Sunday, September 25, 2011

Past the Mill

Today is my father's 66th birthday. He and I go way back. I can remember when I was an unbroken colt of 3 and he wasn't quite yet 30. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the bathroom counter in our student housing apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan where my father attended law school at the University of said state. I'm watching him shave. He's shaving. Sorry. That's all I've got. It was a long time ago.

I have another memory from that time. I'm in my crib. My mother is sitting on the ground near the crib. She's wearing a pretty nightgown and she's absolutely stunning. And she's disappointed with me. I won't climb out of the crib by myself. I can do it. I just won't. This is a scene that will repeat itself 1000 times over the next 37 years.

Here's another one: My family is visiting my grandparents in Muncie, Indiana. My grandfather and my father take me to a local bookstore to buy some books to celebrate that I've learned to read. My grandfather will spend the rest of his life annoying people with the information that I learned to read when I was three. They will tell me about it over drinks when I'm 30. My father and his father spend some time picking out what I imagine were lovely, classic storybooks. I spent time going through the cartoony twaddle set at my eye level. My father refused to buy them for me. I pouted. I cried. We left with a small parcel of books sans twaddle.

On hot summer days in the Midwest back in the 1970s you rode with the windows down. And they were big. And they went down all the way because kids back then were generally smart enough to not go sailing out of them. Even though we never wore seat belts. Books, on the other hand, could go sailing out the window if you just flung them in a fit of pique on the ledge behind the backseat (did that thing have a name?) I can still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach as those lovely books, that I suddenly wanted more than anything, flew out of the car like they'd been suck out by an enormous vacuum intent on teaching a little girl a lesson about gratitude. It would take a long time to really learn it but I like to think that I did eventually learn it.

I learned to read because my father taught me. The book was, "Rosie's Walk". We all know it, right? I still have the copy. He sat down and we read it together and he made a recording of it onto a cassette tape. If you're a young person you may not know what this is. Google it. When he would go to class, he would set me up with the book and the recording. And then my mother would play it for me after he'd left. I can still hear our voices together on the tape. "Rosie the hen went for a walk. Turn the page," he said. And then I would chime in, "Turn the page!" And we would turn the page.

The story of Rosie is the story of a hen that goes for a walk and is dogged by a hungry but incredibly clumsy fox. Rosie is blissfully ignorant to the presence of the fox and I don't want to give away the ending but it won't surprise anyone familiar with the genre of children's literature that the thing doesn't culminate in a bloodbath and a sated fox.

Here's where I was going to try to draw a parallel between my dad and Rosie because of the good natured resilience they both share. But, I'll be frank, in our version of the story, the fox silently dogging my father is a series of blood clots in the communication center of his brain. For some unknown measure of time they lurked there until finally springing and causing him to have a massive stroke at age 42. In our version of the story, the fox gets Rosie. It's only after Rosie turns around and beats the living hell out of that fox that Rosie gets away. And she's pretty badly maimed in the process. But, bloodied and wounded though she is, she does get home in time for dinner.

So, thanks, Dad, for teaching me to read. And for setting me on the road to learning gratitude. And for beating the hell out of that fox because, as it turns out, I was being stalked by a fox of my own and the diagnosis pinned me to the ground and held me around the throat until I remembered what you had taught me through your example. And because of you, I was able to get up, smooth my feathers and turn the page.

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