chicago, childhood, love, NYC, reflections, texas

on blizzards, past and present

My earliest memories of heavy snowstorms involve the first love of my life, my father, coming home with icicles on his beard after working out in the cold for I-don’t-know-how-many-days to sit half in-, half outside the oven, which my mother had preheated for him after receiving a phone call that he was finally on his way home. He’d sit there with sleepy half-hooded eyes, his work boots and pants and jacket already tossed near the gurgling radiators, emitting steam and slowly dripping onto the thick green shag carpeting below.

He was too grumpy and too tired and too cold to hug, but I remember looking at him from my hiding spot around the corner, my mother handing him cups of hot soup and cans of beer with the tabs pre-pulled, thinking three things: (1) maybe they love each other after all, despite the yelling; (2) maybe this is what real work looks like: exhaustion, pain, beer and soup as a reward, bones that will one day stop creaking not because the work is over but because they’ve stopped being recognizable as bones, from a life of not knowing when or how to stop; (3) maybe tomorrow he’ll let us climb the roof of the garage and slide off into the impossibly high banks of snow in the back yard.

***

Growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1970s and very early 1980s was as singular and magical of an experience as was growing up in coastal and then the Hill Country of Texas from 1981 until 1990, when I returned to Chicago and its environs. When people ask where I’m from, I always say Texas. I can’t say why, since my childhood was equally split between the two places. I suspect it’s because Illinois birthed me but Texas shaped me; if I were a piece of pottery, Illinois would be the place where my parents threw me on the wheel, then hauled me down to Texas for the finishing touches and to throw me in the kiln. And broke pieces of me, more than once, glued me back together, rinsed and repeated. I came back north and learned kintsugi.

***

It’s a trope every generation pulls out of a hat for the next ones: things were simpler in my time. In this case it’s true (another trope). My children laugh at the things I said were enough then: a handful of staticky television stations, a world without handheld video games or tablets or cell phones or remote controls or movie rentals, family pizza or board game or card game nights, writing letters by hand instead of electricity, listening to people telling stories in your living room instead of chatting with strangers halfway across the world.

My children don’t know how to write cursive, plant vegetables, fix a button, bake homemade bread, iron a shirt, build things with hammers and nails, change a flat tire, fill a tank of gas, feed chickens, go fishing, hike a ravine, read a compass, tell time from a sundial, find shelter in a forest, stay calm when they’re afraid, make something out of nothing in a pinch.

Like, say, a sled out of a piece of sturdy cardboard you might find in your father’s basement workshop. The kind you might have ready at 7am on a Saturday morning—two pieces, one for you, one for your brother (your sister is still too tiny)—and propped up against there wall outside the bathroom door with a note written in perfect cursive, the kind your father makes you practice, saying it will be the first impression anyone has of you, even though neither of you can one predict the boom in technology that will make your perfect handwriting obsolete (nor the phenomenon by which everyone assumes it is a font, because it is so beautiful).

***

I had no way of knowing what mood my father would be in when he awoke, nor did I know he’d stopped on his way home—stopped despite being bone-tired and wanting nothing more to sit in that warm oven, drinking beer, eating soup—to pick up a couple of sleds for the morning. So my note was cautious, the way a little girl who’d gone to kindergarten with a black eye might write such a note:

Daddy, 

I found these in your workshop. If you don’t need them, and if you’re not too tired, maybe me and Tom could use them to sled off the garage like we did last year? It was lots of fun! I’m in my room reading so let me and Tom know. 

Love, Amy

About an hour later I saw something out of the corner of my eye, reading from the top bunk in my room. It was the curved edge of a bright blue sled. Behind it was my dad’s muffled voice as he did an impression of Kermit the frog doing a weather update, announcing that two lucky kids could be seen on a garage rooftop very soon, if only they’d hurry up and get into their snow clothes.

***

It snowed in Texas once. Well, it snowed more than once. But one time it snowed a whole few inches, and we made a tiny snowman in our yard, among the fallen leaves and the pecans my parents paid us 10¢ a coffee can to pick up. Years later, when my older son was three, we made a similar tiny snowman in the yard of our Naperville ground-level apartment; it would have been bigger, but the snow wouldn’t stick. We used a baby carrot for the nose and raisins for the eyes and mouth, and I still have a photo somewhere.

He wouldn’t remember, but it was only a few weeks later that we’d move into a different apartment, where he’d say to me one day, When I’m a grownup I want to wear a red tie and ask a girl to dance and be happy but I’ll still love you forever. He’s a grownup now, and he wore a red tie to his senior prom, but I think that’s just coincidence, because that statement’s been long forgotten and he wants nothing to do with me; over Christmas he told his father that he’d feel nothing if I died tomorrow. 

