"A Father's Daughter"
Dad drives the Chevy Chevette, one side’s wheels almost on the earth of the farmer’s adjacent field and the other side on the middle of the lane to avoid the ruts. We bump along past carpenters’ square, Queen Anne’s lace, and milkweed—plants that Dad recognizes, and some which I’ll find in our wildflower book. The house has a long lane and a stream with cattails. My twin and I are ten. My sister is six. My youngest brother two. It is the summer before my fifth-grade year. We are leaving our last trailer and are in a house again, moving to southeastern Iowa. After the thump, thump of the plank bridge over the stream, where the culvert from the field drains, we surge up to the leaning barn. An actual weather vane with a rooster tip stands on top.
To the right is a one-level house without basement or attic. An oak and maple tower on either side—with the trees and the narrow windows that crank out, it remains cool and dark most days. Dad installs a 50-gallon barrel wood stove in the living room, set on bricks, as we had in the trailer. He builds closets in our rooms, and I imagine the door to Narnia. The house is 800-feet square.
Here on this rural property, when he says his supervisors at work don’t like him, he can commute to another hospital in another town to be a nurse. It’s the tenth time we’ve moved since I was a baby, and we’re done. My siblings and I like this acreage—watching crawdads in the creek and walking outside in our PJs to disappear into the weeds and have no one see us. At dusk, we catch fire flies rising like smoke and are surprised that they are not perfect orbs, our skulls reverberate with the racket of cicadas, and our feet dampen with the heavy dew that rises up with whiffs of the septic tank.
When Dad’s awake, he is often on one side of the couch, drinking coffee out of a camping mug and reading. If we interrupt him, he might say, “Go away, you draw flies.” When he’s not on the couch, he’s wants something done. He walks heavier, and his lips thicken with anger. We’re in his way, and we’re not fast enough. Mom sends my twin out to work with him on the car, and we can hear him holler: “That’s not what I asked for! How many times do I have to tell you.…” She hopes that he and later my little brother will be able to handle the words that are flung like stones better than we girls.
It’s my job to wash dishes, and I’m pokey. Dad checks the dishwater temperature with his fingers, drains it, fills the metal sink with steaming water and plunges my hands into it: “There! That’s what it’s supposed to feel like.” After nightfall one evening, he sends my twin and me out to harvest the sweet corn with our machetes. Sometimes on a Saturday morning, if we have errands to start, he walks into our rooms banging a big spoon against a cast iron pan, laughing until I once screamed, “I hate you! I hate you!”
At supper, though, he’ll tell stories about camping with his brother as a kid. In the evening, if driving home from somewhere, he responds to our begging and sings Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” or Stan Jone’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” I lean back for the last one and watch the stars.
One morning of my freshman year of high school, Dad takes me in early to town. I’m making up an absence in P.E. at the indoor swimming pool. The gravel down our four-block lane crunches as he avoids dips, and the rocks spit in the rural road until we reach concrete heading into town, houses and not farms. We pass a residential development, where the girl I think is the epitome of cool, the future of editor of the school newspaper, lives.
Normally I dread P.E., but in swimming I had grace—not my flat, angular board of a body trying to fall out of the aim of a dodge ball. Once when twirling in the deep end by myself, I looked up and saw the old janitor high in the balcony, sitting gazing before shuffling back to work.
My dad isn’t saying much this morning. If he’s in a good mood, he talks a lot. If he’s not, it’s best for me to keep my mouth shut. He starts to speak. He’s glad to have this opportunity alone. There’s something he needs to tell me. He’s telling each of us kids separately. My stomach tenses. He says: “I’m an alcoholic. I have been for years.”
