Monday, December 16, 2013



Part I of a story I wrote about the Christmas of 1998.


My father is so obsessively modest that, until recently, it was a standing family joke that the only parts of his body my five brothers, two sisters and I had ever seen were his hands, neck and face. He kept the rest swathed, even in the midst of a New England heat wave, in a long-sleeved chambray work shirt , Sears jeans and a pair of construction boots. For our father to have walked around in shorts or sandals or even a T-shirt would have been tantamount to a regular father parading around the house in a jockstrap.

The way he hid his body was a paradigm for Dad's whole wary approach to life. If one of us wanted to learn how to swim, he reminded us of the boy who pitched over the side of a boat and drowned when his feet got tangled in fish line. If we wanted to climb a mountain, he had heard of someone who wandered off the trail and froze to death in a snowbank. In the parking lot of a grocery store, he railed against careless shoppers who left their carts on an incline where they could roll, pick up momentum and barrel into unsuspecting motorists.

I, for one, so carefully heeded his warnings that I was not only afraid to swim, climb mountains or drive, I was also afraid to hold an opinion, speak to other human beings or, this was many years later, venture more than a few hundred feet from my fetid room and bottle of gin. Not that any of this was my father's fault. If I inherited all his anxiety, he also gave me a sense of humor to deal with it and, because we are so temperamentally alike, we have always been especially close.

When I was a teenager, for example, we prided ourselves on being the first ones up in the morning, not so much, as we claimed, to listen to the birds and watch the sun rise, but so we could sit around over pancakes passing judgment on the rest of the world. "Is it me--or is she wacky?" he'd begin a diatribe against my mother, so notorious for her stubborn streak that my father always held that while the rest of mankind was descended from the apes, my mother's ancestors had been mules. "Hey, I'm no genius, but..." was another favorite opener. We weren't much, we agreed, and the unspoken subtext was, But we're just a little bit better than everyone else.

Dad's personality was a potent mix of sarcasm and sentimentality. He jeered at the corny Waltons plots--"Homo!" he once sniggered when John Boy appeared clutching a dog-eared book of poetry--but by the end of the show, when everyone else had walked away bored, he was still glued to the screen, furtively wiping away tears.

In fact, my father was partial to poems himself--one of his favorites ended, "Some of us call it autumn/And others call it God"--and for sheer dogged loyalty to his offspring, my old man would have put Mr. Walton to shame. Dad's approach to child-rearing was to deprive himself of every luxury and, when it came to us, act like he'd just won the lottery. Even when we were well into adulthood, no blunder was so great my father couldn't overlook it, no lapse in common sense so moronic he wouldn't ignore it, no mistake in judgment so insanely misguided that he didn't get out his checkbook and try to cover it.

For years, we waited with bated breath for him to crack under the pressure--first from the sheer stress of raising eight children on a bricklayer's salary and, later, the horror of watching most of us develop severe substance abuse problems--but he sighed, shook his head in an occasional fit of silent despair and plowed  on, bloody but unbowed.

We are all crazy about him, but Dad has always been reticent about his past and I often wondered what really made him tick. I probed for clues to his childhood, hoping to psychoanalyze him, but he always stuck to the same tall tale: the way he told it, he had started farming at the age of six, smoking at eight and driving a truck at ten. "Yeah, right, Dad," I scoffed, but privately this revved-up chronology always bothered me. I pictured him a middle-aged man by fourteen, hairline receding, teeth rotting, shoulders prematurely slumped beneath the burdens of the world.

The older I got, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to know his inner thoughts, his secret sorrows, his regrets. I wanted to know if he had ever lain in bed at night and wished that he'd been "blessed" with different children than the ones he got, if he regretted making so much time for us and so little for himself, if he had ever mulled over the idea of packing his shabby suitcase, telling my mother he was going to the store for a gallon of milk, and disappearing into thin air.

My own failures had been public, cataclysmic. I wanted to know him the way he knew me--and then I'd realize that I had never even seen his bare arm.


Nine years ago, my husband Tim and I moved to Los Angeles. I talk to my parents every Sunday morning, go home a couple of times a year and worry about them in between. They bicker constantly--whether the nectarines are ripe, how many potatoes to cook for dinner--but they are completely united on one front: keeping my father's deteriorating physical condition a closely-guarded secret. Whether he has just fallen asleep and crashed his truck into a telephone pole, had a series of strokes--my mother, typically euphemistic, refers to these as "spells"--or been told his blood pressure is 200 over 110, Dad's response to any query about how he is feeling is always the same: "A little tired. How are you?"

Then, last Christmas afternoon, my sister Jeanne called with the kind of news you dread your whole life and that, when it comes, feels more apocalyptic than your worst nightmare. They'd rushed Dad to the hospital after dinner. He was in intensive care with congestive heart failure and deteriorating kidneys and it looked like he might not make it. When even my mother--who thinks anything less than twitching around on the floor with blood foaming from your mouth constitutes faking--got on the horn and admitted he seemed "low," I knew it was serious. I let the turkey get cold and spent the rest of the day on the phone consulting with my siblings and making flight arrangements. Lying sleeplessly in bed that night, I couldn't stop thinking of the irony of the Christmas birth juxtaposed with the possibility of my father's death.

