As Fathers’ Day ends, I want to celebrate some fathers I know and love: my son Sam; my son-in-law Dwayde; my brother Peter, my brothers-in-law Steve and Joe; and my husband Ian who is not a father but who lights up my life and cherishes me. He went straight from being single to having grandchildren, the oldest of whom, as a toddler, fondly dubbed him Grand Ian, and the youngest of whom he used to soothe into sleep by reciting poetry in Latin.
I don’t have much left of my own father, Allen Ash, only a few dream-like wisps of memory: of being an infant held up in the arms of a father who loved me, of us laughing into each other’s faces because we delighted in each other.
By the time I was four, that father was gone forever, replaced by an angry and heartsick stranger, walking wounded, broken by war. Before I was ten, he disappeared, departing bodily as well as emotionally from our lives, and I didn’t care. I didn’t remember then that I had ever loved him, or that he had loved me. The good memories were buried under newer ones, sad and frightening, and only came back to me many years later.
When I was forty-six I met him again; my brother had searched for him and found him. He had become a silent, withered brown husk of a man, who lived only to fish, and who drank “not to have fun,” he said, but just to be quiet: a cicada pickled in whiskey.
The last time I saw him, he and my brother and I sat around a fire under the night sky in Baja California. He sipped his whiskey and for the first and only time he talked to us. He told us about his childhood, the woods and streams of New Hampshire, and his part-Mohawk grandfather who scooped him out of his bed before dawn when he was little and taught him to fish bare-handed.
He told us about following his older brothers into WWII at seventeen, lying about his age to a recruitment officer desperate enough to believe him, creasing and dirtying his birth certificate until the year was illegible. He served at the tail end of the war in the South Pacific, not in battle but in reconnaissance, moving silently through the jungle as he had through his childhood forest.
He told us about meeting our mother, and how her father, who liked him, had told him he thought it was a mistake for them to marry, though he did not refuse his consent.
Then he told us about Korea—just a little: of the harsh weather, of losing friend after friend, of the horror of seeing small children turned into lethal weapons. He told us—time-dulled echoes of rage in his dry whisper—of the sheer chaos of it: of a comfortably ill-informed central command issuing senseless orders from afar; of being sent too few supplies, and then often the wrong ones; of an apparently endless supply, on the other hand, of half-trained young officers with no conception, let alone experience, of the realities of the war.
He told us about coming home, bitter and grieving and unable to speak of it, any of it, especially not to his wife. (Grandpa Kellogg was right; they were not good for each other. They both did their best in the early years, I think, but they were too unlike to have much hope of understanding each other, and after Korea, no hope whatsoever. All the same, I, their child, am happy to be alive.) Anyway, men were not supposed to talk about war in those days, except to other warriors.
That night I understood much about him and his past and my past, and I fully forgave him for deserting me. But after thirty-six years’ absence, he was a stranger to me. We talked occasionally after that meeting, and we both mouthed the words “I love you” but they were hollow, on my part at least. When he died of massive strokes a few years later, I didn’t feel much but a dull regret for his ruined life, our ruined relationship. It was all so long ago, so long lost. I didn’t truly mourn him then.
Fathers Day 1953: a faint recollection of Peter and I being sent out with a little cash to buy him some OLD SPICE product he wouldn’t use.
Fathers Day 1963, 1973, 1983: thinking sarcastically, All very well, if you have a father.
Fathers Day 1993, 2003: irrelevant.
Fathers Day 2013: Allen Ash, my father: here and now I mourn him.