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ISSUE:  Summer 1980

How carefully he removes it, bought for the anniversary party, folding its creases and passing its care to me, the custodian of my father’s only new suit in ten years. Clean it, press it, he says. It’s too good for his closet, certain to be vandalized by The Home’s keepers. The suit comes back in its plastic wrapper and I hang it with my own next to the others rubbing shoulders in the dark.

The suit—hell, it cost 90 bucks!—was necessary. You couldn’t let the old man out in what he’d wear. He’d protested. He might not need it again. Where does he go? But we insist, take it, take it. After the party, he gives it back, while Darby, making him Chevalier or Chaplin, a sexy octogenarian, nibbles her grandfather’s ear, strokes his neck. Myrna and I push the suit away, mistaking his meaning. Darby, wiser, interprets his intent.

Will we store the new suit till a next-time?

Yes, save it, he nods. With you it will be safe.

In a few days he calls, using the suit for his excuse. Did I pick it up? Did the cleaner do a good job? It used to be apples, pears. Then his watch, no longer faithful. Bring him a new alarm clock to replace the watch’s fading face. No, bring him a clock radio like the others have. What if the radio plays only rock—rocks in their head, he laughs—but it has also news, sports, weather. He hangs on the weather, though he does not go outside and pretends not to notice what days we pick to visit. Not when it is sunny. Golf is for the sun. Not when it is too hot, too cold, too rainy, too slippery. He is looking for a gray day when clouds press the conscience. Then one of us will come.

The next holiday we ask if he wants the suit. There’ll be doings. Something to look good for. But he knows their parties, the Shirley Temple drinks they trick him with. Dancing school tots tripping in the recreation room. The women cry. Just like their Mary, Catherine, Eloise! He doesn’t want to hear it. Keep it, keep the suit. Something more important may come up.

When Darby graduates, it is too hot for wool, too hot for bleachers. But he says he’ll come. In the morning we bring the suit, already in mothballs. He likes the naphthalene smell, wakes you up! It takes him long to dress, disdaining help. Oh why does he sometimes seem spry enough as when he danced at the anniversary and when he mimics radio announcers and when he orders exactly what to bring, how much, how round, how juicy, the color, skin, texture, size, as if every morsel had the scrutiny of a royal taster! Dressing, he shows his age. Senility comes in flashes when we need him to stay with it, be young, younger, just one more time.

The old man makes it, though, and while Myrna and I sweat, looks dignified as hell. His tie, a little stained, is knotted tightly, the old Y-D tieclip holding it to its place. He could be back behind his counters, hovering over specs, Finest Eye Care & Eye Wear, nearly a doctor. Called that at least.

The summer lays relentless parch on lawns and shriveled skins. Apple dolls on the front veranda, the women take their airing, drenched in Five-and-Dime cologne. The scents vie with sachet that sweetens drawers and powders dusted on their back. Their skin is as clear as a bell jar, beneath which the veins are arranged in potpourri.

My father deals out postcards, enough to make a deck. Darby, nonwriter, noncaller, without benefit of any device of modern communication, relies on her essence to linger between visits, long spaces, the length of a whole summer, while she mountain climbs in Aspen and whitewaters some descent. Are we to be flattered that, still young, we do not require a missive from time to time? But somewhere there is yet consideration, drummed in with table manners and bedtime prayers. That shred outside the teenage sphere is offered one man only. Doc lays out Denver and Aspen and Las Vegas and Phoenix, pick a card, any card, if you want to know where your hoyden hides. Once above a Ouija board a spirit drifted as does my daughter through her chosen medium.

Myrna sips her gin and tonic through whitened lips. She can’t imbibe unless businesslike. The visit given its due, we drive off to Myrna’s wryness, “Where does he get it? That charm? Skipped a generation, I’d say.”

A charmer, yes. Quick on the dance floor, slow to husbanding. Given us on birth days, whatever genes are charted, to some I guess one’s marked “charm.” That gene, recessive no doubt, cropping up in random generations. Manifested in Darby at sandbox level where little boys gave sifters up for her. We might have viewed the future when the kindergarten phoned about Kevin, walking out of his way for his dimpled sweetheart.

The suit hangs, and there are no doings fine enough to spring it. Thanksgiving he doesn’t visit. His seat is taken by Darby’s friend. Date, beau, boyfriend, steady, roommate— such words are now passé. He is her “with.” Darby’s “with” eats little, and Myrna begs him spare us leftovers.

Myrna is a sheath that never bends to one bite more. Left-overs are her enemy. She scarcely dents the bed, leaves little ripples where I make large waves. Everything about her is fine, fine-textured, fine-skinned. Her body has no hair, her hair no body. She aches to pierce her ears, but she has no earlobes either. No flab hangs from upper arms, no handles to her hips.

