Dreams of my father

June 24th, 2012

I dreamed about my father last night, which is unusual. I rarely dream about him; I cannot remember the last time I did. I think about him, off and on, irregularly but more often than I would have expected after half of a lifetime; he comes to mind more in the winter, in those hockey rinks that bring him so sharply into focus. Sometimes, the sound of a whistle at SB’s training will make me turn my head sharply as if he might be there on the bench. But he doesn’t come to me in dreams; he rarely did. Even in the months immediately following his death, I rarely dreamed of him.

Last night, I dreamed he had a heart attack, which is odd – of all the things that plagued him as his cancer progressed I do not recall a heart attack ever being one of them; he did have a series of small strokes, but not, that I can recall, a heart attack – and I ran into the room where he was. It was not a hospital room, and he was in a regular bed and nobody was treating him and there was no sense of medical urgency, although in the dream it was quite clear that he was having a heart attack even though he was clearly not having a heart attack. You know how dream are like that. He was lying down, and when I came rushing into the room he turned to me – his face was so clearly my father’s face, and sometimes I think I have forgotten what he looked like, but no, I have not forgotten – and said “I miss you.” I stroked his forehead and said “I’m here.”

And that’s all I remember.

When I think about my father these days, I think about all the things that he has missed. I myself have grown used to being a woman whose father died a long time ago. I used to think it was so unfair to me that my father died when I was still so young (and the older I get the more I realize how young twenty-one still is to lose a parent), but the unfairness that sticks with me now is how unfair to my father, what he missed and misses.

I dreamed about my father last night. He came to say that he misses me. It’s been a long time for both of us, I guess.

The One With The Turkey

December 6th, 2011

For the past several years, I’ve almost let Thanksgiving go by without a celebration. For the past several years, I’ve almost given up on Thanksgiving and then, in a last moment fit of determination, I make last minute invitations to Expat Thanksgiving. I recognize, in that moment of decision, that if I let it go this year I will let it go forever and the boys will grow up without Thanksgiving. That most American of holidays. As expats, so much falls aside, so many cultural touchstones pass our kids by no matter how conscientiously we try to pass them on. Thanksgiving, it seems, is my line in the sand. I think I can let it go, but when the moment is upon me I know that I can’t, that I musn’t.

So I threw out last minute invitations, made the last minute scramble for a turkey. R’s family has a long, long-standing relationship with the butcher in the small village we lived in when I first moved to Switzerland – a relationship that spans two generations of butchers and two generations of customers – so we turned to Small Village Butcher for our turkey order and he got us a turkey. Oh boy, did he get us a turkey. An eleven kilo turkey. That’s an American-sized turkey and I’m here to tell you: American-sized turkeys do not fit in European-sized ovens. No, no they do not. The turkey did not fit in our oven. We’ve had some close calls before, but in ten years of varied and sundry families hosting Expat Thanksgiving this is the first time we couldn’t fit the bird in the oven. I suppose it was bound to happen one of these years.

The butcher roasted the turkey for us on Sunday (that sound you just heard was the collective gasp of my Swiss and German readership, followed by exclamations of: he roasted the turkey for them on a Sunday? Mein Gott!) and R went to pick it up in a catering hot-box and when he arrived home with it and brought it inside everybody stood around in the kitchen exclaiming and taking pictures and exclaiming. An eleven kilo turkey is … impressive. Daunting, even. We did our best, pressed second servings on everybody and sent people home with leftovers and still have three containers of turkey in the refrigerator. Eleven kilos of turkey is a lot of turkey.

My mother always made a turkey tetrazzini with Thanksgiving leftovers, and I’m going to have to root around and see if I have her recipe somewhere, because I’ve got a lot of leftovers. And because my mother’s turkey tetrazzini was outstanding. As was her apple pie, which I made again this year. As it was baking, when the house smelled like pie and I had the warm anticipation of expecting guests for Thanksgiving, I saw a rainbow out my kitchen window.

It’s a good thing to hold on to traditions. A little better even, I think, when you have to fight for them a bit.

