Before my father hauled garbage, he worked in sales, hawking teepee burners. In the sixties, these giant iron pyramids were sold to city dumps to burn mill waste. They were shaped like teepees, hence the name, and banded with iron straps.
Since the only dumps which needed teepee burners were in cities with paper mills, Dad’s territory was enormous and he had to fly to many of his accounts.
At three, I sat on the bed while Mom tucked Dad’s socks and underwear into the corners of his suitcase, around his second suit and the shirts which had been starched and folded at the dry cleaners.
“How will Daddy fly there, Mommy?” I imagined my father traveling with Peter Pan.
“In an airplane. You’ll see. You can come with me when I take him.”
The next morning, my father wore a gray wool suit with a pocket handkerchief embroidered with his initials tucked into the breast pocket. His dark hair, graying at the edges, was swept back from his forehead into a little mound, a remnant of his teen pompadour. He stooped down to me in the airport parking lot and hugged me, rocking me from side to side. He kissed the top of my head. I studied his black wing tip shoes and their intricate pattern of tiny punch holes. Then Dad stood up and kissed my mother goodbye.
She and I stood at the chain link fence and watched my father climb the steps into the plane. As it took off into the sky, we both waved goodbye to Dad’s plane.
The plane slid above us across the filmy clouds, my daddy’s black shoes hanging from the plane’s belly. As he tucked them up smartly into the plane, I wailed while Mom hustled me to the car.
I’ve never been able to leave this image behind. The shoes being pulled mechanically into the sleek, sealed belly of that plane.
I learned much later that the shoes were the wheels of the plane.
It was only after I started writing creative nonfiction and planning my memoir that I started to wonder why that particular memory was so vivid and kept rising to the surface so insistently. I started picking at it, trying to crack the code as I described in my post “Breaking the Codes of Childhood.”
Why was this memory so important?
Armed with Sven Birkerts’ wisdom about the memoirist using present-day understanding to interpret the past, I realized that the memory was connected to writing and reading because it only follows me down those paths.
Perhaps coincidentally, I recently had begun studying more thoroughly the experiences of adoptees like my children and my brother. The lives of adoptees are saturated with a profound initial loss. Since I was the “birth child” in my family and I had grown up with my biological parents, sharing holidays with the extended family, I’d never thought of loss in my own life. After all, I have been so blessed with family, both bio and adoptive, and a husband of (how many is it now?) 37 years.
Now I belatedly recognize that what I felt that day standing in a row of weeds at the fence was loss. I thought that my father was gone forever, swallowed up by that metal monster in the sky.
Maybe if I’d been in my mother’s arms when we waved, it would have eased the moment. But we stood as two separate entities waving up into the sky, our hands fluttering futilely, it seemed to me.
When my father came home from his business trip, I no doubt saw that he was alive and healthy. I had him back. That part I don’t remember.
When I write, this memory is always there, locked in a door behind whatever other memory sparks the writing that day. When I read, it shapes my reading in ways I can’t imagine. When I read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” the memory colors my reading of the initial lines and therefore the entire poem:
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
The “poor and white, / Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” had such resonance for my younger self. That stanza felt ready-made for me.
But that’s part of the coincidence of writing and of reading. My writing and my reading are colored by my own experiences. I started writing this post yesterday and then took a break with poetry, picking up a book which seems to speak to my memoir project, Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water. I read a poem I had missed before, “The Late Cold War.” These are the final lines:
Sir, when i think of poetry keeping you alive i know
you were entered by incomprehensible light
in the hour of lemon & water
& the great wound of the world has slipped a code
into your shoe
A poem doesn’t fail when you set your one good wing on the ground
It is the wing
It doesn’t abandon you
What serendipity. The wing does not abandon me, but takes me writing, just as I saw that plane gliding up above me. The plane I wanted to follow behind.
Do you experience coincidence or serendipity in your own reading and/or writing?