Poetry + Praise of the divine and the Feminine

My dad is my earliest memories.

We are infants, wearing white, at my Uncle Ben’s wedding. We’re in a brightly-lit church, and Dad is holding me while I struggle against him, while I struggle to breathe, while I struggle to scream because the ceiling is too high, and I was only recently acquainted with the world through the low, clear dome of an incubator upon which Dad used to tap his heavy index finger to the rhythm of “You’re. Gonna. Live. You’re Gonna Live.”

We are two years old. It is a sunny afternoon on the Mitchells’ almond ranch, where we are staying while Dad renovates their kitchen cabinets using antique wooden fruit and vegetable crates. The Mitchells are throwing a pool party, and 6-year-old Jaime is diving to the bottom of the pool to retrieve every leaden baton I keep tossing to the depths, screeching in delight every time she resurfaces with the green or blue or orange cylinder in her tiny fist. I drop a baton in the water, Jaime submerges, and I turn away.

I walk into a sitting room through an open sliding-glass door, but I am careful to shove the sliding door closed with all my might, because I’ve learned to keep the cool air inside. The outside pool-party noises are muffled behind the glass and I hear tall people behind me, chatting while standing in their dry swimsuits and speedos. I waddle towards my dad, the tallest in the group, my Wonder Woman one-piece heavy with a soaked diaper. I lift my arms. He picks me up.

“Say hi to everyone?” He asks.

I turn and stare at four adoring faces, female and male, beseeching me for my toddler approval. I turn away and hug my father’s neck.

“She’s shy.”

“Awwww.”

We are in Santa Cruz, about to turn three, and we are living in one of my uncle’s properties while Dad builds my uncle’s mansion into the side of a mountain. I have seen the bones and guts of this glass-and-stucco giant, lying sideways on the hill, not yet alive or living, and I understand it won’t be until my cousins move in. “This will be your cousin Lindsey’s room,” Dad says into the hollow cave, where I will one day climb through the window to smoke cigarettes on the balcony, then hide the pack in a plastic Ziploc that I will toss down the ravine. I will retrieve it later by wrapping the cable cord from the enormous satellite dish around my waste to scale the steep incline, slipping on rotting mulch and shuddering against spiderwebs. We will shower off the scent and spritz ourselves with perfume to a soundtrack of Beastie Boys and R.E.M. We will do everything right and wrong to avoid getting caught. But right now Lindsey’s room looks burned out and hollow, without electricity or drywall.

Dad comes home from building the mansion and parks in the driveway. I stand on the couch and bang on our living room window with my open palm so he will look up from the driveway where he loads and unloads massive tools from his beat-up truck. His tired face lifts, he tosses dark brown hair out of his eyes, he smiles, waves back. Gets back to work.

Dad is at work when our TV bursts into flame in the living room. Mom stands in the open doorway across the room, screaming at me to get my shoes on. But I struggle with the velcro across my tiny feet. The sirens are approaching and those sirens will live in my head for years to come.

This is the sound of an emergency, and it won’t be our last.

There are flames rising from behind the giant tube television in the corner of the living room.

Hurry up, get your shoes on, there’s a fire! Mom yells, frantic, framed by the tall trees beyond the balcony.

I toss my hands in the air and in my most authoritative, exasperated voice, I shout, “I’m two-and-a-half.” As though this should end all disputes going forward. I stand and run across the room as fast as I can, propelled by a sense of danger that will linger long after the flames are doused.

The firefighters arrive, bulky and slow-moving. They toss the flaming TV off the balcony into the green, overgrown yard. Mom blushes, bats her eyelashes.They see that we are fine, tip their helmets, and maneuver their engine out of our one-lane beach street just as Dad turns in from a long day’s work.

They can’t possibly be coming from my house, he thinks.

“Fire truck, Daddy, fire truck!” My sister and I chant when he climbs the steps and sees the old TV steaming in the grass below. “Rice! Uh-Roni! The San Francisco Treat!” We chant, our favorite commercial, now melted into the dented gray box lying mortally wounded in the thicket. Dad just stares at it, as if trying to work out a mathematical equation.

At night my sister whispers across the room, between the slats of our separate cribs. “Come over to my crib,” she says. She won’t let me sleep until I do, so I heave my top-heavy torso over the railing and swing my legs over the edge. Thump!

It wakes my dad in the the other room. I climb into my sister’s crib. Dad comes in, picks me up, and puts me back in my own crib where I belong.

A few minutes later he hears thump!

He comes back in, picks me up, puts me back in my crib where I belong.

Seems like he could have just ignored it, though, and gotten a good night’s rest.