This new day

July 30th, 2011

By the time my father died, I knew that he was dying; several days – a week? – in a coma, a shunt draining fluid from his brain had convinced even me. I think I still held out some stubborn hope, in the way of children – and to watch at twenty-one your father die is to be very much a child – but most of me was willing to accept what I was seeing.

I don’t remember the very last thing I said to my father, as I ended my visit to the hospital, because although I was willing to accept that he was dying I also suspected that he could linger like that for a long time yet and I suspected there would be more visits, more one-way conversations. It would not have been what my father wanted, lingering; my father the fisherman, my father the hockey coach, my father the man who belonged under Idaho skies if ever a man did. It would not have been what he wanted, lingering in between.

I don’t remember the very last words I said, as I was leaving, but I remember what I said to him on that visit. I told him that it would be okay. To die. It would be okay, if he wanted to, to just go ahead and stop fighting. I told him I would be okay, and that for once in his lifetime of putting his children first he should just think about himself and do what he wanted, only what he wanted. And if he wanted to keep on fighting, I would visit, and read him the newspaper, and clip his nails and it would be okay. And if he wanted to stop, to just stop and rest at last, that he should do that. It would be okay, and I would be okay, whatever he did. But he should do what he wanted and not think about anybody else.

In a lifetime of adoring my father, in that conversation I understood what it meant to truly love him. He died that night, as if he had been waiting for my permission.

I do not believe in the resurrection, so I do not believe that I will ever see my father again. I do not think, in the manner of Field of Dreams, that my father is going to appear in the river grass so that we might fish the Madison together just one more time. I know that I will never look up during a hockey game and see my father in the stands across from me, watching his grandson play the game he loved.

And yet he is always there on the far bank, always hovering in the corner behind the goal. Today I cross over to that strange new life in which the after is longer than the before. The days will stack up on top of each other like stones on a cairn taking me further and further away from my father and this can’t be helped. I’m in no hurry to die. This after is also my now: my garden and my poems and my boys and the pink light of sunset on the Swiss Alps. Today. This new day.

For one day, equilibrium

July 29th, 2011

Today is the day. Today is the balancing point, perfect equilibrium, and then tomorrow I will wake for the first time into a life from which my father has been absent for longer than he had been present. Tomorrow I will wake up and I will have been fatherless for more than half my life.

The last time I visited my father in the hospital, he was in a coma. I talked to him, and clipped his fingernails, and read to him from The Sporting News – there were some summer hockey trades going on, as there are now, teams finalizing their rosters, and twenty-one years later I still remember reading to my father the news that Pat LaFontaine was transferring to Buffalo. This is what I remember. The sound of my father’s voice is lost, the last thing he said to me is lost, but I remember telling him that Pat LaFontaine was transferring to the Buffalo Sabres.

I remember nothing about his hospital room, not even if he had a private room, but I remember that a print of Matisse’s Goldfish hung in the corridor and that I passed it every day. I remember the day he was given a shunt; I remember the doctor asking me, in the hallway, “What do you want me to tell you?” and I remember replying “I want you to tell me he’s going to live” and I remember the doctor answering, gravely, “I can’t tell you that.” All of this I remember, this and Pat LaFontaine, but I do not remember the last thing my father said to me.

I would not have been aware, when he said it, that it would turn out to be the last thing, of course. It was probably “Goodbye” or “Thanks for stopping by” or “See you tomorrow” – maybe, being aware that he was dying, he took care to say “I love you.” I refused to believe that he was dying, even during that final hospital stay; even when he slipped into a coma, from one day to the next, I refused to believe that he was dying and so I did not think to press the day before into my memory, the last thing he said. That is the way of last things – we rarely know, at the time, that they are the last. First things are easy to mark: first dates, first steps, first words, first hockey games – but lasts? They take us by surprise and so often go unrecorded.

I do not remember the last my father said to me, nor can I be certain of the last thing I said to him, although I believe it might have been “See you tomorrow.”

I didn’t, of course.

