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In My Father’s House
Melanie Rae Thon
Let us say it is a late afternoon in October. Five
months ago, or five years—what is time to a girl who has lived always in
one place, on a
lake wide as a sea, in a white house with a green roof, in a room down
the hall from her father?
Imagine golden light slanting through dark pine and yellow tamarack.
The father emerges from the woods wearing a red flannel shirt
and carrying a hatchet. His blue shadow falls behind him.
Another day: this time it’s deep winter. An old man slips on a patch
of ice and flails like a clown, struggling to regain his balance. He
hunches against wind-driven snow. Would he be ashamed or angry if he
glanced toward the house and saw his daughter watching?
This is my father: short white hair, stubble of white beard morning
and evening. He stays smooth only a few hours. He rubs his hand
over his face. All these years, the same, but the sudden growth still
bewilders him. He says, I don’t know why I bother.
My father. Thin legs, chapped hands. He keeps a dozen pairs of gloves
in a drawer in the hallway, scratchy wool or supple deerskin,
lined with silk or fur or cotton. He has no preference. Though his
skin cracks, he forgets to wear them. The black leather ones lined with
the fur of a white rabbit lie wrapped in a silk scarf, both saved for
some special occasion. Perhaps he imagines his deaf daughter married at
last. Perhaps he hopes to give her away some chill afternoon in January
or November. With gloved hands, he will guide her.
Father. He looks like a tall man in the distance. Strong, sturdy. For
example: when I am in the kitchen of the house and he stands high
on a ladder propped against the motel, repairing the gutter. He can
repair anything—the dock, the boat, the roof, the plumbing. He can replace
a broken window, cracked tiles, blistered linoleum.
He can pull a double-sized mattress out the narrow door and up the
muddy hill, then heave it into the back of the El Camino. Once
he carried his limp daughter out of the woods. If he found me that
way again, I do not doubt he would still attempt to lift me.
He’ll let me help him unload the new mattress. But I have to ask. I
have to guess what he has in mind, or I have to catch him.
Hours later, when we stand in the same small space, he seems shrunken.
Maybe he is washing his hands at the kitchen sink and I am
putting plates and glasses into the cupboard, maybe I am close enough
to measure, to see that the daughter he once carried is now half an
inch taller than he is, that his faded flannel shirt is loose across
the chest and shoulders, that his belt is cinched a notch tighter than
when I looked the last time.
And when was that? A month, a year? Is this shrinking slow or sudden?
Does he know? Is he sad or grateful? Often I have thought he
would be glad to leave me, his small crime, his silent burden.
If my mother had awakened my father, if one of them had called good
Doctor Dees in time, paramedics might have rushed me to the
hospital in Kalispell, sent me speeding down this dangerous road in
an ambulance; they might have sensed how serious the fever was and
called for a helicopter to take me all the way to Missoula. Some thought-troubled
doctor making night rounds might have envisioned the
mysterious way each infection leaves a child vulnerable to another:
encephalitis, pneumonia, meningitis. No drug or human hand could
have spared me from the first, but murmuring nurses quiet as nuns might
have pumped my veins full of antibiotics, swaddled me in white
sheets, and stopped the second disease before it moved through blood
from lungs to spinal fluid.
Then my family would have a different story, and I would be able to
hear it. Imagine.
My father and I live like ones long married. Ones who have learned not
to touch, no matter how closely their bodies pass as she makes
the tea and he stirs the oatmeal. Ones who know what the other wants—salt,
butter, wrench, mallet—without asking. Ones who read lips and hands and
eyebrows. Ones whose tenderness is a ghost between them.
When I think of his touch, when I dream it, it is the rough hand cupping
my face that I most wish to feel. His eyes are not closed. He
is not afraid of me.
Now he is here. The air in the house shifts, a faint, cold wind traveling
from the living room to the kitchen where I stand chopping
onions and celery. He leans in the doorway watching my back, my long
dark hair in one braid dangling, my large hand on the knife
chopping. I am a tall woman, thin and bony. Wide in the hips and at
the shoulders. Not delicate like my blond sister Frances. Not supple
like my smooth mother Rina. Not lovely, this daughter who hacks vegetables
The father pretends the deaf girl is oblivious, though they both know
if he raised one hand or made one word, she would somehow feel it. But
what word would it be? This is an ordinary day. Let us say June, or March,
or September. A day like today, a day like any other. There is nothing
to swear or confess, nothing to forgive because all is forgotten. There
is no reason to be particularly kind, no reason now or ever to be cruel.
The good daughter, the false wife, slices carrots and shreds chicken,
then scoops them into the pot of bubbling broth with the celery
and onions. She will not turn until she feels space open behind her,
until she is certain the doorway is empty.
When I imagine my father making the sign for love, he paces the beach,
shaping the word penance.