The 2011 Imaginary Family Project – Week 23

#23 of 52 : FATHER
Imaginary Family Project - Week 23

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My father had grown up the son of a farmer in a small village called Svetlitsy, in the northern part of the Ukraine.  He had immigrated to his new home in the states as a young teenager, along with his Mother and two older sisters.  The years had either made his memory foggy, or the old man just refused to talk about his past, as I never really knew what the circumstances were that caused my father to leave the Ukraine without his own father.  I never met my paternal grandmother.  From the stories my Mother told she had only met her a few times and she painted a very intimidating picture of a stocky brutish woman, that never allowed herself even the tiniest bit of happiness.  My father was a mystery, past and present. My mother had met my father in 1921 at a market outside of Tulsa where he worked.  He was strong and handsome and had “hands like a cowboy”.  My mother always doted on my fathers’ rugged good looks, even after they had diminished with age.  He often gave a cross look and shook his head when she spoke of him as if he wasn’t in the room, but it was just my mothers’ way.  She was the only person that understood my father.  She spent her life trying to make the tarnished little button, shine like the sun.  She was always the buffer between my father and I.  We really only talked when my mother wasn’t around to pass along a message.  I often joked with my mother that if it weren’t for her, my father wouldn’t speak at all.

On the flip side, my relationship with my father was indescribable.  It was neither good nor bad.  He was there, and I was there.  His interactions in my life seemed to coincide with whim and circumstance more than a choice he might have made to be a part of it.  Early in my life I realized I would never really know who my father was, so I stopped trying all together.  We grew apart like old friends who move to separate parts of the country, but I was usually a few feet away, in the same room.  I never really complained nor did he, its just the way it was.

My father had very little in his life that wasn’t planned or scheduled.  He was in fact a slave to his regimented lifestyle.  Every morning like clockwork my father would raise from his bed at 5 a.m. go downstairs and prepare his breakfast and lunch at the same time.  He would make 2 egg salad sandwiches, one of which he would eat immediately and the other he placed in a paper sack.  He would then quickly dash of to work in the old Chrysler my maternal grandfather had sold him when he married my mother.  My father loved his routine.  My father loved his wife. My father loved his job.  My father loved egg salad sandwiches. I was never certain where I fell.

The weekends were always a bit awkward around my home; My father was very independent and thrived on his ability to be self sufficient.  Growing up against the backdrop of 1940’s Oklahoma it was unusual for a man to cook his own meals, and do his own laundry, but it was just my fathers’ way.  There were few instances my father offered advice, but when he did they were ripe with life’s harsh lessons.  He would turn to me and say “Always depend on yourself alone” in his thick Ukrainian accent.  “Do you understand?”  I always nodded yes, even though I was unsure why this was so important to him.  “If you depend on everyone else for you to be happy, when the time comes you won’t know how to make yourself be happy”.  I nodded in agreement again, wondering why he felt this was so important, that he needed to pass this bit of information along.  I broke the silence and asked “Don’t you depend on momma?”  He simply nodded and smiled.  That was one of the few times I remember seeing my father smile.

The only other times my father smiled was when he was in his garden or taking care of the yard.  We lived in a small neighborhood in West Tulsa, in a tiny 3-room house, placed on a postage stamp of land.  It could have been an expansive; thousand-acre ranch as far as my father was concerned. It was his land and he loved it.  He grew tomatoes, peppers, beets, onions, potatoes and turnips all in a garden no more than six feet square.  He always enjoyed having his hands in the soil, but his biggest pleasure was the yard itself.  Our yard barely fit under the footprint of our house, but my father loved every blade of rye grass like it was an individual gift from the heavens.  When he bought the house at the end of the lane there was nothing but a patch of dirt, and a few weeds.  He transformed the small quarter acre into a patch of land that could rival any golf course.  His biggest routine was every summer he would take the old manual four-blade lawn mower from the shed and sharpen the blades with an old bit file. He would spend hours running it along the smooth edge of the blade, getting it perfect.  He would turn to me and say “A dull blade will make very ragged cut, and makes grass brown on top.” I again as always nodded without really understanding.  Once the mower was sharpened and well oiled, he would push the mower across the yard at a pace that would exhaust even the most in shape individual.  The manual blades rotating made a distinct metallic chatter, as my father made three passes over every inch of lawn.  I always worried for my father every summer, toiling away in the hot Oklahoma heat.  Wondering why he exhausted himself so, but it was never my place to question.

