My New Father

Martha & Sam My New Father.JPG

Published Left Bank, Winter 1992

I

On the 25th anniversary of my father's death we gathered, my mother, brother, youngest sister and I, for a late afternoon picnic at his grave. We each planned to tell one story about Father, a personal story; it couldn't be about Father the decorated WWII fighter pilot, or Father the successful defense attorney, or Father the avid competitor at bridge and croquet.    

Father was not tender with his children, and that made the assignment difficult. My other sister had backed out of the event, insisting that there weren't any positive stories, none that she could remember.

We spread a red cotton tablecloth on the grass and passed around the potato salad and sandwiches. The cemetery sits on a hillside 50 miles south of Portland, Oregon, and we watched the sun slide toward the coast range as we ate. After dishing up strawberry shortcake, Toni, the youngest, began. 

After she finished her weekly Saturday morning chores, Toni said, she was permitted to ride to the farm with Father. She wandered alone among the barns, the machine shop and the fields of asparagus growing red and wild and higher than her head. Toni said her love of country life and her desire to be a farmer (we were eating strawberries which she had grown on her own four-acre commercial patch) came from those bucolic Saturdays. "I will always be grateful to Father for that," she said, and she licked a glob of whipped cream off her plastic fork. She did not add that Father, immersed in accounting and marketing schemes, often forgot to bring her home. 

My brother Michael pulled a cold ale from the cooler. "The last time I ever saw him, I visited him in the hospital on my way to the Rose Cup Races," Michael said. He twisted his shirt tail around the neck of the brown bottle and slipped the metal cap into his shirt pocket. "I couldn't believe it: he'd actually read up on the race in the newspaper, and memorized the names of all the drivers. It blew my mind." Michael began chugging his ale. An unspoken question hung in the air: why had it taken Father so long to acknowledge the car races which were then the passion of his son's life?

I told the only positive story I could think of: when I was seventeen, Father gave me $1,000 and told me to start a small grocery store for the 700 workers who lived on our asparagus farm. I was to stock, open and operate the store for the summer and report to him in September with a revenue-and-expense statement. "He had great confidence in me," I said. Michael, no doubt remembering the grocery store fiasco, gave me a look. Father had harangued me all summer about the impracticality of trying to match Safeway prices and ridiculed my "system" for collecting on accounts. Michael's look said, No wonder you're a fiction writer.            

"My turn?" Mother asked, eagerly. 

 It is a mysterious thing in our family, but somehow the very traits of Father's that paralyzed us kids, bloomed as virtues for Mother in the heat of her unconditional love. With us he was critical, with her intelligent; with us sarcastic, with her witty; with us indifferent, with her cool and seductive.

"Go for it, Mom," Michael said.

"I could be so mad at him I'd want to kill him," she began, and we heard her voice catch. "But he could always say something to make me laugh." I turned to see her blotting her eyes with a tissue. The loss of her husband when she was only 41 was the central tragedy of her life; she has never remarried. She stopped, too stricken to go on. Any one of us might have filled in a story:

On the occasion of her release from the hospital after totaling her beautiful wood-trimmed car, Father presented her, in public and with fanfare, a wrapped gift which turned out to be a gold crash helmet on which was lettered, "Help Stamp Out Station Wagons."  Though none of us children were present in the fancy restaurant, I can picture her surprise, her shriek of laughter, his cocky, Bogart smirk.

We put the remains of our picnic in the cooler and folded up the tablecloth. There are no stories of evening family meals, because Father and Mother ate tête-à-tête, after the children had been fed; there are no recollections of Father's bedtime wisdom because he never ascended to the second floor of the house where we had our rooms.

There is a special frustration when a parent dies a stranger: the relationship is frozen at the moment of his death, the riddle never to be answered. We left four heavy red roses on his grave.

II

A few months after the picnic, my husband and I were invited to dinner by some friends. Ronna Neuenschwander is a well-known Portland sculptress; her husband, Baba Wague Diakite, whom she met while visiting his native Mali, creates ceramic art now, too. (At home in Mali, all the pottery is made by women.)  Wague has a very animated and recognizable style: brightly painted animals wriggle around the surfaces of his plates and pots. He is also a great host and raconteur.

Wague served rice with peanut sauce West African style—on the floor. While we Americans tried an assortment of uncomfortable positions, Wague lay at his ease, stretched out like a tribal chieftain.

"In my country," Wague said, "when we greet some person, we first ask 'How is your father?' and 'How is your mother?'  If someone does not ask you these questions, it means that person does not really love you; they do not care about you."      

"But you wouldn't ask a very old person," I protested.

"Oh, yes, you must always ask. My old grandmother, I ask her 'How is your father?'"

"But her father would be dead!"

"In Mali, every person has a father and a mother. If your father dies, you find a new father. Maybe it is your little grandson; maybe it is a boy you see in the village. You call him my 'little father.'  When I see my grandmother, I ask about her father, and she knows I love her."

"I've gone for twenty-five years without a father: could I get a new one?"

Wague sat up momentarily to reach a handful of fresh greens. "In my country," he said, "we would not wait so long."

III

I decided on a baby so that I'd get a father who would last. And I had a lot of babies to choose from. Ten years ago my girlfriends were still struggling to establish careers; early motherhood would have presented road blocks on the fast track. But now with their jobs guaranteed, family, many have decided, is what's missing from life.

