I stood in a slice of sun and dust motes coming through a gap in the storage barn while Dad rooted through our pre-boat life.
Dad barked at me to help him look for the box labeled “memorabilia.” He hunted the April, 1953 Athletic Journal that contained a four-page pictorial spread of him doing the backstroke for an article by swimming great Doc Counsilman.
I smarted from his tone of voice as I climbed over R.J.’s old crib that Mom held onto with hopes of filling it with a new baby.
Twelve years of Dad’s barbed words and disappointed sighs stuffed inside me like our possessions packed into the horse stall. Some of Dad’s slights were small like the green, blue, and brown antique bottles he salvaged from mangrove swamps, now tucked in dust-covered liquor boxes. Some were big like the dining room table with the broken base we’d propped up with a cement block.
I hefted aside the glass case that held Dad’s swimming medals. My knuckles brushed dust from the footboard of my parents’ bed, and I was six again, hanging upside down, letting my hair flop over the end of the mattress, contemplating a Dr. Seuss inverted world. I scrambled across the rumpled bedding to peer over the edge where Dad leaned against the headboard, reading the newspaper.
He smelled like Ivory soap.
Sunshine streamed through the open windows and glanced off the terrazzo floor, happy like I felt inside.
But Dad had run out of patience with my antics. He told me to quit trying to peek under the sheet at his birthday suit.
I squawked in protest. I didn’t even know he wasn’t dressed. And besides, my baby brother’s pee-shooting sack of extra flesh had satisfied all my curiosity about male anatomy.
But I could tell by his expression he didn’t believe me.
I slid boneless from the bed and slunk from the room.
I packed the emotional relic back into its cardboard box and shoved it into a corner of my soul with the rest of the things I didn’t want to think about.
Five years later when I was seventeen, Dad would stop me on the front stoop of our house in New Smyrna Beach—the step where I’d ducked out of more good-night kisses than I’d stood still for.
Dad must have sensed the Clampett collection of complaints I’d piled between us. “You hate me, don’t you?”
Of course, I didn’t hate him. He was being dramatic. But I didn’t particularly like him, either.
That year I chose Janis Ian’s At Seventeen—a song about an ugly, ignored girl—to play as I was presented on the homecoming court. A weird choice for a girl just voted attractive and popular by her classmates. But the song was true underneath my skin. Dad had written it there when I was six.
At twenty-two I scribbled a short story on loose leaf as Jim, my fiancé of ten months, studied across the living room of Fern’s boarding house where he lived.
“Write what you know,” my professor had said.
I knew… Dad and a hodgepodge of hurts.
I glanced at Jim. We thought we knew everything about each other, but Jim had never met Dad. I’d told him things that didn’t matter. Dad held a BS in business. He built a sluice box to pan for gold out West the year I was five. He made wine in the bathtub from grapefruit Hurricane Betsy knocked down.
I heaved in a breath and read aloud the bitterness I’d bled in ball point ink. Then I told the stories that hurt my throat to tell.
Jim waded through the flapped open boxes of my life and sat down, sliding an arm around me. “You hate your Dad.” The words echoed Dad’s on the stoop.
“I strongly resent him.”
“You need to forgive.”
I looked at Jim, incredulous. “Didn’t you hear anything I said? He doesn’t deserve my forgiveness.”
Jim covered my hand with his. “The forgiveness is for you.”
I tore my gaze from the compassion in his eyes “I can’t. It’s too hard.”
Jim’s voice was gentle, probing. “Do you believe God is strong enough to help?”
I surveyed the wreckage littering Fern’s Persian rug and sensed the dead calm I’d felt in the eye of Hurricane Betsy.
Bible words wafted to me, nothing is impossible with God.
I scanned Fern’s delicate old lamps and figurines that peered at me from the edges of the room. “I guess if He wanted to, He could use some of His power to help me forgive Dad.” But I wasn’t sure I wanted to let Dad off the hook.
“Good. Let’s pray.” Jim gripped my hand tighter, hope in his eyes.
“Now?” It took me six months to decide to get a haircut and Jim expected me to forgive Dad two minutes after the idea materialized?
“Yeah.” Jim’s arm felt heavy on my shoulders like his will pressing down on me.
But Jim was the one person who loved me unconditionally, who’d given me a picture of how God loved me. Neither of them would do anything to hurt me.
“Okay. Fine.” I dropped my chin to my chest, my hand still wrapped in Jim’s larger one.
His prayer splashed over me in a gentle rain of encouragement, and it was over way too soon.
I wondered where Fern and Jim’s housemates had gone. Were there any Hawkins Market cream sticks on the kitchen table?
I inhaled a breath for fortification. “I believe You can do anything. If You want to—help me forgive Dad.”
My eyes popped open. The anger sucked out of me as though through a divine vacuum cleaner. I felt… free. In its place something new sprouted. For the first time, I wanted to see Dad.
That was the day Dad started his bicycle trek from California to Ohio for my wedding—sleeping in graveyards along the way.
Three months later, I walked into my Aunt Barb’s house in Canton, Ohio, and gripped Dad’s bony shoulders in an awkward hug. The faint, familiar scent of BO clung to him.
He shook Jim’s hand as the room buzzed with relatives. And before the evening was over, Dad volleyed me a criticism.
Acid poured into my stomach, my body stiffened, bracing for the plunge and twist of Dad’s emotional knife.
But his negative words melted off me, pooling at my feet. Not even a flesh wound, Monte Python said in my head. And Dad’s words never again pierced me.
Far from lily white, I’m not proud of spending my adult life stiff-arming Dad from coming closer—as though God weren’t up to protecting me after all He’d done. I got in digs when I could.
But after the boat years, after my parents’ divorce, Dad kept coming back—every year of my life. He found me in Florida—Coconut Grove, Stuart, New Smyrna Beach, Ormond Beach, Lakeland, and Deland—Ashland, Ohio, Indianapolis, and Phoenix. He persisted, pursuing relationship with me when I wanted to give up. It was his steadfastness that told me he loved me.
And when liver cancer yellowed his skin and the whites of his eyes, he came home to die with me.
I rode away from the storage barn on that Miami winter day in 1970 in our two-toned Plymouth Valliant. In my lap, I cradled Dad’s past and my future God would heal.