Ah, but Darby began life fat. Myrna fed her LoCal from six months on, yet Darby was never thin enough. She was forced to gymnastics, given extra swimming, and when the girl took Home Ec, Myrna stormed the junior high. “Eating what one cooks,” indeed. The concept shattered every weight-watching commandment. The curriculum was altered.

Winter passes on the other end of boots, slush, fuel bills. Myrna has a continuous hack and blames my nicotine. I release my classes to independent study, letting the librarian spar with adolescent energy. Our social studies team rotates topics, sharing the intern breathing down our notebooks. The teachers room is one long grumble.

My father wears a robe above his trousers, soiled, wrinkled, of vintage era. He takes his meals in his room, won’t be cajoled to bland and formal dining. In the large hall, salt-free and Muzaked, the women bitch, cat, whine, pretend to comprehend what they can little hear. Spaced throughout, the fourth at table, is a solitary male. The odds do not quicken the old man’s appetite.

A rustle signals the arrival of his tray. To the volunteer he points out Darby’s picture—a beauty queen! All the staff humor him. The nurses nicely call him Doc, but the doctors never do. The winter is long, long for us, longer for him. He has no interests. He used to go to OT to shape clay or stretch his arms to someone’s yarn. Sometimes he’d riffle ancient magazines. He used to walk to the TV room where no one can agree, and the attendant referees the deciding flick. No, he does not need his suit. He stops mentioning it, though once he mutters, “Ninety bucks shot to hell!”

Spring is here, waking all the trees. We are a family of arborphiles. When I was little, my father talked about the trees in walks together in the woods, the woods that took him from his gentle calling and brought vigor to his stride. He’d point out each personality and let me in on lore he’d learned and stored.

How the ginkgo in the Orient was better off as male. The female’s fruit so bitter, a gardener could be grateful for its sparseness. Was it once in 30 years or so it came round to its fecundity, dropping its smelly offspring, driving one away from its blossoms? To return to a barren stillness for some 30 years or more?

I’d wonder if they kept those female ginkgoes in seclusion, like nuns in a nursery somewhere, and I’d wonder how they were fertilized and who, if anyone, gathered up their rancid fruit.

But then my father was off on another Oriental tale. Cows devouring redwood bark at dawn. Or was it bark off the Dawn Redwood?

As maples dripped toward buckets, I’d trot behind, sil-houettes at dusk, filling his footprints, sharing tales and the last of daylight. Children of the woods, we hated to come indoors to the woman who was attached to things, her sewing machine, pickling jars, crochet yarns, and crewel. Pine needles drop from shoulders; woods make mud on polished floors.

I in turn gave my daughter what my father gave to me. Darby collected leaves in a shoe box, the lobed, toothed, whorled, stalked. She’d dust her doll house with pine tufts and make of ferns fans for royal balls. Later they were bookmarks and even now on remembered holidays, she presses inside a Hallmark greeting a leaf she particularly likes. My father tucks them around his mirror until they snap and crackle and are whisked away by cleaning help.

Now when I listen to the silver maple brush our bedroom window or watch the poplar’s bend, I feel the heaviness and lightness of the trees and take comfort from their solidness or grace.

Word from the wayfarer at last. Nice of her to let us in on her latest acquisition. Most messages are ones of needs. This one proclaims a gain! After rationalizing living together, how good to know each other better, how mature and profound and independent and wise to opt for no-strings, she calls gleeful as a hunter. “He said yes, he said yes!” Modern woman, she proposed to him!

Now another set of parents long distance on the phone. We all try out for in-lawhood. Myrna is crying, “It is harder to be a mother-in-law than a mother,” and the other woman’s voice seems to sniffle in agreement. We fathers shake hands gruffly through the wire, wishing for cushioned leather to secure us, an icy glass to anchor pain. Mine is an Academy Award performance, loving that boy of theirs as if he were a boy of ours; but, damn, I can’t recall him from a collage of faces. The Easter weekender? Christmas sojourner? The college roommate Darby embroidered matching pillows for?

The picture on the fridge keeps me from TV snacks, reminding me that Darby’s getting married. Myrna has posted the well-dressed mother-of-the-bride to hold her to starvation. She has bought the dress a size too small. Now she will cut, cut her rations as we once hoarded ours in foxholes, until she fits.

I let out the news at my father’s bedside, but Darby has already sparked him with her joy. Of course, he assumes, I share his mood. We kid about the suit. See, Dad, good times! Plenty of good times!

