My father stared at the TV screen
hung above his bed, mute,
no longer searching for words,
no longer recalling beach, its crash and ebb.
Maybe in those last days, I tell myself
in a flight of magical thinking,
the pixels merged before his eyes
like grains of sand, and he stepped back
into the picture to trawl the shore again.
Why didn’t I wear
that necklace of opalescent shells
he made for me, handling each one
as a jeweler would a pearl? I swear,
it could have been an amulet
rising and falling against my heart,
it could have been a drumbeat
calling my father back.
2. The Purple Vest
Back in freshman year of college, I wore it nearly every day,
my father’s first leap into clothing design. He laid the supple
suede on the basement workbench, drew an outline, and cut
the brilliantly dyed skin to embrace my body, sewing along
the border a chain delicate as gold filigree, unbroken as the links
to each other. It was a vest for the era, my rebellion after 12
years of maroon uniforms and a rebellion for my father who
ignored my mother’s rebuke, “You’re encouraging her to look
like a hippie.” My father forged ahead, stitching the garment
that kept him close to me that year I strode across the quad, his
fringed blue Aztec bag swinging from my shoulder—a commuter
student from Queens clutching a stack of books on Descartes,
Jung, Millay, that would, in time, crack one door open, then another.
3. A Pin
swirl-shaped like a snail
or a curling wave
in a Japanese block print.
Kiln-fired, speckled pink, black,
navy. I never was
in his shop class to see
how he made all those pins
he gave away. I pluck
from my jewelry clutter
the one that I saved,
the swirl now a comma saying
There’s more to come—read on.
And so I trace my finger
over the smooth, shiny glaze,
inspect the hidden shapes
I’d never noticed:
a ghost’s white face,
black eyes, red dot
of a mouth turned slightly upward.
From discarded lumberyard scraps
he saw potential,
how buzz-sawed mistakes left for trash
could be transformed.
Like his own life, broken
in childhood by his widowed mother’s death,
my father would pick up the pieces
his life-sized, free-form works—
a trio of musicians, a six-foot man
for our newlyweds’ apartment—
not Brancusi-smooth but exuberant
in their angles,
his vision and execution like Picasso’s
I saw decades later, gasping at the museum
exhibition of the master’s wooden sculptures,
expecting to find my father’s among them,
untitled and unsigned.
Dueling knights, flower bouquets, a plane
on our table about to take flight all bore
messages on their undersides—
news type stamped on aluminum.
From the jackpot of press plates he found
piled on a sidewalk, I read once-urgent stories
and ads for barely remembered movies
and whimsical hats. We laughed. And then
my father took up his shears,
the past cut and reshaped in his hands.
Did they beat you at the home for orphaned
and abandoned boys upstate?
Did they leave welts?
You told Mother it was enough
to watch another kid on stage flinch
from each lash of the belt,
a Depression-era story you kept from us.
When the hides appeared—from where?—
you disappeared downstairs to sit astride
the stitching horse you built yourself,
easing leather through the jaws
of the big wooden clamp.
Most often you were down there alone,
but even from upstairs, we’d hear you croon
“I’ve Got the World on a String.” I wish
I’d sat and stayed to talk with you
and watch your hands more closely,
I wish I’d memorized your face,
its deep pleasure and focus
as you angled the awl to pierce the skin
and pull the needle through,
another belt taking shape without pattern
or guide, joining
my kaleidoscopic collection:
turquoise, purple, bottle green, a checkerboard
of black & white, woven, linked, laced,
sporting change purses, engraved buckles,
sunburst gold medallions; each one leather-lined,
one-of-a-kind—belts that cinched
my waist or rested casually on my hips,
adornments that imbued a kind of power,
like the jewelry ancients wore—a feeling
I welcomed in my shyness.
Not once did you raise your voice
or your hand to me.
Those belts you made marked me,
indelibly, as your daughter.