***

My dad hurt me a lot when I was little; my mother did, too, then proceeded to do things worse and worse as I got older, until they became so bad that I had to put a wall up. I can think of so many ways my dad loved me when I was growing up. My mother’s a different story, one so difficult and so interwoven with my narrative as a noncustodial mother, that it will be a long time before I’m able to write about it.

Consider this the missing footnote, an explanation of the gaps. I’ve forgiven my father because I can look back, even during the limited visibility of a blizzard, and see him for who he was: a complicated man, a hard worker, a father giving his children everything he didn’t get from his own but unable to fully escape that which he did, a person struggling with guilt and pain and sadness that he had no choice but to hide from his children (because that’s what adults do) but, unfortunately, could only think to find a solution for in the bottom of a bottle.

***

There are other things my children don’t know: the feeling of a wooden spoon as it makes contact with the flesh of your cheek, the soft sink of your teeth as they bite down on a bar of soap or the revulsion of your taste buds as you’re forced to chew and then swallow, the sting of a belt buckle on a bare butt or the backs of your thighs, the growl of true hunger as you go to bed without dinner for several nights in a row for a punishment you don’t quite understand, being locked outside in the hot Texas sun without shade or water in the middle of summer because you sassed back, getting grounded for making your first B (in 10th grade), being thrown out of your home at age 15 and having the cops being called in you as a reported runaway… this list could go on forever.

My father’s list is as long as mine. It would horrify me as much as mine would horrify my children. It doesn’t matter, though. They’re busy making their own accounting of grievances, and it’ll be years before they understand parents are just people, doing the best they can with what they have at the moment. Sometimes life isn’t all about you, and we never know the struggles anyone might be dealing with when we’re making demands (especially our parents, when all we are at the time are selfish and needy and oblivious to other people).

I know today what I did not what when I started keeping track of injustices and stopped remembering the love: he made an effort to do better. To not have anything end up on my list that was the same or worse than what was on his. He was busy doing that, and getting drunk, and possibly blacking out half the time. And so was I. We are the same, except I’ve never hit my children or called them names; we are the same in that we’re both drunks (I’m the sober one) trying to do better for our children than what was done for us.

Sometimes, maybe even often, I think he’s the one who succeeded and I’m the one who failed.

***

As I hear the snow plows drive up and down the street, I keep thinking about my dad and the nights he’d come home and sit in the oven. There were other nights we’d bring things to hi, on the job sites, too: one Thermos of coffee, another of soup. I really can’t think of a time as a kid when he wasn’t working in one way or another. He’d work 60, 70, 80 hours a week and come home to sleep. Or he’d work normal hours and have projects.

It makes it so much more meaningful, then, to think of all the things he did: take me on camping trips and fishing, teaching me and my brother to play ball and ride bikes, showing me how to cook and can pickles/fruits/jelly and plant a garden, teaching me how to build a house/put on a roof/pour a foundation/ hang drywall/paint/refinish furniture, how to look through garbage to find gems worth taking home, how to find good deals and negotiate at flea markets, how to be friendly to strangers; basically how to be scrappy and capable and strong and the independent, creative, ingenious person I am today.

***

The first time my dad took my on the roof of the garage to slide down into the fluffy snow below, I was terrified. It was the year before the one I’d leave the note, and I’d never been sledding other than down a sloping hill in a park on the other side of the Prairie Path from our house. But my father was encouraging and convinced me I was strong enough to do anything; all I needed was to believe in myself and just let go.

As it blizzards outside almost 40 years later, 800 miles east of that garage roof long since torn down (along with our old house) by someone who wanted something bigger and more befitting their upwardly mobile financial situation, I wonder whether the memory of giving me that advice ever crossed my dad’s mind when I moved to NYC.

***

At my cousin’s wedding this summer, my uncle said my dad was so proud of me, and I asked him why my father never told me so himself. My uncle said, You have to understand that our parents have never even said they love us. When your grandfather could still talk, long before he died, I asked him why. He said he didn’t think he had to. You know your dad is proud of you. Let that be enough. All of us, all four brothers, are giving so much more than what grandma and grandpa gave to us. But your dad didn’t get much of anything from them other than indifference. Think of what an ocean he has crossed to meet you where you are.

Those words have stuck with me. They are why I can think of blizzards and focus on the morning he used a Kermit the frog voice and not how scared I was to write him a note. Why I can think about advice he gave me almost four decades ago and wonder whether it subconsciously boosted my move to NYC. Why I can see him now as a man who is so similar to myself—he came into adulthood broken, and he did the best he could to put the pieces together and hurt the least number of people. It didn’t exactly turn out that way. But life never does.

***

I’ve heard happy children outside my window, playing in the snow, throughout the day. I wonder how many of them will realize how much their parents love them before it’s too late. All of them, I hope. And if not that, I hope they at least get the memory of having fun in the snow, with moms and dads, during at least one blizzard of their youth. You never know when those happy memories will crop up or what fruits they’ll bear.

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