I never really knew my father. He left my mother when I was a year old and died when I was ten. I remember meeting him only twice, both times at his family farm. A calico horse stepped on me the first visit, and this man I knew only from photographs handed me an Indian hatchet in hopes of distracting me and stopping my crying. Funny the things you don’t forget: a whole world of streaming shadows and all I see is a six- or seven-year-old boy alone on that farmhouse porch with an old tomahawk. His mother and father have gone back into the house together, and this boy’s unwrapping the long rawhide tassels and feathers from the wooden handle. Somewhere along the line, the kid has gotten it into his head that the more you use a blade the sharper it’ll become.
And of all the possible moments in my father’s life, the only one I have is this: the man returning to the screen door and shuffling back out onto the porch. (One of his legs had been fused straight after a car accident—a year to the date he left my mother, apparently—and I remember holding my breath in fear of that Frankenstein shoe of his, that thick, black, seven-inch sole all worn and crude and dragging behind him.) He stands there, my father, and asks if he can get that strip of leather back for a minute. He must have needed it for something, but I’d already made quick work of it, the rawhide chopped into a hundred pieces, which I hold up to him in the cup of my palm.
Just that wince on my father’s face—part disbelief, part disgust, part exasperation—he doesn’t say a word to me before turning and going back into the house. Our second visit doesn’t go much better. The beagle puppy we brought with us fell between the bales of hay in the barn. My father had to break down the entire hayloft, bale by bale—it was an afternoon of work to rescue the whimpering dog. We never saw my father again after this.
What a testament to my mother that I never missed him. Not once do I recall wishing for my father, or hoping he’d come home, or even talking about him to anyone, except to excuse his absence. He died, I told people, in Vietnam, or in a car accident, or with a heart attack. In my entire childhood, I don’t recall ever feeling deprived by his absence.
The truth is I would borrow fathers. A guidance counselor, a teacher, a coach, there were men who seemed more like a father to me than my own father. . These men were more fathers to me than my own father, who was nothing but a few snapshots in a picture album, an occasional holiday card (or, rather, the lack of a card), a newspaper clipping of his obituary in my mother’s jewelry box:
William S. Lycheck [sic] of Holton Road, North Franklin, died Sunday evening unexpectedly. He was born July 1, 1925, son of the late William and Rosie (Palamar) Lycheck. He operated a window cleaning service in Putnam for several years prior to retirement. He was a veteran of World War Two, served in the Marine Corps from 1943-46. Surviving are one son, William J. of Putnam; one brother, Daniel, of North Franklin; two sisters, several aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews.
A set of keys, a Mercury-head dime he carried for luck, and his wallet—that’s my inheritance, the effects that would remind me of my father’s absence—along with the cast-aside stories that my mother rolled out for holidays. Like the story of their pet raccoon, Basil, who bit him on the back of the neck and was put to sleep. Or the night he dangled me—a baby, seven-months old—over the edge of the patio until my mother gave him his car keys back. Or how he held her by the wrists and said, “I’ll kiss you in your coffin, Alice,” my mother apparently spitting in his face. And she told me—or else I just imagined this—that she could still bring him back to life with the smell of Mennen aftershave. She never spoke of him without emotion in her voice, her chin trembled as she remembered a shaving cream fight, or a summer evening they slept out in the orchard, or the winter they sold sandwiches from a truck in Greenpoint. And there were those visits to the farm, my mother casually tossing this one detail out to me, so many years later, that she and my father would make love while I was outside playing.
Now what on earth was I supposed to do with that sort of fact? How is a sentence like that supposed to lie still? Or the truth that my father actually died, of all days, on my mother’s birthday? I’d always imagined my mother and father having a contentious relationship, to say the least, the kind of marriage in which one always had to get the last word, but taking her birthday seems a bit much to me, a little too perfect, so over-the-top it almost makes me smile.
And as I grew up, everyone I met in town seemed to have a word about my father. The window washer, right? A real shirt-off-his-back kind of a guy, your old man. We’d hide his cleaning equipment on him. They’d squint and say they saw his face in my face, while my mother would practically spit the man’s name at me if I unwittingly revived some habit of his. “You never even knew him,” she’d tell me, “and you’re just like the damned man!”
How could such scraps not whet my appetite for him? How could I not have worried and wondered about this man I never knew? How could I not try to conjur the magic ifs? What if my father didn’t want to leave us? What if we might have had one last hurrah together?
Just what the world needs, another story about an absent father. But for a long time it seemed like life or death to me, the struggle to write this story, to recover something that was, ultimately, unrecoverable. In what must have been a fit of despair over the novel, I unloaded all the accumulated doubts and worries I had about the book (and my life) to one of the many fathers I borrowed over the years (or tried to borrow), the writer William Maxwell. In a letter back to me, amidst snippets of advice and news, he wrote:
Probably the reason your novel disappears on you is that there is really no model for it, and this makes you lose confidence. Possibly you are thinking that you don’t know enough about your father—about the facts of his life. This is not true, or if true, beside the point. There is so much that we know that we don’t know we know. Try to listen to your feelings as you would to the sound in a seashell, and then put them down on paper.
For six, seven, ten years I had that letter on the wall in front of my desk and tried to dowse my father’s feelings, only to realize that they were my own feelings, that it was my own dream to bring him back to life, to undo everything, to lay him to rest finally. In the end, I tried to write the book that I needed most to read, the record of a time my father and I never had together.