My father’s name was Bernard Hogan. His friends called him Hoagie or Ben. My cousins called him Uncle Bun; I never knew where that nickname came from.
He was a master electrician, he played golf, and he was a storyteller. I don’t think he knew he was a storyteller. He just had that gift for drawing you into his life experience. My bedtime stories were tales about his life on the farm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Stories about Buster, his collie, who liked to nip at the heels of the foul-tempered Shetland pony. Stories about swimming in the pond during the summer and skating on it in the winter. Stories about his father playing the fiddle at the Irish weddings and wakes and on Sundays for the family while my grandmother accompanied him on the piano.
My grandmother would wake early and count the sleeping bodies under mounds of bed covers before starting breakfast. There were ten children, but she never knew who had invited a friend to spend the night. The smells of bacon frying on the stove and biscuits baking in the oven were my father’s alarm clock. He descended into that cloud of smells from the back staircase — the one that led from his room to the big rambling kitchen.
These tales of the olden days were my only link to my father’s life before I was in it. My grandmother and grandfather had died long before I was born. My father, who was the seventh son and number nine in the line-up of ten, left the Midwest when he was 17 to join the Navy.
My father openly, and I secretly, yearned for the life he had left behind. When we moved to Chico, California in the early sixties we looked at a two-story house that had a back staircase leading to the kitchen. While my mother and father wandered through the rooms I stood on the porch and gazed out at the field, where I could just see a collie nipping at the heels of a foul-tempered Shetland pony. But my younger brother would have had to go to a one-room country school if we lived there. So, my father’s dream of regaining his past gave way to my parents’ commitment to their children’s future.
Of course, there was also the other side to my father; the worldly, way-off-the-farm part. He would sit with me as I turned the pages of his leather-bound Navy album and tell me stories as I pointed to a picture.
The picture of a man wearing a grass skirt and a sailor’s hat led to stories about crossing the equator. The picture of bridge with a hole in the middle led to stories about San Francisco in the Thirties and of sailing into San Francisco Bay when the Golden Gate Bridge was still being constructed.
When I was three, Dad had a hard time finding work. He came home one day and asked my mother, “What would you think of living in Saudi Arabia?” Both were adventurous sorts, so my dad signed a contract with Aramco (Arabian American Oil Company) to work in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. He had to be there alone for two years so he could earn enough points to get family housing. His letters home told of foul-tempered camels, deserts called “The Empty Quarter,” and Persian carpets spread out under tents setup in the desert for royal visits.
After we joined him he would sometimes leave for two or three days to work on “Explorations” — trips that took him deep into the desert. He would come back with stories about seeing a man eat locust, a Bedouin crossing the desert with his four wives, each on her own camel, and sand dunes the size of small mountains.
While we were in Arabia we alternated short vacations, which lasted two weeks, with long vacations, which lasted three months. For our long vacation my dad signed us up to travel to California on a Dutch freighter that carried only eight passengers. For 75 days, we stopped at ports such as Bombay, Karachi, and Singapore as we made our way to Long Beach. Between the Philippines and Hawaii, we sailed through the tail end of a typhoon with waves crashing over the top of the ship.
It was on that trip that my father first shared with me his love of sunsets at sea. He and I were the only passengers who never got seasick. So, at times it was just him and me on deck, savoring the display of colors, which was different each evening; the sound of the ship, rising and falling, as it cut through the ocean; the salty taste of the sea spray on our lips.
And my father loved to play golf. He learned the game by caddying when he was a teenager. It was how he earned money when his family left the farm. An article in the Aramco newsletter, titled “Arabia’s own Ben Hogan,” described the red golf balls he used so he could locate them on the barren, rocky course. I was six, and shortly after the article was published I saw a newsreel that included a story about Ben Hogan — the famous golfer. I looked at the newsreel, then at my dad, then back at the newsreel. I didn’t understand why my dad looked so different up there on the big screen.
Through childhood and into high school I was my daddy’s little girl. When I modeled the dress I was planning to wear to my first seventh-grade dance he told me I was “just like a breath of spring” — an image I decided I would try to live up to. More than once he dreamily told me of how much he looked forward to walking me down the aisle to hand me over to the man I would marry.
Then college happened. I started at San Francisco State in the fall of 1967, when the Vietnam War and the protests against it were rapidly escalating. During the second semester of my freshman year, Lyndon Johnson announced peace talks had begun and told us he would not seek a second term as president. It all seemed so hopeful. We had stopped the War and Bobby Kennedy or Gene McCarthy would be our next president.
Then within a week Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and, two months later, so was Robert Kennedy. Three months later the Democrats held their convention in Chicago and nominated Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s hand-picked successor, instead of Gene McCarthy for the presidency. Protesters and police rioted.
By the Fall of 1968, Nixon was elected president, and my college went on strike. The charging police, rock-throwing protestors, and bloodied faces I had seen on television during the Chicago convention were now on my campus, in my face, accompanied by the sounds of breaking glass and Billy clubs smashing against skulls, and the smell of tear gas and mace.
And of course, there was the women’s movement.
The world I had believed in was crumbling around me, changing too fast. I was angry that the
world was so different from the one I had been led to believe was real and secure, and saw no way that I could survive in this new world and continue to be the “breath of spring” my father wanted me to be.
When I was 21 I married the man I had been living with for two years. I wore a low-cut wedding gown and had a girlfriend who was a Universal Life Church minister perform the ceremony. I refused to let my father give me away at the wedding, insisting that I was no one’s to give away and no one’s to be given to.
My father got the message. I was no longer his breath of spring. It wounded him deeply.
