Saturday, April 05, 2008

my father's heart

Between the birthdays of two of my children fall the birthdays of a few of my dear dead, including my father. April is a poignant month, if not the cruelest one, spotted with memories and lilacs and sparrows building in the eaves.

Tomorrow is my father's birthday. He has been will be 11 years this September. He was born between wars, fought in wars, died on a lightning blasted night in my arms, staring with trust into my eyes. Some days, most days, I wish we had had more time. When the burly funeral parlor guys came to take away his body I burst into wrenching sobs, and they put the stretcher down again. "Do you need more time?" asked the biggest guy, who looked kind of like a pro wrestler but had kind brown eyes. I got a photo of my father in his healthful days, a few years before his death, and made the guys look at it. "I need you to see who he was" I said, still sobbing. And I thought, I wished, that I could have years, decades, centuries. But I said "no, go ahead".

And sobbed some more. Perhaps more for the lost days of childhood, when he was off flying air rescue and I was reading fairy tales. Perhaps for the years of awkwardness and mutual misunderstanding. I don't know.

We missed a lot. We had a lot too, in between the arguments, the alcohol--it was years before I realized that the smell I most associated with my father was whiskey and tobacco; I had assumed it was some nice manly aftershave. We fought fiercely through all the years I lived under his roof.

Yet he would recount the story of my third year, in which, asked who the boss of the house was, I sternly answered "There is no boss in this house". I probably kept to myself my feeling I should be boss--I was, in my sweet and quiet dreaming way quite the bossy little first born. But I remember the twinkle in his eye as he'd tell the story, and the way he introduced me as "This is my little revolutionary" to the guys in his squadron. And the times he'd take me, fully against the rules I am sure, to see his airplane, to sit in the cockpit, to dream of flight.

We just never quite understood how to speak to each other.

So the other day I was going through an old box of photos and oddments, given me years ago as he was clearing out old letters, old photos, little bits and pieces of his life and my life. And I came across a little bag, a plastic bag. Inside were bits of carved ivory.

Once they had been a necklace; huge, massive. Most of the bits were flat oblongs with a twisted carved design on the surface. Tied together with sinew, which had long since rotted, they ended in an ivory heart.

My father had been given this, or purchased it, in the time after my birth when for 2 years, almost 3, he was flying air rescue out of Goosebay Laborador, surrounded by snow. I think it was walrus ivory. When I was 17 or 18 he showed me this necklace and offered it to me; we sat in the basement and I said scornfully "I'd never wear it, not my style". He looked, briefly, hurt. We never mentioned it again.

And here it was, in pieces, yellowing with age, smooth and cool. The day I found it I'd been reading an Inuit tale of Sedna of the oceans, Sedna who refused to marry, yet fell in love with a handsome stranger and left her father's home. But, ah, the handsome stranger was really a fierce seabird, and the home was a filthy and cold nest, and she wept for her father's home.

In some stories Sedna had married before, for love, not ambition, to a loyal dog, and borne children both human and canine who would try to help her later. In some the seabird was her sole mate, and a cruel one.

And her father came to rescue her. And here the story turns dark as any of the fairytales I used to thrive on. As the bird husband flew after the boat on which Sedna and her father fled, and the waves of the ocean grew so high and huge the boat was in danger of being swamped, and the skies darkened and a storm blew up from the north, and the seabird husband screamed, the father grew frightened. And Sedna's father, to save himself, threw her overboard.

She clung to the boat. He cut her fingers off. And as she sank into the waters each of her fingers became a beautiful creature of the sea--fish, otters, seals, walruses. All were born from Sedna's pain. She sank to the bottom of the sea, and there she stays.

And when those in the upper world are kind to her creatures, to all creatures, when they remember her, she sends the fish, she sends the seals. And the humans have plenty and peace. But when the world is cruel, when she is forgotten, she keeps her sea children close to her and the people on land suffer hunger and want. Then someone must seek her out, go to her in the world of the ocean, and comb the tangles from her hair.

Without fingers, she can't do this herself.

So, this is the story I was reading, or a version of it, as the walrus heart and the smooth and twisted pieces came to light again. Sedna's story is terrible and marvelous. My fingers still being quite connected to the rest of me, I stroked the ivory.

I still wouldn't wear the burdensome, heavy necklace, even were it intact. But I slipped the walrus ivory heart onto an old chain, and put it on.

The story didn't say what happened to Sedna's father.

I was wearing the heart today when an old friend stopped by with his wife and his two youngest boys. The three year old, who like most three year olds assumed I was about his age, sternly asked me if my mommy knew I had dirt in my bathroom, upon seeing the cat litter box. I said, skipping over the mommy part entirely, "so, you don't have kitties at your house?" and he said "no, only a dog" and sighed heavily. As I was explaining the mysteries of catboxes he reached up to touch my ivory heart. "Now, that is very very pretty" he said, "hearts are good".

Yeah. Hearts are good.


Blogger Lori Witzel said...

A couple of fast side-notes:
* My dad's birthday -- same day as yours.
* And I, too, am a bossy lil' first-born (amusing my equally hard-headed hubby to no end.)

Skimmed too fast, but will come back for slower reads later...

3:58 PM, April 06, 2008  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

hey lori, I knew we were sisters of the heart. I realized I have never been involved with a guy who wasn't either an only or a first born. Mostly my partner is amused...but not always.
I recall you mentioning dental procedures (dire words). They loom in my life tomorrow (and probably forever).

5:02 PM, April 13, 2008  
Blogger Susangalique said...

hope your month has passed in blaze of busy.

very touching post


9:19 PM, April 19, 2008  
Blogger Margaret said...

How very strange to love someplace so much and have to hide your heart elsewhere. Interesting though as I find myself with stories I would prefer not to share. Although SoHum scares me far less than my family. I am a first born also, maybe that's where the need to protect comes from. Glad you sent me here and I will never tell.

7:22 AM, April 29, 2008  

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