My Father and His Father

Maybe he came from the ocean in the first place. When my father spoke of his father, every story was flavored with salt. If he came from the ocean, I imagine the waves must have been what hammered out the strength and brilliance he emanated. Even though I only knew an old man with uneven features and tissue paper skin, he cast his shadow over the greater part of a century. As a child I could sense, but could never fathom, his legacy.

Even if he didn’t come from the ocean, it was his home. My father would bring his father on our boat — air-filled red rubber that slid smoothly over water — and whenever my father and his father left the shore, they were children compared to the age of the ancient deep. The ocean had been there forever, giving fish to those who know how to ask, and my father and his father understood that language well. They spoke it easily, leaving us heavy-mouthed land dwellers stunned at their shimmering silent words. Sea spray erased their wrinkles as my father and his father coaxed shiny scales into nets, onto hooks, onto the deck, and carefully back to soil shores. They cared for the fish. They loved the fish. We were made strong by the fish, and my father and his father never forgot that.

But even the youngest man on the water is subject to sunrise and sunset on land, and what the ocean erases, the sun carves deeper until bones are dry despite the soft saltwater heart still longing for cold, rocking waves. So my father spilled ocean drops from his eyes as his father yielded to time and the harsh, solid earth. For we are also solid, from the earth, and though we may wish to become water, we all become dust instead.

So my father’s father was dust, even though we still felt his shadow. When we surrounded my father’s father to say goodbye, we all brought the ocean to him from our eyes. He coaxed it from us, even though he’d returned to the earth, to dust, and couldn’t speak the language of the fish or the sea anymore. My father began to have uneven features, tissue-paper skin.

My father returned in his boat to the water alone. But one day my father and a vial of his now-dust-and-ash father went together with me, and my father spoke words to the sea that brought the ocean water from my eyes again. As his words vanished into the grey morning, my father opened the vial of his dust father, and my father’s father poured peacefully onto the glass surface of the sea. He stayed momentarily, then sank into the waves, and all the dryness was washed away.