Sometimes I lie on the living room floor while Dad watches TV. A newer one, now that the old one is charred. There is a varnished wood coat rack that I think is funny looking, and I have a bad habit of tugging the base while lying bored on the rug. Dad tells me to stop it several times, but I am teasing him now, and I just want to see how long he’ll let me yank on the coat rack, which has already fallen on me once or twice before when I was doing this exact thing, pinning me to the floor. Dad is tired, but he finally stands up from the couch, strolls toward me, and uses his thumb and middle finger to flick the middle of my forehead. He moves the coat rack out of my reach and sits back on the couch. This is the closest he will ever come to a spanking. It doesn’t make me cry, but it momentarily stuns. It will take weeks or months for me to realize it’s supposed to be a punishment, and not just a confusing outcome of this little game I’m trying to play.

We’re back in Idaho. It’s Easter at the Deener’s House in Boise, the olive green ranch-style house we rent with the expansive yard, a vegetable plot, and a creek down below at the edge of the property. Mom and Dad both patiently explain to me all about the Easter bunny, and how he left this giant basket of goodies for me on the fireplace hearth, and this bunny has also hidden a bunch of colored eggs outside in the big yard. I exercise every faith muscle to conjure this large, fluffy, two-legged bunny with opposable thumbs but he just doesn’t have the same cache as Santa Claus. Sure, I think, a bunny brought gifts and hid eggs in the grass. Sure, he did. We shrug our winter jackets over our pajamas and wade through the cold dew sparkling in the grass. Barely unfrozen frost, really. I squint against the early morning sunlight, and I see one or two eggs in plain sight that look suspiciously similar to the eggs we dyed the day before. When I put them in my basket, I notice my sister has many more in her own basket. She is more determined than I am to go along with this charade, but Dad kneels next to me and points his long, incubator-tapping index finger under a twinkling juniper bush. A pink and blue egg rests in the soil, looking so foreign I almost don’t pick it up. This tradition is just entirely lost on me.

The Deener’s house, with the different-colored shag carpet in every bedroom, is where my folks will eventually split up. Hard to tell, really, because Dad seems to be there all the time, anyway. The refrigerator is avocado green, the stove is chocolate brown. The coils on the brown stove catch on fire occasionally, often enough that the babysitters know Mom keeps a box of baking soda in the overhead cabinet for just such a purpose.

The bedroom I share with my sister has red shag, like Raggedy Ann’s yarn hair. I have a big girl bed with no railings, so when my sister asks if she can look at my special coloring book, the Rudolph reindeer one, I ignore her until she won’t stop, so I roll out of bed and crouch in my closet, where all my coloring books are filed neatly in a blue milk crate. As I rifle through the various coloring books, I sense a large presence to my left. I look up to see a tall, thin man in his underwear briefs, backlit by the overhead hallway light. I scream and collapse in shaking sobs.

My sister pretends to be asleep. We both think we are in trouble. She feigns a groggy, eye-rubbing awakeness.

“What’s the matter with Jody?” She asks, the little Oscar-nominee.

“She’s just startled. I must have scared her when I came in to check on you two.” Dad lifts me, wailing, and holds me a few minutes before letting me climb into bed with him and mom, in their room with the pea green shag carpet.

When we turn four, Mom and Dad throw an enormous birthday party, with a clown entertainer and a rented camcorder and everything. All our pre-school friends come over with their parents and we sit in the shady spot to watch the clown perform. Halfway through the performance, I stand up and walk inside the house.

That’s enough socializing for one day.

As I pass my dad behind the tripod he whispers, “Where are you going? Where’s she going?” You can hear this in the audio recording of the video. As soon as I walk out of the frame, you can see my sister in the distance showing two little boys around Mom’s flourishing vegetable garden.

I hope all our friends appreciated that clown lady, with the Raggedy-Ann yarn wig.

When my sister and I attend Boise State, Dad comes down from McCall for the weekend. The three of us suddenly feel nostalgic, so he drives us to our old neighborhood in the Highlands and we see a garage sale at the old Deener’s house. I wonder if the living room carpet is still stained, from the time I spilled an entire pitcher of red Kool-Aid while trying to show my family how I could pour my own glass without their help. I could not, in fact, do it without anyone’s help. And just days before we were supposed to move out, I felt remorseful and embarrassed as we spent most of our waking hours scrubbing the fancy modern carpet with pink soap while Mom sobbed and Dad scrubbed harder.

Mr. Deener passed away with cancer a few years ago, and a young family lives there now. We shrug and pull over to check out our old home.

“We used to live here, long time ago,” Dad says to the nice mom sorting her child’s toys on the driveway, among the old appliances and a rusty lawn mower.

“Hey, you’re selling the old brown stove!” Dad says. “That was here when we lived here. Thing must be thirty years old. Lasted all this time, eh?”


Soft

Awake at Four A.M. on the Potomac