How to Write about Your Father
"True story," your father says. "I swear. Every word."
You're nineteen, home from college for the summer, unemployed, waiting it out until September, lying low. It's after dinner, and your mother has cleared the table, but your father stays behind, drinking his wine and smoking. You can hear the traffic from the street and some people shouting. You know that if you're smart, you'll stick around and listen to the man, let him have his say. It's his house, his table, he paid for the food.
You've heard this story before: he's standing on a corner in Berlin. It's 1953 or 54, and the city is still rubble, but it's full of people and traffic. "I looked sharp," he says, "in my occupation uniform." The sky is blue, the day is cool. He's standing on that corner looking sharp in Berlin. An old woman appears beside him. She's trying to cross the street. She can barely walk, takes a step to the curb, draws back, stares into the distance.
Your father, he's such a brave man. A good American guy. He knows no German, but takes the woman's arm anyway, takes it firmly in his hand. He raises his other arm, that big American arm, and with one hand halts the traffic. They all stop for him, every cab, every truck and bus and tank. When he and the old woman are safely on the other side, she turns to him. "Thank you," she says, but in German: "Danke."
You smile. You know what's coming next.
"Ah, here's the thing. You see, the old woman had only one arm . . ."
Your father stops for emphasis. "Her eyes split my mind," he says.
And? you want to say. And? So what? What's that mean?
"Only one arm," your father sighs, lights his cigarette, drinks another finger of wine. Germany, 1953. One arm. Imagine that.
The first problem is that he's your father, so everything out of his mouth sounds strange. It's hard to believe he was ever in the army, much less in Germany. It's hard to believe he ever wore a uniform, much less looked sharp. Look at him. How did he ever stop traffic? The second problem is your own history with him. He's your father after all. Not that he's unkind or ungenerous. He didn't vote for Nixon. He's just your father. There's an awful lot of water under that bridge.
The third problem is the story. You want to change things. You want the woman to curse him instead of thank him. You'd like to make her an anarchist, give her a bomb, have her leave your father's side and blow up a marketplace or the American barracks. That'll do the tricka well placed bomb makes any story interesting. And you'd drop that line about her eyes "splitting my mind." What does it mean, anyway?
But your father isn't done. He's just getting warmed up. It's still Germany, still 1953 or 54. He's fixing typewriters for the army. Every day fixing typewriters. You get to hear all about the platen and the carriage, the paper bail and the twirler knob, the starwheel and the loose dog. You hear all about the spools and the spool cups, and how the ink from the ribbons never washed off his hands, how he saw the scrambled alphabet in his sleep every night. And this is what he did in the army for three years.
Now he's in a bar, drinking with his buddies every night, playing cards until dawn, pissing in the streets, staggering back to the barracks, shivering in the cold. All those men together and all those men lonely. You learn that cognac never gives you a hangover if you drink it with Coca Cola. He even has a photograph: ten very drunk men in uniform lined up against a wall in a small tavern. His buddies. They each salute the camera with a shot glass. The man on the end has his arm around a platinum blonde. That's your father with his arm around the platinum blonde.
"Who's she?" you ask.
Your father studies the picture, taps his lower lip. "She worked there," he decides. "A waitress, I guess. She was always there. She was a doll. I don't remember her name, so don't ask."
You pour yourself another glass of wine, study the photo. Your father, drunk: it never occurred to you. You're twenty-two. It's Christmas. In four months your father will find out that you won't graduate from college because you flunked four classes last semester. But still that photo is interesting. The platinum blonde's not that pretty, rather large in the face, with thick dark eyebrows. Give her a name, you think. Helga, GretchenChrist, no, something more American, she would at least want them to think she was not as German as the other girls. Florence. You decide her name is Florence. She's there every night, waiting tables. All the men treat her like one of the boys, but she has secret crushes. She wants an American husband.
But your father isn't listening to your thoughts. He's moving on. It's later that same year. Now he's on sick leave, recovering from delicate surgery. He says this and stares at you, exhaling smoke, as if daring you ask what the delicate surgery was for, but you say nothing since you're still thinking about Florence. He's traveling with a buddy named Joe, and they go south to Italy by train. They go all the way down the coast to a little inland town called Bitonto.
"What? Be what?" you say.
Your father pauses for a long sip of wine. He flicks his ash into the ashtray. "That's where my father was from. You know that."
"I always forget the name," you say, but in truth you don't remember hearing it before. You're twenty-five, and still living at home, working part-time in a bookstore, but you haven't been paying attention. "So you and your buddy visited . . ."
"I was the first to come back. Pop immigrated in '21, Mama a few years later. They never went back. None of my brothers or sisters went back. I was the first to go back."
"On sick leave from Germany?"
"I had delicate surgery. The army said I had to have it because of complications. I was recovering."
There are photos, two hundred of them, black and white, three by five, in a plastic bag.
"I took these with my Zeissikon," your father says.
The Zeissikon you remember. He gave it to you when you were in high school. He'd bought in Germany in 1953 or 54. You took three rolls of film and not a single photo came out. You never knew why.
