Father to Son
Walter steadied himself, resting his knuckles on top of the vinyl tablecloth before collapsing back into the chair. There’s still a lot of strength in those hands, Frank thought. Even when his legs fail, he manages to pull himself along. Walter faced the picture window and seemed to watch a pair of cardinals flitting from the garden to the bough of a spruce tree. But it was hard to tell exactly what he saw. His eyes had a fixed, far-away gaze. Perhaps he was surveying the expanse of hay fields beyond the garden or the green of the Tuscarora mountain range farther still in the distance. What Walter’s mind registered, though, Frank couldn’t say. He wondered about his father’s thoughts. Regularly.
Frank asked, “Hot dogs okay?”
Walter cleared his throat with a series of staccato coughs. “Where’s Linda? Linda makes me pizza for lunch. I like Linda’s pizza.”
Plopping four frozen hot dogs into a pot of boiling water, Frank summoned his patience. “It’s Wednesday, Dad. You’re stuck with me on Wednesdays. Linda comes Tuesday and Thursday. Diane on Monday and Friday. Me again on the weekend. Here—” He pulled a schedule off the refrigerator. It was neatly drawn in marker on the inside panel of a cereal box. Diane’s work—her precise, elementary-teacher-printing. She had titled the schedule “Dad’s Help Chart.” Frank pointed. “See? Wednesday. You get me.”
Walter ignored the chart, focusing instead on a few crumbs of toast from the morning’s breakfast. He pressed the crumbs with his index finger. Those that stuck, he deposited on his tongue. “When did all this fuss start?” Walter asked, chewing thoughtfully. “I don’t know why you kids worry. Your mother and I get along just fine.”
Frank hunkered down, put a hand on his father’s forearm as if he were comforting a young child. “Mother’s gone, Dad.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“Just. Gone,” Frank answered.
“Gone to one of those doctor’s appointments?” Walter persisted. He looked past Frank, who was blinking fiercely, and instead stared expectantly at the kitchen door. Frank knew that Walter expected the door to open. He expected to see his wife come striding across the kitchen, her blue housedress swishing against her nylons, her Velcro sneakers squeaking on the clean linoleum. Frank stood up in spite of the sudden sense of defeat that threatened to press him to the floor.
“Yep, Dad. Doctor’s appointment. That’s it. You’ll see her later.”
This answer seemed to satisfy Walter for a time. Frank turned back to his hot dogs boiling on the stove, and Walter reached for a pair of binoculars, which he kept between the salt shaker and the pillbox in the center of the table. Leaning on his elbows, Walter put the binoculars to his eyes and scanned the fields he had farmed for fifty years and roamed for many more. “Don’t know why you’re messing around in that kitchen when there’s hay to be made, boy,” he grumbled.
Frank let the criticism pass. He took a jar of cucumber relish from the refrigerator, a bottle of ketchup, too, and a small yellow onion from the crisper.
“That hay’s gonna rot in the field, I said,” Walter repeated, louder. Frank began dicing an onion. When he finished, he used his thumb and forefinger to wipe the leftover bits from the knife, then dropped it in the sink with a clatter.
“I checked the weather, Dad. I can make hay tomorrow.” Steam hissed. Frank stabbed a hot dog in the pot. Plunking the dog onto a paper plate, he spooned on some relish and onion and squirted the whole ensemble with ketchup.
“That’s always been your trouble, boy. You put things off.”
“Here’s your lunch, Dad.”
“Cutting wood, making hay, planting garden, pulling corn. You’ve always been a day late and a dollar short.”
“Let’s eat, okay?”
Walter looked at the ketchup dripping into the pool of relish. “What’s this? Where’s my pizza? I thought Linda was making me pizza today.”
On Wednesday nights, after he had helped Walter into bed, Frank walked across the hayfields to the farmhouse where he had done his growing as a boy and where he had lived for thirty-five years as a married man. His wife would sit, cross-legged, behind him on the couch and stroke his neck. “It’s the dementia, Frank,” she’d say. “Your dad doesn’t know why he’s railing half the time. Try to be patient with him.”
Frank would fume, the day’s tension escaping like a blast of steam from the tea kettle. “Dementia my ass. I never could please him. The girls could do no wrong. But me? I did nothing right.”
“You are doing right by your dad,” his wife would soothe. Her fingers moved across his collarbone and down his chest. “You and your sisters are keeping him comfortable in his own home. Even if he can’t tell you, it must make him happy.”
Walter now took a slice of bread and sopped up the leftover ketchup on his paper plate. He didn’t look happy. He looked vacant. Hunched over the table, Walter reminded Frank of the cicada shells he sometimes found at summer’s end, fragile brown husks desperately clinging to the bark of a tree.
“Dad, let’s sit outside for a spell.”
Walter didn’t argue, just offered his hand. Frank was surprised by the force of his father’s cold grip. He grasped Walter’s belt loop, too. “One, two, three—up we go.” He pulled Walter to his feet. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, rest. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, rest. They inched their way across the linoleum to the kitchen door. Frank opened it to the sweet breath of June. Hay and honeysuckle. “Just one step down, Dad, and then a few more feet to the glider.” Shuffle, shuffle, rest. Shuffle, shuffle, rest.
Frank eased his father into the cushion of the glider that was old when Frank was a child. It creaked as they rocked in the summer sun. A red-tailed hawk dipped and rose above the mountains in the distance. The cardinals resumed their hopping between the rows of beets and carrots in the garden. Walter and Frank studied the fields. Feathery tops of the timothy hay bowed gently in the breeze. After awhile, Walter spoke. Not much, but enough. “I guess, son, maybe you’re right. Maybe tomorrow is soon enough to make the hay.”
Copyright © 2014 Amanda Lightner
Amanda Lightner was raised on a farm in central Pennsylvania, the same farm bought by her grandfather’s grandfather from her grandmother’s grandfather in the late-1800’s. She has always been fascinated by family stories of this landscape, and her writing often explores the connection between people and place. She earned a BA in English and secondary education from Lebanon Valley College and is finishing her MA in English and creative nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University.
In addition to graduate study, she currently serves as a literacy tutor for her neighborhood youth center and as an ESL teacher for adult students in Lancaster County. She and her husband, Trevor, enjoy fishing, hiking, and riding horses with their three young children.