Are You There Dad? It’s Me, Margaret – An Essay by May Clements

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One 

When I was very young, my father had hair transplant surgery and came home from the doctor with his head swathed in bandages, a turban of medical dressings. Earlier in the day, he wondered aloud to my mother whether we would be frightened by it, my brother and I. I imagine he was apprehensive as he climbed our red concrete front steps. As it turns out, neither my brother nor I have any memory of that day.

Instead, my earliest memories of my father are instead of his legs, which I clung to and hid behind whenever I had to meet new people; his arms, holding me up high so that I could see over a crowd or swinging me round and round in a circle before letting me go flying across a pool in a game I called “helicopter”; his shoulders and back, on which he carried me up mountains and through forests before I could keep up on my own two feet; his hands, holding mine as we crossed streets and showing me how to hammer nails to build our treehouse.

To think about it now, my father spent a great number of years, perhaps nearly a decade, as a collection of body parts and tangible objects. He was the mustard-colored Toyota parked at the side of our driveway into which I carved my name with a rock. He was the heavy coffee table in the living room he made in high school shop class, which I tucked myself under to read books and imagine new worlds. He was a big pot of chili made when my mother was out of town. He was my first bike, with the streamers on the handlebars.

When I was a child, I thought my father knew everything, could do anything and loved me best in all the world. Something happens between fathers and daughters in the middle of growing up, though. When I was a teenager I found his attention oppressive and his judgment harsh; his affections transferred to my brother. At the time I took every remark as an affront and intent to wound. In retrospect, all of this is patently false, an invention of my rebellious adolescence and a product of my quest for a measure of independence. My father was immeasurably patient during these years. Though he ought to dislike me quite a bit after how I behaved, he doesn’t seem to have held it against me.

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Two

My father is a teller of tall tales. Some of what he says is true, and some is exaggeration. If you listen carefully and watch for a crinkle of a smile at the corner of his mouth, you can almost tell the difference. He hiked the Appalachian Trail (true) and ate nothing but ramen and Bisquick the whole way (not so true). I know he was a bit of an adventurer, travelling the country on a Greyhound bus for a few weeks, hiking through Jasper National Park with brand new friends. I know that he didn’t always get along with his sisters but he’d put up his fists to defend them. A popular story in our family is of when, while doing the dishes, his sister threw a knife at him. But when the neighbor boy made fun of her, my dad beat him up. He was also just a tad reckless – he tells the story of finding his father’s Colt 45 while his parents were out, standing in their second floor bedroom, pointing the gun at the floor and pulling trigger to see if it was loaded. He patched the hole in the carpet with some fibers cut from under the bed and shifted the downstairs couch to cover the spot where a bullet was buried in the linoleum and concrete. I’d say this one was one of his exaggerations, but all parties involved confirm it’s the truth.

He started a photo digitization quest several years ago. He scanned all his old photos onto the computer and the hard copies disappeared. Then he drove over the bridge to Maryland, gathered up his mother’s collection and brought it back to our house to preserve. Here on a hard drive, in the cloud, and tucked away in filing folders and shoeboxes is my father as a child. Bright eyed and blonde, staring up at the world and into the lens of his own father’s camera. In his smirks, wide grins and expressions of exasperation, I also see my brother.

Among the photos are scattered a few report cards. “John has been an interested member of the group,” his second grade teacher wrote, “He has asked many thought-provoking questions.” The next year, “Occasionally he wastes his working time by daydreaming or by becoming involved in reading a book before his assignments are completed.” (Wait, are these report cards about him or me?) By sixth grade a portrait of the man that I now know emerged. “John’s attitude has always been one of friendliness, and he often volunteers to help with classroom chores,” his teacher began. “He is a storehouse of information, especially in the areas of social studies and science.”

While his mother saved mostly photos of people – her family, her children, her in-laws – my father saved photos of places. In folder and after folder, sorted by year and location, are photos of forests, mountains, valleys, lakes, flowers and towns. Over fifty photos of rocks, lichen and glaciers and accompany maybe eight of his college friends hiking in Jasper, Alberta, 1979. Sixteen photos of the leaves in Vermont in 1984. Seven photos of the landscape and a stone fortress in St. Kitt’s. From Vancouver, five close-ups of flowers, five photos of my mother on the beach and by the river, five of the waves and their marks upon the sand. And then in 1987, come the photos of people – they are photos of us, my brother and I.

I don’t know exactly who he was before he and my mother had me. All I’ll ever have is an impression of a person. But whoever he was, he became my father.

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Three

When we move away from our parents, we get physical distance. With physical distance comes perspective. Slowly I began to realize that my father was willing to do quite a bit for me. When I bought my car the summer I was twenty, he took the trip to the DMV with me, my hands full of documents providing my identity and the car’s. It felt eerily similar to my eleventh birthday, standing in line at a Navy Federal Credit Union branch with him to open my first checking account. As we walked out of the DMV he looked over at me and said, “I’ll get you a new stereo for the car. It isn’t a real car unless you’ve got a CD player.”

When I moved home the year after college, I would frequently spend evenings at a friend’s apartment in downtown DC and nearly as frequently I would miss the last train home. Instead of forcing me to either take a cab back to Virginia or spend the night, my father drove twenty minutes into the city to pick me up. Two years later, after I moved to New York, I wanted to paint my apartment. He took the bus up on a Friday and spent the weekend helping me redecorate three rooms and rearrange the furniture.