Holding it in my hand

June 1st, 2010

My copy of Walden and Other Writings is the copy I gave my father for Father’s Day in 1988. I am sure that somewhere in a box sits my first paperback copy from high school with its underlinings and marginalia, but the copy I keep in my library is the one I gave my father and which I took for my own after he died. I inscribed it with a quote of Thoreau’s, his most over-quoted quote, no doubt, but one I chose for a reason:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…

Then I wrote “Happy Father’s Day to the man who taught me the above long before I ever picked up Thoreau. Thank you,”

Twenty years on, it is hard sometimes to distinguish between memories of the actual relationship I had with my father, the real feeling that was there at the time, and the glossed over glow the memory of a dead loved one can take on. Especially after twenty years it would be easy to have created in my mind a relationship far different from the one that really existed at the time. In light of some of my other memories that have revealed themselves as false, I hold this copy of Thoreau with my school-girl’s writing on the fly-leaf, this piece of my love for my father that I can hold in my hand, especially dear.

It was real. He was my father, and I loved and admired him. And I know, and will always know, that at least once in my life before he died, I told him clearly that he taught me how to live a true life, and that I was grateful.

This brings me some peace when the memories shift like mist over the river.

Dreams of my father

January 8th, 2009

I’ve been thinking about my father a lot lately; I’ve been writing some things that call him to mind. It’s probably more accurate to say that he’s been on my mind and thus I’ve been writing about him. His birthday is approaching – he would be seventy-eight – and the birthday of my son who sometimes resembles him so. Soon will come the anniversary on which my time without him equals my time with him. It’s a startling thought, even after all these years: I have been fatherless nearly half my life.

And yet he is sometimes so near, his outline so sharp, it’s as if I could hold his hand. He is like the mountains I see almost every day as I walk into the heart of the city, run my errands, take the boys for a walk. Only the cloudiest days obscure them, and on a clear day they seem to come closer; on those story-book days when the sky is sharp and blue it seems as if I could just walk to them. Under a blue sky the Eiger doesn’t seem all that imposing. But the truth is, the north face of the Eiger is one of the most challenging and dangerous climbs in mountaineering and my father is at the top of it. And I am at the bottom. And the distance between us cannot be traversed.

Thunder, stolen

November 30th, 2008

If there is a downside to the relationship Small Boy has with his grandparents, it’s that they know him so well. He’s not a theoretical grandchild. He is the Small Boy, theirs as much as ours. They know that the greatest treat you can offer him is a Ricola. They know when he sucks his thumb he’s tired but when he sucks his thumb and plays with his belly-button he’s really tired. They know if it comes with a siren it’ll be a hit. They know it can take ten minutes to get him dressed to go outside. They know he’s jealous of his little brother. They know he loves getting a ride in the tractor. They know he can be stubborn, and unbearably adorable, and they know just the right thing to make him happy.

They know this so well that they got him the exact same advent calender we did, and they put theirs out first.

Grandparents. Of all the nerve.

Hockey Mama

October 20th, 2008

I grew up around ice hockey, grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago skating on outdoor rinks back in the day when winter was winter. My father was president of the hockey association; my mother was variously treasurer and secretary. Later my father coached the high school team and also a young adult league. My older brother played hockey from the time he was five or six until he left for college; after college he played in an adult league and coached high school hockey for a few years. Ever the little sister, I played hockey myself for a season, but this was back before a lot of girls played hockey and I was the only girl my age in the league. Not on my team – in the entire suburban league I played in. There was another girl two years older than me, her name was Annie, but in my age group I was it.  After one year of having to stand alone in the hallway while the boys changed in the locker room, of getting checked and knocked down because girls don’t play hockey, I retreated to the stands and the occasional stint in the scorer’s box. But I grew up around hockey.

My mother was a hockey mom. She went to every single hockey game my brother played in for a dozen years. She drove him to practice and car-pooled his teammates and served early dinners and reheated leftovers so that everybody got to eat. She kept his skates sharpened and his equipment aired out and always knew where the hockey tape was. She huddled in warming houses with the other hockey moms and drank cup after cup of bad vending machine coffee. She stepped in as time-keeper and score-keeper when somebody went missing in action and she was the unofficial record-keeper for every team my brother ever played on, keeping track of minutes played and goals for and against and goals and assists and penalty minutes for entire teams of exuberant boys. She cheered and yelled and taught me the phrase “cherry-picking.” She was a hockey mom extraordinaire at a time when nobody cared about the hockey moms.

