Anyone who’s read my memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones, knows that my father was a farmer who lost both of his hands in an accident in November, 1956. He wore prostheses the rest of his life, and he continued to farm. My relationship was uneasy with him until my later teen years when we reconciled. Whatever fire I have comes from him. He taught me how to endure, persevere, fight. He also taught me how to be generous, how to work, and how to enjoy the small moments of life. On Father’s Day, I’d like to share a brief section from From Our House. In this passage, I’m describing how I cared for my father one summer when my mother, a grade school teacher, was at Eastern Illinois University, finishing her bachelor’s degree, and my father and I were alone on our farm. This scene takes place on a Friday when we were getting ready to travel to Charleston to pick up my mother so she could spend the weekend with us. Both my father and my mother taught me how to love through actions, and I hope I’ve captured exactly that in the passage that appears below this next picture of my father and me on a distant Father’s Day.
That summer, I did for him what she would do for twenty-six years without regret or complaint; I shaved him, I bathed him, I cleaned him after he had used the toilet. I was eleven years old, and I knew my father’s body as intimately as I knew my own: the gray whiskers that grew on his face; the wrinkled craw of his throat, red from the sun; the white flesh, loose on his chest; the swell of his belly; the tuft of pubic hair; the uncircumcised penis; the loins and scrotal sac often inflamed with heat rash. “I’m gallded,” he would say, adding a “d” to the past tense of “gall.” I rubbed him tenderly with a wash cloth, patted him dry with a towel, and then powdered him with cornstarch.
Never was he as timid as he was then–as bashful as I. He would look away from me whileI washed him, sorry that circumstances were such that I had to perform this task. If anyone were to have seen us there, the aging man and his son, they would have never suspected the ugly rancor that simmered between us. They would have seen the boy soaking the washcloth in a basin of water and wringing it out with his small hands, and the father, standing naked in the sunlight streaming in through the window, his legs apart so his son could touch the washcloth gently to his tender groin. How could I not love him, then, so great was his need. “Burns like fire,” he often muttered under his breath. At those times, I concentrated on maintaining a gentle touch, one that wouldn’t hurt him. As my mother had done, I rolled fresh white cotton arm socks over his stumps and safety-pinned them to his T-shirt sleeves. I helped him slip his arms into the holsters of his hooks and then settle the canvas straps of the harness across his back.
We stood before the wardrobe, and he chose a shirt and a pair of trousers. He made his choices carefully, matching colors and styles. “Blue,” he might say. “Your mother likes blue.” When he was finally satisfied, I dressed him. I buttoned his shirt, held his trousers so he could step into them. I fastened his belt. The finishing touch was a dab of Butch Hair Creme brushed though his flat top. He would turn this way and that, looking at himself in the dresser mirror.
“Ready?” he would finally say, and I would race to the door, my heart light and full of joy because my mother was coming home.