Poky Puppy rushes away.

Minus their poky brother, the puppies barrel home. Mama Dog greets them sternly: "So you're the puppies who dig holes under fences! No pudding tonight!" She sends them straight to bed.

But the poky little puppy, in no hurry, toodle-dee-doing--"slow, but sure," my father suggests--arrives home after his brothers and sisters are fast asleep. His mother serves him the "dee-licious" pudding, and then he crawls "full as a tick" into bed. It is this way, every day, day after day.

But then one evening, after they've been put to bed, the four pups stay awake. They wait till their mother falls asleep, then slip out the door, fill up the hole beneath the fence. When they turn to go back into the house, they see her watching from the door. "What good little puppies!" she says. "Come have strawberry shortcake."

This evening, when Poky Puppy arrives home, he has to squeeze in through two fence boards. In the kitchen, his brothers and sisters are licking with long tongues the last whipped cream off their saucer.

"Dear me," says the puppy mother. "What a pity you're so poky! The strawberry shortcake is long gone."

Shutting the book, my father sighs a big enough sigh that I go up in his lap and then down. He says I must not be sad, that before we even closed the book Poky Puppy's mother had relented, had reached down in her dog purse and dug out a Hershey bar for this rascal. Then, his arms around me, my father leans over, momentarily displacing, dizzily tilting me, and slips off the table The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

"Once upon a time there were four little rabbits, and their names were--Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter." And then, in French--"Frogtalk"--he calls the rabbit names: "Flopsaut, Mopsaut, Queue-de-coton, et Pierre."

The rabbits "live with their mother under a very big fir-tree." Mrs. Rabbit says: "Don't go into Mr. McGregor's garden; your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor."

I think about Peter's father stripped of his lovely fur, fitted in the pie tin on top of diced carrots, vivid green peas. His skinned body glistens, blue veins branch out. The raw pinched and fluted piecrust rises up around him like a castle wall. The top crust waits on the floured board. The oven is heating. I hear it tick-tick-tick. Peter Rabbit's father will cook and his meat will fall off his bones.

"Are you listening?" He reaches 'round and chucks my chin. My top and bottom teeth hit. I whimper and he pulls me more tightly to him. "Listen," he croons, "listen."

I strain to hear my father's breath; his belly rumbles under me.

Peter's in the garden. His tummy slumps, sags beneath the hem of his blue jacket. His whiskers droop.

Mr. McGregor shows up. I hate Mr. McGregor. From the right-side page's farthest right corner Mr. McGregor hoists high his sharp rake, and I am already ducking its tines when he sets out after Peter, who runs faster and faster until the large brass buttons of his new blue jacket catch in a gooseberry net.

Peter dangles upside down from his back feet. "Caught." My father raises aloft his index finger. "Caught!"

My heart's in my mouth as Peter wrestles loose from his blue jacket and, "naked as a jaybird, naked as the day he was born," he runs, runs, and then hops into the toolshed, where he jumps into a watering can.

Out of the watering can, he shakes himself off. (My father shakes us off, says "Now, don't despair.") Peter runs to the pale brick garden wall and my legs run too. The garden gate is locked.

"Wait! All is not lost! Espying across the garden a wheelbarrow, Peter hotfoots to it, slithers in it, then peeps over its side, sees Mr. McGregor hoeing onions. Sweet, red Spanish onions! And mmmm, lookee here! Old McGregor's got his back turned."

"Mmmm." I hear my breath go up my nose.

My father makes a great show of turning the page. "Look! Look! Look! Just beyond our good friend Peter . . . the gate! Oooo-eee! Freedom, just around the corner. Oooo-eee."

Peter hops off the wheelbarrow, "runs, runs, runs." My father races fingers up my bare arm. "Peter slips underneath the gate and is safe at last, outside that old devil McGregor's garden.

"Whew. Yessiree. Our boy Peter's back on the nice soft sand on the floor of the deep rabbit hidey-hole." His mother, in her blue dress, white apron, is stirring, stirring, and we're stirring with her (my father grips my hand, makes it stir with his) a four-star carrot dinner in her red pot.

Out from the dining room, my mother walks by in high-heeled shoes, comes to my father's side, reaches down from where she stands in lamplight (which turns her skin the rich gold of egg yolk), and touches my father's shoulder.

I sink into the shade my father's chin makes, out of her sight. I twist myself tighter, take his heartbeats into my ear, adjust my breathing to his, draw breath when he does, let go when he does.

She is saying something I can't hear. They laugh. The laughter dwindles out into the room. She fools with the flowers, straightens stems, says "This bunch is tired-looking," then leans over, smelling of her face powder, hugs his neck, touches noses with him, Eskimo-style, kisses his forehead, leaves her red lips on the furrows.

The wind works tree branches up and down, scratches branches against our windows. Her high heels click down the hall; she sings, "Have you seen but a bright lily grow, before rude hands have touched it?"

I reach up, grab his nose, then squirm, turn around, get on my knees, put my arms around his neck. I see myself in his eyes, seeing me. I erase my mother's lipstick, rub my cheek against his whiskery cheek, kiss him on his soft mouth. Our kiss tastes of the sheen of dinner still on his lips. I want to climb far back into his mouth where the gold glints, be swallowed in him, drown, be carried forever, swimming next to his beating heart.

