Of Rocking Chairs
February Frosts

By: Madison Cole
(© 2008 by the author)

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...

There are certain kinds of days which seem sculpted from chunks of gray clay, when just looking out a window can make you shiver with a cold that seems to come from deep inside. These days are often snowy winter ones, though not always. Apart from the cold, however, these days seem to have an almost hypnotic power; the kind that turns reflection into melancholy, today into yesterday. A force calls through the chill of the wind outside, and thoughts begin to turn to the past, spiraling backward. Today is such a day, and as I write, I am looking through such a window. There is indeed a snow coming, and the world is much as always except for an intense silence in my room. This silence leads my thoughts back to my father: he is dead.

I always meant to set my thoughts about my father down on paper, for I felt sure there was a story to be told of him. I have tried to do this before, without success. I do not know why this is so―perhaps the purpose was never strong enough, or the days past were not sufficiently gray.

For the most part, we lived apart, my father and I. There are gaps in my memories of him and I often wonder how many of my remembrances are unclouded, how many are tinted with a child’s paint-by-number imaginings. No matter, the man was still my father, and this breeds a closeness that cannot be eradicated by separation, time, or even death. Now that I am grown, relatives tell me I am very much my father’s child. I am told by these relatives that I have his gait, his facial structure, much of his personality. Just when I begin to dismiss their tellings, I find my mother looking at me in random moments and there is a distant sorrow in her eyes. I know in those times my relatives are right.

When I was very small, I left my mother to go to live with an aunt. Mother was ill, and carrying my younger brother as well. My father had gone away (not for another woman, but for the sake of running after one of his many rainbows), and others decided it would be too great a strain for her to attempt the rearing of two small children by herself.

In a year, when she was well and my father was somehow mysteriously back in her life, my mother came to my aunt’s house to take me home. But home had changed now for me: my aunt was a security, a stable force I had not found with my mother and the stranger who was my father. So, using a child’s ultimate weapon, I wept and refused to leave. I fled crying into my aunt’s aprons and begged refuge. My fate was decided in an instant when I looked at my aunt and pleaded, “Please, mommy, don’t make me go.” Against this, my real mother could offer no persuasion or defense. She hugged me tearfully and looked into my eyes for what seemed limitless time. I don’t know what she was looking for in my eyes―perhaps forgiveness, perhaps just a glimmer of hope that love was still there amidst a child’s confusion. Of course it was, but like so many significant emotions, it went unspoken. Then my mother took my hand and pressed into it a small yellow plastic elephant.

In my life, I have lost so many truly important things―documents, money, lovers among them―but I have always had that yellow elephant. It has traveled with me each time I have moved, and I keep it in a shadow box with some fine porcelain pieces. The china figures, of course, are many times more valuable than the elephant, and I have at times been questioned why I keep this plaything with those pieces, since there is obviously great disparity in their value. Sometimes I think I keep the elephant with the figurines for that reason alone, but more importantly, that toy is a great key to my childhood. I will always have it.

I looked in fascination at that yellow elephant and held it in delight, totally oblivious to the fact that my mother was withdrawing, weeping freely, walking down our driveway with my new brother on her hip. She handed the baby into the ramshackle pickup truck, and my brother was taken inside by the driver, a man I did not recognize: my father. The engine started, and the three of them drove out of my life for a very long time.

My aunt was my mother’s eldest sister, and my aunt loved her baby sister dearly. But she had come to love me more, I think, and was resolute that I not return to live with my father, a “jack-of-dreams,” in her estimation. I have often looked back, wishing even now that I could explain that day to my mother―why I stayed behind, why I was so frightened to risk the security I had come to know, to somehow soften my long-ago words so she would understand. But how can I (can anyone?) ever soothe the impact of a child’s words―or worse, cruel tears? Perhaps in her heart my mother has come to realize, as I have, that her leaving me behind was a chosen path of sorts―an inevitable thread necessary to weave the fabric that all our lives have become.

