The Pressure Cooker Radio Show of Love
I began the writing as an investigative exercise, to put it coldly. It was started as a way to get to know the man I called “Dad,” but knew more formally as “Father.”
At the news of my father’s death, delivered over the phone by my younger brother Tony just moments after the fact, and while I was literally en route to an airport to be near him before he passed, I had to admit to myself that I had no emotional reaction. It wasn’t denial, or the stereotypical shock you think you’ll experience long before it happens, when you’re still a child and you think your parents are indestructible. Hardly. My response to the words, “He’s gone,” was as cool as the January air in New Jersey through which my taxi sped.
I calmly slipped the cell phone into an inner coat pocket, and checked to make sure my flight was on time. It was. So I began to read emails.
I never knew the man. Respected him? Tremendously. But that was a far cry from relating to him. He was a figurehead. I reacted the way a citizen does to the death of a senator.
To this day, as I read and re-read passages, reworking them to try and capture the honest remembrances of childhood and pre-teen moments with him at the helm of our family, I realize that most of the story revolves around what can only be described as a raw, gritty love affair between that union sheet metal worker and his Bourbon County, tobacco farmer’s daughter of a bride. And more often than not, I become choked with tears. Theirs was a marriage sealed and bolted in a way that was utterly Brokawian — and inspiring. But it took my own pair of failed marriages as an adult to see the beauty of what theirs expressed.
As we draw closer to that bizarre national event flavored with waxy chocolate and dredged in a pale pink, I could think of nothing better to share than this slice of rare steak, served up on a stainless steel plate. Lovingly, of course.
I’d appreciate your comments. Would you listen to this if it were a “book on tape?” Would you purchase this on Amazon or at B&N, if you were the sort to peruse the memoir section? Is this the sort of thing you’d enjoy seeing as a screenplay? Goodness knows I’ve wondered who could possibly play my Mom.
After 6 years, I’ve gotten to know the man — and his wife, so much better. I’m wondering if anyone else would enjoy them as much as I’ve come to, so many years after the tender man with the gruff facing has gone.
When the language of your love is action, how do you say “I love you” when circumstance renders you mute?
That silence would continue through the night and into Thursday. Dad had spoken his last within the walls of his own home. But he had not yet lost the ability to communicate…
The men from the hospice arrived, and with a swift and perfunctory blend of gentleness and professionalism, they lifted Dad with an ease and a grace that must have affected Tony greatly. Tony had struggled with the cumbersome load of Dad in his arms those last two days of swift descent. Here, two men ably swept Dad’s listless body up and onto the steel gurney that would roll him away from his little house, and deliver him to the bed where he would die.
Everyone knew this. This was a final trip. No rehearsals. No time for goodbyes. From the moment the decision was made through to the slow-motion experience of pushing the buttons on the phone it was understood of the domino effect of that call. It was an acknowledgement that Dad was leaving us. It was the manifestation of the empty Pharaoh box and the surrender of Mom to her inability to do anything else for “her jewel.”
The men from the hospice had made many such trips. They were as cool and efficient as Catheter Brenda. They recognized their role; their presence was both despised, and greatly appreciated. They knew that there was an unspoken, and almost desperate hope that hung like a suspended fog in the eyes of their greeters that maybe, somehow, they could bring a spontaneous burst of fresh health to their cargo.
Strapped to the gurney in the living room, the place of Christmas trees and Easter Sunday photos, of shared Carol Burnett shows and interviews with door-to-door salesman, they gathered around Dad. Tony fumbles for his car keys. “You ready, Mom? You got his things?”
Mom is shrinking. Her shoulders are rounded. She’s already wearing her coat, and is clutching both her purse and “Dad’s things.” These are her things to do for him. Her eyes are full and wet. They dart from Dad’s vapor presence to the shielded faces of the ambulance men to Tony.
She keeps rubbing her jewel’s forearm. Polishing it. Like they were standing side by side, getting ready to go to a restaurant. Oh, why weren’t they? Like they were just going to Long John Silvers on a Saturday afternoon for a “quick bite.” Could we, Bud? Just once more?
What happened next, was both magical, and par for Dad’s course. It was a moment that, according to Tony, “if you could have seen it, you would have been at peace. Dad knew. He really knew.”
