Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The way his cough is so deep and sounds like it comes from the bottom of the earth. I can feel the rhythms like I’m sitting next to him, like we’re sharing the vinyl bench seat in the old white truck. That cough has been in the soundtrack of my life since they handed me to my dad for the first time.  
The way he lights a cigarette, holds the ash over the bowl. The way his hands felt over mine, moving my fingers over and over into the shapes of a bowline knot, until I got it. I would hang off the tie down rope with my whole strength, to tighten the rope enough for that knot. 
How his voice is always the first voice you hear in Happy Birthday. That joyful baritone that feels like it should always be singing “A Bicycle Built for Two.”  The way he gets tears in his eyes every time he sings, no matter what he's singing. It wasn't until college that I realized I'd inherited that. I can't sing without crying either. 
The way he lived his life like an embodiment of Gallant from Goofus and Gallant. A teenager stealing a boat motor and then sneaking back the next night to return it.  Never going into the woods without a bag to bring back all the trash he found.  Asking politely. Saying thank you. Being prepared.  In his hands, popular 1950s virtues from a film strip, Wholesomeness, Generosity, Curiosity, Perseverance… they were stripped of irony or cynicism and they were just GOOD and exciting and maybe something that if you were really doing them right, could get you killed. 
The way dogs love him. Just walk right up and roll over. Look at him like he hung the moon and also the moon is made of peanut butter and leftover ground beef. 
The way his temper can flash out like lightening. So shocking and terrifying. The way he is so so careful with his body when he is mad. So careful not to touch anyone in anger. 
His storytelling. He never brags, and you can never recreate the way he tells it, even if you’ve heard it 20 times.  I can tell the story about the old man who lived in the hollow cypress tree full of Louis Lamour novels in the Neches swamp, or the man who raised the otter pups like his own children, and it sounds outlandish. I’ve heard the story of bringing the sailboat back from Isla through the hurricane, sleeping in shifts, clipping themselves in so they didn’t get swept into the ocean with the swells… I can tell it, but I can’t make you believe it.
But he tells a story and it’s so great that the fact that he gave Ken Kesey bus fair home from a show is incidental, a side note, hardly worth mentioning.  Helping Bonner Denton machine parts to break the land speed record on the salt flats is a footnote, a diversion from another story, or possibly an illustration he’s using to teach someone how to weld. 
The way he listens to Kind of Blue. With his eyes closed, tapping his fingers, smoke wreathing his bent head.
The way he washes a load of laundry - taking a scrap rag and running it around the lid of the washer each time so there’s never any buildup. The way he sews on buttons, cooks gumbo, tacks a sailboat, brushes epoxy onto a hull- so efficient you don’t even notice what efficiency is until you move away from home.
The constant ebb and flow of broken-spined paperbacks through his house, always a stack on the coffee table, a stack by the bed, a crate of them in boat galley, and a few for his lunchbox, which would ever after retain the smell of the black coffee and apple they'd spent the day with. 
The fact that I can’t remember ever waking up before him, until he got sick. If I called at 5 in the morning he would be up, making coffee, frying bacon and eggs, planning to put the coolers in the truck, or get some seedlings in the ground, or take the cement mixer to a friends' house.
The way his giant, blunt tipped, scarred hands, were also the ones we went to when the tiny silver chains on our necklaces were twisted, or we had splinters in our toes, or we found a baby bird, fallen out of a nest.  How they were capable of such delicate intricate work. 
The way I can count on one hand the times I heard him say something negative about anyone he knew. Ever. 
The way there is no part of this world that hasn't been touched by him. How I look at birds in flight, or water in a creek, how I wash dishes, thread a needle, even the expressions of stubbornness on my children's faces are all cast from his mold.
The way his face looked three days ago, his bones standing out, the shape of his skull so clear. His skin white and papery. He looked like an icon. A medieval saint.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Summer in my childhood meant spending more nights in a tent than a bed. It meant waking up at first light, smelling coffee dripping through a handkerchief over a fire, walking across a sandbar to find the paths of the creatures who passed by our tent in the night, pressed into the wet sand. A raccoon’s stack of shucked mussel shells, next to his five fingered hand print, filling with creek water. 