I have always been different. When I was six years old, I thought exactly the same way I do now. I had the same outlooks as a child, and my patterns of thought today mirror those of my childhood. My aunt used to say I was “born grown.” I sometimes believe that a larger vocabulary is all that separates me from what I was as a youngster. I am starkly different from my aunt and uncle who raised me; yet, when I look at my brothers, my sister, and my mother, I do not find myself there, either. In a way, I blame my father for these differences, these things I have doubtless inherited from him, yet I thank him for these legacies as well. Like my father, I am a sentimentalist, but others have conditioned me not to feel so deeply. Like him, I am a dreamer, but living with others has taught me more practicality. In my father was a shadow of the poet; in me this streak is my driving force: stacks of paper filled with ideas and dreams, thoughts, tears, and love sit piled by the ream throughout my dwelling place. Often it seems they strain toward heaven itself. These written dreams are my life.

But father, I now see, lived his dreams, or at least, he lived the pursuit of them. He did his best to try to portray the conventional role of provider to his family, but was often truer to his longings than to the needs of his wife and children. In truth, my father was never able to elevate his family above the lowest of poverty levels.

When I think of my father, I remember most of all his being gone. He left many times and at the most capricious of intervals, always unannounced. Often he was gone Christmases, but when he was home he would bring my mother and little brother to see me. My aunt, ever the watchdog, would keep close by and my father would keep a safe distance away. My father was truly intimidated by my aunt, and at first appraisal that might seem odd, since my aunt was a tiny woman and my father was a large, powerful man. Perhaps it had something to do with her statement to him once that he “wasn’t worth the powder and hot lead it would take to blow him to hell.” Possibly he took her words not so much as an observation, but a warning―my fiercely-protective aunt did, after all, have the feisty temperament of a testy, mountain-bred woman. For whatever reason, my father always stayed somewhat removed from our family gatherings. That kept him in large part distanced from me, so I savored the infrequent afternoons I could spend reunited with my mother and my brother―a family again.

In those times when he would be home at Christmas, my father would give huge presents he could not afford. He would take his entire meager paycheck from whatever itinerant work he was doing at the time, or his paltry veteran’s pension dole, and spend every bit of it to make a holiday. He would come to my aunt’s house, load us all into that pickup truck (or one of its many equally uncertain successors) and take us to a local market that sold the kind of chili dogs that make a child’s eyes wide. He would buy as many of the spicy concoctions as we could devour and still live. Then the snow would begin to fall, the afternoon would slip away, and my family would be gone with it, penniless, with likely not a scrap in the larder to get them through the day after Christmas. The gray afternoon would then see twice a hundred like it before I would be with them again. I am sure now that each visit chipped pieces of my heart like bits from a magnet, going with them each time they drove their wobbling vehicle down our driveway, each visit pulling my heart closer by degrees to my far-off family.

Sometimes mother came to see me without my father. In those times I knew he was gone again. It seemed every time he left, he left her pregnant. Following my younger brother, there came a sister, and a baby brother. After a difficult birth with him, the doctors told her to never have another child. In between each child, my father would disappear, and my mother came to my aunt’s house when she was simply too defeated to go on alone. Reflecting, I marvel at her survival. She brought up those three small children virtually on her own, yet never worked at a regular job. When my father would leave her, she took in ironing, made jellies when she could get fruit, or brought out her spinning wheel and began weaving. She quilted as well, and on Saturdays she took her goods and her babies and carried them from country to city to sell enough of whatever she had to buy food. When there was no ironing to be gotten, or no one in town to buy quilts or jellies at the courthouse corner, she waited until her pride no longer nourished. Then she came to my aunt’s house―hungry, tortured, and ashamed.

I once told her how much I despised my father for making her live like that and for what he did to her. I saw in her eyes a flash of the same devastated look I had seen on the day I refused to go back to live with her. I remember she held me again―sadly, tightly, and told me I just did not understand my father. She cried into my hair and I realized then just how unconditionally she loved him. Later, she wrote my aunt and said my father had returned. Always, there was the unspoken offer for me to “come home” as well. But I never went.

Then, somehow, I was no longer a child. I was in high school. My aunt learned to drive, and we began to visit my mother with some degree of regularity. We became even closer, mother and I. I found that my mother had nurtured much love for me in my brothers and sister. My father was tentative toward me, and almost sweetly shy. So many emotions ran wild; I thought I would go quite mad. And my mother had been right in her letter. My father had indeed come home “to stay.” He was always there once I began to visit regularly. But for me, his presence was somehow just there in the background―like a radio playing in some distant room of a large house.

