Oh, My Papa

cigarOh my papa, to me he was so wonderful

Oh my papa, to me he was so good

Gone are the days when he would hold me on his knee

And with a smile, he’d turn my tears to laughter


Oh My Papa, was a popular song when I was growing up. I used to sing it and wonder if people really had such a relationship with their father. 

One afternoon I brushed against a photo album while cleaning my office, and watched it tumble to the floor. I bent to pick it up. I was in a hurry, and having to retrieve it heightened my impatient haste. The album had fallen open to a picture of my father in his hospital bed. The sight of him froze my attention. He looked straight at me, as if trying to tell me something, as if there was something left unsaid. I looked closer. There he was peering back at me, this proud angry man dressed in one of those awful cotton hospital dresses, his eyes pleading, and reaching out.

His eyes always told the truth, unlike his words.

He looked like a drowning man who had realized for the first time that no one could save him, that no one could make a difference, not now or ever again. My heart went out to him. I picked up the photo album and held it in my arms, pressing it against my heart, the way I longed to reach out and cradle his soul, the way I longed to release the bottomless unspoken pain that called to me from his broken life. I wanted to bury my feelings for him with his body, but it was not that easy.

I sat there for, I don’t know how long, embracing his spirit. There was nothing in the world but the two of us, and then I closed the cover and put it away. God, how I hated him and how I loved him so.


racoonI was standing in my father’s kitchen near the stove. He sat at the table, whiskey clinking ice against clear glass. Playing cards laid out on the surface, waiting for us to engage in the only way we’d found to relate. He was in a good mood, with no memory of wreaking havoc the night before.

It was one of those transcendent moments when life stood still, and I looked down at myself from the ceiling. A shaft of light ran through me from the crown of my head to the arch in my feet. I realized in that moment, that if I were not related, that I would have nothing to do with my father – ever. I saw no commonality or mutual respect, just a faltering sense of reaching out through decades of broken days and barbed wire.

In that waking up moment, I knew that I could never return. If I cared for my well-being at all, I needed to grieve and walk away.

His partner, Sarah, spoke of spring and planting, not a garden, they were too old to maintain a garden, but flowers, something to admire through the window, something to provide beauty and the promise of spring.

I’ll do it, I offered. Let me make a plot near the birdfeeders, so you can watch the robins visit and the flowers bloom at the same time. I went to the store and bought packets of lilies in various shades of splendor. I dug in soil too early to plant, adding fertilizer and good wishes as I placed each bulb in the cold April earth.

Without fully realizing it, I’d planted the flower of death and resurrection. I never intended to go back and didn’t. I placed no flowers on his grave, but left a living monument that day to the last gesture my love could afford.

Jesus Saves

stained-glassThe first thing I ever stole was from the Baptist church. It was Christmas. We were given sugar cookies shaped like stars, steaming hot chocolate and bible lessons. Brightly colored packages circled the tree in the entryway, one stacked on the next. Those were not for us.

After the final prayer the other kids exploded with freedom, pushing against tall wooden doors that opened into snow and afternoon light. But I stalled in the lobby, mesmerized by the tree. Surely, one of those presents was meant for me. I was drawn back to them full of longing and larceny. The lobby was still and quiet. Perhaps, I thought, I could take a tiny one, one that would not be missed. I bent down and helped myself to a small rectangular box. It was wrapped in green paper covered with snowmen wearing black top hats, buttons of coal, carrot noses and big smiles. Yes, I decided. This was the one. I buried it in the well of my pocket, deep beneath my mittens. Then I sprang from the door like Satan himself was chasing me. I ran through snowdrifts up to my knees, went bounding up the stairs of my home, down the hall and locked myself in the bathroom. I was breathing heavy, afraid the God police had been alerted. I listened for footsteps but no one followed. The house was empty, so I tore open my surprise and……. my heart sank. Inside was a tie clasp that said, JESUS SAVES in shiny silver letters. A tie clasp – for a man! I couldn’t take it back. What on earth could I do with it? In a moment of generosity, I rewrapped it.

My dad was tending bar in the restaurant below when I climbed on a bar stool and told him to close his eyes. I have a gift for you, I said.

Where did you get it?

From the Baptist Church. They were giving out presents for dads.

I placed the torn green snowmen in his hands.

Looks like you opened it.

I wanted to make sure it was right.

He lifted the tie clasp with JESUS SAVES in shiny silver letters out of the box and bellowed, Jesus Christ! What the hell am I supposed to do with this? For crying out loud, Karen. JESUS SAVES? What were you thinking?

There was a moment of tense silence before he clipped it against his shirt and tie.  What the hell,  he said and went back to mixing drinks.

Another Time

school-deskIt was cold in the winters where I grew up, in upstate New York. Cold and snowy. There was a one room schoolhouse on the corner near my Uncle Glenn’s farm. That’s where my older sister and brother walked to school. I came later. I had an expanded two room school house. When I went to school, you knew what grade you were in by what row you sat in. There were three rows in the ‘little’ room, housing grades 1, 2 and 3. There were three more rows in the ‘big’ room; 4, 5, and 6. After you made it past the 6th row, you were shipped by bus to the village, which was not something to look forward to, because your dog could no longer go to school with you.

