Thursday, February 12, 2009

Old Bill



I've been thinking a lot about my dad lately. February 10th was his birthday; he would have been 89. We weren't exactly close -- at least for the 35 years or so before his death, which tends to make a parent-child death experience tricky, to say the least. He was a difficult man. It's cliche to say he did the best he could as a parent, but that's true in his case. You don't learn a lot about parenting when your father abandons you during the Depression, your mother dies of cancer, your sister marries a drunk, and you are supporting your family working in the steel mill at 15. That he stuck with us, his own family, despite the melancholy distance he wore around him like a cloak and his inflexible ability to hold a grudge -- was nothing short of amazing. He was imperfect, and not in an endearing way. And he loved us. It wasn't an easy combination.

As I get further away from his death three years ago, I find myself remembering the "good stuff" more and more. It's especially those years when I was a little girl, a time when his spirit seemed a little lighter and his heart hadn't started to go out -- in more ways than one -- that come back to me in little snippets. Here's my dad on a wintry Sunday, smoking his pipe while he flips a steak on the old refrigerator grate he'd set up in our living room fireplace. There he is in the car, letting out a high-pitched shriek at the lady stopped in the car next to us at a stoplight. She'd made the fatal blunder of going out in in public in her hair curlers. He detested curlers, and would shriek at the sight of them, as if a snake had slithered across his narrow Irish feet. My best friend and I, who often caught a ride with him to school, thought this was the most hilarious thing in the world.

This morning I remembered him as he was on a spring day like this one. I am riding with him across rural Virginia. We pass a shack that's covered with dozens of hubcats, gathered, no doubt, from the sharp curve up ahead in the road -- a notorious spot for accidents. My dad starts making up a song about them. I chime in. We change a few things, try them out, and there it is -- our driving song. We sang it for years, much to the dismay of my mother and brother. I remembered it today and sang it again exactly as we had back then, off-key and twangy. And I remembered probably the best thing that my dad gave me -- the give and take of making something up a with a child. A story or a song. He was aces at that, an art form only given to a few of us, and he passed it on to me. I'll always be grateful for that.

Driving Song

When it's pothole time in Pennsylvania,
That's when I'll come back to you.
I was driving along, singing a song
When suddenly my bottom fell through.
In a hospital loft, in cotton so soft,
They put me together with glue.
That's why...
When it's pothole time in Pennsylvania,
That's when I'll come back to yooooooouuuuu.

3 comments:

painter girl said...

Oh Anne!
What a lovely post!
Thanks for sharing something so personal. And I love the song.

lisa schamess said...

beautifully written, beautifully, beautifully remembered.

Blue Lass said...

Hey, I always thought that was a REAL song. As someone I know used to say, "Sehr tricky..."