One August, I was driving in Maine, heading north to raft on the Penobscot. In a culvert on the side of the road, stood a young moose. We could get out of the car and stare at him as he was so far below us, there was no danger, and I thought: I can’t wait to tell my father about this.
My father had died the April before, however, and this moment made me understand all the things I’d have to store up to share with him one day if we do meet again.
Maybe I had always seen the things he would want me to pay attention to: roadside flowers, birds, cloud patterns. Maybe, even if he had lived to be 200, as he promised me he would, I would still pause at a stream in hopes of spotting the beavers at work, or sit outside a snake hole with my daughter waiting for the creature to give us a glance, or stand at a meadow waiting for yellow finches to burst out of the grass. Or maybe, in his absence, these are the things I study because he can not.
From this loss, in part, I have derived a great deal of poetry.
But I am also a storyteller and, if my father was home waiting for me yesterday, I would have had a story for him. About how I had lunch with cousins, some of whom I’d never met. And, mostly, about how these cousins wanted to know where we all came from. That the story of his family mattered to them. I know he would have liked that.
I was twenty-eight when my father died and not as devoted to my writing as I might have been, but I am older now, and this is what I’ve learned after several decades of writing and a couple of teaching: human beings love stories. We have, since the beginning of time, sat around the fire narrating the events of our days. We have etched them out on the walls of caves, have put them to music, have, ultimately, written them down. Stories connect us.
So it should be no surprise, should it, that one woman might have heard a story about how her grandmother died and that, wanting her own, more substantiated version, she spent several years compiling the history of a family? What makes a story good, after all, is how we can’t predict where it will take us.
For my own daughters who never knew my father, I try to bring him to life. Show them pictures, of course. Tell them what it was like to work beside him. For a few years, they even joined a 4-H club and learned to halterbreak heifers. “You know what my father would have said?” I say, sometimes, when they do something. Of course they don’t. Maybe they have a few facts: he loved maple walnut ice cream; he owned one of the most famous bulls in the history of dairy farming; his voice was so hoarse, most people couldn’t understand him. These are what writers call character details. Small strokes, but no complexity.
Still, they have more than what I have of my own grandparents. I know that my grandfather, Angelo, was such a good stonecutter/carver, he could cut more letters into granite than any other cutter at the quarry. My grandmother planted a white rose bush in front of the house. No food my father ate after she died tasted as good as when she made it. She made rugs out of rags. Always kept a pot of soup on the stove. When my father and his brother were done with the milk route, they climbed out of the wagon at the schoolhouse and the horses walked home alone, my grandmother and her sister waiting for them at the end of the lane to remove their harnesses. It is, essentially, a series of video clips that plays in my head when I think of them, but no real film.
Yesterday, I want to tell my father, I added what I could add. I saw a picture of my grandmother, Giovanna, as a young woman, for example. I didn’t have to peer at a blurry group shot of her and her large family. I could study her face. Look right into her eyes. I could see that she was the tallest of her sisters, as tall as some of her brothers. But I couldn’t see my father in her.
I learned that my great-grandfather made nails out of the iron mined in the Dolomites where they were from. Supported his wife and fourteen children. That the Zoldani, my father’s people, were noted for their nail-making. I saw a picture of my great-grandmother when she was very old, a woman used to the hard life of that place.
And I saw a picture of my father as a very young boy (so young, in fact, he was wearing a dress. This, I would especially like to tell him.). He stood with his grandmother on a spot of grass that would one day be where he and his brother built a garage out of wood that washed ashore after the Hurricane of ‘38. He had a bowl cut, straight hair that surprised me. His dark eyes looked suspiciously at the photographer. Even then, I thought, a tough guy to please. My father as a toddler, reaching up to hold tight to his grandmother’s hand. You’d think it impossible until you remember: I am in the middle of a story and in a story, anything might happen.