DREAMING OF MY DEAD FATHER
Helen Ruggieri

I sit on the faded velvety silk Oriental rug. Across from me is a huge red mahogany desk and behind it, a large highbacked chair facing away from me. The chair swings around.

I’m face to face with my father though he’s been dead for years. But this is not my father as he looked dying of cancer. This is my father as he looked fifty years ago when I was ten and was absolutely sure he knew everything.

Who the hell are you, he barks in that voice, the voice he used when you knew you were going to get it. He doesn’t recognize me. That makes me so sad my eyes fill with tears. I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.

He stands up and walks around the desk. Doing so he moves out of that small glow the green glassed desk lamp throws. He walks to my side, the shadowy side.

He doesn’t know me. He hasn’t seen me in the last twenty years as I’ve grown to look more like my mother. God, my chest is filled with grief. I don’t think I can speak or, if I can, put into words what I want to say.

The last time I saw you, on the bed in the nursing home, there was a storm gathering outside. The purple mountains disappeared behind dark clouds, dust devils whirled across the hard pan soil.

You were on the bed. I was at the window. You were unaware. Daddy, I said, Oh, Daddy.

You made no sound. You’d lost so much weight I thought they might have mixed up the wrist band, sent me to the wrong room. But I recognized the widow’s peak, the hair white now. You raised your hand as if you were hitchhiking. I took it. I hadn’t come soon enough. I felt your warm hard palm; you held on. “A grasping reflex, like babies do,” the nurse said. I wanted to believe it was more. I finally ask the Dream Daddy, “Did you know I was there?”

The Dream Daddy looks at me but now he’s back at the desk in the greenish light.

“There is no god,” he says. “It was made up by a group of people to civilize the world.”

Back at the window the mountain comes back into view, a purple bruise against the Arizona sky. The light winks out. The Dream Daddy disappears. A door slams.

 




COOKIE
Stephen Lewandowski

My father sits across the table at lunch.
He's made hot roast beef with gravy,
pea soup from ham left on the bones,
chicken salad with lots of crunchy celery.
My father like to cook almost
more than he likes to eat, which is plenty.
And his shopping's a religious ceremony;
Star Market his cool, well-lit cathedral.
His Legion buddies always invite him along
when they go for a week at the Adirondack camp.
Though he doesn't care much for hunting or fishing
he goes along for the cooking.
Let's see, that's ten men for six days-
3 square & he shops & stocks accordingly.
This year, teasing him, the men suggested
"living off the land."
Now, home again, he sits across the table
& absorbs my complaints about life as easily
as his heel of Italian bread soaks up gravy.
When I tell him my ball team's lost again
& seems to be getting worse with every game,
I see he remembers something- he says
"That's okay. Who cares about winning? You play for fun."

 




TURNIP SOUP
Helen Ruggieri

When I was little I was a picky eater. I had to recognize everything in the meal or I wouldn’t put it in my mouth. I especially didn’t like turnips – they smelled funny and they were orange.

My mother would begin her chant: a child once said he didn’t like turnips and everybody laughed at him. How can you not like your food?

My father would join in with his stories: When I was your age we’d have turnip soup and be damn glad to get it with a hard slab of oatcake.

Grudgingly I’d fork them up until I learned to like them, to associate the smell of them softening in the pressure cooker, the sound of that hiss and rattle, with home and food and how things were.

My children won’t eat them, and I don’t insist. I don’t want those fights at the table bad feelings rising like steam.

“Why do you always make turnips for Christmas dinner when no one eats them but you,” my daughter asks.

I think about that while I peel off the thin coat of wax that preserves them. “I eat them for my parents, your grandmother and grandfather. I eat them because they were our food. I eat them because the feast should have some memory of the famine.”

what’s gold
that Midas hasn’t touched —
rutabaga

 




SWABBY
Stephen Lewandowski

From the time that I knew anything, I knew that my father was a sailor. His white swabby cap was lying around the house, and I’d put it on to run around. I wondered what that meant, to be a swabby in the Navy. He said it meant that you lived on a boat. He said it meant that you had to have everything just so, all clean and bright. They lived on the Pacific Ocean.

I had never seen the ocean but I had seen boats, the kind my uncles fished our lake from. Fourteen feet long, two and a half hard seats, wooden, heavy, no place “to go.” How could someone live on a boat, and not just someone but I gathered a bunch of men, sailors in the Navy, all dressed the same in white pants, pullovers and caps with brims that stuck up all around?

