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Tuesday
Dec072010

The Things He Didn't Do

 My father’s final gift was to release us all from Father’s Day. He didn’t golf, or hunt, or fish, or grill, or anything else Hallmark says fathers are supposed to do. He worked, and he… worked,  and then there was the very terrible music, first produced himself on an accordion, then, as time went on, carefully rated on Ray Conniff CD liners and compiled into mix tapes.  He read books and took naps and said “Here I come, like a herd of turtles!” when moving a single Monopoly square. He did proper West Side things like watch football and bowl on Thursday nights, after which he and his team adjourned to the Bridgetown Skyline Chili.  He dealt jumbo poker at the summer parish festival. That’s about it. There’s a lot Ron Ellis didn’t do.

Here’s what else my father didn’t do:

He did not look at me, constantly trailing destruction and antidepressants, and say, “Why can’t you be like your dependable, likable, employable, kind, useful CPA of a sister?”

He did not throw away a single object pertaining to his four years in the Air Force—not a scrap. He saved it all, from his uniform to the bus tickets which carried him to basic training to meal vouchers for a long-closed mess hall, as though terrified that someone would take it all away, make the whole four years un-happen.

He did not perch on the concrete steps of our little Cape Cod house with a shotgun in his lap when we presented gentlemen callers for his inspection. He allowed us to fashion and wield our own weaponry when we erred in this arena. In the end we both picked husbands who had received military rifle training.

He did not budge a ten-mile radius from where the flatboat stopped and dumped off his ancestors on the banks of the Ohio. He died facing the same river, watching the waters pass quietly below. 

But he didn’t exactly stay put, either. As it happens, appliance parts sales is actually quite glamorous, and there wasn’t a hemisphere he didn’t touch, a major port of call which wasn’t subjected to his waffle print Whirlpool promotional robe. And when the travelling was nearly done, with his hair gone and his skin like crumpled wax paper, I tuned the TV to a documentary about the Colts leaving Baltimore, which made him cry. So I switched to a documentary about Australia, which also made him cry. “Sydney is a very nice town,” he said. “I liked Sydney.”  Shedding tears was another thing my father did not do. So I turned off the TV and we both cried together, about Sydney and the Colts leaving Baltimore.

He did not disown us when we dropped the softball or kicked a goal for the other team. He wandered the sidelines picking weeds, but another thing he did not do was miss our horrible, endless games. And concerts.  And Girl Scout square dances.  And banquets.  And plays, and readings, and baccalaureates, and book signings.

He did not leave my mother without a refrigerator. “I’d see widows come into Pearsol’s with these dishwasher parts older than you,” he told me a few weeks before he died. “So tell Mother to pick a new refrigerator, because she hates the one in there now. Any model, any brand.”  This was appliance Armageddon for a man who slipped away from every college tour my sister and I ever took so as to ascertain the worthiness of the cooktops in the dormitory common rooms (“Magic Chef. You’re not going here.”)  And so, pushing 70, my mother purchased her first appliance without anybody else's guidance. The refrigerator salesman at Sears who rang us up had met my father behind Pearsol’s counter.

He did not scrub hard when he washed our thin baby hair, forming it into devil horns instead.

He was not hurt when we rejected the Ray Conniff. Instead he blew up the 8-track with “Music Box Dancer” and the Oak Ridge Boys, and while my mother did the dishes, he perched our feet over his and taught us to cha-cha on the thick grey carpet. Later, he put on a hated sportcoat and my sister and I put on our best poofed bangs and we went to the Mother of Mercy Father-Daughter Dance, where the music was Student Council-approved, and the dancing wasn’t nearly so much fun. 

A month after my father's death, I found myself blasting Michael Buble from my laptop as I scrubbed the dinner plates, feet in an unconscious four and one-two-three, and I knew that the bottoms of my shoes were somehow still resting atop my father's.

He did not attempt to cram his daughters into the business he built from his own cardboard box sweat and Maytag tears. He could spit out the name, rank, and serial number of a dryer just by looking at the drive belt. Once I threw away a DustBuster because the bag was full of bugs I’d vacuumed up and I didn’t want to see what would happen when I opened it. He knew this. He said nothing.

He did not forgive the Catholic Church for Vatican II, ever. This is how the end of a proper Vatican II Mass goes:

PRIEST:  The Mass is ended. Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

CONGREGATION:  Thanks be to God.

And this was how the end of Mass with my father went:

PRIEST:  The Mass is ended—

MY FATHER:  THANKS BE TO GOD.

But yes, he was at Mass to say this, for he hoped, on some level, that the same Church which broke his heart might somehow mend those of his daughters, and so there he sat, year after year, in a plain brown pew with no incense trapped in its grains.

Exactly once, despite sitting next to him at Mass every single week of my Catholic life, I heard my father speak of God in Colorado. “You see God’s handiwork here,” he once announced during a family ride. And twenty years later, the very last solid food he swallowed was Communion from his daughter’s hand instead of a priest’s-- half of my own host, issued from a scrubby envelope instead of a grand golden tabernacle. What made him take me up on the offer remains strictly between him and whatever he saw from the back of that horse.

A fire raged through that same forest a few years back, stripping the pines from the mountainsides, scattering the hummingbirds and reducing the wildflowers to atoms and ash.  The chemotherapy burned through my father’s body in the same way, leaving him all skeleton and battered spirit.  I spread aloe on his back while talking bright nonsense, the jut of every bone beneath my hands. 

But I will tell you something about my father and that Colorado forest.  I drove to the ranch a few weeks after his chemo began, and jumbles of naked rock hung in angry angles over the valley.   And I saw something I never could when the sky was full of soaring pines; I saw fingernail-sized aspen leaves and a furiously determined cactus where twisted roots and tired leaves once were—single-minded threads of life which did not succumb to the flames.

And of all the things my father did not do, this was perhaps the bravest, and the best.

 

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