And now for something very, very old that I wrote in 1987 about the very finite time I had to experience life with my father. When my parents separated and divorced around 1970, it was very uncommon, especially in my small, Midwestern town. None of my classmates in elementary school seemed to live with only one parent. It felt exotic and very socially unacceptable to be a child of divorce. Shared custody was certainly not even a consideration. My dad got us on Sundays, a logical arrangement since he was Catholic, and when my mother married him, she, the non-Catholic, had to promise to raise us as good Catholic kids. She did a nice job of it, especially considering that she never attended Catholic mass herself, but she made sure we observed every darn Catholic rule and filled our bedrooms with blessed palm fronds, needlepoint framed prayers, rosaries, and Virgin Mary and angel statuary.
My father would pick up me and my three older siblings on Sunday mornings in his spring-grass-green pickup truck. We’d all squish onto the one bench seat and drive to St. Micheal’s Catholic Church for mass. Dad was habitually late (even to his own funeral, but that is a story for another time), so we always stood self-consciously in the back of the church instead of parking in some pew. After mass, dad would try to think of something to do with his children that did not involve bringing us all back to his tiny apartment and watching us squabble and wrestle on his pull-out sofa.
This is a poem I wrote a long time ago about those Sundays. I resisted the urge to edit and re-write as I typed it in today. It is pretty mortifying for me to read this clunky poem, but I’m sharing it anyway because I think it does honor my father’s attempt to be a good dad, despite the circumstances of our lives and his own personal challenges. My pop passed away 7 years ago while still only in his mid-60s. Despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his early 40’s, he always strove to live a full and active life — running marathons, hunting, diving, biking, for much longer than anyone would have imagined he ever could. His determination to keep on running no matter what has been a great source of inspiration to me and my brothers and sister. Dad was a real warrior.
On Sunday afternoons, I would hold his hand
and we would walk, my father and I,
to church, the park, the river’s edge.
We were together this one day of seven.
I was his twelve-hour child.
His last of four, he tried to fill my memory with years
measured in Sundays.
Each Sunday reflecting each season,
infused with moments of Father.
Sundays when leaves where crisp and colorful,
we would go somewhere warm, inside the theater,
the sports store, the shooting range.
He would say, after a survival movie, “If you’re ever starving,
and I’m dead, eat my flesh to live. This flesh is yours.”
And I would laugh, yelling never, never dead.
He would exchange his hammer and nails for a compound bow
and I would feel his strength
as the string screamed and the arrow pierced
the hearts of the pictured deer. He’d say he didn’t want them to starve.
And on cold Minnesota winter Sundays,
we would go together to one of his favorite spots.
A small hand around a bowling ball, sighting for a strike,
guided by my father.
I hated bowling. I think my dad did too,
but the alley was warm for a child in winter,
full of dark, secret sights. Men drinking their Sundays away
hiding from God, wives, and children in Pawnee’s Bowling Alley.
When the mud began to grow, we would spend Sundays outside,
tucked in tree blinds, watching for deer,
burying quarters and drawing treasure maps he’d tuck in his wallet,
making secrets to remember,
creating a past, a history to share.
Summers always came and we would go to the Boom Site.
We’d stand by the bend in the river,
imagining the lumberjacks dynamiting the log jams,
explosions echoing in the river valley.
A father and his child standing like one,
we would watch the river, and I would rush to my father
like water on those summer Sundays.
Our hands would flow like springs
It was enough.
j. ayers 1987