My father came home with parts of his uniform and other mementos after the war was over. I remember the Navy blue woolen and the white duck pullovers with badges and stripes sewed onto the arms. What does that bird mean? How many stripes did you have? One Halloween my mother cut down the blue pullover to make me a costume, and I went out trick-or-treating with my friends. We were a hobo, a ghost and a sailor. I am a swabby, I said.

I was sure that I could learn something about my father as a sailor by watching the Popeye cartoons carefully. Was my father a tough little guy? Yes. Did he have big forearms? I thought so. Was he funny? Sometimes. Did he have an anchor tattooed on his arm? No. Did he smoke a pipe or love spinach? No again. I kept watching anyway because I thought that even though he didn’t react to spinach that way, I might see something of his former life.

When I didn’t want to eat something, you can bet that Popeye would be used against me. Spinach, brussel sprouts, squash, it didn’t matter what vegetable; if I wanted to grow up to be strong like my father, like Popeye, I’d better eat up. “Eat that green bean like a swab.”

He lived in a boat on the ocean with a bunch of other men and they fought other men, sometimes with guns. Did he shoot a gun? Yes. Did he kill anybody? Wouldn’t say. He was the cook on the boat, and the men ate what he cooked. (Slyly) Did they ever eat spinach? No, they didn’t have any spinach on the boat.

 




WAITING OUTSIDE THE CONSERVATION CLUB
I REMEMBER MY FATHER AND THE DOGS

Helen Ruggieri

I am here after all these years outside in the parking lot of the Conservation Club waiting for someone. I’m outside waiting. The gravel is pushed up into mounds with puddles in the low spots and people walking across the lot crunch to their cars.

I have not been here for fifty years. Perhaps it is the same gravel, the same frozen puddles stuck in some time warp. I’m waiting, my usual posture in the parking lots of bars, saloons, taverns, clubs.

My father says, “I have to go in here a minute to see a guy.” Why does he always use that same sad lie. He wants a drink. He’s used me as an excuse to get out of the house, away from my mother who surely knew my presence will make absolutely no difference at all. And she couldn’t stop his going even if she tried which she doesn’t – just shaking her head and going back to whatever she was doing.

Suddenly the years drop away. I’m the child I once was buried in decaying brain cells. I’ve waited a long time. I’m tired. I want to go home but it’s too far to walk.

I start to blow the horn. I blow it again and again and finally someone comes and looks out. I imagine he goes over to my father and says your kid wants you or something like that. Eventually he comes out. His face is flushed and his jacket open though it is cold out. We drive home in silence. He does not yell at me for blowing the horn.



I have a piano lesson after school on Wednesdays. I am really terrible. I have no talent; I can’t keep good time, my fingers can never keep up with the metronome, but my mother insists. She says things like, “Well, if you get married and your husband dies, you can give lessons.”

“Well, what if I don’t get married, what if my husband doesn’t die? I’ll have done this for nothing.”

No reply. She has this fantasy of a genteel me (and that’s at odds with what I am) in a silk dress gently placing the hands of students on the correct keys and then smacking their knuckles with a steel edged ruler. That last part is my addition to the fantasy.

The piano teacher’s house is on the corner and there’s a glassed in porch across the front. I am waiting for my father to pick me up after he gets out of work. As usual, he has forgotten me or he has been delayed by some emergency; perhaps he stopped to talk to a guy. I am waiting on her glassed in porch. Her other students come and go for their hour. They are surprised that I am still there when they leave. I don’t know which is worse - the metronome or the waiting. Eventually I’ll be missed and he’ll come for me with a rueful laugh. “Sorry, I forgot,” he’ll say.



It is Indian summer, hunting season. I don’t know for what because I have never hunted. I have learned by this time never to go anywhere with my father unless I have a way to get home, the keys to the car. Doesn’t matter, he never asks anymore figuring I’ve outlived my usefulness in that respect.

He has gone hunting. He’s taken the dogs so they can have a good run – Lady, the gun-shy setter mix and the Beagle, Buddy.

They have been in the car all afternoon waiting for him to see a guy about something. When he comes out, they are not waiting anymore. They have suffocated. Yes. He’s very upset about it, crying as he digs a hole in the backyard for them. I turn away, cautioning myself not to think about it. “Don’t go there.”

oak leaves scuttle
            over the gravel like
                        old griefs

 




VISITING MY FATHER
Stephen Lewandowski

I was thirteen when my mother and I drove to Buffalo to visit my father in the hospital. He’d been there several months but he was too sick to see us, the doctors said. Now, they said, he’d improved enough so that our visit might be a good thing for him.

