“The moon is broken, but Daddy can fix it,” I said at the age of 3, pointing to the rind of a waning moon. If our septic tank backed up or the brutal valley sun curled the windowsill paint, my father always solved the problem. My mother loved repeating my innocent quote, long after I stopped believing it was true.
As a child I often waited for my dad to return from the vineyards, and followed him to his workshop filled with saws, welders’ masks, and nails sorted by size. When I became too old to share a bedroom with my brother, he pounded wooden stakes into the ground to measure the new foundation. With the enthusiasm and skill of a second-grader, I set out to help him build the addition.
I smashed my fingers with a hammer, and my father showed me how to pinch the nail with my thumb and forefinger, gently tapping its head until it stood upright by itself.
That summer I got a gold locket for my birthday and cut out a heart-shaped portrait of my dad to wear inside.
By the time I entered junior high, I viewed my father with a more critical eye. When he read aloud from the Bible during family devotions each evening, I noticed his delivery was halting and he sometimes stumbled over words. I winced if he said, “ain’t” in front of my friends.
After I went away to college, I visited my parents monthly at first, then less often. I was anxious to supplement my dad’s 10th-grade education with the new ideas I was trying on. When he balked at my hypothetical question about marrying a black man, I bristled at his prejudice. Over the months, my parents started to seem like distant relatives that I recognized, but didn’t know very well.
The next two years, I spun further out of my father’s orbit. Shedding my gingham skirts, I bought bell-bottoms from the Army-Navy store and wore them with tie-dyed halter tops. I began drinking coffee at the student union with a boy who was a published poet. We shared glances in class and laughed at each other’s jokes. I couldn’t wait to be with him, even though I knew he had a wife.
When I visited home, I felt jittery hiding my guilty romance from my father and mother and often invented excuses so I could rush back to school before the weekend was over. When my heart started pounding out of my chest, I knew I had to come clean with my parents.
“I have something to tell you,” I said, the back of my throat tightening with tears. “I’m in love with someone... and he’s married,” I choked out.
The room was so still I could hear mockingbirds quarreling in the fruitless mulberry trees. I looked at my dad, his knuckles swollen and cracked from farm work and his fingernails tipped with black crescents of motor oil. He retreated silently to his workshop, and I didn’t follow him.
A week later, I opened my apartment mailbox and recognized my father’s handwriting on an envelope. I couldn’t remember ever receiving a letter from him. Each December, my mother would have to prod him weeks in advance to begin the Christmas message to his Army buddies, until he finally sat down with a notepad, as glum as a student in detention.
My hands started shaking as I loosened the flap.
“Dear Jan, I’m not too good with words.” My dad explained he wanted me to be happy and prayed that God would give me wisdom and guidance.
“I only know that falling in love should be the happiest time of your life. You seemed so sad.”
I pictured my father struggling to patch up my broken heart with a pen, and his closing words slipped like minnows through my tears.
“So I will be hearing from you soon. Lots of love. Daddy.”