He clasps my wrist in his enormous hand, rearranges me--flushed, sweating, even my bare feet are red--in his lap. From the table he slides off and puts up in front of us the largest of the three books. Open, the book spreads from knee to knee across his lap. Along the green endpapers, elephants are tailed up--27 elephants on each page. We count them.

My father and mother brought this book back from "la belle France, gay Paree," brought it back on a ship before the war began, before I was a thought, even a twinkle in my father's eye. "When you were not." He cups his hand beneath my chin, draws my face up to meet his.

"We could not have known we would have you, Deliciousness. We might have had someone else, another girl, a trouser-wearing boy. We might have had only puppies, hunting dogs, blue tick hounds. We might have had only tomatoes in the garden. We are very glad, however, that you were born. We are glad." He nuzzles my nose with his nose.

"In the great forest a little elephant is born. His name is Babar. His mother loves him very much."

Under palm trees, Babar's mother sits in green grass, uses her trunk to rock the hammock in which baby Babar sleeps.

The green forest rises toward me, shuts out my mother, the wind, the war; it eclipses--finally--Peter Rabbit's father curled atop peas and smothered under pie dough, baking, baking.

"Babar is riding so so happily jiggety-jig on his mother's back when a wicked, wicked, oh so very wicked hunter lurking behind bushes shoots at them." Red fire spurts from the hunter's gun. Babar's mother topples.

"The hunter has killed Babar's mother! Damned shame."

Tears stream from Babar's eyes. My father touches Babar's tears, runs their course with a fingertip. My father's mother died when he was six, and Black Mary, who by this time is readying the kitchen for tomorrow morning's breakfast, took care of him when he was a boy as she takes care of me now. ". . . and Babar cried." My father's hand wipes an imaginary tear (I know without looking) from his own eye. Then he wipes an imaginary tear from my eye.

Babar escapes the hunter, arrives in the big city, is found by the Old Lady. It becomes the story of my life. It is what's happening in our house. So that when the Old Lady gives Babar her purse and tells him to buy himself clothes, I dress myself in his green suit, derby hat, shoes with spats.

At the Old Lady's mansion every night they eat magnificent dinners. My father licks his lips, pats my belly, says, "You and I, we'll cook dinner for Mr. Babar."

I say roast beef, baked potato. He says, "Well, then, surely Yorkshire pudding, vats of gravy, a Bordeaux."

We lift our forks to our mouths. We smack our lips and use our napkins to dab off gravy.

"Now," my father says, "we must put Mr. Babar to bed." Babar is tucked snug under green and red covers. He unfurls his trunk across a bright plump pillow.

One day, Babar and the Old Lady are taking a walk--"their daily constitutional"--when two little elephants run up the street toward them. "It's Arthur and Celeste, my little cousins!"

"Ar-tur," my father says, "Ar-tur."

"They frappent les mains. Frogtalk," he says, "for applauding."

"Frogs," his voice rises, he's laughing, "are despicably dirty, their women do not shave either their legs or under their arms. Their mouths are covens where garlic and snails meet.

"Your father," he says now so loudly I know he's saying it for my mother to hear, "could never love a French woman."

He clears his voice, jostles me, whispers so close to my ear his lower lip brushes my ear's tip. "But, back in the forest, the elephants look high and low for Arthur and Celeste and--alas--cannot find them.

"A bird flying over the city spies the elephants and flies--flap, flap, flap--back to the forest to tell the news. The elephants' mothers rush to the city to recover their runaway children.

"The mother elephants are furious at their baby runaways. See," my father taps the angry V's above the black dots of elephant eyes, "these dreadful elephant frowns!"

Babar goes back to the forest with his cousins, and kisses the Old Lady good-bye.

"He will never forget her," reads my father. "Never."

The very day that Babar and his cousins leave for the forest the elephants' king eats a bad mushroom. It poisons him--"Quite a bellyache an elephant gets!"--and he dies. After the funeral, the oldest elephant of all announces, "Let's have Babar be our king."

"If I become your king," says Babar. "Celeste will be your queen."

From our chair we call out, my father and I: "Long live Queen Celeste! Long live King Babar!"

For the elephant wedding I can be flower girl. My father reaches across us, pulls two stems of lily of the valley from the vase, and hands them, dribbling water, to me.

"Oh, let's see, who, oh social elite, oh creme de la creme, who has been invited to the great wedding!"

Giraffes, dromedaries, ostrich, monkey, snake in the grass, deer, leaping lizards, lions, rhino, hippo. We add the friendly cow, all brown and white, who gives us milk with all her milk-bag might.

Grrr. Whinny. Quack. Oink. Moo. Hsssss. Meeow.

My mother stands between dining and living rooms. "Don't make her wild, so close to bedtime."

After the marriage vows are spoken, Babar and Celeste are crowned king and queen. At the grand ball, across two pages, are elephants "shaking," my father says, "a veritable leg. Doing the lindy hop."

