It usually starts Memorial Day weekend. When, at least up north, licks of summer sun reach down to warm the earth for the first time since the previous summer’s last hoorah.
When the smell of grass clippings mingles with the aroma of grilled meat wafting off barbecues. When red plastic cups filled with iced tea and lemonade (and maybe even a little vodka) sweat as they’re carried around the yard. When sunscreen is slathered on arms and legs and ears and noses but bug spray stays off to the side until the mosquitos really hatch.
When red, white and blue flags are unfurled.
That’s when my heart fills with a wistful sense of pride that goes deeper than love of country.
That’s when I feel my father’s presence and absence the most.
I’ve come to learn there’s a season to missing him. The feeling comes in as summer does and swells upwards to Father’s Day before building into a roaring crescendo that lasts through the 4th of July and then fades gently away as summer wanes. It’s not that I don’t miss him at other points in the year. I guess I do. It’s just that the acuity of longing isn’t so sharp.
Maybe it’s the heat that triggers my memories. I only ever knew him in the heat.
It was 60 degrees on the day I was born in February, 1983. Not terribly warm for San Angelo, Texas, but certainly not as cold as the Minnesota winter my mother and I waited in while my father finished his training at Wheeler Air Force Base. It was even warmer and more humid on Oahu where the three of us would spend the next four years.
And then there was the dry heat that followed Daddy and me in our Ford Tempo all the way across the desert from Los Angeles in 1987. The sun beat down through the windshield as we sang silly songs and the pavement seemed to glisten out ahead of the car. But by the second or third day, Daddy complained that his head hurt and asked me more than once to ride quietly. It was the only road trip we’d ever take together.
I wonder if he was nervous or hopeful when he decided not to re-enlist and go learn Polish like they’d ordered him to. I wonder if he knew that leaving the Corps, the only family he’d ever truly known, would be the beginning of the end for the family of his own that he’d tried so hard to make.
It was already pushing 80s most days the June and July that he and I spent alone in the Houston townhouse. I don’t remember much from those couple of months aside from sitting on the floor in front of the TV and watching Maple Town on Nickelodeon. My mother once told me that I collapsed into her arms sobbing the day she finally re-joined us after leaving Honolulu. Four year olds have no words to describe “grief” or “depression” and no way to articulate watching loneliness become incarnate in a man whose black security guard uniform never seemed to fit as well as the olive drab ones carefully stowed away in drawers with cedar blocks.
By the time the Mayflower movers came to pack the furniture and household goods noted on the left side of the legal pad, the humidity did most of the work making the green and yellow inventory tags stick to the boxes that would travel north with Mom and me. I’d come to learn later that the day I sobbed in her lap was the day that Mom knew that my father wasn’t ever going to enroll in university like he had planned to. And it was then that she realized that both my father and our family were broken beyond repair.
It was still hot when I finally made it back down to Houston again ten years later on two summer vacations in between 8th and 10th grade. I learned how to fly cast for tarpon, straighten the gig line on my belt, and drive a stick shift on those visits, but I never learned how to reach him.
The air hung thick and heavy on the Midwestern evening the last time I ever spoke to my father. At 22 years old, I had grown tired of always being the one to pick up the phone. I was weary of believing that he’d come through with the promises he’d made. And I was annoyed at his annoyance when Mom asked if she should just purchase the law school laptop he said he’d help me with. (I never did see the snubnosed .38 he told me would be a gift for getting in.)
The air conditioning in Mom’s second-hand Land Rover could barely keep up through the hills near Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania just a few weeks later as we made our way to drop me off in Boston. Rolling through town and seeing the house where he was raised by a mother rumored to have had a lobotomy and her alcoholic parents, I started to understand why my father would always be running away.
I was surprised the following August as my desk phone rang. By then a law school dropout and two months into a dream job at a Minneapolis advertising agency, I wasn’t expecting the Dallas Police Department to call for a pre-employment background check on my father. The heat outside on the 5th floor smoking porch steadied me after the ten minute interview. And when my goosebumps smoothed, I walked back into work.
Ten years later, I was sweating in my third story walk-up when Mom called to give me a name and a number for a commander in the Downtown Central Division. She hadn’t been able to let it go when she swore she saw my father’s face in the TV coverage of the Dallas Police shooting that July. It turned out she was right, but I never worked up the nerve to call and ask if they’d pass along a message from me.
The calendar tells me it’s the middle of the missing season again. But now that I’m living in Belgium, it’s been both harder and easier to forget.
I’ve felt my father’s presence almost everywhere since I landed here late last July.
Each time I walk through the blast doors of the embassy and hold my family member badge up for the Marine Security Guard to verify, I feel a twinge of pride knowing that my father held the same job before he met Mom during language school at The Presidio. It’s hard not to see the young Marines and wonder what my father was like at eighteen or nineteen years old. I imagine him solemn and stoic, but then I see the guard smile while waving me in and I second guess myself.
When the highway signs tell me that The Hague isn’t so far away, I wonder if an escapade involving his CO’s car, a bulldog decal and a farmer’s tractor in a tulip field really happened or if it was just another one of my father’s big fish stories. I don’t doubt for a second though, that he and a fellow Marine did indeed eat and drink their weight in hard-boiled eggs and Heinekens the night before another day of chauffeur duty for a particularly annoying visiting V.I.P. And when I’m anywhere near Amsterdam, I think about the small grey Diamond Center box in my nightstand. Inside it, an engagement ring that once graced a general’s daughter’s finger before it landed on my Mom’s.
Here in Brussels, the mansions built by wealth pillaged from the Congo make me think of the few threads I’ve gathered from the time my father spent in Kinshasa. Stories of a houseboy named Michel who ran plates of BLTs between the embassy and the Marine house when threat levels kept the guards on duty longer than usual. Or anecdotes about feeling like kings because the Marines’ pooled money stretched far enough to have a cook and a housekeeper who happened to be adept at sewing buttons onto uniforms. And then there are the darker, fuzzier bits that leave me wondering exactly what it was like in the late 70s in the country my father always referred to as Zaire.
In some ways, I can’t help but think of him almost daily.
In other ways, it seems it’s been too easy to forget.
They say summer’s coming, but it still feels like April to me. My shorts and sundresses stay tucked away and sunscreen feels frivolous in a country known for its rain and clouds.
Over here, the Stars and Stripes only fly at the embassy. And there will be no Fourth of July fireworks.
Maybe that’s why I asked my husband if we could drive an hour to attend the Memorial Day service at Flanders Field. Or why I spent the next day curled up on the couch watching hooah and oorah movies. I struggled to find the words to explain how Black Hawk Down and Tears of the Sun could bring me comfort and found myself frustrated with my partner’s lack of enthusiasm for the blood, sweat, tears and bullets on the screen. But his own dad exists in more than the smell of lemon Pledge and boot shine, so maybe it shouldn’t have been so hard for me to understand.
Over here, I worry that my father’s slipping even further away from me.That whatever memories I’m conjuring were never mine in the first place and that the intel they contain is sketchy at best.
Some days I wonder what, exactly, it is that I’m holding on to.
But mostly I think I’m just missing the heat.