For some kids, this might not have been such a revelation, but for our household where alcohol indicated your complicity with “the world,” it was as if a malicious demigod had taken an axe to our being—and the roots, a façade, shattered on impact. Weeks later when he “fifth-stepped” himself with us by direction of his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, we would see how badly we had been duped. He wasn’t just an alcoholic who masqueraded with a different name in bars when he was late from work, he was a smoker—another evangelical taboo, and he got high on drugs he filched from his job. Everything was explained: his explosions of anger when interrupted—he was hung-over, the cigarette smoke on his coat and the butts in the yard left by his “friends”—he was smoking during the day after his night shift, the moving from hospital to hospital—his supervisors started to wonder about the missing medication.
When your dad says that he was part of the hippie culture for a while, or that his first hard drugs were in Vietnam, those are all excuses. Excuses didn’t work for you, and you weren’t going to accept them for him. Nothing like this happened to people who were Christians, I thought. My eyes stinging from chlorine, one arm stretched out—my Dad is—and as it pushed back and the other heaved forward—an alcoholic.
Fast forward to my early thirties. God is hiding from me. I’m depressed. When I take a shower, I imagine my body dissolving into liquid spheres reflecting the chrome of the spigot, the dull white of the walls, and rushing to meet the tub’s floor, then racing down the drain’s whirl.
I’ve returned home from Saturday evening church, another night where my act of faith is showing up, sitting there. We had watched an internet clip about a barrel-chested father who pushes and pulls his son with spastic paralysis and cerebral palsy through triathlons. I shut my apartment door, and I lose it. The lights are too bright. My existence an insult. I switch them off. I muffle ragged cries to not disturb my neighbors or the regular partiers who pass my door. The dark has angles, the corners of this half buried square box--a “garden-level” apartment--rotating and stabbing out over my head. I call for help.
My friend Judy lives a mile and a half away and arrives within minutes; she’s phoned another friend, who will be there momentarily. Judy turns one or two lights on but not many. The effect is warm and yellow. I hug my knees. I tell them that I would have been more loveable to my parents, made more sense if I had been bent and folded permanently instead of the little loner girl who became an angry teenager. The world will disappoint you but family shouldn’t, especially not your kids. I had absorbed this—something was wrong with me. I disappointed all the time.
Judy kneels next to me. She takes my right hand and presses it to my sternum. She prays that I’ll have a sense of being, that all the water droplets will recognize who they are and know the wholeness of being Heather, God’s daughter.
It was Judy who at the end of college told me to engage with the world by engaging with God. “Stop dialoguing with yourself,” she said. “Dialogue with him.” She gave me Practicing the Presence of God. Brother Lawrence was a Catholic, which raised my eyebrows, but his words light with everyday living floated to the top of my life’s current, gave me something to rest my submerged dog strokes. All the talking to myself, the mental review of my interactions with others—the questioning of how I should have said something, how I should have been, I began to direct to God. “That was hard,” I tell him internally, a lot.
I had lived assuming that the people I met each day judged me, found fault, and were secretly against me. It would take time to name the image of God on all human beings. It took time to treat others with a measured trust and see them in their brokenness when they did give offense.
Charmed by Brother Lawrence’s simple words, I started dialoguing with God as a twenty-two-year old. I would clunk the door shut on my Ford Escort and walk into a Target. Back then with a pennypincher Mom, Target felt to me like the toiletry store for the stylish set. I liked that boxes of additional items didn’t loom above me as in Walmart. But I hated to be there alone. So vulnerable, so many different people, and I was afraid I looked sloppy in my oversized shirt, inept, unable to find my feminine pads and favorite pens and get out. I’d have to ask for help and feel stupid. That day was different. I had someone with me who didn’t care if I repeatedly twittered to him that I couldn’t find those pens, who was humored that when I found the pens, I set them on top of the pads as if they could hide the blue container. The Chinese red of Target did indicate happiness that evening. The banners and signs beckoned at the shiny packaging. I could do this. I could browse for a while. I could admire the moms with their recent haircuts and well-jeaned kids, passing the college guys stocking up on chips and salsa. My Heavenly Father was with me.