February 10, 2021

What I Learned from a Father who was a Mystery to Me.

I’m not sure where the Australian summer has been.

Perhaps it lingers out behind the row of hills I can see from the roof of my house when unblocking gutters. It might be curled into where those hills slope toward the ground, ending at creek beds normally dry at this time of year. It could be found in fogs of heat haze too far off to see and clouds of starlings swirling as skies darken in the evening.

The heat did visit recently, even though it was only a cameo appearance.

Sudden and brutal, it was fire without flame. I stood in its glare, sunlight radiating down two layers of skin. I imagined light flowing through the spaces in me, turning them pink and bleaching bones. Warmth finding its way to places I normally only felt the glow of a good meal.

That warmth brought me back to the annual holidays I spent with my father as a child.

For most of the year, he was gruff, spending long hours in a sales job. His only happy time was after the office Christmas party, arriving home to slur words, let dinner go cold, and pass out on the couch.

But with his office closing for Christmas, he became a changed man. For those precious three weeks, I actually knew him.

He packed the car, jamming bags into the boot. Fishing rods were tied to a roof rack, wind shrieking through them when we picked up speed on our trip. I snuck a hand out the window as he drove, skidding my palm over the pulsing wind outside. I dozed on the four-hour trip, waking with a sore neck and dry mouth.

We arrived in darkness, salt so strongly gusting I tasted it inhaling. Outside of the holidays, my father was a mystery to me. Someone leaving early in the mornings in a tightly knotted tie and returning at night with it yanked halfway down his chest.

On weekends our only conversation was his telling me to pull weeds out of the lawn until it was perfect. To rake up leaves or open his beer. I didn’t really know him as he sat hunched over a radio, listening to a sports broadcast, shaking his head when his team failed. I barely recognized him plodding along behind a lawnmower, cut grass churning around him.

But on holidays, he was the man quietly threading bait onto my hook to catch the squirming flathead fish he’d later fry for breakfast. He stood in lines with me to buy hot chips, letting me enjoy the steam of vinegar and brine as I tore open the parcel. We walked along the break wall separating high tides from a caravan park, feeling the sleet from waves crashing onto nearby rocks. He bought ice creams that melted pink and brown down fingers. For those three weeks, sometimes he even listened to me.

I grew up during one of those trips. He asked one day if I’d grown hair on my arms. And there it was, wavering in the breeze like insect antennas. The next day we drove home.

We walked into our musty house, and he hauled out his suit, later polishing shoes, and cutting himself shaving. Even before I asked him where to store our bags, I knew he was a stranger again. Mornings once more revealed the muffled sounds of him preparing for working days, pipes vibrating as he showered, coat hangers ringing as they slid along rails, and kettle whining.

All those years, I avoided his sullen moods at the end of working days.

Sulked after being told my math result wasn’t up to standard or couldn’t I for once tuck my shirt in. Endured his disappointments with my bloody nose during football matches or my sawing hopelessly crooked lines when learning carpentry.

It was only later, as an exhausted parent, did it occur to me he’d done his best.

He’d parented me during a time when a father’s responsibilities involved earning a salary, planting gardens, washing cars, and barely speaking to their children unless to discipline them. It was the example set by his father, at a time when roles were defined and inflexible. I realized I’d been lucky to have him for three weeks of the year.

I live in a different city now. What fatherhood is today has changed.

But I still drive north for holidays. Like experiencing that instinct migrating birds have, turning toward magnetic north. Sometimes it feels as if I’m equipped with genetic memory, traversing meandering valleys and the warm currents of air channeling across plains.

Except maybe I’m merely following the trails of old memories and the happiness I sometimes still search for.


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