This year when I drive my father to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave, he uses a cane, and even that doesn’t seem adequate on the uneven ground. I park where I always do and take his free hand, letting him lead while I balance a small water bottle and the daffodils he’s cut in the crook of my other arm. It’s a long time covering the distance down the slight grade, but when he stops, I can see that the name on the marker is not my mother’s.
He studies the lettering, and I let his hand drop, giving him time. I drift to the right, doing what I can to examine nearby markers without announcing that I know he’s confused.
He hobbles to the left, taking in the names one by one. I look back up at the car, gauging the distance and direction against my memory of infrequent visits. “Something’s not right,” he finally says, and I nod in order not to agree out loud.
“Oh hell,” he says, using his strongest oath.
We search for another two minutes before he loops back toward me from farther down the hillside. “Here,” he says then, pointing with the cane, and I relax, bringing him the flowers.
He gives me directions, starting with removing the pine boughs and tossing them among the nearby trees. There’s an order to all this—pouring the water halfway up the vase, inserting the daffodil stems, spreading them until he says “yes.” After that, he grips my hand, and we stand together for a minute.
Neither of us mentions the search for the grave. Not then, and not on the twelve-mile drive to his house.
The night before, when I called from two hundred miles away to tell him what time to expect me, he told me a big tree had blown into his yard. “That wind storm a few nights back was something,” he said. “To move a tree like that is amazing. I can’t imagine where it came from.”
“How big?” I finally said.
“Big. Half the length of the yard, there it sits right up to the back door so nobody can go in or out. A sycamore.”
I tried to remember the types of trees from his yard, but except for names like “pine” and “crabapple,” their shapes or fruit giving them away, I couldn’t distinguish. “A tree that size isn’t likely to blow very far,” I managed to say.
There was a pause. I could hear his television playing in the background, a late-season basketball game turned up so loud I learned the score while I waited. “Isn’t that something,” he said at last. “A tree that size ending up right against my back door. It fills up half the yard.” Before I could answer, he said, “A sycamore. I never had a sycamore. That’s how I know it’s somebody else’s tree.”
It was my turn to talk. The storm, I knew from the news, had carried wind gusts up to fifty miles per hour in the part of Pennsylvania where he lives. “I’ll take a look when I get there tomorrow,” I said.
“I already did,” my father said. “I worked my way around from the other side of the yard. There’s a stump over by the edge of the property. I must have lost a tree too.”
Now, back in the house, my father points his cane toward the living room window. “You can look as long as you want now,” he says. “We have all day.”
“At least until dinner at Judy’s,” I say, reminding him of the plans my sister had made with him for my visit.
“She’s having us over?” he asks.
The tree has fallen nearly parallel to the house. Its upper branches are resting against the window to which he’s pointed. A moment later, from the kitchen window, I can look down at the trunk as it thickens toward the stump twenty feet from the corner of the house where my father’s bedroom sits. Any sharper angle and the thing would have damaged the house. A direct hit would have taken it through the roof over where my father sleeps.
“A sycamore,” my father says. “I never had a sycamore in the yard. You wonder how something so big could blow so far.” When I turn to face him, I see a sign taped to the kitchen stove. “DO NOT TURN STOVE ON,” it says, all of the letters traced several times so they look to be bolded.
Later, my father tells me he’s had one of his assisted living caregivers haul the old picture of the Titanic sinking from the basement. He’s dusted it off and offered it to my sister, who’s refused it. My guess is that the painting was popular once. I know someone whose parents own it as well. Disembodied faces peer up from the water. It doesn’t look anything like fine art, like something an expert on Antique Roadshow would appraise for thousands of dollars. Before he can offer it to me, I tell him to put his coat on so I can show him something.
Years after I first walked Greismere Street, where my father grew up, after I learned the cliff side would be blasted down to widen the highway, that the entire side of the street across from where my father’s bakery had stood would be leveled and reconstructed as additional lanes for traffic, I drive my father up into the old neighborhood because, after years of delays, the work has begun. My father, eighty-eight now and so forgetful he has notes tacked up around his house to remind himself what to do each day, names the families who lived in each house on the street. He gazes up at the third floor where he shared a bedroom in the attic with his three brothers. We work our car to where the street turns sharply to the right and steeply upward, and here is where the hillside has been blasted back to. Right up to the pavement. Always three or four feet to the left, that sheer drop to where Route 8 is being widened follows the curve of the one-lane street. Above his old house, the telephone pole where my cousin and I shot a basketball for hours still leans slightly over the broken asphalt. The reshaping of the cliff makes me certain that an air ball from the right side of the hoop could take one hop and plummet more than a hundred feet straight down to bring astonishment and damage to a passing driver.