The next morning, Tim and I met the rest of the West Coast contingent at LAX's US Air terminal. My younger brother Ross, a six-four, cadaverously thin second-grade teacher, wandered in late sporting a blood-soaked Band-Aid on his chin from a botched shave. Allen (Jr.), the oldest, regaled us with a description of a friend's bout with rectal polyps.

On the plane, Tim slept, Allen and Ross discussed their cretinous childhood friends and I tried to read. It was too late to go to the hospital when we arrived, so we rented a car and drove straight up to New Hampshire. Christmas lights shone forlornly through fir trees and the turnpike was banked by gritty mounds of snow. We stared out at the dreary winter landscape saying "Man, am I glad I live in California" and "God, I hope he's all right."

An hour north of Boston, we pulled into the driveway of the family homestead, a perfectly serviceable four-bedroom ranch that I insist upon recalling as an unheated Dickensian poorhouse where we bravely spent our entire deprived childhoods subsisting on bread and water and wearing clothes made out of flour sacks. That night, however, it looked safe and welcoming, the windows ablaze with light, smoke wafting from the chimney and a few rogue strands of tinsel clinging to the Astroturf of the breezeway floor.

Mom threw open the door, while the rest streamed into the kitchen to greet us: Jeanne, the chain-smoking, Coca-Cola-guzzling family nurse; Meredith, a fiddle-player and song writer; Joe, the 41-year-old front man of a punk-rock band called "The Queers"; and Geordie, a fishing boat captain who, having never detoxed, undergone therapy or been divorced three or more times, is known in the family as "The Normal One." The only one missing was Tim, a kickboxer who lives in Bangkok.

"Dad's holding steady," someone said, and someone else said, "He knows you're all coming," which was all I needed to know for the moment. While everyone talked at once, I took a quick tour. Everything was the same, I noted with satisfaction: the laminated place mats with autumn scenes of Lake Winnepausaukee; the dent in the living room door where, thirty years ago, Joe had tried to bludgeon Ross with a hockey stick; the L.L. Bean birdfeeder, held together with duct tape, hanging outside the picture window. These days, Mom and Dad only bought a four-foot tree, but it was still surmounted by the same angel we'd always had, a doll with blond hair for whom my mother had sewn a tiny winged gown of silver brocade.

"Sit down, sit down," Mom urged and, after bringing out bowls of lobster stew to the dining room, sat beaming over her motley brood with the contented smile of a Renaissance Madonna. The fact that we had somehow managed to orchestrate our collective presence on such short notice threw out a comforting kind of heat, like a human hearth. First, we established that we had the same basic personalities we did when we were ten: "I just read about this terrible illness where you have uncontrollable flatulence," Allen offered and Ross replied, "That's an illness?" After exhausting that subject, we turned to herpes, then breast cancer and then I made Tim, a psych nurse, describe one of his patients, a teenage boy who walked around all day with a pitcher in his hand because he had a mental block about swallowing his own spit.

Finally, Jeanne delivered the latest medical update, using nursely jargon we made her translate into layman's terms. He was on Intake and Output, he was taking oxygen, he couldn't void on his own, she informed us.
"Void? What the hell does that mean?" Geordie asked.

"Take a piss," she sniffed.

It felt almost sacrilegious to be discussing my father's intimate bodily functions, but this was nothing compared to the bombshell Meredith dropped next.

"I saw his leg today," she announced reverently.

A collective gasp went up. Our attention was riveted.

"All of it?" Ross ventured.

"No, just the left shin. The blanket fell back for a second and, between this little brown sock he had on and his johnny, I actually saw part of his leg."

"Wh-what did it look like?" I breathed.

"White. Really, really white. And waxy. And totally hairless."

Exclamations of wonder rose around the table. "White!" "Hairless!" "Never been seen before!" It was as if a group of paleontologists were discussing the excavation of a new type of dinosaur bone.

"I've seen it before," Mom protested, but that hardly counted.

"He didn't try to hide it?" Allen inquired, astounded.

"Not really," Meredith replied. "The nurse was changing his sheets and he just let it kind of...hang out."

We digested this news in silence. A massive wall was crumbling. Nothing could illustrate the critical nature of the situation more clearly than the fact that, after 76 years, my father had let one of us see part of his body without dying of shame.


c. 1957


  1. Beautiful Heather. As you know, your description of North Hampton I can see in my mind's eye.

    Your Dad was a handsome guy!

    1. Yes! Some new pix came to light after my mother died, too, which has been nice...

  2. Never read this one before! Great stuff! That photo is incredible if only for little Joe the grizzled union boss toddler.

    1. I swear to God when crossed, little Joe-Joe still gets that exact same look...

  3. The pictures are as priceless as the photo is compelling. Love your barrette and "sunsuit", (isn't that what those were called? Ties at the shoulders, one-piece?) and, true to your story, your Dad can be seen wearing a long sleeve shirt....
    And yes, the expression on little bro's face is one-of-a-kind!

    1. Yes, that darling garment was called a sunsuit! One piece with ties at the shoulder, and elastic around the top of the legs! I had several of them, the one pictured, as I recall, my favorite...Merry Christmas, dear Mary Beth!...


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