Each picture from Italy is perfectly composed and focused. Your father is always in uniform. He begins at the top of the stack. "These are my cousins," he says. "They all came to meet me at the train station." He names them all. You try to remember the names of the cousins. "This is my Nona, my mother's mother, and these are my aunts." Your great grandmother is so tiny she looks like an old child. She clings to your father as if he were the prodigal grandson, clings to his strong American arm. Then you remember that he was the first to return. Then you consider that that woman was very very old then, and is quite dead now. The aunts, your father says, are still alive. Your grandmother's sisters.
"This is the road into town." A dirt track, lined with olive trees. A two-wheeled donkey cart, complete with donkey. You picture your father walking along the road in his uniform. "This is the house Mama and Pop lived in when they first got married. Even today it doesn't have electricity."
"I don't know about today," your father says. "Even then, there was no electric. Imagine that."
You can imagine it, but just barely. Oil lamps, wood stoves, flies, spoiled food. Lots of trouble. The wife is hungry, the children are dirty, the husband has no job. Then one day he decides. He must leave this house, leave this street, leave Bitonto, leave Italy, go to America.
Two hundred photos, each with a story. "They treated me like a hero, a movie star. I never spent a dime. This is my cousin's friend Dominic. He wanted to take me into Bari, to this place where they had dancing and stuff, but at the last minute Nona heard what was going on and wouldn't let us go. All these grown men, as she was still in charge! I wouldn't have gone, anyway, since I was still recovering from delicate surgery. It wouldn't have been the dancing as much as the women."
What your father says slips into the back of your mind like a hair in the back of your throat. Your father, nursing his delicate wounds. Cognac, cards and platinum blondes. You think you understand what happened. But you won't say it, not here. Leave it for others to think about; let them decide for themselves.
And the photos keep coming.
"This is the Via Fratelli," your father says. "My uncles all died in World War One. My mother's brothers. I was named for the youngest. There's a street for them in Bitonto. This is the plaque on the corner. These are their sisters, my aunts, and Nona standing in front of the plaque. Even now, they're still sad. Look, Nona's crying."
"Even now?" you ask.
"I don't know about now, but even then they were sad even with the brothers long dead."
You imagine the letters coming one after the other to Nona: your son is dead, your son is dead, your son is dead. Patriots in uniform. But dead. They will be honored, but how? The mayor decides to name a street for the three dead brothers, and the family comes and weeps once again. There's a world beyond this one upon which yours is contingent. Many things happened before you were born.
By the time you're thirty, by the time you're married and have moved to the suburbs, you really begin to pay attention. One face keeps showing up in the photos: a woman your father's age, round-faced, big in the hips, dark-haired and pale. She always sits near him at the meals, always stands beside him in the photos in the street and on the roof, her hand on his uniform. You want to know who the woman is. She's a cousin, but not a real cousin because she was adopted. Maybe she's a real second cousin or something. Anyway, not a real cousin. She's always smiling, holding your father's American arm, leaning her head on his shoulder. You want to know more.
It's Palm Sunday. Your father looks down the hall where your mother is taking a nap in the bedroom. He drinks his wine and tells you. "That was Maria. We held hands under the table. We took la pagiata in the evenings. She was very quiet. She never said much. My Italian wasn't so good and she didn't know English. What was there to say? Nona was happy I'd come back, and was with me almost all the time. That was how things worked thennot like now. Now you go off on your own and your father doesn't ask any questions. But then everybody watched you. If you went on la pagiata, then Nona and your aunts would be twenty feet back, talking away, but keeping their eyes forward. There wasn't a chance for anything to happen."
You try to imagine. Long walks in the evening. Her hand on your father's arm. The women chattering behind.
Your father drinks more wine. "She was pretty and nice, a little chubby, I suppose. But she was real nice. But I was in the army, I had to go back. She found someone, got married. Years later she died in childbirth. The baby died too."
He stops to light another cigarette, never looking up from the pictures. "When I got on the train to leave, everyone came with me, and they all waved goodbye and never budged as the train left the station. All the way back to Germany, I imagined them standing there, waving, sending me off."
You drink more wine, even though by now you've had a few glasses too many. You're nearly thirty-five and can't handle it as well as you used to. Then there's the long drive home, and your wife and kids are waiting. The kitchen seems smaller than ever, and the noises from the street even louder. The photos are spread out across the table, and your father leans over them, once again reciting the names and places. Your father's face forty years ago is something like your face now. Your father's face.
"Who took the pictures?" you finally ask. "The ones with you in them."
"My buddy Joe, who came with me."
"What happened to him?"
"No idea. We got back to Germany and went our separate ways."
"Did you ever go back to Bitonto?"
"The next year," your father says.
"What was that like?"
"It wasn't the same. There's nothing like the first time, because it feels so good to be there and hurts so much when you leave."
"Do you want to visit?" you ask. "I mean now, today? We could go together. I'll take you. I can afford it."
He hesitates only a moment. "No, it would never be the same."
"Does it have to be the same?" you ask.
"It's never the same," he says.
He's looking at a picture of the town square. A squat stone building with a sign that reads "Bitonto alt. m. 118." There's a bell tower on that building, with a bell in it. In the middle of the picture there's a monument to the Virgin, who appeared once on that exact spot a thousand years ago. A street lamp, an old truck. On the left a young man has stopped and half turned toward the camera. Not your father. No one else there. You imagine that that young man, if he's still alive, is nearly seventy. You wonder who he is, and why your father is silent. Then you let him be silent.