That formerly uncontrollable man whose oxygen-starved brain had sent his body into a spiral like the Kamikazes he had shot down in his youth, reached up from the gurney. His hands, shaking like Mom’s morning glories in the spring, fumbled for his “silly woman’s” tiny palms. What he found, I know, was familiar to his subconscious – soft as down, her band and small diamond never removed, fragrant, and with perfectly colored nails. I choose to believe that what he sought and found for a happy moment, cleared the awful fog of confusion and numbness he was swimming in. He was mute, and looked miles away. His grip couldn’t hold on. But that wasn’t the point.
“I’m alright, Mom. I’m right where I need to be. Come with me. I need you.”
Mom did the holding now, with both hands, pausing to stroke his soft hair, and bending down to kiss his pink forehead, dotting it with her tears, brushing them away. “I love you. I’ll always love you.” She whispered, still softly petting him with a stifled desperation, until the men, with tender insistence, urged it was time to go.
When my Dad reached up and through his haze to find and quiet Mom, I was hundreds of miles away on the Jersey Shore in my small advertising office, looking forward to my gifted flight the next day. I wouldn’t hear of that gesture for nearly three years after it happened. But time is a funny thing. It’s flexible, really. Thankfully, it doesn’t run only in straight lines. It bends over on itself, yoga-like, allowing us to access rich sensory detail at will. So when Tony told me the story, I was able to witness it from the vantage point of a very small boy, playing with his toys on the cool tile floor of a Kentucky home.
That’s where I first learned about romance.
Romance, I learned, wasn’t something saved for the late evening, ornamented with flowers, candlelight, and wine. It began early in the morning, with the muffled sounds of pots and pans coming from down the hall and through my closed bedroom door. It included scents, not of cologne or perfume, but of coffee and sizzling bacon, each of which slipped under the closed door of the bedroom my brother and I shared, and past the thick comforter tucked around my shoulders. The sounds of romance were soft and mature, hidden and deliberate. My parents conversation over their morning breakfast was never loud enough to hear, but I could hear them, nonetheless, in little blips of sound. Neither of them seemed to speak much above a whisper during this, their most intimate time of the day. It was more like music than conversation, more notes than words. They were there, and I was glad of it. I was experiencing the benefits of their intimacy in my boyish groggy sleepiness, and I’d fall back to sleep in the grey edgelessness of my bed, waking long after the sun gave lines to things again, and Dad had left for another hard day on a mysterious, uncharted construction site.
On the weekends, when Tony and I would share breakfast with Mom and Dad, it always felt stilted. It was never a natural, free flow of energy or conversation. Dad rarely spoke above a grunt. Eye contact from him was minimal. It was as if he was pouting. Mom was ever gregarious, up and down between stove, cabinet, and table. And she never ceased to make Dad her perpetual destination during her kitchen loops; a kiss on the top of his head while topping off his coffee, rubbing his back in wide, slow circles to peer at his paper. Looking across the table at Tony and me, she defined the gulf between Us and Them; “Did you get enough? You want more juice? Why don’t you get up n’ get it,” she’d say with a wink.
When we were all there, she was the facilitator, the producer, the engine. We ate, she kept the plates and bowls full. She also prevented the silence that would prevail if Dad’s ever-widening quiet had actually reached us.
Finally sitting, her left hand stirring her Sanka while her right hand stroked Dad’s left forearm, she’d ask Tony and I, “What’d you dream last night? Lord. I dreamt me a doozy!”
Mom’s softball questions were rarely honest attempts to solicit information from us. Rather they were unconscious stages for her to perform her vaudeville. Tony and I never complained. She was far too entertaining.
Before we could answer, and before launching into her own somnambulistic account with sentences only Hemingway could appreciate, she’d look to her right at Dad, his pale blue eyes ever straight ahead.
Her little fingertips lightly skated back and forth on his forearm, as if she were conducting a very quiet passage of music. She’d ask a question, knowing full well it would elicit no satisfying answer. But this wasn’t about questions and answers…
“What’d you dream last night?”
Her left hand had stopped stirring. It now supported her chin as she looked at him.
“Silly woman,” was all he would mutter, as he’d shift his weight, shovel in another spoonful of his trademark mushy bran flakes, and lower his gaze from just above the horizon to our eyes. He’d sweep-scan my brother’s eyes and mine, without a smile.
It was Mom who was smiling, looking at me, still stroking Dad’s arm.