My father had, as I recall, many loves. He was fond of good country food, the same kind of music, and a really good night out drinking with his like-minded “good old boys.” But chief among his loves was his wooden rocking chair. This brown, well-worn rocker sat in the yard under a shade tree and was his “thinking place,” his sanctuary. My aunt always said that he rocked his life away, and perhaps that is true. He sat for hours at a time, rocking, watching neighbors, stars, the river, the sparse rural traffic, my baby brother, and sometimes, me. Every once in a while when I would catch his glance, it would seem that he was on the verge of speaking some deep emotional truth to me, some words that would tear down the walls still between us. But whatever it was he was thinking in those moments went forever unsaid. My gypsy-hearted father began to do more looking, more silent rocking, ultimately ceasing his nomadic rambling for good. When he did so, I believe he began to die.

It was my mother who first noticed changes in my father. He weakened, slowed, and lapsed into a cheerless, resigned silence. I also noticed these changes but kept quiet, for I felt little right to express an opinion in a house I regarded as truly not my own. My mother said that father was ill. He could no longer hold a job; but this was not, in truth, abnormal―he’d never worked steadily. He drank wildly at times, with a seemingly suicidal compunction. Relatives deemed it unlikely that my father was too ill, for he was a bear of a man and for a time outwardly demonstrated no dramatic signs of severe illness. Suddenly, though, the magpie relations were proven wrong when a stroke left one side of his face drawn and twisted. An ensuing series of lesser episodes robbed his voice and he could eventually do no more than whisper in a chilled, hollow rasp that seemed to foretell the frost of oncoming winter.

I feared, though, not so much for the man who took to his bed as for the woman who was always at his side. My mother sat―along with my sister and baby brother―as suspicious bedside sentinels, keeping away harping relatives with their morbid predictions and gruesome advice. There were hateful whispers between the aunts: “How is Katherine going to pay for a funeral for that old thing?” “After the way he’s been, she ought to just take him over yonder and stand him up in the river.” My mother looked as ill as my father. She refused to sleep or eat; she lost weight to such a frightening degree that when she did leave my father’s side and venture the cold valley winds for whatever reason, I truly feared for her.

Of course there ultimately came a winter day like the one today, when my mother went outside to sit dazedly in my father’s rocking chair which had not been brought in at summer’s end. She sat in his chair while the cold February winds whistled in requiem about her and the bare oak branches―my father was dead.

Though I was not there with her when my father died, something inside me told me instantly of his passing with more certainty than spoken words. In that terrible instant I, too, reached out trying to grasp and hold the wind, or whatever force had wrenched my father away. Suddenly, everything seemed terribly, clearly unfair. I had lost my father without really knowing him, and chances for true love between us, the kind of relationship we were supposed to have as father and son, were now gone forever.

So I have today come back to my father’s house, in search of some elusive, unknown kind of solace. I am now walking the street on which he lived his last months. The snow is beginning to fly around me, and an unshakable cold is starting to grip at my soul, much as the wretched wind whips at my collar. I approach the house that my mother abandoned shortly after my father’s death. I am told that an old man lives there now, and that he, too, is dying. If he is aware of my presence, he leaves me blissfully alone.

I make the steps to the house. The cement walk is cracked, and parts of it are broken off altogether. There is the familiar, slippery concrete porch; how odd it is to see it so bare—my baby brother used to leave it strewn with his toys for days at a time. Shutting my eyes, I can hear the faded pulses of voices from so many of these winter seasons past. As I turn and look into the yard, I see the grass growing only in patches now, and there is the familiar oak tree under which my father sat for so many hours of his life―my life.

I can envision that brown rocker still sitting there, worn with savage baby teethmarks and the Crayola decorations of three children. There sits the chair where my father sat, rocked, dreamed and watched those dreams fade in the realization that he would never be more than what he was. The chair sways with the wind, yet it is somehow more than that. He is there, my father, and now that I am grown and dreaming too, he knows what I am thinking, those words I never pronounced: I love you, Daddy.


Posted: 07/11/08