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.

5 comments:

Sarah Roden said...

Sobbing. Beautiful. He was an amazing man. He loved you so.

Richard Bolton said...

Beautifully written, Kate. You are so lucky to have such wonderful memories of your father.

nuf said...

4721kate, this is beautiful. i didn't know you lost your dad. i am so very sorry. we are thinking of you.

Sarah Rose said...

Kate -- I just read this. What a wonderful gift on an Easter morning. I love you.

A beautiful remembrance of a wonderful man.

mvbowles said...

That is awesome Kate. You captured so many things there, so beautifully, with such imagery, and so precise. Thanks for sharing that.