Such were the weekend breakfasts, particularly during my teens, when Mom and Dad were in their fifties. During my preschool and early grade school years, I’d wake to bright, fragrant, fatherless mornings, but the spirit of the man was very much there. All the energy was geared towards his arrival at the end of the day.
The tile floor resembled the pea-gravel driveway that Dad’s dusty blue Olds Delta 88 would come crunching across hours later. It was black and white, with little round ovals of various sizes, all huddled tightly together. It was textured, and made my Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars make little jumps as they were sent zooming along the highways marked by the square edges of the one foot square tiles. No matter what time of the year, Mom’s floor was always cool to my little legs, and always sparkling. The smell of PineSol permeated the house.
I took up my position, most days after breakfast, in the same spot on the floor, the spot in the kitchen right in front of Dad’s den. (After he’d arrive home, he’d inevitably have to step over my folded frame, huddled over a coloring book or a pair of G.I. Joes to make it to his favorite chair. “Why do you always have to sit right in front of the door?” he’d say, towering over me, with the scent of earth and metal.
It was a hypothetical question. This wasn’t conversation, this was exasperation, and an answer was not only not expected, to have provided one would have been considered an insult to the man.
In retrospect, nearly four decades later, my answer wordlessly spirals out and into a retrospective echo. In conversation with his perturbed ghost, I’d attempt to quell his dusty annoyance. “Because it’s the best of both worlds, right here, Dad; the bridge between you and Mom. Your strength and quiet. Her diligence and hum. This is the epicenter of everything I call home. Here I buzz with the life of you both.”
The routine and safety of my childhood was a remarkable gift. That floor was always spotless, the breakfast always waiting for me after I heeded Mom’s reveille, the anticipation for Dad’s arrival ever building to the moment thanks to Mom’s rushing to finish dinner and have it well-timed on the table by the time Dad’s construction boots were off.
She was never late. Mom had the precision of a Panzer division, and to be honest, had about as much finesse. In true southern fashion for the day, the essence of most foods was fried or steamed right out of them, before being duly suffocated in a gravy. The pressure cooker was the weapon of choice for demoralizing all those pesky vitamins and minerals prior to subjugating them to the superiority of tasty fats and sugars.
“Would you please pass the salt?”
The pressure cooker absolutely fascinated me. A lid that locked down with a bayonet twist, then saw its handle bound to the handle of the huge, heavy pot beneath with a metal latch. There was a rubber gasket, and a large support grate down inside to support and separate what ever survived the ordeal from its extricated fluids below. It had a little, pointed volcano spout, dead center of the lid. I loved turning the lid upside down and spinning it on the textured tile. The spout would slip into the little black valleys between the ovals, causing the resulting tornado to wobble erratically. I would set up G.I. Joes, and have them try to halt the whirling gun turret. They were no match for its fury. The cyclone turret would take them out at the knees, sending them slamming into the baseboards and chair legs, much to my Mom’s shock.
It’s human nature to covet most what you cannot have, and the forbidden pressure cooker fruit was its crown jewel – the weight. The weight was a heavy steel ingot, cylindrical, about an inch high, with a precision hole bored dead center to its underside. It rested, tongue-in-groove over the little turret spindle. The weight was what regulated the pressure in the chamber. It had a second, pinhole-sized opening that let a little steam escape, so the weight didn’t come a projectile.
Mom kept the prized weight high in her kitchen cabinets, out of reach of both tiptoes and tiptoes on a pulled-up chair, behind the box of Argo and the Calumet baking soda. Even my G.I. Joes couldn’t scale that height. I thought the Argo Indian princess was pretty. I used to hold the box up next to my cheek at the store and mouth in baritone, “You call it corn, but my people call it ‘maize.'”
While the forbidden ingot danced, hissed, and did it’s best aural imitation of a Browning 50-caliber (a true signal that Mom was pummeling the cabbage inside with heat that was way too high; the cabbage wound up being as soft as the butter we’d top it with), Mom would turn up her prized transistor radio. Dr. Oliver B. Greene’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” was a not-to-be-missed staple of the day, followed immediately by “The Christian Jew Hour” with its haunting theme, an all-male chorus singing a-cappella, “Jesus Paid it All.”
Even when I was little, it bothered me that these broadcasts were but thirty minutes. Why’d they call it an “hour?”
