If I could hold time in place, if I could freeze-frame a moment in time, I would sit across from my father at the dining room table and simply watch him. I would watch him as he read the newspaper or made his to-do list, cigarette poised between the fingers of his left hand, coffee cup to his right.
My father was darkish-complected of Cherokee and German descent. When he died at the age of fifty-two, his short, dark hair was sprinkled with gray. He was a serious man, brought up under difficult circumstances on a central-Illinois farm during the 1930s and ’40s. He ran away from home to fight in the Korean War before finishing high school. He met my mom in Duluth, Minnesota after he’d earned his General Education Diploma or GED and was enrolled at the University of Minnesota. They met on a blind date and married after she’d graduated with a nursing degree from the College of St. Scholastica and he from the university with a degree in education.
They made their home in Duluth where my older brother and I were born. We moved south to Illinois shortly thereafter, bouncing between northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin until I was five years old. The Bay of Pigs altercation took us to Madison; a teaching job took us to Mazomanie, Wisconsin; Chrysler Assembly landed us in Poplar Grove, Illinois before I’d finished kindergarten. I had two more brothers and a sister when my parents decided we’d move to a small farm on the Illinois-Wisconsin border. My youngest brother was born on the farm.
I have often said that my life began when we moved to the farm in 1972. The farm was where I believe we all came into ourselves. On the farm we led purpose-driven lives. We raised and butchered chickens, collected eggs, tended the occasional pig, cared for a trio of sheep, kept a pony and then acquired a horse. We raised twin calves to adulthood. My parents planted a very large garden. We ate well. We ate like we had never eaten before. I remember hunger before moving to the farm. I remember wanting food and understanding there would be only so much, and nothing more. Was it that I didn’t like the food I was offered as a young child? To be sure I was not a fan of bologna sandwiches; but there was so much food on the farm — chicken, pork, beef, mutton, eggs upon eggs, and endless vegetables.
Farm life was far from idyllic. We children worked hard during those years and were largely opposed to it. What would we have rather been doing? Anything other than hoeing gardens, canning pickles, freezing corn, and tending animals. My brothers dreamed of playing basketball as they fed animals and shoveled manure. I dreamed of being a famous writer, traveling the world as I helped out in the house. My parents, though, did not complain about the work. Each evening after arriving home from their day jobs, they changed clothes and went to work again. As an adult, I look back with pride on their focus and intensity — my father heading out to the barn in the early evening; my mother pulling out pans, making meals, assisting with homework, tucking six children into bed nightly with an “I love you” and kiss.
My family moved to a northern suburb of Chicago a few years after I left for college. My father passed away when I was twenty-six. I have often reflected that the most difficult aspect of his passing was the realization that I would never have the opportunity to share with him how I experienced the world. I would never have the chance to paint for him a verbal picture of how the sun shone through the clouds one evening onto a field of spring wheat or describe how the wind moving through new-aspen leaves was like the sound of waves on the ocean. Did he know this already? Had he heard, as I had, the ocean in the leaves? I would not walk with him through the woods or across pastures noting the changes of passing seasons. Did he know the yellow-bellied sapsucker? What were his thoughts on magpies — or muskrats — natural phenomena or pests? Had he reveled in the beauty of a burdock blossom? Had he ever come upon a wild turkey and her chicks? I saw them one morning on a bike ride, I’d tell him; I saw something odd in the tall grass and headed back to look again….
The most difficult aspect of my dad’s passing was the realization that I would never be able to ask him who he was, what he’d hoped for in life, what he’d seen. I would not hear his story; I would not hear his poetry; I would not hear his song. Loren Eiseley wrote in The Long Loneliness, “Only the poet who writes, speaks his message across the millennia to other hearts.” My father did not write his message down.
If I could hold time in place, if I could freeze one moment in time, I would sit across from my father at the dining room table and watch him. I would observe him closely as I do the changing seasons. I would watch him as I watch sunrises and sunsets, butterflies and magpies. I would watch him as I watch cattails flowering and new turkey chicks. I would watch him and absorb all that was possible in the silence that separates us. And I would write down what I had learned painting a verbal picture for those he left behind.
Eiseley, Loren. “The Long Loneliness.” Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos, Vol. Two. Ed. William Cronon. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2016. 296.