This is a repost of a diary I wrote for The Grieving Room.
I was born high on a hilltop overlooking Red Wing, Minnesota, and learned to walk deep under the earth, deeper even than a grave. My father was a cabinetmaker with a taste for Hamm's Beer that he bought by the case and that gave him delusions of general carpentry. He insisted upon building with his own hands his family's first home in Hastings on a bare patch of bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. For some years, the view merely languished behind his bleary eyes, its potential locked in the flesh and sinew of his shaking hands.
We lived within the concrete blocks that held back the mud and the river and the sky. Somehow my mother saw it, though -- the view from The Brown House. A self-proclaimed hillbilly from the eastern mountains of Tennessee, she made do and made a home in a place that was only foundation, trusting that the subterranean walls would one day take root in the fertile, river-washed soil and grow upwards toward the sunlight.
The Brown House was meant to be a three-bedroom home, but my father finished only one of the three bedrooms. When I was three and the upstairs was almost livable, my father and mother shared that room with my baby brother, Alan. I shared another bedroom, only partially finished, with cardboard boxes and odd pieces of furniture that made odd shadows in the moonlight. I never left my room at night, though, to find comfort from the shadows with my parents; there were wolves under my bed. My father told me so.
The third bedroom remained an unheated, unlit tomb of intention, sealed off and locked away from us. To me, it was always my father's place, a glorious cave of detritus and possibility: nails and hammers and saws and half-sanded boards and hunks of wood. That room was more my father than he was himself -- it was full of things that had been and things that could be, but barren of most anything whole and safe and dependable that actually was.
Sometimes at night, my father unlocked the padlock to that third bedroom. He perched on a makeshift bench made of sawhorses and boards, then smoked cigarettes he rolled himself with Zigzag papers and Velvet tobacco from a big red can that he pried open with a wayward nail or paintcan lid opener. In the moonbeams that shone in from the rough-cased window, the gleaming smoke and sawdust whirled around him like clouds and tiny stars. I can still see him there, my father, a stubby young man ordering up a sky from his smokey sawhorse throne.
When I was four or five, my father lost The Brown House in a poker game in Mahtomedi. In the ensuing argument that escalated into a roaring, punching fight, he slashed and stabbed at my mother with a longhandled butcher knife. The bare-bulbed light washed over my mother and her blood plopped to the floor like rotting fruit.
My father, silenced by the splattered punctuation of his fury, crumpled facedown in the pooling blood and bawled, his head gripped between his hands. He might have been crying because he stabbed her; he might have been crying because he regretted being too drunk to do it right.
You know, I don't suppose anyone can calculate how many moonbeams it took to love my father all those years in their light. It doesn't matter. They lied to me.
And in the end, I lied a little, too.
He died in February 2002, years after my mother died of breast cancer far away in Florida, and just a few days before his 71st birthday. He became a true hermit in his last years and had just boasted to me over the phone that he hadn't left his prairie-town Midwestern home in 18 months. I hired a cleaning crew to help with the housework; Meals on Wheels delivered his food every other day. A home health aide came daily to measure his breathing, take his vitals, and make sure he kept up with his medications. A passel of longtime drinking buddies brought him groceries and delivered his mail from the post office around the corner. Most everything else, he ordered from the Home Shopping Network or QVC and had delivered by UPS. (The UPS driver was one of the few people who attended his wake.)
The autumn before he died, my dad decided he wanted a kitten. One of his old drinking buddies, Jim, found one for him at a neighboring farm, a wee gray tabby as soft as silk. Jim took the kitten to the vet and bought some kitten chow. My father ordered a set of personalized food and water dishes, a collapsible nylon tunnel with a fuzzy cat toy that dangled from the top, and a blue fleece blanket with little black catpaw prints.
I know all this because I found the receipts for each and every purchase when I got to South Dakota to bury him. I also found more than 5,000 packets of Zigzag cigarette papers, nearly a hundred notes scattered around the house informing potential finders that they should call me when he died, and a packet of letters to and from his mother about some things I would rather never have known.
I found records of his various stays in psychiatric hospitals, where he'd been diagnosed with alcoholism and a fittingly Norwegian smorgasbord of mental illnesses. There were his military records from his two years playing baseball for the U.S. Army in between battle stints in the Korean War. Birthday cards from a mysterious woman named Shirley who wrote in elegant Catholic-school cursive and must have loved my father fiercely for some years in the 1970s. A list of contents of a safe-deposit box for which he'd given me a key many years before, and a much longer list of books he'd had delivered over the years from the public library 40 miles away in Huron. And shoeboxes stuffed with letters, cards, and small gifts dutifully sent to him from a girl who dotted her i's with hearts for a while before growing more dignified, less enthusiastic, colder. Perhaps bitter.
Without all of that, I would have buried a crazy old hermit who'd long, long ago beaten his wife until she finally piled her toddlers into the back of a Plymouth Fury and drove through the night across the Midwestern plains, through the hills of Kentucky, and into the wild mountains of Tennessee. A man who once left me in the booth of a bar in St. Paul with a bottle of Tahitian Treat pop and a bag of Old Dutch barbecue potato chips while he went to play poker at a friend's house across town. A guy who sometimes called me after the bars closed and cried like a baby when I refused to answer his bleating questions, "Don't you have anything to say to me? Don't you want to say something good about the ol' man?"
Instead, I buried another man. A Korean War veteran who'd come this close [ ] to playing major-league ball for the Minnesota Twins, who'd brought home an alligator from a construction trip to the South, who'd built birdhouses for every single one of the 180 residents of Carthage, South Dakota, and had them delivered by three friends. The man I buried loved to read. He collected every issue of National Geographic that came out after 1965. He left behind a kitten named Cecile and a dutiful daughter who established a memorial fund for him at the Huron Public Library.
This is not a eulogy for Elwood Ralph Erickson, who was born on February 15, 1931, and who died on February 2, 2002. And it's not a pack of lies, either. It's a love letter to my father, complete with all the keening, searing heartache of unrequitable love. Dear Dad, may you rest in peace. Finally.
Happy Father's Day to my father and his hidden heart. I wish that just one time when you called, I'd told you what you needed to hear.