I began to see the dark cloud that hung over my father, and I thought the cloud meant that he was disappointed with me. So, I became angry with him. My father’s disappointment and my anger hung in the air between us for over a decade. I heard no stories.
My father’s Alzheimer’s began when I was in my early thirties — about the time I was able to forgive him for being disappointed with me. During his moments of lucidity, he started telling me stories again. But these were the other stories:
The men who got my grandfather drunk and cheated him out of the farm. My father, hearing my grandmother crying softly, watched the kitchen door grow smaller and smaller as he rode down the dirt road, passing for the last time the pond and the green field where Buster had nipped at the heels of the foul-tempered Shetland pony.
Adjustment to town life was brutal. Adults whispered and children taunted my father about my grandfather’s foolish loss of the farm. There was no pond to swim in, no fields to roam through. Buster was my dad’s only comfort. Then one day, when my father was at school, my grandfather gave away Buster, telling my father, “Times are too tough for you to have a dog!”
That’s when the beatings started. In a small, shame-filled voice my dad told me that he wet himself when my grandfather beat him and that the welts the strap raised on my father’s back would take a week to heal.
The Navy had been my father’s escape from my grandfather’s brutality and from what he had lost.
The Depression was in full force when he got out. One time, he went two days without food. Just about the time he found work and was ready to start his life, Pearl Harbor was bombed. He rejoined the Navy to avoid being drafted into the infantry, and went to war. He never told me any war stories.
As the Alzheimer’s slowly leeched my dad’s spirit from his body, I tried once more to be his breath of spring. I wanted to restore him to innocence. I wanted to reach what was left of him and replace the blasphemy of his father’s brutality with the truth of love and gentleness. I did not want my father to leave this world until he was redeemed.
Instead, Alzheimer’s spent the next ten years beating my father down. He turned into a terrified, confused child in an old man’s body, and there were no more stories. My heart grew heavier with each visit, so my visits became more infrequent and shorter.
The day my mother called me to tell me that my father had forgotten how to swallow, I tried one more time to bring him redemption. I stopped by the nursing home, but he was being bathed. I had a meeting at work to attend, and considered missing it. Instead I found myself turning away from his room. With each step I took toward the door, it became more clear to me: I had said everything to and done everything I could for my father, but I had not saved him.
Once again I gave up trying to be his breath of spring. I settled for being by his side when he died.
On the day we planned to scatter my dad’s ashes, a friend called to tell me that she had had a dream about my father the previous night. They were on a boat on a body of water. As they looked out over the horizon at the setting sun, he told her how proud he was of me, that he admired my being a writer.
I was planning a trip to Ireland and decided I would take some of my dad’s ashes with me, find a farm, and scatter them. I scooped some into a film canister; the rest we scattered on San Francisco Bay as the autumn sun was setting.
Three months later I was in Ireland. In pubs and in people’s homes I heard stories (some true, some mostly true) about Celtic warriors, hedge schools, the potato famine, fiddlers and bards, and relatives in America. “I have a cousin in Chicago. Wouldcha know Kevin McCarthy, now?”
Each county seemed to have its own style of Irish craftsmanship: crystal, pewter, knits, and fiddle playing.
In a pub in County Donegal, the northernmost county in the Republic of Ireland, I happened upon a festival of Donegal-style fiddling. Most of the older fiddlers could not read a note of music; the skill had been passed down to them from their fathers who had learned it from their grandfathers. I overheard a story of three sons playing the fiddle at their father’s bed, conducting him to heaven as he lay dying.
“Lovely! Lovely!” a gray-haired man exclaimed as a young man finished his tune, then handed him the fiddle. “A fiddle is meant to be passed around,” he said and began playing.
I thought of my grandfather. He must have made music like this. What had twisted him so that hands that could express his soul through music instead betrayed my father with their brutality?
Memories of my father began flooding through me. Memories of the man I knew before the Alzheimer’s turned him into someone else.
I remembered the kitten peeking out from his unbuttoned shirt as he emerged from the plane that returned him from an Exploration in the Empty Quarter. I still have no idea how he found a kitten in a desert called the Empty Quarter.
I remembered the lights on the Highway Patrol car that pulled my dad over on our way back from Oroville. My Girl Scout troop had gone to visit the newly built dam — the one my father worked on. One of the girls had lingered in the bathroom and had been left behind accidentally by one of the Girl Scout troop leaders. Without a complaint, my dad turned around our 1960 turquoise Ford station wagon and drove the twenty miles back to Oroville to pick her up. He was the only father who was a member of my Girl Scout troop.
I remembered that he would make pizzas, from dough to sauce, for my slumber and cast parties. He never said no when I asked if we could have the party at our house, and my friends always found our home was a haven for being a teenager.
I remembered that when I was 28, divorced and trying to learn how to put up shelves in my apartment, he had given me an electric drill and sander on my birthday.
In that pub, surrounded by the sounds of the fiddle players, my heart understood. My father had never been disappointed with me — he had just been disappointed that I could not be his breath of spring. And then he honored my independence by giving me power tools.
I forgave him his ever wanting me to be his breath of spring. And I forgave myself for wanting from him something he never could find — that place in himself that believed he was loved.
Early morning light appeared through the windows, and the fiddlers fiddled on.
I woke the next day with one more vivid memory of my father— the special holder he made for the six-pack of beer he carried in his golf bag; it kept the beer cold through eighteen holes of golf.
That afternoon I drove to the northernmost tip of Donegal, where I had been told I would find a golf course — one overlooking the ocean. It was January and it was cold and windy, so I had the course to myself. I went to the fourteenth hole, where for the last time I watched the sun set at sea with my father, then I opened the film canister, poured the last of his ashes into my hand, and let the wind carry him out to sea.