Some fifty-two years ago, when my English dad was a college student, he spent the summer traveling around the U.S.: Reno, San Francisco, New York. He met an itinerant worker who “was at least fifty, but it was hard to sayz he was so weathered,” and the Scott who, after more than forty years still spoke “the broadest Scottish.”
He spent five weeks picking tobacco on a farm in Canada. It was a family operation, with the son just having taken over. They worked hard, and everyone, mostly Englishmen, slept in a garage-turned-dormitory. “But they fed us really well– the food was nice. And they had a couple daughters, one was about sixteen and she was really cute– she was engaged to a mounty or something, but we still went out dancing. That was a lot of fun.”
I’ve never seen my dad dance, that I can remember. I guess I’ve never been somewhere with him where I’d expect him to. But now I have this picture of a fresh, young person who just packed up and spent a summer in America.
He called up a relative in London, Ontario– maybe a connection to his granny– she was eighty and could hardly hear a thing on the phone, but she gave him her son’s number, and then my dad went and stayed with them for a few days and met other relatives. I had forgotten learning, at my own granny’s funeral as I passed around photographs and pressed people to fill in the family tree taped to the wall, that there was a group of not-so-distant cousins in Canada and even Florida. I’d heard my whole life about the Swedes and Norwegians who’d emigrated, but never about these others who share my continent.
My dad said the first week on the tobacco farm he worked hard and made something like eleven-hundred dollars, “which was quite a good amount back then.” In the couple of days in Toronto before the job started he’d pretty much run out of money and had to borrow some to tide him over– yet earlier this evening he had been telling me about switching over his retirement account, and figuring out what stocks to invest in since, now that he’s actually retired, he’s forced to take some money out.
(Maybe I am just as incongruous to myself: I have backpacked around Europe with my sister, not knowing where exactly we’d land next but trusting in the youth hostel guidebook and internet cafes and Eurail passes. And just last week I set up my (very first) employee Roth IRA.)
Yesterday, my dad, when we talked about how cold it’s been, said that one time when we all came back from spending Christmas in England, the house was cold. He went downstairs and discovered the furnace was out; the ceramic igniter (or some such thing) wouldn’t light. So he took a long twist of newspaper and lit it off the stove’s electric burner, and then left it running all night. He said there was ice in the toilet then, but that nothing had frozen fully, and no pipes burst.
I don’t remember that at all, of course, though I can imagine it and maybe recall the feeling of, small and jet lagged and half-asleep from the drive back from the airport, the cold and unwelcoming feel of the old farmhouse. I can feel the cold blankets heaped on top of me, the determined tiredness that won out.
And I can also imagine, intimately, myself as my mom: that drop in her the stomach at the prospect of water damage and a frigid night, the fatigue of bustling three small children through airports and baggage claim and parking lots and finally to bed. The tension of waiting to see if her husband could fix the problem and keep us all alive, comfortable, whole.
And I can experience it as my dad as well: the feeling of, “Well, shit, I’m the adult, so let’s see if this works.” Of solving a problem not because you’re qualified or because you know how to do it, but because there simply isn’t anybody else and it’s ten o’clock at night in December.
Someone asked me recently when you stop being a child to your parents. She said it’s when you stop needing something from them, when you no longer insist they fill a specific cavity in your Self. I think that’s true, and another way to say it, or maybe a cause or result of that is seeing them as you. Seeing, as with two film strips laid one on top of the other, their lives and your life, all matched up by age. Because then you can’t help but think, it wasn’t what I wanted, but, god, of course they did their best.
My dad said working the tobacco fields was enough to put you off smoking, that the nicotine was thick and tarry on your hands and you had to bleach it to get it off.
I asked, “Did it soak in? Did you absorb it through your skin?”
He said he didn’t know, he didn’t think so.
But it’s all absorbed, and here is the contact high, the traces of his life and my mom’s and all my grandparents’ and ancestors’ before them– it leaves a stain, a birthmark, a map, and I make my mark as well, sticky footprints for someone else to follow without knowing that they do.