Detours with Daddy is the title of the third section of I’ll Call It Like I See It because it’s a mixture of facts and fantasy about my dad who was my best friend and favorite person in the world while I was growing up. My earlier memoirs Deep in the Heart – A Memoir of Love and Longing and Not Quite the Same describe my adoration of my daddy who died when I was thirty years old. His impact on my life was incalculable and I often wonder what he would have thought about my adult life as a lesbian activist. I decided to include a story or two here to introduce you to him.
When I woke up, the dream was still in my consciousness, and I had a strange sensation of crossing a threshold through time into another world. I tried to remember…
I see the car stop in front of a small building that looks vaguely familiar. My grandmother, my aunt, and I get out of the car. We’re not in a hurry as we climb the steps that lead to the door. I notice that my grandmother and my aunt are very young and beautiful. My grandmother’s hair is short and wavy and dark. She looks like she just left the beauty parlor. My aunt’s body shows no sign of the osteoporosis that plagued her in later years. Her back is straight, and her walk strong and sure. The two of them laugh and talk together, and I want to say something, but they ignore me.
The little building has no windows and no sign. I know that I belong inside, and I’m anxious to open the door. My grandmother turns an ancient glass knob, and my aunt and I follow her into the room.
The room is dimly lit with a single bulb attached to the ceiling. My eyes struggle to make an adjustment that allows me to gaze at my surroundings. At that moment the brightness changes like a dimmer switch has been turned up a notch. I can see clearly.
“We thought you’d never get here,” my dad says. “You must’ve taken the long way. You didn’t run out of gas, did you?” He laughs and winks at me. “I told you when you first started driving to always check the gasoline gauge, didn’t I? Remember that? You wouldn’t get far without gas, and you always had somewhere to go.”
My father wears his World War II army air corps uniform with the wings on his collar and insignia on the sleeve. The knot on his tie is perfectly tied. He is handsome, and I am happy to see him. His blonde hair has a military cut, and he, too, looks incredibly youthful. He sits on a wooden bench in the room. He looks comfortable and very much at ease.
“Which way did you come?” he asks.
“I came…” I start to answer. “I’m not sure. I had to pick up your mother and sister, so I left early. I didn’t want to be late, and they wouldn’t tell me exactly where we were going. Now here we are. I’ve missed talking to you so much.”
“We talk all the time,” he says and smiles. “It’s a different kind of language, but it’s as real as the King’s English.” He beckons me to sit next to him on the bench.
“I’m so glad you have on your uniform,” I say as I sit down. “I love that uniform. When I found it in the cedar chest, I thought I could wear it, but it was too big. Daddy, why didn’t you ever talk about the war?”
“What’s there to say about war?” He fingers one of the wings on his collar. He has the prettiest hands, I think. “What do you want to hear?” He looks directly at me.
“I don’t know, but I want you to tell me something. Anything, I guess. I saw the pictures, so I know it was real.”
“Of course, you saw the pictures and played with the uniform. That makes it real. And, now, you’ve found the letters that I wrote to your mother and the other family members, haven’t you? Isn’t that enough?”
“Yes, I found the letters, and no, I don’t think it’s enough.”
My father opens a box on the bench beside him and removes a piece of paper. He closes his eyes and begins to recite from memory.
December 28, 1944
I’ve often wondered if you couldn’t guess just how much I miss you at different times. You know, sometimes you are the only thing that makes me want to be back there. I could go on forever telling you that I see you everywhere I go, etc., but you’d enjoy that too much. In not so long a time I’ll be back with you. It already seems like ages to me. Do you ever sort of forget about me, unconsciously, I mean, just forget? That is one of the most horrible things I can think of. Well, enough of that.
Tonight some of the guys wanted me to play on the Field team, but I had a rather hard day so, for once, I refused a basketball game.
Well, Baby, I must go to sleep, for I am very tired, but not too tired to say goodnight to the one I love.
My dad opens his eyes and returns the paper to the box. He looks at me again.
“That was the war,” he says. “The day I wrote that letter I flew my first bombing mission over Germany. I was nineteen years old and the navigator for my crew. I was responsible for locating a town that we could blow up, and then for finding our way back to England. Before that day I had been in training with my buddies. We waited for orders that would allow us to prove our manhood. We bragged to each other about what we would do.
“When we touched the runway coming in from that mission, though, I felt sick, and it wasn’t from the altitude or lack of oxygen. The smell of gun powder made my eyes burn. The sounds of machine guns reverberated in my ears. But, it was the sight of smoke and fire and devastation and death that made me write to your mother that night. And fear. Not the fear of dying, but the fear of being forgotten.”
A dog runs past me and jumps into my father’s lap. I don’t recognize the dog.
“Dad, is this your dog?”
“If it is, make sure it stays outside,” my grandmother says from behind me. I stand and move away from the bench to see my grandmother sitting at her sewing machine. She looks up from the contraption’s hammering needle and frowns at me.
“How many times do I have to tell you that dogs belong out of doors?” she asks. I have no reply because I can’t count that high.
“Why do you live so far away?” she continues. “You never come to see us. Your grandfather isn’t well, and he wants to know if you’re going to be here for Father’s Day. I told him you wouldn’t. Then, I wondered why you wouldn’t. Well, Miss Busybody who has so many questions for her daddy, I’m requesting an answer from you.”
“I didn’t know he’s sick,” I say.
“Who? Who’s sick?” she responds with irritation.
“You said my grandfather’s sick,” I remind her. She shakes her head and pushes the pedal of the sewing machine. The yammering noises resume.
“I have a good job,” I say to her back.
“You had a good job less than two hours away from us. Now it takes days to visit you, if we can even find your house. Are you telling me there are no good jobs any closer than a thousand miles from here?” The machine whirrs faster.
“You never come to see me,” I say. “None of my family ever comes to my house for Thanksgiving or Christmas or my birthday, either. It’s not fair for me to be the only one who travels every holiday. One night I had to spend the entire night in an airport by myself. I slept on a sofa in the security guard’s office, for heaven’s sake.”
The sewing machine stops. My grandmother stands up and faces me.
“I didn’t move. You moved. You moved a long time ago, and a thousand miles away. I’m young and stubborn. You’re old and obstinate. You get that from your mother’s side of the family.” She laughs at her own joke. I laugh with her because I’m glad that she loves me enough to miss me.
“Thank God you can drive me home today. Tell your aunt I’m ready to go,” she says. She gestures toward the machine. “That material was too flimsy and couldn’t hold the thread. I’m leaving it for the next fool who’s willing to pay a ridiculous amount of money for thin fabric.”
“Oh, Mama,” my aunt says. “You’re such a mess. Let’s not worry or fuss about something as silly as material. You’ll get too upset over nothing. I’m sure we can stop along the way and find you a different kind.”
We walk to the door in front of us. My aunt turns the ancient glass knob, and we cross through the portal together.
The car is gone.