Since the day Small Boy put on skates last winter and I guided him around the rink by holding his hands as I skated backwards, I’ve been looking forward to this winter, to this year when he would become old enough to start the hockey camp, to being a hockey mom. Hockey school started on Saturday, so I am officially a hockey mom, at last, and I cannot begin to tell you how annoyed – irritated and angry and cheated – I feel to become a hockey mom at a time when the phrase “hockey mom” is associated with someone with whom I have no desire whatsoever to be associated. So please forgive this brief forray into American politics, but I’m feeling the need to reclaim the phrase “hockey mom.”

I like cities. (Most NHL teams, by the way, are found in cities, as are most theatres and opera houses and ballet companies and baseball teams. It just kind of works out that way.) They are vibrant and exciting and give people opportunities to follow their dreams. I like small towns. They allow people to connect more deeply with each other and to look closely into the fabric of their own lives and dreams. I like that I can decide which one fits me better. I am a hockey mom.

I live at the foot of the Swiss Alps and yet I think Yellowstone National Park is the most beautiful place in the world. I believe that geography does not define love of country. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that a blistering slapshot from the point is the most beautiful thing in sports. I am a hockey mom.

I have enough faith in women to allow them to make the most personal decisions about their lives without paternalist outside interference from people who know nothing about them or their circumstances. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that starting a family through in-vitro fertilization is as special as starting a family through sex and I believe that the children of in-vitro fertilization are magical. I believe that the decision to seek fertility treatment is a decision a couple can only make for themselves and I believe that treatment should be available. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that embryonic stem-cell research has enormous potential and that couples who undergo in-vitro should be able to donate embryos to research if they so desire. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that reasoned disagreement is the engine of democracy and that reasonable people can disagree reasonably. The operative word is reasonable. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of global warming is the result of human activity and I believe that the majority of statistical findings support this belief. I am a hockey mom.

I believe in the scientific method and that science is a method, not a subject. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that Wayne Gretzky played a type of hockey that the rest of us could only dream of. I am a hockey mom. 

I believe that wild places like ANWR matter. They matter simply because of what they are, not because of what they can give us. ANWR isn’t about the energy we could harness. Places like ANWR, places like Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park and the great network of American parks, are about setting aside something rare and wonderful and preserving it simply because it is rare and wonderful. It is about knowing that there is still something wild and mysterious left in the world. Wild places matter. They matter because they inspire us and teach us. They make us whole. They heal our wounds. They let us dream. They call us to glory and if we listen they teach us the liberating magic of being wholly who and what we are in that moment. They show us, however briefly, a world outside of ourselves. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that while one of us is oppressed none of us is free. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that the world – that new things, new people, new places – can only be approached with an open mind and an open heart. I am a hockey mom.

The word “cosmopolitan” is not derogatory. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that knowledge matters, that facts matter, that expertise matters, that “elite” means highly skilled and that highly skilled people are not, by definition, bad people. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that I am but one of many, that our diversity is our strength, that the sum is greater than the whole of the parts, that we stand together or fall alone, that an open hand is more powerful than a closed fist, that generosity is strength, that I am less when you are suffering and that I am strengthened by your joy, and that greatness cannot exist in isolation, for even Wayne Gretzky needed a team to play on. I am a hockey mom.

I voted for Barack Obama and I am a hockey mom.


October 14th, 2008

I’ve been captured by the villanelle lately. It’s a very precise poetic structure with both a rhyme scheme and a pattern in which two lines – introduced with the first and the third lines – are repeated at specified intervals. It does not come easily to me; I find it difficult to pull off a natural, lyrical villanelle. And yet I find myself writing them. I have heard it said – or read it written? – that the villanelle, circling back as it does to those two key lines, is a good form in which to explore obsessions, recurring events, memories one cannot, does not want to, escape. It’s a good form to use when a few images have you by the throat and won’t let go.