Before we arrived, I knew from talk in the family that they’d tried shock therapy on him. Nothing else had worked for long, so they hoped that shock might be an improvement. I thought of the Frankenstein monster shocked into life, but this was different, wasn’t it?

When the orderlies brought him into the visiting room, at first I couldn’t even be sure that it was him, he was so thin and pale. He wasn’t wearing his clothes-- he was dressed in scrubs the same as the orderlies. His eyes had always been blue, but now they were different, light and shallow, vacant.

At first there was no recognition in his face. He looked drawn and tired, but then the blue of his eyes seemed to deepen and spread, and he saw my mother and me, sitting and waiting for him. His gaze became intelligent. He understood who we were and took us in. The doctor had been talking about his improvement, and my mother and I had gone on about news at home, but finally he said, “Thanks for coming to visit me.” He didn’t have much to say about where he had been, but in a few words he returned to us.

On the trip home, that change in his eyes is what I remembered and turned over in my mind. Who was that person who, at first, didn’t remember us? Who recovered and slowly returned to the man we knew so well?

 




MY FATHER’S WAR: 107th FIELD AMBULANCE,
L’ABBAYETTE, FRANCE – 1917

Helen Ruggieri

At 17 he drove an ambulance and learned to distinguish men from the mud they lay in, all brown uniforms, dead horses, splintered carts. He learned to distinguish corpse from casualty, searching cratered ruts, bunkers, alone with the dying, the pattern of war.

Mostly, he remembers the mud, the viscosity of it, the color, the smell.

The shells come down along the road: one, two, three, four in a line. The first one sights you in, and so forth, until they get you with the last. You drive like hell, caught in the ruts, skidding, then stop quick, before the next four come down. At each fast stop, each racing start, the screams, how they cursed him, “Damn you to hell.” “For Christ’s sake!”. But you don’t listen to them, you listen to the guns, waiting for that pause in the middle, that caesura, the punctuation of life. “If you’re timing’s off,” he’d say, “too bad, forever.”

It snowed on Easter Day, heavy spring snow which melted into the mud, stalling vehicles, miring horses. In the tents the surgeons worked stained with blood or mud, who knows. They tot up the numbers, wait for the shell-shocked to stumble in laughing or crying. Head wounds, chest wounds, limbs cut away, gore thick on the stone floor, guns rumbling 1 - 2 - 3 - 4.  149 stretcher cases.

At dark they drive without lights into town to trade blankets. The dead don’t need them. They hold them up to show no holes, count off – un, deuce, trey, qwat, open the first bottle of wine. Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez vous silence de mort?

A cold wind from the north blows through the tent, rattles the flies. The blanketless dead count cadence. My father wakes in the silence before dawn holding the
length of that pause closer than a woman.
                         in the mud
frozen footprints
Easter morning

 




A MAGNIFICENT GLOVE
Stephen Lewandowski

My father flipped out for the first but hardly the last time in the spring of 1960 when I was thirteen years old. In the family, we hardly knew what to make of it.

He worked as a Nurse’s Aide in the psychiatric section of the local Veteran’s Administration Hospital and brought home stories about the strange things he’d seen and heard there. We were fascinated and asked for more details, but he was careful about what he said.

We had seen the patients ourselves, men with psychiatric wounds dating from the World Wars, as they talked to shade trees and peed in the park bushes. One formally and immaculately dressed gentleman walked the streets of Canandaigua for years, seemingly on his way to a wedding or funeral that never occurred. Sometimes, on a real nice day, a patient would be curled up fast asleep on the wide lawn before the county courthouse in the last rays of the sunset.

We weren’t totally unprepared because anyone living in Canandaigua had seen mental illness. Strangers walked our streets with the scars of head wounds, a vacant expression, or a drugged-out gait. But for me it was strange- because my father was supposed to be one of the protectors and our guardian, not one of the patients.

His manic-depression started in the spring, and his actions mirrored the change of seasons; he speeded up with rising temperatures and increased daylight. He got up earlier and earlier until he forgot to go to sleep. He ran on a constant cycle of work, jobs outside of work, and social activities, many of them at the American Legion. Both the tempo and range of his life increased radically, and he all but disappeared from our family life. When he did re-appear, he had some wild stories to tell. He said the Masons were after him.

That spring I was out of the house a lot too, playing baseball after school with friends, playing in recreational leagues and Legion baseball. My father had noticed that I was playing with a cheap, crummy glove. He sent me to the sporting goods store on Main Street to check out baseball gloves.