I was accepted to a University in upstate New York that following year, and had made plans to move that summer, so I could work and maybe earn a few dollars.  My mother was happy for my opportunity, but I could see the sadness on her face when I mentioned leaving.  My father didn’t respond to the news until the day I stepped on to a bus bound for New York, he merely looked at me and said “Do good things.”  I wound up staying in New York after I graduated, only traveling home a handful of times for the occasional holiday.  My mother and I corresponded through letters almost weekly.  She kept me informed of local gossip, and the usual “Who did what?” of the neighborhood.  We rarely spoke on the phone, So when my phone rang and my mother was on the other end, I was a bit startled.  “Your father is very ill” I asked her “what?” she exclaimed, “you might want to come home for a few days, He doesn’t want you to worry”

I arrived by bus that afternoon and immediately caught a ride to my old home. My mother was sitting on the porch, and my father was in the back raking a file over the old manual mower.  My mother rose from her chair to greet me with a sadness on her face I had never seen, I asked her “How is Dad?” She exclaimed, “Stubborn, as usual, the doctors say its cancer, but he won’t rest.”

I made my way to the back where my father was kneeled over the old Sears mower, he looked like a man who had aged ten years since I had seen him last Christmas.  I asked him “Dad, why don’t you take it easy?” he shrugged and ignored my question.  He then rose to his feet in an unsteady manner that reminded me of a calf trying to take its first steps.  I steadied him, but he quickly let go once his feet were under him.  He smiled and said “Its good to see you” and shuffled away into the back entrance to the house.

That evening I made the trip into town and went to the Hardware store and bought my father a shiny new Briggs and Stratton mower, it was shiny and loud and worth every dollar.  I took it home to my father, in the hopes that he would use it in place of the old manual mower.  I placed it at the back porch and went inside, I said to him, “ I got you something Dad, something to help” He looked curious and shuffled to the back door, without opening the screen to inspect the lawnmower, he turned to me and said “That was too much money, you should never spend so much on me.” For the first time in my life, I felt anger toward my father for being so stubborn.  I snapped, “Why won’t you take it?”  He glared in my direction, looking somewhat confused by my question.  “I bought it so you wouldn’t have to work so hard, so you might rest some!”  He then looked at my mother, who took me by my arm and led me into the living room away from my father.  She didn’t say a word; she just shook her head at both of us.

I went home to New York that following day, and every time I wrote my Mother I asked if dad had used the mower yet.  She never responded to the question, which I always took as a “No”.  It was some four months later I received a phone call that I expected, but never wanted to hear.  My mother simply said, “You need to come home.”  I was on the next bus home.

My fathers’ funeral was a simple one, as he was a man of little flair.  He was laid to rest the way he wanted, with a few close friends and family in attendance, no flowers, and no headstone.  My mother simply smiled and said, “Your father is happy.”  I stayed in my old room during the following week; I didn’t feel right leaving my mother so soon after my fathers passing.  I found myself taking long walks around the neighborhood, in part trying to empty my brain of thought of my father, and trying to think about the work I most certainly had piling up back home in New York.  I walked back one night and as I took the first few steps I noticed the long overgrown blades of grass as they stretched towards the heavens.  I cringed to think of my father looking down on me, allowing his lawn to fall apart this way.  I went to the back to get the mower I had bought him, so I could make quick work of the foot tall rye.  I quickly realized I couldn’t use the gas mower as it would wake up the whole neighborhood, so I stepped over it and retrieved the old push mower.  I quickly made one pass over the whole yard barely breaking a sweat in the cool September air.  I made a second pass, for good measure, and a third pass because that’s what dad would have wanted.  That next morning I woke up early find my mother sitting on the end of the bed, she had tears in her eyes. I asked her what was wrong, and she said “ I woke up last night to the sound of the old push mowers blades, and for a second I thought your father was still here”  I hugged her and said I was sorry, and she shushed me and said “Your father was so proud of the man you have become”  she stood up and walked into the kitchen.  We didn’t talk much for the remainder of my trip home; I think my mother knew the more we talked the harder it would be for me to leave.  I made the trip home that following weekend.

I arrived home and a large bundle of mail was on my doorstep, I carried them inside and sat down in a large brown chair like I had done a hundred times before.  I flipped through the letters and bills that had accumulated in the weeks of my absence, and I noticed a small blue envelope with no return address, I immediately recognized it as my fathers seldom used stationary.  I opened it in a rush almost ripping the contents in half.  Inside was a photograph of my dad using the gas mower and a small note that simply said “Thank you, I was wrong, sometimes its good to depend on your loved ones, I love you.” And just like that my father had answered all of my questions.

About The Author:
Brandon Scott is a Tulsa area Photographer, and Operations Manager for a Tulsa publishing house. He grew up on biscuits & gravy in the far reaches of eastern Oklahoma. A real mans man, without coming across as overly grizzled. He is always there to lend a helping hand, a fateful nod, or a wink of the eye to whomever needs it.

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About The Imaginary Family Project:
The 2011 Imaginary Family Project is a year-long collective art endeavor coordinated by occasional amateur artist Quentin Bomgardner and co-sponsored by The Red Dirt Chronicles.  This project is based around “lost” vintage photographs, which have been acquired at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, and eBay – heirloom collections, with no heir.  Every week a different author will “find” one photograph by creating an imagined history around one of its subjects.  At the end of the year, the collection will be compiled and presented as a group.

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