Because Sunday was Father's Day and yesterday marked the first day of summer, and also because I have just returned home and haven't sorted out any new thoughts yet, I am posting a piece I wrote ten years or so ago. It was published in the Santa Barbara Independent, included in my book of essays, and might even be up on my website someplace, so forgive me if it sounds familiar. It speaks of a summer morning that is forever engraved upon my heart, a morning of awakening to my own life beginning and the recognition of my father's life of sacrifice. I knew even then that it was a gift to have had this small, unexpected moment with him, and the love I felt has never faded. The thermos that he carried, by the way, is still in my possession. I'm looking at it right now, with its red stripes, chipped places, and a few dried paint drips from some long ago job; I hold it and picture it in my father's hands, filled with the bitter coffee he would have brewed hastily in the dark. Having revisited the essay, I see it could use a little editing, but I think its essence still resonates, and I am happy to share it (again):
Central Islip was a working class Long Island town of cheap lumber houses and small vistas. It seems we were always in search of a place to hide, to render ourselves separate from its oppressive dullness. One memorable day we we found a hidden creek beneath an overpass of Veteran’s Highway, clambered down with candy bars in our hands, and sat there for hours, pretending to be someplace else. When we were lucky, we would manage a ride to a nearby beach, loving the fact that there was indeed an end to the grim crisscross of empty streets, a physical edge to look beyond. Once we went to a road with the enchanting name of Crystal Brook Hollow; it led us to the Long Island Sound, and there we listened to the lull of water lapping onto pebbled shore.
And at Robert Moses State Park on Fire Island, anyone who was willing to walk a hundred yards in those days could still find solitude. People clustered near the parking lots and restrooms, renting umbrellas, placing coolers and blankets on the white sand, building noisy communities that somehow replicated the clamor of daily life. But I was willing to walk. I knew there was an old lighthouse further west at Point Democrat, as well as the remains of a shambling dwelling built of planks and driftwood – a place where one could live for a summer. I fantasized about that. I would be a cross between Huck Finn and Pippi Longstocking, clever and autonomous. I would write songs and wear my hair in braids. I would watch the storms gather over the sea, endure their pounding rains, and never be afraid.
Lilacs were more fragrant then. All rain was hard, every star shimmered, the wind through the treetops was a voice in my ear, and each path through the sparse scrub woods might yet lead to someplace undiscovered. I yearned to see the sun rise over the sea, and one day my boyfriend Richie agreed to drive me to Robert Moses Park the following morning at dawn. I knew my father would never understand, so I tiptoed out of the house in the dark of four a.m and met Richie a little further down the street. It was the morning of the solstice. We drove across the Causeway just as the first sun of summer began to rise like a great flat coin above the water.
And that was it. We watched the sunrise, vowed never to forget this particular June morning, and Richie drove me back home. The sky had lost its blush by now, but still possessed its early morning shyness. I stood for a long while in the backyard, fully awake and unwilling to return to my bed. A single rose had emerged from a small thorny bush I had inexpertly planted myself. I examined it like a proud mother, then sat on our brick steps and stroked the fur of an old cat named Duke who belonged to nobody but frequented our yard. I enjoyed the way Duke unquestioningly accepted my unlikely presence in the morning’s narrow seam, pushing his thick head against me, purring at my unexpected companionship.
Suddenly the door opened and my father appeared. He wore a green plaid flannel shirt and old paint-splattered trousers, and he carried a thermos of coffee. A single shank of his black hair fell across his forehead, and he looked at me with a bemused, tired expression. For an instant I braced myself for defense, but he knew nothing of my foray to the beach, and I could tell he was happy to see me. He smiled as though my being there was nothing more than a pleasant surprise that did not require explanation. I realized only then how bleak and lonely were his mornings. No one rose to make him breakfast or see him off, even in the dark of winter. Sometimes I would wake and hear him getting ready downstairs. There would be a small clatter of keys and kitchen things, then the door would shut, and he would drive away, and I would lie there as the sky grew light and blank, feeling utterly bereft until my trifling dreams reclaimed me.
Now he smiled and reached for me, and I nestled my head into his shirt the way I did when I was a little girl. He smelled vaguely of coffee and casein paint, and his shirt was soft and achingly familiar, and he had about him a residue of sleep and weariness that made him gentle. I felt protective of him suddenly, and it occurred to me on some guttural level that he would not be with me forever, and my heart chilled with a fleeting foreknowledge that I was not capable of grasping.
“It’s the first day of summer, Daddy.”
“No kidding,” he said distractedly, as though all days were one smudged procession.
“I couldn’t sleep,” I added, “so I thought I’d get up and greet the day.”
This sounded silly, and I wished I hadn’t said it, but my father didn’t patronize me. I wondered if he ever felt the restlessness that stirred in me, the romantic tug of wanderlust and yearning. It would be many years and much too late before I found the letters and poems he had penned in his youth. If I could but scale tonight the vault of sky, one poem began, the stars as stepping stones to reach on high…
But I suppose I thought I’d invented yearning. I somehow assumed that my father had been programmed differently to choose this life.
“Well, kid,” he said, beginning to shift, “you got to greet an old man, too.” He pronounced it keed, as he always did when he called me this. It was an affectionate nickname, slightly droll, and it pleased me.
He approached the car and turned to me once more. “Help out today, and take care of the baby,” he said, referring to my two-year old brother, who was already beginning to dislike the label.
I don’t know what it was that pressed upon my heart. I did not yet know the names for love and had never felt this weight, this vast presence at the core of me, so elemental I might dissolve within it or die without it. I was frightened and grateful, immobilized by the enormity of what seemed both burden and gift. In time, I would get used to this, for my heart would fold over it, and my soul would take its shape, but for now, I was suspended precariously in the stilled breath of morning. It was the start of summer, and I was sixteen.