My first clear memory is of being in a canoe, still an only child then, sitting low in the middle seat, balanced on a life jacket, straining to see ahead of us. A curve of the creek and then, caught in a backwash of brambles and flotsam, my beloved beach ball.  There had been wind in the night, and it had blown away, gone forever, according to both mom and dad. And yet there it was. My parents paddled over, dad steering from the back, and mom probably holding onto the back of my life   jacket, keeping my two year old body, bursting with exuberant beach ball reunion joy, firmly in the canoe. I know that grip pretty well myself now, from the other end.
I remember the feeling, the miraculous joy - what was lost is found.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I remember coming home from DARE in the 4th or 5th grade, having learned for the first time that having a can of beer between your legs was not only not required to drive a truck, it was actually pretty frowned upon. 
Trucks marked the seasons - the jobs. A new plant job meant a new white truck, sometimes with the name of the company, more often not.
The constant is the workhorse, the old brown Chevrolet with the welded rack for holding canoes, the tackle boxes, the scars from motors and gear in the back. I stuck a big gold and blue K on the back of the truck, when I got into the high school I wanted to go to. I was so proud, and they’d given them out at parents night or something. Dad was mad, of course. My mom said dad was embarrassed because it was an expensive school that the people he worked with wouldn’t send their kids to. I believed her at the time, but now, having kids, I imagine it was a simpler matter of just “Don’t stick things on things that don’t belong to you.” Of course that giant sticker is still there. Advertising my old high school while that truck has been parked at chemical plants, river inlets, boat launches, grocery stores and the houses of friendly pot dealers.  
The truck smells like dogs, marlboros, creek water, spilled beer, fish guts, and fiberglass. The radio has been stuck on the local NPR station for 15 years, which plays mostly opera during the days. A mix tape I made in the 7th grade is stuck in the stereo. The windows roll halfway down and stick and the AC stopped working when I was in high school. 
Which never really mattered because usually when I was in the truck we were going somewhere — crabbing at the jetty, sailing at sabine pass, taking the canoe through the logging cuts to Bird’s Eye Lake.   You can’t complain about the heat, even to yourself, when salt marsh wind is blowing your hair in your mouth and a big wet sandy dog is drooling on your lap. 
I built arm muscles levering that damn Old Town canoe over my head, popping the lip over the edge of the rusted welded rack, knowing my dad was doing 90% of the lifting and I was still barely keeping up my end of the deal. 
How can I believe in the impermanence of that body? In its suffering? When I saw that balletic bend, dip, swoop of inhuman strength a thousand times, countless times. Tanin brown water sloshing from the bottom to run down our arms where we gripped the gunnels. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013


As children, we learned caution in curiosity. Ask one question, a simple question, like maybe “Could you please pass the salt?” and all of a sudden you’d be involuntarily learning about 2 stroke engines, celestial navigation, photosynthesis, protective coloration in trout, every step in the refining process between crude oil and the ink they use for newsprint… 

We learned a glazed-eyed defense mechanism. A nod and a “tell me more” kind of look. The “no, I’m totally tracking with you” smile that actually meant, “you lost me back at ‘hydrocarbons in the cracking unit’”
Now, as an adult, if I know I can’t be invested and present in learning something new, I jump in and cut people off. I say to Chase “No. Stop. I can’t understand that right now.” 
Then, as a kid, I just didn’t want to disappoint him. I loved the way he concentrated on me, explaining something he wanted me to know, sitting patiently in a sloshing boat, pointing at the blue heron, moving my head with his big hands until I was looking in the right place, waiting, until I finally, finally saw the wings. 


I remember it as a hurricane, although it was probably just a tropical storm. I don’t remember if it even had a name. The eye was over us, over our neighborhood, and the sky looked amazing - bruised and purple on the edges, and bright blue overhead. Dad said, "Well girls! Are you coming or not?!" and so we hopped on our bikes and rode down to the river. Dad hooked the dog’s leash over his handlebars and had him run along beside us. We were exploring under a bridge when the eyewall hit.  Dad tied to dog’s leash to one pylon, and he had me and Anne hold onto another. We curved our arms around the concrete and ducked our heads into him. He stood over and behind us, with his arms gripping as far around the pylon as he could. We stood and held and shivered in the rain and the wind- sounding like a freight train around us, trying to pull us away. 
I remember worrying about our dog, and I remember experiencing that sensation — helpless, frustrated, terrified, exhilarated, safe. That so typifies being my father’s daughter. The feeling of trying to keep a sailboat upright by clenching the gunwale with my hand. Of trying to steer a canoe away from a cypress knee with the power of wishing.  Thinking, are grownups supposed to do doughnuts in grocery store parking lots? Of thinking, over and over so many times, you are leaning too far out, we are going too fast, we are going to crash. But knowing, deep in my bones, that my dad was there.  It didn’t mean we wouldn’t crash. But it meant he would save us when we did. What could a hurricane do?
And anyway we got new bikes out of the deal. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

my valentine

I was just getting over strep (3rd time this year, if you're counting) when Wren started saying her stomach hurt. Then when I was at work on Wednesday, Ben apparently started throwing up at 6 and didn't stop until 2 or 3 in the morning. Leaving Chase and I (the frequently vomited upon) set up to be more or less bed-bound on Valentine's Day. Not in a fun way.

We managed to get the kids to school - both over it of course. Heartless children, with their bouncy young immune systems. I spent the morning doing all the things I knew I wouldn't be able to do in the next few hours. I made chicken soup and jello, I washed 3 loads of towels and sheets, I made our bed, because who wouldn't rather be wishing for a quick death in nice fresh sheets?

And then, in the evening, with the romantic strains of PBS kids in the background, my Valentine and I shared that particular intimacy that comes from sympathetically listening to the sounds coming from the bathroom, while impatiently waiting for your turn.  Ah, love. True love.

True heroism, and selfless love, is dragging yourself out of bed when the baby cries at 2 in the morning, making it halfway up the stairs, stopping, going back to the bathroom to throw up, and then going BACK upstairs to put the baby back in bed,  all in order to give your equally sick wife another few minutes of sleep.

I'd like to see that in a damn Kay's commercial.

Eleven years in, and I honestly can't think of anyone else I'd rather have hold my hair back.