These radio broadcasts exemplified the flavor of Christianity that my parents dressed themselves in with staunch, Truman-era pride. It was gutsy. It was simple. It was take-no-prisoners. We’re talking 350 horses of V8 salvation power, fully leaded. There was no right versus left in this theology, it was right versus wrong. You were born a filthy sinner. It wasn’t just that you committed sin, you were shot through with the stuff, fresh outta your mother’s womb. God took pity on that, since He knew you couldn’t help yourself out of that woeful situation. He sent his one and only Son to take all that sin on Himself like a great big Visa debt you couldn’t ever hope to repay, then, He offered Himself up to be slaughtered. Your sin gets the axe, courtesy of Him. Zippo, no more debt to sin. The devil’s got no hold on ya’ now. Three days later, (over two thousand years ago) Jesus comes back to life, perpetually and forevermore, and goes ahead of you into Heaven to prepare a place for you. Now you serve a new Master. Working gladly for Jesus ’til the end of your days, you sing his praises for what he’s set you free from.
The biggest issues of life were already worked out for my brother and I, we just needed to “accept the free gift.” And with a childhood that was white, clean, and neat, turning down eternal life was just…well…just plain ignorant.
Mom’s favorite radio preachers only delivered one message. Redemption. While other churches and Christian broadcasters were beginning to “modernize” by explaining how to be a Christian in your workplace, and how to conduct a Christian marriage, that was dismissed as psychobabble in our little bucolic corner of Christendom, Kentucky. “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb? Well then, there’s nuthin’ else you need!”
I preferred Dad’s expression of faith a bit more.
No other activity or area of speech contrasted Mom and Dad more than their individual Christianity. It was here where Dad’s playful, “silly woman,” wasn’t quite so playful. It had, not the bite of condescension to it, but more of a push. “Take that hand clappin’ and dancin’ stuff somewhere else. You worship the way you want, I’ll worship how I find…appropriate.”
Dad’s faith was mystical. Studious. He sought to find the pattern and weave of history, psychology, and cultures, to a point, with his understanding of Christian thought. As a Freemason, he was happiest in the sub-organization known as The Commandery, or Knights Templar, supposedly the only specifically Christian branch of Masonry.
My sister Kathy, was especially amused by Dad’s Commandery activities, most notably the uniform. It was based on French military tradition, complete with ceremonial swords and an ostrich-feather chapeau. I think to Kathy, Dad simply liked playing dress-up. The sword, after all, was gilded and engraved, and the cordon Dad wore around his neck in his uniform was thick and crimson, with a large gilded jewel of a cross and a crown. Kathy referred to it as Dad’s Captain Crunch outfit.
Mom never really understood all of Dad’s Masonic endeavors, and there were many. Dad became the leader of nearly every organization he participated in, and many Masons had a respect for Dad’s knowledge of ritual, history, and language that bordered on reverence. Of course, Masonry and its many organizations pride themselves on their secrecy, but Dad found his deepest expression of his Christianity in his Masonic experience. This was something Mom tolerated, but was excluded from, and being the very inclusive person she was, this was frustrating.
Part of being in a Masonic family meant participation in a myriad of family socials, and that meant Mom doing lots of cooking for these large, pot-luck gatherings held in soulless rectangular halls with oppressive florescent light. Most of the women at these gatherings were members of the largest of the women’s Masonic clubs, The Order of the Eastern Star. Many of these women were what I liked to call “power women.” They wore tailored dresses, heels with just enough heel to border on being a little too alluring, wore their hair either up or had it cut short. They spoke in unerring sentences with no pauses. They spoke loud enough to be heard without the Lodge’s “audio system.” They knew how to organize efforts.
Countless invitations to Mom to join the Eastern Star were issued. She never acquiesced. Structure, organization, and Roberts Rules of Order were Dad’s domain. She had her Sanka, her Bible, her radio preachers, and the Cincinnati Reds in the summertime. She was good to go.
Mom was excellent at organizing efforts, too. Just not the kind of efforts these business women were good at. Women from the OES may be able to get a marketing endeavor off the ground or arrange for the production of a petition to present to county government, but Mom was the woman you wanted leading up rebuilding efforts after one of the Ohio Valley’s notorious spring tornados, or perhaps you’d be the lucky police officer on the scene of an overturned tanker trailer – and mom had just happened to have been a bystander at the time.
Mom won her radio. She didn’t buy it, and it wasn’t a gift. She won it. And she won it at a Masonic function, no less, and it was instantly one of her favorite possessions.
