Part Nine of my memoir, Face. In this excerpt, I continue to remember my dad and what he meant to me.
My dad made me feel like I was floating in the warm summer waves of Lake Michigan, placid and enveloping as dusk falls, protected and lifted up and held gently in the lapping waters. Like I had just won the biggest jackpot that exists. Like my world would crumble and splinter into a million pieces if he left me. While Mom was with me through the surgeries, a concrete ghost, he was always in the background, an assurance that comforted and allowed me to dwell in a safe space.
I don’t have any memories of my dad visiting me in the hospital, though I know he did. Perhaps he came in the evenings after work, to spell Mom. Or he might have come in the afternoons. I don’t remember. But I know he came, because the nurses were on a first-name basis with him.
My dad was a member of the Optimist Club for more than fifty years, and when I was little, the club had a Father-Daughter Dinner every year. Dad had three girls, so once every three years I got to be his special “date.” Mom would buy me a fancy dress with a tulle skirt, and sometimes I’d wear gloves and black patent leather shoes with buckles. It was the only time outside of Easter that I got a new dress. After dinner, the men would stand up and sing to us, all the old standards including “Tea for Two,” “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” and show tunes like “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”
I was enthralled, with all those men, and with my dad. At the end of the night, they sang, “Goodnight, ladies! Goodnight, ladies! Goodnight, ladies! We’re going to leave you now.” Which made me feel sad and happy at the same time.
When we are young, certain experiences become concrete in our memories, and this is one of them. I am sitting next to my dad. Long rows of tables are set with dishes and glassware, and everyone seems to know my dad, wants to shake his hand and say hello. I am so proud to be his daughter. No one says it, no one shows it, that his daughter’s face is disfigured, like a wax figure whose face is melted, whose eye is wilted. I am with my dad, who loves me, and those men, who acknowledge through their actions and their unspoken understanding they know: I could be anyone’s child. Thank God for these good men, who held my dad in love and respect, who held me in a place of acceptance – for my dad, and for me.
My dad was the only one who made me feel like Marcia, not the scarred child, but the bright spirit I knew dwelled within. There is a photograph of me taken probably a week or two before the accident. In it I am standing next to my older sister, leaning in toward her with my hands on my hips, smiling as if I had just gotten away with something really naughty. That is the Marcia my dad knew and loved unconditionally. It is the Marcia I lost.
When he died, I felt like someone blasted the rock I stood upon to smithereens, like the world had suddenly turned from safe to perilous, and I didn’t know how to find solid footing.
On the day of his funeral, friends and family gathered at the Catholic parish where Mom and Dad belonged for nearly thirty years. A couple of days earlier Mom and I had met with the parish priest, who said he would do the service though he didn’t really know my dad. I wanted to do the eulogy, and the priest kept trying to dissuade me. Finally I prevailed. But that morning, I wasn’t sure I could stand and talk about him without falling apart. I remember asking him to be with me and give me strength, and when I stood to go up to the lectern to speak, I found a sense of purpose and calm I hadn’t before. I talked about how much he’d meant to me, how much he’d given me, and how grateful I was for him, and for Mom, through all those years of surgeries.
One of the things I found most touching on that morning was all the guys who golfed on Wednesday mornings at Community Golf Course gave up their games to be with us, and Dad.
Several years after my dad’s death, I was at a loss to understand my mom’s inexplicable distance. Why was she so quiet? Why did she answer my questions with single-word answers, with shrugs? I wondered what I should have been doing for her, what I was lacking. She was so happy with my sisters and my brother; quiet and strained with me.
Finally, it occurred to me that she might be jealous of my relationship with Dad.
I couldn’t imagine. No mother would feel that way, would she? And if she did, I certainly never saw it. I think about the way she removed herself when I was with Dad, disappeared to knit in the den, or headed upstairs while we watched TV downstairs. Even now as I write this it sounds so inconceivable. But, then – perhaps.
My parents married in 1948, twenty-somethings full of confidence as the nation was recovering from war and creating a future of possibility. He joined the family business; she had an English degree and was teaching at a local junior high. They settled into a small house – purchased from my dad’s parents − in 1949. Cherie was born in September 1950, followed shortly by Ricky and Robert, the two boys they lost. I was born at Mercy Hospital on Christmas Eve 1955. My brother, Chuck, followed in September 1957, and then my youngest sister, Molly, in September 1960.
Our house had two stories, with white clapboard siding and a long, glass-fronted porch that stretched the length of the house. There was a wooden front door that opened into a small vestibule where winter boots and coats were stored. A stairway to the left and just inside the front door went up to the second story, where we had a bathroom and three bedrooms.
In the front hallway was the little telephone table where my mom was sitting when I was hurt. The living room off to the right stretched almost the entire length of the house and opened at both the front hallway and the dining room, which was between the hallway and the kitchen at the back of the house. Flecked wallpaper in crimson and black lined the dining room walls, and the living room had beige carpeting and equally bland walls. There was a blond console TV against one wall. I watched the assassination of President Kennedy on that TV, and Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, and swooned when the The Beatles first appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Off the kitchen was a stair that led to the back door on the alley and then down to the basement. It was damp and dark there. Shelves held dozens of canned goods and storage boxes, and there was a washer and dryer against one block wall. A tiny window high above the laundry let in a small bit of natural light, and a bare overhead bulb hung from the ceiling.
I saw my mom cry for the first time in the basement. She was sitting on a small chair among the laundry, and I had crept down the stairs halfway to see where she was. Then I realized she was weeping softly. I don’t know why, but I knew it was because of me, because of all the pain I’d caused her and the family. And I didn’t know how to make it better, to make her happy again. So I just sat there, watching her from the darkened stairs.
I keep coming back to the basement. Monsters and ghosts, and my mother weeping. Once, there was a tornado warning. I was seven or eight. Tornados were not uncommon in Michigan, but this one was serious enough that my dad came home from work. He made us all go down into the basement, Mom, Cherie, me, Chuck and Molly. But he stood near the back steps and stared out the kitchen window. At one point I crept up the stairs, wanting to be near him, worried for him. He admonished me back down to the basement.
So I sat with Mom, anxious and fretting. I am trying to put myself back in that space, trying to remember how she was. I was so worried about Dad, I didn’t notice her demeanor. Perhaps she tried to soothe us. Was she holding Molly on her lap? Was Chuckie clinging to her side? I know I would not be mollified. I was certain Dad would be taken, pulled out the window by the tornado, and I would never see him again.