Conversations with my Father
We wait until the last hour to let the emotion crack through. It’s always my mom that breaks open our hearts. “I miss her so much,” my father sobs. I was taking photographs of old photographs. Photos of her I had never seen. The photos were in the front hallway in an envelope carefully labeled with instructions to himself in my father’s unmistakable handwriting: “Take to get copies.”
I search her face for a trace of my face. I don’t see any resemblance. Maybe, just maybe, there is a hint of my daughter in her face. My mother didn’t like photographs of herself and tended to avoid eye contact with the camera. She didn’t think she was pretty. To me she was beautiful. On that, my dad and I agree.
I hug him awkwardly, neither one of us very good at it. He resumes cataloging his assets for me, verbally, so that when he dies I will be able to deal appropriately with all the stuff accumulated in the house. If nothing else, he has always been meticulously careful about my financial wellbeing. But it’s not just a catalog. Each item has a story. I only half listen because he’s been pontificating at me for 54 years and I have always dealt with it by only half listening. I will myself to pay attention.
There are 3 violins and 5 bows. The Nicolas Lupot violin has some value. It’s an early Lupot – not one of the later, better ones. Nicolas Lupot was an 18th century French violin-maker in the style of Stradivarius. The Lupot is not the violin he is playing right now. I’m not sure why. It needs to be repaired perhaps? I try to remember the name of the place where I should take the violins when he dies, should I want to sell them. Weaver’s? Potter’s? I think one of the violins might have been my mother’s. I’m not sure. I really should get clarification on that.
They met playing string quartets, but my mom stopped playing after they got married. Relieved of what was mostly a chore for her. My dad, on the other hand, whispered to me at dinner the night before, “I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t play any more.” Playing the violin is his lifelong passion. Even though his short-term memory is fading in an alarming way, (“Did we do anything yesterday?” he asked me this morning), and he has trouble adding the tip to the dinner bill, he practices the violin every day and plays string quartets once a week. It keeps him alive and in the house. I hope he lives as long as he can and then drops dead of a heart attack. The lingering withering away that my mother experienced is the worst…for all concerned.
Every year when I visit, I take inventory of how he’s doing. Pretty well by all accounts. Not much worse than a year ago. Maybe better. He has his routines, and he has mostly mastered his grief. The house is clean, (cluttered but clean), thanks to Pauline, the woman who has been cleaning the house since 1964. But he now holds on to things for support, acknowledging that a cane may soon be in order. I harangue him about doing his balancing exercises. And really Dad, cut out the sugar! His nutrition information is from 30 years ago and frankly he doesn’t really care. Why should he. Even though his post lunch stupor prevented us from our annual outing to the National Gallery. I could not get him out of his chair. Out of his house. Out of his routine. Inertia.
I am ambitious for him. For me. For us and our visits. This time, I will ask the meaningful questions. This time, we will have a special outing. This time, I will tell him more about me. Do children who live close to their aging parents and see them frequently feel as urgent with their visits? But, we fall into our habits. Overly protective of our private selves. It is not until the last hour that we really connect.
Each year, I ratchet down my ambition. There is more patience and love in our quiet togetherness. I watered his plants, nurturing the living beings in the household. I read. I practiced yoga. I listened to the birds. Waiting for him.
I walked around the house. Remembering. I looked at old photographs. The ones of me when I was growing up. The ones of my mom when she was younger than I am now. We walked around the neighborhood, remembering, and tut-tutting with mutual disgust and judgment at the hideous Mcmansions that have cropped up in our middle class mid-century suburban development. We went out for dinner. We watched tv. We remembered. Maybe it’s enough to just be together.