Every year, Tony and I would don our best suits and loudest clip-on ties to attend the Widows and Orphans Home program, which Mom always called their Christmas “party.” It wasn’t a party, it’s where a couple hundred Masons and their families would come to support the widows and orphans of Kentucky Masons living in a complex comprised of many old, pretty homes on several acres of pine-dotted land in one of Louisville’s “old money” areas. It was standard recital fare held in a high-cielinged, old auditorium, complete with pipe organ and the smell of the radiators on the walls cranking out their steamy heat. Each year for years on end we were greeted to the same program, courtesy of the same aging orphans up on stage with their clarinets and trombones, accompanied by a very large aluminum tree lit with those huge Nora bulbs and big floor lamp with the spinning tri-color gel. Slow, prodding versions of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and achingly morose Silent Nights were sung along with, prior to the perfunctory visitation of an overwrought Mason in a Santa suit. I was always fearful of the Santa part. I think it was the way the adults always tried to amp up the faux tension. “He’s coming! Have you been good this year? He’s gonna know if you weren’t, ya know. He has ways. He does!”
The end of the affair was always the big door prize giveaway. Masonic organizations and merchants would supply a wide range of prizes, from six months of free haircuts, to one custom made birthday cake, to dress alterations, to…electronics.
On your way into the big auditorium, old Masons, their belts fastened around their sternums and their ties tied so that the skinny part that should be shorter was always way too long, handed out three or four raffle tickets to each person off a big, red roll. Their massive earlobes and wrinkled square fingers, combined with their painfully slow and deliberate movements were disorienting, yet so familiar to me. My parents were as old as most of my schoolmates grandparents, and my father was a Mason; part of an organization of antiquity, so I was surrounded by people of very advanced age and very crusty values, often cloaked in an air of mystery or good old fashioned southern prejudice.
In my early teens, I very nearly nodded off during the “entertainment” portion. I wanted us to get straight to the giveaways, praying I’d not win a fruitcake. In fact food was one of the last things on my mind. We had just come from the central commissary, a massive dining hall painted eggshell blue, with huge hanging lamps of yellowed milk glass and black lead, where we sat 12 to a round table feasting on massive plates of spaghetti, sausage, and for desert – blocks of Neapolitan ice cream that we first had to liberate from it’s thick wax paper. On the far end of the commissary was a rectangular window cut out of the wall, where we could see the old women and men in their hairnets, bathed in tungsten light and steamy fog, making this culinary kinship possible.
The year Mom won the Motorola – I was 7 or 8 – was like every other year before – and to come. My brother and I would sit next to each other, flanked by Mom on one side, and some other adult on the other side. The stadium-style seating had hardback flip-down seats, but thick crimson stuffed cushions. Dad was never nearby; he had dealings with Masons somewhere in the bowels of this place built by men wearing white aprons and wielding golden trowels for the betterment of the brotherhood of man and for the glory of the Grand Architect of the Universe. During an instrumental of Ava Maria by a rather obese girl in thick, plastic-rimmed glasses, my eyes canvassed the painted ceiling high above, with images of squares and compasses, of perfect cubes of cut stone, of ribbons with incantations in Latin that spiraled around Corinthian, Doric, and Ionic columns – all painted around the imposing central chandelier who lights were dimmed to an ember-like orange.
Tony and I had to behave as if we were in church. And it might as well have been, with the scriptures now replaced by a magical five digit number on a strip of red paper in our laps.
The chandelier lamps were brought up, and the Registrar of the Home was introduced alongside of the Grand Master of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Three gavel raps. All stand. One rap. All sit down. Comments were made by each. Gargle, rinse, repeat. Ad nauseum. The standing and sitting and listening to droning remarks were another staple of these affairs.
“When are they gonna get to the prizes? I saw they had a real projector up there on the prize table!” Tony said, excitedly.
“That wasn’t no projector,” I corrected. That was a microscope set.”
“Boys!” Mom issued a sharp rap of her own, with a palm, not a gavel, on an unprotected forearm. Mine.
Twenty agonizing minutes later, after centerpieces, bath towels, and a month of Sunday’s worth of free meals for two at Tom and Edna’s Cafeteria on 3rd Street were handed out to genuinely pleased people, it was announced that Bear Creek Lodge No. 127’s Women’s Auxiliary had provided a Motorola AM / FM / Weather travel radio in a black book-style case. Closed, it looked like a sleek, black box, about 5 by 7 inches. But the cover opened like a book, revealing the radio dial inside. It was very unusual. And it came with an earphone. That made it neat.