My first couple years out of college, and again as I struggled to stay afloat on a part-time job during law school, my father covered some major repairs on the car. We would take it to the garage he had gone to for the past thirty years, and argue at the counter in front of the mechanics about who they should call about repairs. “It is my car,” I would argue, “and it is my decision.” “Okay,” he would say, throwing up his hands in frustration and probably already knowing that as soon as they called me I would in turn call him for his opinion. I complained about it to my mother once, seeking some feminist solidarity – he was undercutting me, perpetuating the idea to our mechanic that women can’t understand cars. She told me simply, “You’re his baby. He’s just trying to hold on to that by making sure your car is safe for you to drive.”

These are small gestures, but they resonate for me as evidence of my father’s willingness to care for those around him. We are not an overly affectionate family, and he gives what the rest of us affectionately term “the brush-off”, a pointed pat on the back when he decides the hug has gone on quite long enough thank you please get off so I can go back to whatever I was doing. It is something of a joke with us. I’ll keep hugging past the brush-off until we both start laughing.

As I’ve come to recognize my dad more as his own person and as more than a collection of piecemeal memories, I’ve begun to emulate him in some ways and to try to do things differently based on his lessons. Some of it was probably a by-product of the way he raised me – to love the outdoors, to take risks and not be afraid to have an opinion. And some of it wasn’t intentional, but a lot of it was. He is a lawyer, as am I. He regretted not going to his law school graduation, so I went to mine and know I made the right choice, but a choice I wouldn’t have made without his experience ahead of me. He worked for my whole childhood for the federal government in energy law; I have just begun a career in state government in natural resources and land management law. It isn’t just career choices – we share an obsession for rocks, for example. My parents’ garden pond hosts a large granite rock he toted back from a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier in the 1980s. I have my own collections of smaller granite stone from the same glacial lake on my coffee table. Perhaps it is true, what that irreverent magnet on my parents’ fridge says, “Despite years of personal development he still turned into his father.”

I remember him as having lots of hobbies when I was growing up, things he did without us or my mother – he carved wooden masks, he turned wooden bowls, he whitewater kayaked. Now he goes to pottery class and he bikes. These days when I’m home we go on bike rides out the C&O Canal towpath together. While we ride, we have real conversations about our work, the news and our family members. More and more of his time is consumed by taking care of his mother’s affairs, and when we are out on these rides, miles from home and miles from where we started, he shares his worries and concerns for her, and his hopes for how to keep her life full and engaging even as she reaches 97. At these moments, I see my father as another person and not just as my dad. It is a conversation I might have with my peers and my close friends, and he values my opinion.

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Four

We leave on the last Friday in July. The last day in July in fact. Daddy and I; just the two of us embarking on a 2,500 mile drive. I spend the early morning on a last organization of my things; he spends it on errands to the bank and the gas station. At 10am, we are sitting at the dining room table, my parents’ usual weekend breakfast time. As they read the paper, I try to fill out the previous week’s Sunday New York Time crossword. My mother frowns as I fill it out in pen, scribbling notes and possibilities all over the page. “Drives me crazy,” she says. “You and your father doing the crossword in pen.” The nearest pen when I’d started had been a red one. Bright bold color poured out across the page.

Daddy asks if I know where I’m going. We both prefer to be the driver on a long car trip. I recite the highway numbers back at him: “270, 70, 76, then 80.” Today we head to his older sister’s house in Akron, Ohio, five and a half hours away. Tomorrow is thirteen hours from there to my brother’s farm. The day after is eleven hours to Glendive, just inside the eastern border of Montana. Then finally, on Monday, we’ll drive nine hours across Montana to Whitefish where we will meet my friend Kim, who is on the return leg of her summer trip to Alaska. He’ll stay with us a few days in Montana and then head home on a plane while we wind our way back to the east coast through national parks and forests.

It is the year I turned twenty-five, graduated from law school and consciously began to emulate my father. After all those years looking at his old photos of backpacking and canoeing trips, stories of his adventures on the road and in the woods, here I am about to set-off on a backpacking trip and multi-state tour of my own. With him to see my off. I look down at the bright red inked crossword. “You and your father.” Me and my father and our crossword puzzles in pen. Me and my father and our hiking trips.

I am nervous. In my eyes, my father doesn’t get nervous about anything. Or if he does, he hides it well. I strive to be the way he raised me. It is what I’ve been trying to do for years subconsciously, to pull off his way of knowing everything is going to turn out just fine. I’m hoping optimism is like happiness, that you can fake it until you make it.

And yet, as much as I – consciously or unconsciously – try to emulate my father, his confidence, his crosswords, his competence, his great adventure stories, I’m not entirely his daughter. I have the nerves of my mother. Whenever I feel my eyes well up or the pit of my stomach drop or the back of my neck prickle, I know she had a hand in raising me. At our 10 o’clock on a Friday morning breakfast, most of my brain is saying, “This trip had better go well.” I keep playing minor disasters in my head. What-if scenarios of things that could go wrong. What if we get in a car accident? What if I can’t get in touch with Kim out in Montana? What if I do meet a bear in the woods? Can I even climb this mountain? Can he even climb this mountain? What am I doing asking a sixty-three year old man to climb a literal mountain? Eventually though, you have to stop eating eggs and get on with it. So I plop my plate in the sink and follow my father out to my car.

I sit in the driver’s seat and it feels strange. My seat in the car for every trip I have ever taken with my father before this was the backseat, passenger’s side. He used to carry me, pillow, blanket, and all, from my bed to the car at 3am to leave for family vacations. I usually woke up somewhere on I-76 in Pennsylvania, only to fall back asleep soon after. But for the first time, this is my trip. My idea. My harebrained scheme.

This feels a bit like when I learned to drive. As I let my foot off the brake pedal, I can see him reach over to double check that I’ve taken off the parking brake. This feels painfully like our disastrous driving lessons. It’s just a habit, I tell myself, he doesn’t think you’re incompetent at driving. Deep breath. Turn left at the bottom of the driveway, and turn right at the top of the street. And we are off.

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