They had cheap foreign gloves for less than $10, some Rawlings and Wilson gloves for more, but only one truly magnificent Wilson glove for $25. Its pocket was fully formed and would need no breaking-in. A much higher grade of leather had been used and its oiled, dark surface had no blemishes. It had rawhide ties for fine adjustments of the fit, and properly adjusted it fit my hand like… a glove. A ball striking the pocket caused the glove to snap shut almost automatically.

I reported back on the range of available baseball gloves. When I mentioned the magnificent glove, my mother’s face went hard. We were a middle-class family, and I could expect to be permitted to get one of the middle-priced, unremarkable gloves.

My father stepped in and sent me back to the store with his permission to obtain the magnificent $25 glove. I had no payment for it, only his permission, but the store manager was good enough friends with my father to allow me to fit the glove on my left hand, sign the sale slip with my right, and walk off with it.

For weeks, that glove rarely left my hand. I don’t know who finally paid for it. Possibly my father, maybe my mother out of her wages from working at the men’s clothing store, or perhaps one of my aunts or uncles. I think not my father because soon after giving permission he began to hallucinate, drink heavily and drive around town at all hours. He spent what money he could lay his hands on like water. After a lot of trouble and heartache, he was finally persuaded to commit himself for treatment to the Buffalo VA Hospital.

I got to keep the glove. In those days the best baseball gloves were “signature” models, meaning that you might buy a “Mickey Mantle” or a “Duke Snider” glove with the stars’ signatures embossed in the leather of the palm. The magnificent glove that my father permitted me before he left for the hospital was a “Jimmy Piersall” model.

 




DADDY NEVER DROVE BY MAPS
Helen Ruggieri

Daddy never drove by maps. He learned to drive back before the first
World War and there was usually only one way to get anywhere so you didn’t need maps and during the war they took down all the sign posts so if they were invaded the invaders wouldn’t know where anything was.

If we had to be somewhere, we’d set off in the general direction – west or south- west and go about fifty miles or so and then we’d stop some stranger and ask, Do you know how to get to the city from here? And the stranger’d give us lefts and rights and landmarks and we’d keep on going until we forgot and then we’d stop some guy and ask again or pull in at a gas station and fill up on air and stale cheese-peanut butter crackers and ask the guy pumping gas.

He might call over somebody else and they’d confer while we ate our crackers, maybe had a coke out of the red flip top ice cooler. They lean in to the window and point down the road or maybe sometimes, back the way we’d been but daddy didn’t like to do that. He’d rather circle around as if forward motion was all that mattered, the old Chevy thumping along until we got where ever it was we were going or dead ended at the ocean waves crashing on the beach and all the sign posts gone to war.

           red lines on roadmaps
everything goes
           through the heart

 




THAT YEAR
Stephen Lewandowski

Dad nailed the Christmas tree
to the new hardwood floor.
He’d had a few drinks
first, of course, but
the damned thing
wouldn’t stand
by itself.
Butt of the tree
cut crooked.
Legs of the stand
were bent.
He hooked guy wires
into the door jambs but
it still wouldn’t stay.
Used ten-penny nails- 4 of them.
Had a dickens of a time
getting it down
come Easter.

 




THE LONG SILENCE MY FATHER KNEW
Helen Ruggieri

When the jogger passes oblivious
to the outer world, all his life force
concentrated on music blasting
into his ears, pace and breath,

I think of my father, working the fields
in the far north of a far country
enduring the silence of the seasons –
birds cries, animal sounds, wind, water.

How did they live in all this inner
silence, the mind responsible for
every moment. What did he
think about; too late to ask.

Even now small talk passes through
weather quickly and leaves
the news, last night’s tv, some new
flood of information, opinions.

All that silence through the ages,
a human voice, a nearby song,
a tale embellished by the telling
told again. The fire crackling,

a hum of insects, wind riffling
the leaves, and suddenly,
in a crystal bowl on the table
far away voices, music.

 

 
Helen's father,
James Mitchell
 
Steve's father
Stanley Lewandowski

 

Helen Ruggieri writes: I attended six grammar schools, two high schools, three colleges and stopped dead in my tracks at 111 N. 10th St. in Olean, NY, where I have lived for the last 39 years. My father came from Scotland in 1927 and worked as a bartender in a NYC speakeasy until it got raided. Afraid of being deported, he switched to making parts for radios. And that's what he did all the rest of his life. He retired just before transistors replaced tubes. I remember him looking at a circuit board and shaking his head.

Stephen Lewandowski was born in 1947 in Canandaigua, New York, where he still lives in a house built by his great grandfather. He has published eight books and chapbooks of poetry, most recently One Life (Wood Thrush Books, 2001). He is involved in environmental protection.

 

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