• Jan Schmidt

"Not My Father"


A famine-shriveled child. This can’t be my father. An ivory carved sculpture of a head, pressed to the side of the pillow. Who is this man, lying, dying in his hospital bed? I want to disown him. This can’t be my father.

. . .

My father was always quiet, but not still. Not voiceless. Even in his earlier years of senility, there were still “Nays” and nods of his head. No words. But he still looked into my eyes and knew who I was. His older daughter. The one who sat with him on the porch and looked toward a hole in a catalpa tree waiting for the birds to nest or a squirrel to scramble up the tree. I could still hold his hand. I could still feel the warmth in his fingers. I could still kiss the top of his bald head and he would nod. We still could be father and daughter even as the dementia took him farther and farther away from me.

But the final year was different. He sat in his wheelchair, eyes closed. He no longer grasped my hand. No longer nodded. No longer knew who I was. His arms and legs thin as stilts. His flesh blotched with blue bruises, blossoming like a Rorschach. His body all bone, blood spots, and blue black wounds.

As I stroked his arm during those last days, I found myself searching in the past for my father. I wanted to bring back the father I knew. I loved.

. . .

The man who caught monarchs in his cupped hands, who held his arched fingers over mine, who let the monarchs fly into a breeze, be taken up by a wind. Who brushed orange and black dust off the tips of our fingers, the residue dusting the lifelines on their palms.

. . .

The father who taught a child to skip flat stones in a creek, showed her how to flick her wrist and send the stones jumping across the surface of water, sparking in the sun. Bring back the father who taught a little girl, of 4 or 5 perhaps, to float on her back in a pond, to trust her body to hold her up, to measure the surety of her spine against the weight of water. Floating, she sometimes jerked a bit, afraid of going under, of gulping water and not being able to breathe, and at the moment when she would have flailed her arms, she felt the steady presence of his forearms under her back, reassuring her that she wasn’t going to drown.

Bring back that father.

. . .

Not the ancient man whose mouth is half open. A deep rattling and gurgling echoing in his chest. He is two days before dying, the death I had known was coming at 100, 101, 102, 103, but that never seemed possible or real. He had lived beyond his diagnoses of terminal dementia, beyond the six months that they had given him when we brought him home from a nursing home to die. Even a week before his cheeks were flushed. His skin pink stained with life

. . .

Bring back the father who before her bedtime taught a young girl to listen to the sounds of poetry, taste them as luscious gum drops or the lime, orange, lemon Dots in the box of candies at the movie theater. She relished the sounds of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” who sailed onto “a river of crystal light/into a sea of dew” or the delicious fruits that dropped from the “Sugar Plum Tree.” She saw the gingham dog and the calico cat fighting each other into shreds. She lived in this technicolor world right before sleep.

. . .

Bring back a different father, not the one who opened his mouth like a baby bird ready to be fed mushed bananas and oatmeal, chicken and rice, mashed to a pulp. Who even if his daughter urged him to open his eyes, to acknowledge her, saying “Dad I am here—your older one,” he still didn’t respond. She was gone from his world. A world perhaps lived underwater, listening to the muffled, indecipherable sounds of voices muttering above him.

. . .

She wants back the father who gave the girl a sense of her own strength when during one summer, he took his her out in a rowboat every week, or she so surmised, in the lake at the bungalow colony and urged her to row a little further each time . He held his hands over hers in the oar locks and taught her to push the oar sideways down into the water and then pull back. She could feel the strain against the current in her arched back, the tension and ache in her forearms, but she continued. Finally, by the end of summer, she had gone all the way around the lake, rowing close to the shore, avoiding the deep dark center where snapping turtles lived. Occasionally one man, Harry Smith, who owned a rifle would go out and hunt them down so that they didn’t come into the roped off area where the children swam. That summer after she circled the lake, her father gave her a certificate: “Jan Toby Zlotnik has circumnavigated the lake at Camp Laurel Ridge”—inverted Vs marked the waves and a small blue skiff pitched forward into the current. The memento long gone, but she still can see her name calligraphied in black ink.

. . .

Bring back that young father, that young girl. Not that man in a near coma state, who when she tried to hold his hand, jerked it away from her.

. . .

She remembers a photo: Perhaps she is two years old. A young man with curly dark hair, deep brown eyes, sinewy arms, holds his infant daughter high up to the sky. He is stretching his arms over his head, and the baby grabs for an oak leaf almost out of the frame of the shot. The father is perhaps overcome with joy at having a daughter at long last after ten years of waiting.

. . .

I want back the father who taught me as a child that I should walk on tiptoe in early morning and listen for the buzz of tree frogs, for the coo of mourning doves, who showed me that the green of trees could weave magic spells.

A father who gathered Black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s lace, and purple thistle on a meadow when I was young. Now I pick those same flowers, see the monarch butterflies perched on half-dried and open milkweed pods, white puffs of cloud filling and seeds oozing out.

Bring back my father. Bring back memory. There is too much to lose.

Jan Zlotnik Schmidt is a SUNY Distinguished Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz where she teaches creative writing, American and Women’s Literature, creative nonfiction, memoir, and Holocaust literature courses. Her work has been published in many journals including The Cream City Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Broadkill Review, Home Planet News, Phoebe, Memoir (and), the Westchester Review, and Wind. Her work also has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize Series. She has had two volumes of poetry published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She Had This Memory, 2000). One chapbook, The Earth Was Still, was recently published by Finishing Line Press and another Hieroglyphs of Father-Daughter Time by Word Temple Press. Legacies: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction, a composition and literature textbook and anthology, co-authored with Lynne Crockett, published by Cengage, is now in its fifth edition. Her full length volume, Foraging for Light will be published in September by Finishing Line Press.


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