My Father is Immortal

Three years ago today, my father died. He was 96. I wrote this piece about him when he was 91. I gave it to him and he liked it. Of course I never believed my father would die, so: My Father is Immortal.

I am falling asleep on his lap, in the warmth and safety of his lap, while he reads to me, “Wait till the Moon is Full”… Tonight he sings the songs, usually he simply reads them. I want him to sing them always – but never say so. His voice is deep and rumbly.

I am putting his crew cut in ponytails. I sit on the back of the sofa, a knee on either side of his shoulders, ten, twenty teeny tiny salt and pepper ponytails. I think this is hilarious.

He was in a bad mood this morning so I am baking him a cake in my Easy Bake oven. He comes home and is talking with mom in the kitchen. I am hiding in the family room and then, “Daddy, I baked you a cake.” “Aren’t you a nice girl,” he says, as he lifts me up.

At the farm he has found another rat snake in the cellar. He carries it up the stairs and out of the house, extended in front of him on a pitchfork, takes it out to the side of the tractor shed. By now, all seven of us are gathered round. He throws the snake on the ground, takes an ax and brings it down; he chops the snake into pieces, until it stops wiggling. He gathers the pieces on a big shovel and carries them away.

He’s had a root canal without Novocain. He says he prefers the feel of drilling to the strangeness of numb.

Ghost stories about confederate soldiers on the front porch of the farmhouse. Sometimes at night you can see the light of the dead soldiers, marching over the horizon past the meadow. Over there! Look, do you see it??

My father tells me he will live to be one hundred and twelve and I believe him.

Tonight while Mom is cooking dinner I need to hear about the birds and the bees once again. She’s busy, so here I am at the chalkboard with Dad. He’s drawing me pictures- of a vagina and a penis, of a sperm and an egg. I ask him “Is this what they call “fucking”?” “Some people call it that. I call it making love.” “Why do people do that?” “Well, to make babies. And when grownups are in love, they do it because it feels good.”

I am at the chalkboard again with dad. He’s drawing those pictures again. It’s all so confusing, but I like sitting here with him.

My father is the most handsome man in the world. Ten feet tall, striking, confident. My father wears dark pants and long sleeve button down white shirts with ties. He wears tan pants and sweaters. For bed, he wears a long light blue nightgown. His legs are long and his toes are long. He gets his shoes delivered in the mail. He never goes shopping.

I am looking at this picture of my father as a boy. It’s black and white and he wears a pageboy hair cut, knickers. He looks very old fashioned. He was from a big family, it was the Great Depression, he had his tonsils out on the kitchen table.

He is always reading the newspaper. Gets three delivered to our door. Always reading, always cutting stories out of them with his old black scissors that Aunt Janet gave to him when they were kids. I ask him what is his job and he tells me he is a business consultant, if the Pillsbury Company wants to make orange muffins, he would read all these papers to find out where the best place is to grow oranges.

I am at Mr. Victor’s General Store at Christmastime. I explain to Mr. Victor what my father’s job is. He does not look impressed. I buy my father new scissors.

We are at the Anchor Inn on Sunday night. The whole family. I eat Crab Imperial. At fifteen I am allowed a small glass of white wine from the carafe. I feel very elegant.

I ask him to explain to me what is going on in the Middle East. He says to read the New York Times everyday. It’s hard for me to follow the names, the details. He says remember that behind each story are people, faces. I say it’s hard for me to follow. He says I don’t read enough.

We are at Kenmont. I am in the pool, I am small, he is sitting on the side of the pool. He flexes his feet and I sit on them, facing out. He swings his legs from the knees. I like this, the resistance of the water against us as he swings me.

I am standing by him at his desk in his home office. One of us is holding my report card. He tells me I need to focus. He says, “I watch you. You move about from one thing to the next. Concentrate on one thing at a time, “ he says.

He tells me I am beautiful and a nice girl and the world is my oyster. He asks me where I want to go to college.

He tells me not to be afraid of death. Death only hurts those that are left behind. And I wonder what it was like for him when his first wife, Maureen died, shortly after Jonny was born. I don’t ask him though. I never will.

He’s wearing his white beekeeper suit.

He sings to me “Darling, je vous aime beaucoup, je ne sais quois what to do.” He calls me Jeanne-Marie with a French accent.

He calls me Teeny Jeannie. He calls me Shrimp.

He is pitching the ball for me in the back yard. I need to practice for gym class. I must be twelve or so, which means he’s in his early sixties.

I am in high school now. Dad and I are at church together. Mom and Davie have opted out. Everyone else has moved out. Our drives to and from church are very quiet. I don’t know what to say to him. He told me it was up to me if we went to church. I don’t like church so much but I like having these Sunday dates with him.

Tell me again, Dad, about your friend that was eaten by a crocodile, the photographer, who fell off his boat into the Nile. “It’s not how someone dies, but how they lived that matters, “ he tells me again. And he tells me about his friend that was eaten by the crocodile.

Dad must be doing his army-navy exercises again, hear the headboard pounding up against the bathroom wall?

This black and white photograph of my father when he was the navy captain on a huge ship in World War II. Looks like a Hollywood still. He looks like Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. He is so often mistaken for him.

In the kitchen, Mom and Dad hand me a certificate. The CIA has given my father some award for his years of service. This is the first time they have told me about his involvement with the CIA. I feign surprised, Annie told me about this six years earlier.

My first semester at college, I receive my first letter ever just from him. He’s typed it on his old black typewriter- goes back to his reporter days- it says “since you’ve been gone, it seems the sunshine has left the house” and signs it “Dad”.

We are great descendents of the Greek God Zeus. I believe him. Living on Frederick Avenue, my father’s name being Fred, I believe he is the mayor of our street.

My father is 91, almost 92, I say, throwing out his age like a thunderbolt. No ones father is his age.

My father at his easel. My father humbled and proud by a ribbon hanging from his painting. Not bad for a guy who took up painting after he retired at eighty.

He walks the big block. In the winter, he and mom, they walk at the mall. He reads a pile of books a week. Commands attention with the clearing of his throat, settles us when he makes a toast. He wears dapper hats and walks with a cane. When he winks at me I am flattered.

Dad promises me he will live to be a hundred and twelve. My mother says, “Oh, Dear, I hope not”. I believe him.

Ninety-one and this much I know. His skin has gone saggy, it’s spotted with age. It is harder to distinguish the color of his eyes. He has a collection of canes. In pictures I notice that John is now the taller. I’m afraid the weight of our little one on his lap will break him. His naps in his chair are more frequent, unannounced.

Two weeks ago before he went into surgery he assured me that now he’s decided he will live to one hundred and forty. “You’ll be up in years then,” he says. “Yes,” I say, “and we’ll party.” “Till the cows come home,” he says. And I believe him.

He taught me to play cribbage. We haven’t played in a while. Next time we’re home I’ll challenge him. We’ll have sherries on ice.

4 Comments

  1. lyd June 17, 2013 8:41 pm Reply

    Jeannie this is so so beautiful. Its hard to remember that I only met your dad once. It feels like I know him so intimately…he was just that kind of guy I guess and you are just that kind of daughter that makes him immortal.

  2. Loretta Reilly July 18, 2013 1:39 pm Reply

    My son just left for a year abroad in Singapore and I sent him an email that said “since you’ve been gone, it seems that the sunshine has left the house.” I most definitely connect with your father’s sentiments regarding letting go of our children. And I thank you for this beautiful, poignant post about Fathers and all the things they stir up in us.

  3. Jeannie Zusy July 18, 2013 2:58 pm Reply

    How lovely, Loretta. I’m sure he feels your warmth from across the globe. I thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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