Paulette Beete is dedicating her month of blogging to her relationship with her father. This made me think of an unpublished poem I have, which I wrote around Halloween 2008, a few months before my father died. I hope it gives a sense of his spirit. When I visited him in the hospital that day, he said one thing that I've never forgotten and which always makes me laugh. He was very proud that I had published a book, and he told the nurse, "You should read The Heroines. It's a lady book."
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a clock that ticks,
reminding me that time’s passing, the alarm
will sound, and not the normal daily alarm,
no, I’m talking about the big fat alarm
that says your time with this person is up.
I can’t sleep. The el rumbles across the street,
and the neighbor’s porch light burns all night.
Are they like me, did they forget to turn it off,
or do they leave it on in case someone
comes knocking? Oh, that makes me think
of the Grim Reaper and not just because it’s almost
Halloween. Every day my dog rears back
and barks at the collection of fake bones
scattered on the neighbor’s lawn. The black-eyed
skull gets my dog’s goat every time. I don’t like
to think of somebody I love in that way—
as rotting bones in a cemetery—
why do we fear it so much? Who cares,
once the spirit’s soared away, who really cares
about the body? But my dad’s still here,
and six hours later I visit him in the hospital,
where he’s getting a transfusion. His spirits
are lively, and he’s eager to reminesce about
buying the blueprints for our split-level
house from a magazine for fifteen bucks
back in ’61. He borrowed five grand
from a lawyer client to buy the empty lot,
talk about a shoestring! Then his moment
of genius, standing on the second floor,
the rooms framed out, the closets too,
but no walls yet, no plaster, and how he looked
through the opening and saw straight from
the second floor down to the basement
and thought, laundry chute! He got a sheet metal
guy from Dolton to hammer out the lining.
When my cousins came over we’d throw
pool balls down the chute, making an unholy
clatter that made the grown-ups shout for mercy.
All my life, clothes fell down that chute,
into a closet that was never empty,
bursting with sheets and school blouses,
baseball uniforms, damp towels,
tube socks and toe socks, pedal pushers
and pantyhose. The mountain never
went down, just spilled out of the closet,
onto the basement floor. When I turned ten
I started to fish out my own blouses and socks
and do a fastidious load of wash all my own.
I was ironing everything: pleats in my plaid
uniform skirt, creases in the sleeves of my
school blouses. The yellowed armpits
gave off a sweat smell even after the wash.
That’s a moment in my childhood I doubt
my father ever knew about because, well,
a man wouldn’t have, and now’s not the time
to introduce him to those mundane (though formative)
facts, because I’m here at Evanston Hospital
to hear his stories, but then my cell rings,
another bell cutting short my time with him.
Time to pick up the baby. I have to go, I say,
and my dad starts to cry, worried he’s bored me,
his thin face waxy and pale. He says,
You’ve heard these stories a million times,
and I say no, I never heard the one about
the laundry chute, your stroke of genius,
and he grins, says, Yes, it was incredible.
I looked right down there and saw it! A way
to make your mother’s life easier.