Enigma

[This piece is based on a prompt from the memoir class I took.]

When I was a child, my father came home from his job at the casket company and got drunk on whiskey. After dinner he’d retreat to my parents’ bedroom and sit on the edge of the well-made bed, strumming a guitar he didn’t know how to play. Catching glimpses of him through the cracked bedroom door, I remember his thick, uncoordinated fingers assaulting the strings, his slurred, warbling voice rising up with an unrecognizable song. Every now and then he’d stop to pound his corncob pipe into the delicate, standing crystal ashtray my mother had bought. Despite not having money, despite the five kids trampling through her house, despite the alcoholic husband, my mother had pride of place, and did her best to keep the house as clean and neat as possible, to shine up the shoddiness. When my father smashed that pipe into the pretty ashtray, it was as if he were smashing her down, covering her effort with ash and contempt. But this thought came much later, when I realized not everyone had a guitar-wrecking, pipe-smashing dad.

Every Christmas, he’d stagger home drunk with some sad, Charlie Brown-like pine tree he’d found not far from some back road, wilting and spindly, nearly shivering in its nakedness. My mother would do her best to fill its yawning gaps with tinsel and colorful bulbs, bind it with cheery garlands, like gauze around a wound. I didn’t notice in my holiday excitement either the gaps or my mother’s hastily wiped tears. All I saw was a glittery tree with presents underneath, and that was enough, my dad a kind of hero for bringing it home. He spent Christmas Eve in the kitchen filling his glass as we opened our presents in the living room.

That glass was a permanent fixture on the dash of the car as he somehow drove us to the supermarket, to a relative’s house, or wherever we needed to go, as my mother didn’t drive. Back then we never wore seat belts, so I was free to roam the car; I gravitated toward the front, between mom and dad, to alleviate my frequent car sickness. Always there on the dash was that glass of amber liquid, sparkling in the sun like a jewel he coveted.

That glass in his hand as he picked me up in his arms after work and brought me to the pantry, to show me how he made his highball. I don’t remember the ingredients or the steps, but I do remember the feel of his arms around me, the sweet smell of the pipe smoke, how I knew he loved me even though I don’t remember him ever saying it.

After the divorce, there were periods of years when I didn’t see him. He lived in the same town but didn’t come around. My mother’s betrayal made him bitter. As a teenager, I recalled with a new sense of outrage his transgressions: hanging out with his teenage sons and their friends in the backyard drinking with them; getting drunk at his oldest son’s wedding and causing fights; a family picture from that wedding pinned to his apartment wall, with my mother’s photo eyes gouged out with a pin or some other sharp object.

I had loved him as a child. I spent years as a young adult hating him. Now that he’s 81 and long sober, afflicted with high blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis, I’ve come to forgive him for what he was, what he had let himself become. Maybe I forgive him because I was his favorite; maybe it’s because I catch him staring at my daughter with a love he’ll never admit to; maybe it’s because on bad days I find myself eyeing the dusty wine bottles on my counter with longing, bottles that I don’t dare open.

 

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