The villanelles I’ve been writing are about my father. I remember my father best as a fisherman. As the years pass and specific details fade – what shampoo did he use? what did his voice sound like? what was he wearing the last time I saw him alive? what was he dressed in for his funeral? – there is still a  tightly held clutch of memories, solid like river rocks in my fist, that I can still see, taste, hear almost two decades after his death. Almost always, these memories, these moments, are connected to my father’s life as a fly-fisherman and to the places that life took him, took us. Invariably my memories of my father are bound up with the waters he fished, the waters that became the companions of my childhood and the rivers to which I always, though years may pass, return. The places I love and the ways I love them have everything to do with this simple fact: my father was a fisherman.

That is the line I cannot let go of. The line that will not let go of me. That is what I return to like a salmon to her spawning ground. That is my one true thing.

My father was a fisherman.

Family lost, family found

May 21st, 2008

I grew up not knowing much about my extended family. My paternal grandfather and my maternal grandmother died before I was born. My maternal grandfather died shortly after I turned four. I have a few memories of him, the sort of memories a three-year old would have: brief flashes, an image of a living room, a face – memories reinforced by photographs so that it is hard to be certain if they are truly my memories at all. My paternal grandmother moved across the country when I was eight, perhaps younger. There were short visits after that – she and my mother did not get along – and she died when I was fourteen. One set of cousins was a dozen states away; another set – my mother’s brother – lived nearby and we used to get together when I was young but for some reason contact ended abruptly. I imagine some sort of falling out between my mother and uncle, but I don’t really know.

But beyond these deaths and absences, these fallings-out and strained relationships, it was the general atmosphere of silence and secrets in my house that kept me from knowing my family. We were not a family of stories, we were not a family of family histories. That’s not uncommon in an alcoholic household. My mother did not like telling stories – at least, she did not like telling stories she could not control; she did not like revealing information that she, for whatever reason, deemed dangerous – and I quickly learned not to ask questions. It was a good survival technique for a young girl, but I regret it now.

I do not know how my parents met. I do not know why they waited so long to have children. I do not know my maternal grandmother’s maiden name and I’m not entirely sure how she died. I don’t know when her family arrived in the US. I don’t know how she and my grandfather met. I don’t know if she had siblings. I don’t know what any of my cousins – those four children of my mother’s brother with whom I used to play – are doing today or where they are living or if they have children of their own. I do know that my maternal grandfather was Swedish, but I do not know where his family came from or when they emigrated to the US, or why. And with both my parents dead there is nobody to ask even if I belonged to the kind of family that talked about this sort of thing.

After my parents died and before I married I often felt rootless. There’s a line from a Shawn Colvin song, “I’ve given nobody life, I am nobody’s wife, and I seem to be nobody’s daughter” that sums up how I felt for many years. I had no family history to connect me to the past, and I had no offspring to drive me into the future. Even after I married, married into a Swiss family that could trace its family tree back about 400 years, I felt like a jigsaw puzzle piece that had fallen out of the box. When my first son was born, my family, my blood family, suddenly had two generations. A doubling of my connections, but still my history was a blurry mystery.

Until Sunday.

Sunday, out of curiosity, I googled my maternal grandfather. He was quite an amateur photographer in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s; I have some prints of his that still bear the ribbons they were awarded in local showings. I was looking through family snapshots. I got curious and typed in his name. The first result that popped up was a link to a family tree website hosted by somebody with my maternal grandfather’s last name. I clicked through to the site, and it appears that his father and my grandfather were brothers – my grandfather had four siblings who lived to adulthood. I had only known about one. I spent the afternoon looking through his family tree; there is information there that matches what I know; many of the sources he used to verify his findings are foot-noted. I have a feeling that it’s reliable.

It traces the Swedish branch of my family back to before 1730. I have gone from rootless to seven Swedish generations in the blink of an eye. And that’s just my grandfather’s paternal line. I haven’t even begun to dig around his maternal line. There are people out there with my grandfather’s name, with my blood, with my son’s funny ears and high smooth forehead. There are people out there, my people. I have people.

My how I love the internet.