Sunday Journal: A man's tears evoke a flood of memories

My husband cries at movies. Not with a slightly watery eye, but for some films, like Mr. Holland's Opus, it is nothing short of a wail. He cries at events, too, as he did when I received my master's degree in fine arts. Particular scenes, not that he could specify the exact formula, make him vulnerable. It is why I married him.

My husband is quite different from the other men who have been in my life, those with incremental, filtered degrees of sensitivity that trail back to the fuzzy screen of my father. My father comes to me in layered memories, like a glimpse of when I was 8, watching my 2-year-old sister comb his silvery crewcut in front of the television, both grinning, and the hour later when my father yelled at my 4-year-old brother for spilling his milk, my little brother hanging his head, wounded by the poisoned spears of harsh words. I can also see my father playing his harmonica. We gathered around him in awe, his music sweetening the air. He sometimes shared his rare can of peanuts, just a tiny handful, if my little sister asked for the group. We would eat slowly, savoring each crunchy nugget, unsure of when we would taste it again.

He was prone to brutal outbursts, beating my older teenage brothers in the kitchen at the slightest provocation. His muscles would tighten, defining their lines, before he released his fist into the soft flesh of their arms, back or chest. My mother took solace in the bathroom, never witnessing these episodes. She did not retreat there out of fear, as only once did he slightly raise his voice to her about mashed potatoes, but the bathroom fortress safeguarded her adoration of him. It kept her ideal pure. It also kept her from protecting us.

My mother worshiped my father. She waited for him at the door, freshly bathed and powdered, like a giddy young girl when he came home from work. We scattered at the sound of his car, but peered from our hiding places to watch our parents kiss, laugh and hug in that tiny, sunlit square hallway, too small for anyone but them. She brought him a snack while he sat in his chair, reading the paper, and he pulled her onto his lap, his blue eyes glittering with joy.

I used to pray to find the answer to make him like that with everyone, every day.

Back in the 1960s, my mother tried to tell us about his childhood. While we washed dishes, my father two rooms away, she whispered, "The nuns used to make fun of your father in first grade, you know. That's why he hates Catholics."

"But you're Catholic," I said. So were all of us.

"He's not mad at me, just the nuns," she said. "They made him stand in front of class because they found out that he only wore the collars of old shirts tucked into his sweaters, and not the shirts themselves."

"Why didn't he wear shirts? Was he hot?" I said.

"Because he was very poor. Your grandpa was an alcoholic, a gutter drunk, and he made your father's life difficult."

We never met my father's parents. They were the stuff of curiosity. But being the town drunk sounded kind of dramatic and romantic, like a war hero.

My mother continued. "Your father had to quit school early to support his mother and your two aunts, so he's been working a long time. That's why he hates his factory job so much. He's a smart man. He should have gone to college. He did finally get his high school diploma after we got married."

My mother's explanation of my father's sad life gave me reason to try to love him. I went out of my way, until I was almost 10, to be kind to him, like bringing him his coffee, or pulling up the hassock for his feet when he watched his Westerns. But when the brief periods of peace gave way to his rage, and humiliation darkened the spirits of my five brothers and sisters, as it did mine, any softness toward him thickened until hatred concreted us together.

When I was 19, weeks away from my first marriage and what I erroneously perceived as freedom, my father had to take my mother to the doctor due to a persistent flu. He came home without her and said, "Your mother's in the hospital." There was no edge to his voice. "The doctor said she's dehydrated and they want to keep her a few days." My father told me to pack my mother a small bag, as she had asked for a nightgown, a robe and a few toiletries. His frame blocked the doorway to their bedroom, and as I waited for him to leave so I could set to my task, he did a strange thing. He glanced at me, his jaw void of steel, as if he wanted to say something more, like friends do in a conversation. I sensed he needed me.

"Your mother . . ." He began, but paused and swallowed. "She . . . I was asleep and didn't hear. She didn't want to wake me, and she . . . " He swallowed again. "That crazy woman was so sick, she crawled to the ba—." His voice cracked and he stopped. He quickly walked away, but not before I spotted the fat tear that plowed a groove across his thick skin.

When I see an angry parent admonishing a child in the grocery store, or as part of the plot line in a movie, it jars painful recollections. But then, when my husband cries, it opens up my precious memory of those few, slow-motioned seconds, the unedited, raw bonding with my father, and as it plays itself through, I purely love both men.

Katherine Heimann Brown has a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University and teaches at a junior college in Northern California.

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Sunday Journal: A man's tears evoke a flood of memories 11/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 2:09pm]

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