The narrow street turns even thinner and steeper. My father says nothing, but I begin to question my judgment. Snow flurries swirl around us. The steep down slope has picked up a thin glaze. I concentrate on not riding the brake as we slide down, turn right, miss every parked car that narrows the street even further, and get back to Kittanning Street, “the real road” back down to Etna.
We have to pull out. The turn I remember with anxiety because it’s at the base of a curve on Kittanning, only a few feet from being totally blind. There’s a mirror on the telephone pole across from us that wasn’t there when we visited as I was growing up. I stare at the reflection longer than I need to, not trusting the image. Finally, my father says, “It’s clear,” and I take two breaths, then a third, to allow enough time to go by so that I’m not following his directions. I look again and pull out.
“In the old days, you had to be careful there,” he says.
In another part of Etna, we drive up Dewey Street so he can show me the house where he lived as a small child. I try to imagine five children in what looks to be a four-room house, and the only arrangement is all of them sleeping together in one bedroom until necessity drove the family to Greismere Street, which must have seemed palatial with its five large rooms and an attic divided into two makeshift bedrooms.
“Red Dog lived there,” he says, pointing to the house next door.
“Red Dog?” The name sounds like a pirate’s.
“He was something. Always drunk,” my father says. He doesn’t elaborate.
We drive to Angle Alley, where we lived in three rented upstairs rooms until I was seven, and now things look so shabby, I wonder if my father notices. I don’t chance the enormous pot holes of the alley, but as soon as we turn into the next side street, that surface, too, is so pocked and rutted it threatens to lurch us into the cars jammed bumper to bumper on both sides. We drive at continuous speed-bump pace, maybe ten miles per hour. When we turn again where this street whose name I’ve forgotten crosses the end of Angle Alley, there is barely enough room to squeeze past untended, overgrown shrubbery and a decaying cement wall.
I feel the word “escape” surface. There are hundreds of worse neighborhoods, I tell myself, and yet the houses and the streets themselves could only be called “awful,” as in “Who, by choice, would live here?”
We leave Etna again by Route 8, the weeks-old sheer cliff towering up to where we stood fifteen minutes ago. A half mile passes before my father says, without prompting, “There’s what’s left of the house where I was born.”
I slow and look to my right, but there’s nothing but vacant lots. He points, and I follow his finger to six concrete steps set into the hill that rises from the widened shoulder to the plateau of milkweed and sumac and wild berry tangled and brown from last summer. “Right there where the steps go.”
The enormous machinery of road construction sits a hundred yards away. Before too long, most likely within days, those steps will be gone as well, but right now they nearly shimmer with presence. Another quarter mile and we turn up Middle Road toward his house. Every place he ever lived is within three miles of each other.
It reminds me that he walked to get where he wanted to be until he was thirty-one years old and bought a pickup truck, that until then, when I was nearly five, I walked everywhere as well.
“You two kids never asked for anything,” he says, including my sister as if she’s in the car. It’s what he repeats about once each hour that I visit. His version of a compliment. If I told him that I still don’t, that not asking for help has stuck all these years, he’d be pleased. “You made do with what you had,” he adds, and I’m certain he’s being accurate.
When I head toward my sister’s house instead of turning up Middle Road, he says, “You forget where I live?”
“We’re on our way to Judy’s,” I say.
“Is she having us over for dinner?” he says, and when I merely nod, he lapses into silence.
When I talk to my sister an hour later, she tells me our grandmother’s house has just been sold, at a sheriff’s sale, for five thousand dollars.
The house where our mother’s mother lived sits in another section of Etna that I’d shown my father a year ago. It has seven rooms on two floors, all but one of them spacious. “Five thousand dollars?” I say. “That can’t be right.” The figure is absurd. The price of one enormous, flat-screen television.
“It must have been neglected,” she says.
Neglected sounds like a euphemism for “fallen to the ground.” The lot the house stood on would be worth more than five thousand dollars.
Unless the buyer knew he’d be spending thousands of dollars to level the house and start over.
Unless the neighborhood had fallen apart as well.
I think of Greismere Street and Angle Alley, the third-world condition of their surfaces, and the shabbiness of the houses that border them. I think of Butler Street obliterated by highway construction, the bakery carried in memory only by people more than fifty years old.
I think of the only businesses still open on Butler Street, the bars where men and women still sit inside until 2:00 AM sends them home, though none of them live on Butler Street anymore, though all of them have to head out in another direction.