Samuel Philip Sellers was born July 29, 1989, and from birth, he liked people. Because Sam let me hold him for long periods of time, smiling up at me with the calm, amused eyes of a little Bodhisattva, I imagined that he liked me in particular.        

If I chose Sam, I would have the opportunity to "bring up father" to my expectations. This time around, I would be the empowered adult. How could I cultivate a loving and valuable father-daughter relationship?  I made a few notes:

  • tell feelings (not just anger: include thanksgiving, confusion, etc.)

  • be upfront about failure; welcome sympathy

  • share activities—fish North Santiam?  learn from library book?

Sam's parents were close friends in Seattle, where I used to live. Lucy is a documentary filmmaker and Don has travelled around the world, shooting and editing documentaries for the PBS series "Frontline."  They met in the Stanford film program, were married in 1986, and Sam is their first child.

I was sitting in the sunlit kitchen of Don and Lucy's home on Queen Anne Hill when I told Wague's story.

"I want a new father and I'd like it to be Sam."

Don, who has renounced travel since the birth of Sam, was perched on a kitchen stool, drinking espresso from a small blue cup. "The lucky little son of a gun," he said.

Lucy was standing at the sink with her back to me, holding a glass of water under the tap, with baby Sam balanced on her left hip. She turned and smiled. "So how do you do it?  Just pick him out and that's it?" 

"Basically," I said.

Sam celebrated his first Father's Day six weeks before his first birthday.

IV

Kinship weaves the tribe together. In Wague's village, it weaves so tight a fabric that even the gods could not unravel it. Wague was named for his maternal grandfather: Baba means father; Wague was the name bestowed upon his grandfather by the villagers, an honorific which means "good man."  Wague was given these names by his mother, who chose Wague to replace her own father when he died.

When Wague married, his wife became his mother's "little mother."  Now Wague's mother looks forward to the arrival of Wague's child so that she can have a new "little brother or sister." 

People feel a great hunger for community, but in contemporary society they can't satisfy this hunger within their families, which tend to be fractured and isolated. Instead, they look outside to friends, business colleagues, neighbors at the sub-division, apartment building or houseboat moorage.

My new family has been a shortcut to community. My relationship with Sam's parents has changed, quickened. After I moved 180 miles away, our friendship might have become a once-a-year dinner, and then dwindled to Christmas cards, and then to memories. But now that their infant son has a daughter living in Portland, we are obliged to stay in close touch by phone, letters and frequent visits. This obligation is a happy one. I cannot doubt my welcome in Sam's home: I am family.

Every two months, Sam's parents send me an updated photograph which I put up on our refrigerator. Visitors to our kitchen spot Sam within the first minute. "Who is this incredible baby?" they ask.

I remember the day my brother Michael first saw Sam's picture. He had come to dinner and brought some brie and started to open the refrigerator. "Why do I seem to know this baby?" he said, staring at Sam.

"That's my new father," I said, stirring pasta at the stove.    

Michael stashed the cheese and walked over to the stove, where steam fogged his eyeglasses. He put his arm around my shoulder. "Do you want to explain that?" he asked.

Now my "real" family is eager to meet Sam—their "little father"?  Michael's daughters' "little grandfather"?  Mother's new "little husband"? 

V

So many women feel unloved by their fathers, as the bank  accounts of therapists attest.    Because of my relationship with Sam, I now see my father—my first father, Parker Gies—through bifocals. Through one lens he's tough and distant. But through the other lens, he's just like Sam—a handsome, hopeful boy child, wanting love and eager to give it. In a photograph taken when Father was five, he is dressed in white shirt and short pants and gazes out with the same trusting half-smile I've seen on Sam.        

How did my own father, blessed like Sam with health and responsible parents, turn out to be so cold?  Was it the expectation that men be tough and unfeeling?  Was it the War, where he saw one buddy blown up directly in front of him on the runway at Clark Field, and the other go mad with fear and anxiety?  Was it the all-consuming preoccupation with making money?  Whose idea was it that listening, holding and caring were Mother's department?  Why was providing orthodontia and a college education the sum of his involvement?             

When I ask these questions, I see he was cheated, too.

With Sam it will be different; he is already a successful father.

Years from now, I imagine, Sam may spend a summer evening at my grave. Maybe his own daughter (my "little sister") will be with him. Since I don't plan to die for awhile, let's say she's fourteen. They've finished the potato salad when she says, "Dad, I think I got a C on my French test."          

Sam puts his arm around her and asks, "How does that make you feel?" 

"I don't know if I like French," she says.

"Try not to tense up about it," he says. "You can take something else next year; just don't make an enemy of it."  He feels her shoulders relax as she sighs deeply and leans into his windbreaker.

"I think you're a real good dad."

"I was lucky," Sam says. "I learned to be a father when I was a little kid."

The girl knows he's talking about me, of course. Sliding out from under his arm, she dishes up strawberry shortcake. "How do you think she learned it, Daddy?"

"She had a father of her own, before me. He died when she was young," Sam says.            "She learned it from him?"

"She did," Sam agrees. "But she learned it the hard way."

They sit silently, eating their dessert, as metallic streaks of rose and orange kindle the western sky. 

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