It is not the wedding I mind or playing donor to the groom. (How can a “with” metamorphose into a groom!) What I mind is losing her. I, her first admirer, prep school for the real thing, how will I let go? Flick off fathering in a mere ceremony?

Caring is not as hard as pretending not to. How easily kids let go of us.

My father sits by his cheerless window, staring like a monk in meditation. Here there are those who get religion. Last year Bruno wore his rosary thin, born-again to read the Bible. He scolded my father for his Playboys, predicting hotter times in hell. The priest’s last rites were hasty, vying with the Stanley Cup. Bruno’s bed is empty still, awaiting his replacement.

I tiptoe in and watch the old man in his trance. Why, why does he not look up and latch me to his needs? The hard Swedish crackers, the crusty rye. A sweet that is forbidden or some bourbon for a secret nip? Never have they fed him well. He’d hint of rampant felony. They steal from Medicaid. Chisel on Social Security. Cheat Welfare.

Darby insists that he stand for portraits, so I try to lift him from his stare. This is for Darby. Hey, Hey, Dad, you can do it. C’mon Doc, give you something to look forward to. I have his suit, and the nurse babies him into it. I do not recall either parent talking babytalk to me, and we never laid it on our daughter. It waits then for the other end of the line.

He makes the journey from door to parking lot, resting lightly on my arm. It is a hundred miles—how wise were we to press him? In the car at last, he smiles and is still. To fill the silence, I talk and talk and talk. I tell him everything, all the inane trivia that hits our academic fan. He seems to chuckle in the right places, and it feels natural for him to be my audience. In the car I am not my father’s father; I am again his little boy.

Myrna calls me often while I am teaching. A bridesmaid has become pregnant, how could she? Another has run off with her professor. Can I spring for movies as well as candids? I am so tied up with meetings she seldom sees me—do I mind the interruption?

The ceremony will be simple, nonsectarian; the reception informal, light. Nothing stuffy for the contemporary couple. Why then are we in hock for an heirloom gown, an album of mock leather, and a covey of attendants to run up the florist’s bill?

Myrna is running, running, forgetting to let her fingers do the walking. We fight in bed about the wedding. We ran off to escape the trappings, and now my wife is a bride for the first time.

While Myrna stalks the stores, Darby blazes the trails. All winter she snowshoes the Audubon Reservation to seek her chapel. One afternoon, Darby, O lovely tree freak, comes in apple-cheeked with cold. She has found it at last, waves its Polaroid replica. Gnarled, old, Blue Beech. Its branches give out green protection. Beneath their spread, the land’s rise like an altar will lift the couple to their vows, and there all of us will gather to watch our Darby wed.

The clothes strut across door jambs, hanging above sills to keep from dusting up the floor. My father’s suit on one, mine on another, the wedding gown on a third. Myrna’s swishes as I brush against it, and in our bed I imagine their shadows on a mossy ballroom, gliding in a still spot beneath a canopy of boughs. A little girl now a woman and a little boy now a man, arrows shot from bows at birth.

Tonight is our last night. We are gaining a son. No, he is gaining our daughter. Did Myrna thin her for this slaughter?

Will she call me Daddy still or will she move steadily away?

All the years of giving her some string, a ball unwinding away from home. Yet it could always be pulled back, like the childhood game of a purse left out with a hidden string to fool the finder. Snatch it back! Darby, treasure put out by Myrna to snare a man. How can I snatch her back and keep her? Fathers cannot cry at weddings; only mothers do. Myrna sighs in sleeping sibilance, no trouble in her heart. Oh, well, she’s had her daytimes to dream and cry. I bury tears in my pillow.

I listen for the bride to toss her fears in sleep, but the only sound is branches, the twin sentinels outside our house. Will Darby plant her own two trees by a front door someday, as settlers did in early times to mark the unity of marriage? Tomorrow when the question comes up, “Who gives this bride in wedlock?” firmly I’ll call out, “I.”

He will not come. Not will not, cannot. He is weeping in his bed, and words at last are slipping out.

This is Darby’s day, and her grandfather is as much her love as the boy who gets her pledge. Doc, stop crying. Your suit is newly pressed. There is a carnation for the lapel. A dapper touch to give you spring.

Come on, old timer. You can make it. I’ll walk with you. She picked a tree near the road, a spreading dark and shady beech, not the deeper woods. Stop crying, Dad, please. I can’t stand to see you cry!

He is crying and pointing. He is pointing by his bed to the floor. His slippers? He will get out of the bed? Crouching on the floor is a bottle. A tube joins him to it. His words slip and slide, stop and start, oiled by tears. They make no human sound. Baby, baby, I hold him, rock him. This is my father, and he is weeping on Darby’s wedding day.


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