During that year-ago tour, I’d driven my father down the alley behind where his bakery had stood. Thirty years after the building had been torn down, nothing had replaced it, and the hillside of weeds still sloped up toward the vacant square and the steps leading to tiny apartments over the long-closed feed store. “Walter Godfrey lived up there all the time we were open,” my father said, and I nodded remembering the short, cigar-smoking, bald guy who watched television on a twelve-inch set he carried out onto the landing just large enough for one chair at the top of those stairs.
“Godfrey put out that fire you started way back when,” my father said. “You thought you’d burned us out that Saturday.”
I looked at the tangle of knee-high weeds and could still see how a flutter of flaming paper from the burn barrel I was tending had settled onto the hillside and caught the dry grass on fire. It was October, dry and windy, and I was ten, old enough to believe I could watch trash burn for half an hour without having a problem.
That fire had raced up the hillside toward the back of the bakery, and I’d panicked, scrambling up the path to the back door and shouting for my father as I ran into the store room where he was working. By the time we got outside, Walter Godfrey was using a hose to soak down the high grass a few feet from the back wall of the bakery. “Your boy about burned you down,” he said, and I went back inside and left the discussion to Godfrey and my father.
“Godfrey said he was watching you the whole time that afternoon,” my father said as we sat in my idling car. “He knew what wind could do with fire. He had his hose ready even before it got away from you.”
“I never wanted to see him outside after that,” I said. “I was embarrassed.”
My father looked up that small hill as if he expected to see the bakery restored. “It’s hard finding out you need help,” he said. “Having to be saved is sometimes harder to handle than the problem you had.”
After dinner, while my sister readies berries and shortcake, my father asks if I know the Gettysburg Address. “Sure, “I offer, but he says, “Know it, all the words,” and I shrug and try “Of the people, by the people, for the people,” hoping that I’ve put those phrases in the original sequence.
“Ok then,” he says, and when he draws himself up in his chair, my brother-in-law sighs so deeply my father, nearly deaf, notices and snaps, “You listen,” staring down the table for a moment before he begins to recite.
He’s marvelous. When he arrives at the end, not hesitating, not once, I trust that he’s delivered every word in the proper order. “There,” he says, glaring at my brother-in-law as my sister returns, entering to that exclamation point as if she hasn’t heard this showcase for our father’s fear. We settle into blueberries and whipped cream and shortcake, my father racing like his speech, pushing his crumbs onto his fork with hooked fingers before he says “None of you can do that” as if we’re children who might press our plates against our mouths to lick the sweetness clean.
When I drive him home, he has me carry the Titanic painting to the door. “Prop it up there so you don’t forget it when you leave,” he says, and I turn it lengthwise so the ship looks as if it might flip backwards into the night sky. We sit for a few minutes before he asks me if I’m wearing a watch. “Yes,” I say.
“Good. You tell me when to start and keep track.”
It’s the Gettysburg Address again. He tells me it took Lincoln two minutes and five seconds to deliver it, that he’s practiced to get the timing just right, and let’s see if he can duplicate it. “Ok,” I acquiesce, and I wait for the second hand to reach twelve before I shout “Go!”
He’s slower now than at dinner, concentrating on nuances as if he’s listened to a recording by Lincoln, but when he reaches one minute and forty seconds, he stops after “... died in vain” and looks triumphantly at me. “How close?” he says, and I know enough from listening earlier that he’s left off the famous parallel structure.
“1:55,” I say, and he nods, satisfied to be that close.
fast,” he says. “I’ll get it
just right for next time. I have lots of time
“Sure,” I answer, and that promise of rehearsal makes me think of the story my father has told me four times this day, the one about how my sister, put down for a nap when she was very young, climbed out the window onto the porch roof.
My sister, because she was barely three that afternoon, doesn’t remember being on that roof, but he tells the story exactly the same each time, the words so identical he might have memorized them the way he has the Gettysburg Address or the words to the poem I wrote about my mother’s death that hangs like a poster on his living room wall. A neighbor across the street noticed my sister on the roof, and because we didn’t have a phone, she called a closer neighbor who ran upstairs and told my mother, who woke my father.
“There she was,” he says each time, “walking in the gutter. I told her to just stand there and wait for me to come get her, and she did.” I remember how high that porch roof was on the side above Angle Alley. A child falling there would likely die. “It’s amazing it all worked out,” I say each time he finishes, and he says, “A miracle,” as if the word is an exclamation point.
And each time he begins that story again, I wonder if there is a tale about me that precedes my memory that he repeats to my sister. Is it a story about his boy in danger? Does he rescue me?
Gary Fincke is Professor of English and Creative Writing and Director of The Writers Institute at Susquehanna University.