My brother and I focused all of our powers of will and hopeful innocence on those five digits.
“This is probably the only other cool thing up there, except for the projector,” Tony whispered.
::: Rap! :::
As the first digits were read, a holy hush fell. We weren’t the only ones imbueing their tickets with a pious desire.
Tony and I were rapt as the first four digits matched Her Most Worthy Advisor’s feedback-addled voice as it echoed off the cavernous rounded ceiling.
As the fifth number was read, our heats sank, but our ears were soon bleeding.
“That’s me! That’s me! Hot diggity dog! Well I swan! I won me a radio!”
Mom was up on her feet as if the Red’s George Foster had just cranked a homer out of Riverfront Stadium. She stood and waited impatiently for one of the Stewards to make his way to her with the precious cargo. Childlike, she clapped her hands for herself, and looked around and into the eyes of anyone near, as if seeking their approval. A delighted sponge, she was soaking up the perceived envy that no doubt dripped from every nearby Eastern Star, sitting in their cushioned hardbacks, offering up polite little golf claps.
“Idn’t that somethin’? I ain’t a never won a thing in my whole life. Never won nothin’ before! I knew my palms were itchin’ during dinner. I knew I was a gonna win sumthin’, I just knew it.”
Jim Mattingly, a tall, swarthy union carpenter from Dad’s lodge, wearing his Steward’s collar, handed the box to Mom. “There you go, Polly. You’d think you just won a trip to Hawaii. Enjoy it now, ya hear?”
As if she’d just been given an EpiPen, Mom was sedate and proper the moment the box was in her hands. “Thank you, Jim,” she said in her best June Cleaver. The little vertical jolts in her knees that resembled a toddler’s stomps were now quieted, and as the emcee’s were preparing to give away a pair of hand painted ceramic turkeys that doubled as salt and pepper shakers from Anne’s KnickKnack Hideaway on Bardstown Road, Mom still stood. She was doing what she always did to any loved item, be it her Bible right before and after a reading, or my back as she attempted to wake me for breakfast; she rubbed it in slow, gentle circles. She drew it in. It was hers now, not to enjoy, but to protect.
This was no small mystery to me. Mom was a woman who supported a bizarre blend of Victorian values, an unspoken Steinem-esque feminism, and an unapologetically tart evangelical Christianity. For her, “picture shows” were verboten, and a “genteel racism” was de rigeur, but dancing barefoot in the living room to Charlie Pride or Brook Benton was high happiness. Being seen on the front porch playing Monopoly was frowned upon – because it entailed the use of dice to win money (play money, but still, money was the goal of the game) – but the use of a little black Motorola radio, won as a Masonic Widows and Orphans Home Christmas Party door prize, each and every day for years thereafter, became a part of her daily worship.
Dad inhabited a tiny but very warm and even more fragrant world, and it was made so to a soundtrack of the Word of God and professional baseball, piped in courtesy of a raffle radio. Perhaps most important, that world was as regular as the schedule the soundtrack was played on. It was solidly consistent. Surprises were non-existent. His little castle had only two bedrooms and two bathrooms, but Mom made it spotless and colorful – with regularity. The tablecloths and centerpieces were updated for the seasons. Certain foods were only prepared around certain events and times of year. The winter clothes were brought down from the attic in the thick, outdoor lawn bags they were put away in back in the early spring. Mom may have executed the music and the pattern of the regularity, but it was Dad who fueled it. Dad was the silent, omnipresent conductor of that neat-as-a-pin home, and Mom, as if animated by his teutonic need for order and predictability, provided it with an irrepressible flourish.
Dad demonstrated his appreciation for this pre-prepared certainty every day, right after the crunch of his arrival under big balloon tires.
In my pre-double digit days, there was no road paved next to our house. There was a swath of land about 30 yards wide between our house and the large, white clapboard house next door that Mr. Borders built before I was born. (Mr. Borders, I was convinced, built everything his family enjoyed, by hand. He was a free, independent soul. He became my Dad’s best friend up until his death, just a year or two prior to Dad’s.) Since the ground under the tires leading up to our house was soft grass, we never heard Dad’s arrival until he was quite literally home. But like everything else in our family life, there was provision made for the time of his daily arrival. There were no surprises, only delight at the sound of the crush of little rocks, followed by the recognition of the low grumble of his engine, then the distinctive apprehension of deep silence once the ignition had been cut.
