My father walks past the kitchen table where the girls grind plasticine into the crevices. He sits next to Vivian, mutters “Watch this.” and in minutes, holds a man, old, time stitched into his face, bemused. His thumbs glide effortlessly across the clay, pulling life and being where there had been a lump once, a person, a story, moment in time created, given breath.
He sticks it to the windowsill where the sun shines on our hands while we do the dishes, leaving him to watch the girls while he’s gone for the summer. I find a tiny baby bottle from one of the girls toys, and I cram it in his mouth, grinning. I start counting the days it will take for Dad to bark “Who the hell put that there!”, irritating him while knowing he won’t dare take it down, amused in spite of himself.
He put it there in April, this old man. It’s August and we haven’t touched him, the only contact from spiders mindlessly spinning around his head. I stare into space one humid day, sweat between my eyes, and suddenly there’s a wooden sailor on my mind.
The last, the only thing my father holds of his father. A slight, wooden figure, widdled one day, absently by his own father, painted to be a toy for my father as a young boy. The paint it falling off now, the tiny corn cob pipe, hanging on an angle from the jaunty grin on his face, above the white white beard.
I can see it so clearly in my father’s wrinkled, always grease in the crease hands, cradled, value beyond anything I can give or make, the visceral link to then, to his never-never years, to a father dead and gone some 40 years. Where the paint falls off and the minuscule knife marks lay, I watch his fingers trace, grasp that long lost pen knife in his hand, feel his father’s warmth, the scent of the scotch he loved to much, the wetness of his speech in his ear.
I look at this old man, orange and sitting on my sill, and I have my father with me, his fingerprints, his aura, HIM, in front of me, preserved. Such a small, almost invisible thing I hold, this part of him, that part of a man I never met, my grandfather, he who I know nothing about, save he was an alcoholic and good for nothing.
But if it was really nothing, my father wouldn’t grasp that little sailor so tightly, or in a an old man’s world of giving up possessions, know where it sits always.
Years past, my father sacrificed his future for his family, turning down a full scholarship to art school when his mother contracted TB and couldn’t work. So he went to work, much as he father had, his desire to be an artist, to let his fingers sing songs in oils and the clay of the earth melt into the ground as he did what he had to, what was right, responsible. He let that dream die, perhaps the same one his father held before the bottle held sway.
But there are days when the sailor man appears in my father, and his hands run away with the brush, or the pencil, or the clay, and another man appears. The man who walked another path, who followed his heart and his dreams and let loose is version of heaven. His fingerprints, they live on my windowsill, merged with his father’s. A dream, of another place, of different people, of who they could have been, who we can be.