My father takes my free hand, kisses it. "The elephants and tous les animaux will long remember this great celebration." His curls are damp on his forehead. We are warm from each other. I am limp, as full of happiness as the glass milk jugs on our porch in the morning will be full of milk.

One arm around my middle, he uses his free hand to push us up, shakily, to his feet, and standing, straightening, he deftly turns me ("You, my Turkish delight, my saltwater taffy, weigh no more than the penny we pay for penny candy"), lifts me up until my head rests on his shoulder. He dips me down to poke the lilies of the valley from my flower-girl bouquet back into their vase.

His penny loafers are far beneath me, and I am nested in his arms many miles above the oak floorboards. I press my forehead into his neck, his breath is humid on my cheek. Bobbing with each of his steps, I am going where he takes me. I am his passenger. "You've got a first-class ticket," he whispers as we head down the hall where at the end my mother waits beneath framed paintings that hold trees and a brown barn hovered over by a hoot owl. Glancing across his shoulder, I look toward my mother, who with her red lips warns him again that so close to bedtime I must not be made wild. With her, she says, you must tiptoe on eggshells.

I sink into the bed, fall into its deep softness. He wraps me--groggy--in my blanket. He agrees with me. I do have an elephant trunk. It must indeed be unfurled, laid out before me on a goose-feather pillow we place on my stomach.

Not long after that spring, my mother tossed my father out. ("Didn't he--admit it--rule the roost?" Her eyebrows arch. "Wasn't I his doormat?") But none of this matters now, or does not matter that much.

Every year on my birthday he would call me from somewhere to say, "Your mother came to me on the steps of the law school to tell me that the doctor said we were going to have a child." He'd add, "Knowing that, I gave my all. I was number-one man in the bar exams." Then he would recount the circumstances of my birth--how the nuns hovered over my mother while she sweated buckets and how she strained until my head emerged. ("You had your lovely curls.")

He would say, "You know, kitten, I wept with joy."

For all that, we were not together. But I carried in my ear the memory of his voice reading to me and I was comforted.

I read to my own children and did so, for my own pleasure, long after both were able to read for themselves. In my reading I could hear my father. His younger granddaughter pronounces "Ar-tur" precisely as he said it. She's out of high school, married, lives in a cracker-box apartment. She keeps her stuffed Babar and Celeste on her bed and regularly undresses them and washes their clothes with her own. His older granddaughter has in her bookcase her childhood copy of The Poky Little Puppy, Peter Rabbit, and her Potter favorite, Jemima Puddle Duck. She has, too, my father's gardening books, and out in her flower beds she digs weeds from around her peonies, her lilies of the valley, with tools my father gave her.

At 75 he still mourned his mother. He dreamed about her often. Stood like Babar in the window, remembered her. Saw her in her coffin. Dreamed of my mother. The house we'd lived in, its waxen oak floorboards, his chair. On his battered IBM Selectric he typed out a letter to me every day. He would write his dreams in his letters.

My father has been dead more than a year. Looking at the postmark on an envelope addressed to me in his hand and knowing what time his mailman came, I figure he must have written to me and then, as was his habit, walked, whistling, up the rutted path between apple trees to the mailbox. He must have done this two to three hours before his heart stopped, before he fell over by the wood stove in the cramped office he kept next to the house.

From the emergency room, my father's doctor (a friend with whom he collected fern spores and after whose bosomy wife he lusted) called me. "He was already down when they found him. He was DOA." He hesitated, and in the ear pressed against my telephone I heard other telephones ring and a distant siren. I thought, we never got his recipe for chili sauce. I never found a catalog he'd wanted so he could order bearded irises. Then the doctor spoke again, "He had such an expression of surprise on his face when they brought him in."

Every day, for a week after that, letters delayed by the post office came. I still can't read them.

Last fall marked the first year he did not push his rusted wheelbarrow into the orchard to bring back his Northern Spy and Jonathan and McIntosh apples. This spring will mark the second year he will not poke White Cascade petunia seeds into potting soil heaped up in his greenhouse benches, will not set out tomato plants, tuck their wispy roots stuck with peat moss into garden dirt and draw warm, crumbly earth around the green stems. It was he who taught me to plunge an inch of tomato stem into the earth to encourage deep rooting. He will not see his tomatoes bloom.

I am no longer young and not yet old. I carry in my ear, carry to this day, the memory of his voice reading to me. Verses recited in his supple courtroom bass, stories embellished with his peculiar grace notes told--tell themselves to me. Sighting a Beatrix Potter drawing will place me, even now, if for only a moment, deep in the burrow of my father's lap. He puts out his hand. "Dreamgirl, Dreamgirl," he says and folds my fingers in his palm. The poky little puppy--white, pure white, ravishing--gleams out off the book's cover, a night-light, a lighthouse guiding from far above my father's voice to come down to me: Mrs. McGregor will now now, not ever, at the last minute turn Peter Rabbit himself into a pie; Babar and Celeste always, again and again, somehow no matter what, marry happily, and Babar, as he promised, never forgets the Old Lady.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

Add a comment