My forearms freckle on the underside in the summer, just the way my dad’s did. I loved everything about my dad when I was a kid; his crazy speckled hazel eyes, his dark hair with the ring of baldness right at the top, the way he’d push his lower lip out when he was thinking, the way he’d fidget with his hands as we’d sit at the dinner table long after everyone else had left.
He ate slow. I ate slow. Or maybe he stayed at the table with me as I ate slow, procrastinating the eating of Lima beans with their wet-chalk texture, or green beans that were closer to gray, or peas. He made up stories to entice me to eat my vegetables, elaborate battle narratives in which I was responsible for cleaning up the dead soldiers.
I don’t know whether he told any Lima bean stories. If he did, they weren’t successful.
His hands were a particular focus for me. As hard as he worked on weekends, the manual labor he enlisted the boys into, and sometimes the girls, he kept his hands impeccably neat, giving himself weekly manicures at the table. He’d soak his fingers in warm water, push the cuticles back, trim hangnails. As a salesman he had to make a good impression in every detail, and he said people noticed ragged and rough hands right away. I’d sit with him, watching the ritual of keeping himself presentable, marking every move. I still keep a nail clipper wherever I am; purse, bedside table, desk, coffee table, so I can trim cuticles and hangnails, so I can make a good impression. I have said I keep my nails short for piano, but really, it’s because of my dad.
The way he’d sit at the table was so identifiable: slightly forward-leaning, one hand on his glass–even when he wasn’t drinking–the other holding a balled-up napkin. He sat like this all the time, and I was charmed to see this photo of him in the Marines (age around 20) sitting exactly the same way. He’s front left.
I’ve seen other men sit this way and the resemblance always hits me right in the chest, even before my dad died. Maybe it’s because sitting at the table was my time with him, time spent only with me, quietly talking about music or peas or books. I had that part of him, at least, the pensive and garrulous person looking for ears to fill with thoughts and stories. And I ate them up, every dead pea, and adored my dad, back when he wasn’t disappointed in me.
His anger showed at different moments, rage spouting like a stepped-on tube of toothpaste. Something pushed him to the brink of over-fullness, probably something normal, then BAM! one fleck of minuscule annoyance would send him off, manicured hands pounding the table, making dishes bounce, hearts race in fear. The lead-up wasn’t so obvious, as it is with some people who walk around in a haze of irritation. His anger would catch me by surprise, a whiplash fury that undid all his gentleness in a flash. Everything he’d built in those quiet moments had to be collected and set aside until it looked safe to approach again, safe to sit quietly by, safe to eat slowly and listen for the next story, safe to be near enough to touch the strong frightening hands.
This is clearly the origins of my belief that I had a surpassing ability to manage difficult people. If I was patient enough, and kind enough, and quiet enough, even the most dangerous of creatures would find stillness with me. I was Androcles, the gentle remover of the thorn from the lion’s paw; it was the thorn that was the problem, not the vicious lion. This is the kind of belief that can lead to lifelong relationship problems, from co-dependence to self-neglect to extreme escapism. If you spend all your energy watching out for bared fangs and balled fists, your brain becomes fixed on that eventuality, an obsessive watchdog ready to react at any movement.
I’d like to hold on just to the moments before the pounding of fists, before the raised voices, but I don’t know how. I suspect now that my father had PTSD from having been in the Marines in Korea. All the symptoms line up for that. That thought gives me some compassion for what he was going through, all these stressors and no way to mitigate his response. Finding an explanation for his behavior unravels only part of this knot; now I have to figure out how to separate his anger from those sweet moments he gave me so generously. The hours in the car listening to WFMT with my father explaining the libretto to dozens of operas, or the evenings at the table while everyone else watched TV and we talked literature and stories and music. Those are the pieces I want to keep, and let the anger that clouds my memory just melt away.
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