The sound of a door latch, then, :: thunk. ::
Next came the sound of his work boots, reflecting his slow, tired gait. It sounded like one giant matchstick, repeatedly attempting to strike itself against the ebony cloth on the side of the box.
He was on his way up the porch steps.
Mom had long since turned off her radio preachers. She had also changed her clothes. A fresh spritz of Chantilly masked the smells of astringent cleaners and mingled with the scents of baking. The last course was sitting on top of the stove, cooling.
The choreography of their 5:45 dance was like synchronized swimming. There was no panic or scurrying, no last minute scramble to organize or assemble a false sense of the day. Mom had been working up to the moment of her husband’s return, orchestrating each movement from laundry to changing her blouse.
She wipes her hand on a tea towel, turns towards the screen door, right as his reddened, often-cut hand punched the metal door latch, swinging it out and wide.
Dad would just stand there, not yet having placed a work boot across the threshold, one hand holding the door open, one hand gripping the black metal lunchbox, and now with Mom draped motionlessly around his neck like a scarf. I’m not sure how they did it, but they always managed to time it just right; Mom’s left shoulder was traded for Dad’s right hand, holding the door open with the most graceful blue collar pas de deux imaginable.
Dad’s right hand found Mom’s dainty waist. His right hand held fast to the lunchbox. Motionless, they darkened the door. One figure.
Me, on the floor, blocking my own doorway of choice, I turned my attention back to my thick newsprint pad and drawings of cars. I trade red for green. I look up.
One figure, still.
Softly, I hear breakfast music playing. A few notes manage to morph into words, slipping free of their warm tangle of arms and work shirts.
“You know I miss you all day long, don’t you?” Mom purrs more than speaks.
“Yeah,” Dad quietly barks.
“Why don’t you just stay here all day with me?”
“Why are you always so silly, woman…”
I look up, having finished a tree behind the brown car. I catch Dad’s eye, a lighthouse beacon atop the One Figure. It’s as if he’s peering at me, roguishly from behind Mom. She is still there, no longer a woman, but drapery. She has no weight. And he is immovable. Dad winks at me, and smiles a tight-lipped smile. He then gives Mom’s bottom one quick, gentle pat, and by extending his right shoulder, relieves Mom of that burden.
“C’mon, woman. Let me go!”
Again, a rascal’s smile. Mom, like a kite without a string, glides back to her work in one motion, and I am up on my feet as Dad approaches. He steps over my drawings, makes his usual comment about me blocking the door, and then swoops me up with the same arm that had held Mom aloft. He kisses my cheek with his bristly sandpaper. He smells of a cocktail of man that has died with his generation: hair grease that has long since broken down, sweat, aftershave, diesel, dirt, metal, fatigue. His body is tired but he brings me airborne without effort. He makes a sound in faux exertion.
“Oh! You’re killin’ me! You’re so hea-veeee!”
Giggling, I collapse in his desk chair with him. In a few minutes, he’ll be flipping through the front pages while I am walking around his den wearing his cavernous work boots, his white tube socks flecked with the red clay of Kentucky topsoil will be on my forearms past my elbows – superhero gloves.
PineSol, Clorox, Mom’s Chantilly, and cabbage and potatoes in the pressure cooker. Bright sunlight reflecting off the shiny black and white “pebbles” kitchen tile that kisses my small thighs with it’s fresh-mopped coolness. Evangelical firepower now quiet from Mom’s raffle-winning radio having made a bid for my as-yet-unsullied soul. Mom standing at the sink-window, in awe of the hand of God, sweeping across the thick bluegrass of her lawn. The fresh t-shirt Mom just gave me to put on for dinner smells just like her. My crayons, markers, and colored pencils are all arranged in their boxes, sorted by color. The windows and screen door are open to the sweet, warm breeze. The sheers are waving at me. Dad is now home. His arrival was announced by the crunch of the gravel driveway and confirmed by the languid kiss of the woman who inhales his efforts, daily. He’ll examine my latest drawings as I sit in his sun-baked lap. We’ll drizzle pancake syrup on the cornbread in the oven to go along with the cabbage and potatoes. The big pitcher in the fridge is topped off with sweet tea. It is summertime, but it is not hot.
I am five. Life is really, really good.