Every Friday the Bible lady came and told stories on a felt board. On Wednesdays we sat on top of our desks, rocked them back and forth like wooden horses, and sang songs. The rest of the time was reading, writing and arithmetic.

I was hopeless with numbers, so I’d line my body up perfectly behind Johnny Horton, hoping to become invisible. Other times, I’d stare out the long length of windows that covered the east wall looking at broad leafed maples, studying the heavy length of chains that held our wooden swings, and waiting for recess. It was difficult to sit in school with a vision of my aunt pulling a fresh lemon cake from the oven, and cats pawing warm milk into their mouths at milking time. There were trees to climb, tractors to steer, ponds to skate and horses to ride. What the heck did I want to be in school for?

My Uncle Glenn and my father, Doug, started the Elmira airport. Glenn managed it, while my dad offered bi-plane instruction. They began with a  quonset hut, an open field and a pioneers love of flying. My dad dressed in leathers, loved dipping down into tree tops and doing daredevil rolls in the sky. Glenn did the business part. He wore tweed suits, fine leather shoes and a broad brimmed hat. I can still smell the oils he used on his shoes and see them lined up in his closet like beautiful little soldiers waiting their turn. Cherry-bowled pipe smoke lingered in the air when he passed.model-t

I’d wait by an old apple tree near the school house for Glenn to come home. I wanted to ride the last mile on his car. As he turned the corner, I’d make a run for it, leaping and landing on the running board. He’d slow enough to reach out and grab me. We’d ride home that way, smiling, laughing and visiting through the window. Me, with rolled up jeans, bare feet and dirty face in the summer: fur lined boots, winter coat and same dirty face in the winter. Blonde braids trailing the wind.

The Note

He lay in a hospital bed, unable to speak. A preacher came to see him everyday, holding his hand, offering words of encouragement and turning inward to ask God for help. Bless this soul, the preacher repeated, and return him to health.

My father’s eyes were open, but he was too weak to speak or move his body.

The preacher read scriptures aloud, always smiling, praying and talking with my father about salvation, heaven and hell.

At the end of two weeks my father gestured for pen and paper. The preacher slid them within his grasp, smiling and encouraged.

Father found the strength to write three words, then pushed the paper in his direction. The preacher stood up and read the note. It said, in shaky exhausted script, Hit the road.

written April 30, 2007


I was playing on a steel framed hide-a-bed as Sunday morning stretched into a lazy afternoon, just tipping back and forth, back and forth. I was young, bored and testing. To my surprise the bed gave way and came crashing over, its metal frame embedded in my nose. The blood gushed, poured over my cheeks and landed in big red blotches on cotton pajamas.

My father was in the next room deep inside his easy chair. He looked up from his National Geographic as I stood stunned in the entrance.

Jesus Christ, what did you do now?

Nobody went to the doctor in our family. There was only one to serve the whole county. You could wait all day long in his office without any guarantee of treatment, so families dealt with emergencies by themselves.

My dad laid me out on the table, put ice on my seven-year-old nose and gave me a shot of scotch from the cabinet. When my skin and emotions were numb, he grabbed a needle from the sewing basket, sterilized the point in a flame, and added black upholstery thread.

This will just take a minute, he said. Longer if you can’t hold still.

I watched the point of the needle move back and forth, back and forth toward my eyes in my father’s careful hands. I made it though three stitches and could do no more.

That will hold, he said. Better lay there until you’re strong again.

I studied the ceiling tiles, the molding that joined the cabinet to the wall and finally the blood that smudged my hands.

I don’t ever want to do that again, I decided. I need to be more careful.

written April 30, 2008


Have you found your refuge yet?

Are you wondering, father, from the realm of spirit, if I am safe, happy and fulfilled? Are you caring to inquire from the realm of light about things you carefully avoided when your feet were planted on the earth?

This question goes to my soul with resounding force.

The truth is that I am lost in this place. Oh, my needs are met, I have a man who loves me, picture perfect scenery outside my window and children to honor and embrace.

But no. No, I can’t believe that I will ever know happiness in this time, in this place.

My spirit is not comfortable here.

If I were to speak my deepest truth, I ache to be gone. I feel mis-fit, out of time and place. This reality is strange and foreign to me, beyond all imagining. I say things like, Isn’t it odd that we have to eat yet again today? And, I can’t believe I have to go to bed and get up over and over again. It is so tedious. My husband smiles, understanding and not understanding at all.

There is no flow to my river. I hover above like a bird, jealous of those who walk in this place like a bear. What good is a bird on the earth? I offer perspective, and a  broader vision, but would leave in a heart-beat to go back home, if only I knew where home was.

And you, father? Have you come to peace?

No need to ask. I know that you have.

It’s all good once we take our feet out of this too-tight shoe.

written April 30, 2008