February 7, 2020 | Narrative
and other places my parents built for me
CONTENT WARNING: Animal death
“Mud Run, 2008”
There’s a state park in Pennsylvania, a test site for dynamite blasts in the ’50s turned hunting and fishing club in the ’70s. Dad’s been going since he was six years old, and it hasn’t changed much. It’s a two-mile drive from the opening gates to the cabins: Red Fin, Turnaround, Eagle’s Nest, Log Cabin. They’re scattered along the dirt road, which traces the veins of the park and then bumps into the old railroad at the edge of the Lehigh River gorge. Mom tells us not to get too close to the edge where stray rocks tumble down into the river. Dad helps us steal antique blue glass insulators from the old electric line at the end of the tracks. We take the dogs off their leashes for the hike back to the cabin. There’s a deer head above the fireplace with four-point antlers and glass eyes. Dad tells us that the deer’s back half is in the chimney where we can’t see it—the poor guy is just resting there. The sofas are green and red and brown, leaves in autumn worn tan along the seams. Pine frames encase charts of local fish and topographic maps of the Pocono Mountains, etched with light blue contour lines and the words “HICKORY RUN.” It smells like cherry tobacco pipe smoke and dirt after rain.
Evergreens hold their breath to hear the waterfall, dammed at the bottom of a hill below Red Fin. Dad’s in the kitchen, putting two steaks on a plate to take out to the charcoal grill and stirring pasta every few minutes to check for al dente-ness. He’s whistling the cello part of the Aubrey-Maturin theme. Mom’s knitting in the faded La-Z-Boy with one of our dogs curled up between her armpit and hip. She holds the half-completed scarf up a little higher as she works so as not to wake the pup, unraveling her yarn to start fresh when she finds a bad stitch. One of my sisters reads on the couch with her heels tucked up under her hips, and the other just dozes in front of the fireplace.
“He Used to Be a Pilot”
The day after my parents met, Dad drove Mom home in a car with the top down. He hit a cardinal and it exploded on the windshield. Red feathers, red insides, red in the face because Mom was crying. A few years ago it was a duck—a mama with more daughters than he had then, so Dad took off his shirt and scooped up the ducklings and sang to them while he carried the bundle home.
For my 13th birthday, Dad took me to the little airport where he kept his red and blue Cessna high-wing in a hangar between a neighborhood and an open field. We cracked cans of Sprite in the pilot’s lounge and he introduced me to a friend who’d be taking me for a ride in his Piper Cub, a little yellow plane in which the pilot sits behind the co-pilot. Dad explained why these planes were special, and now, years later, I don’t remember the reason he gave. I just remember taking off and looking over the yellow siding that felt much too thin to carry one full-grown adult and one newly minted teenager over Buffalo Valley. The pilot, this friend of Dad’s, tipped the wings to either side, rocking our papier-mâché machine to wave at the ground before he told me over our headsets to grab the yoke and look at the horizon and take a deep breath and drive for a while.
I only flew with Dad once before he stopped flying. Tragic for a flighted thing to end up on the ground.
With Mom it’s the offer of an outstretched pinky, held out as an I’m sorry or a let’s start fresh or an I know you’re going through a lot right now and I’d do anything to take the hurt away. Pinky lock doesn’t mean keep a secret, it just means that Mom sees you. She’ll rest her wrist on the center console of the car with her pinky out, not saying anything while she drives with you in the passenger seat. And you’ll link your pinky with hers and look out the window, and everything will be okay because you have a partner now and you’re in it together.
With Dad it’s sharing food at restaurants. Everyone else in the family has some kind of dietary restriction: no red meat, low sugar, no this-or-that. We’ll debate over the burger or the catch of the day—we had fish yesterday, but it’s so good here, so maybe we should each get one and split them. No need to narrow it down. What about dessert? He wants chocolate cake and I want ice cream, so we’ll compromise and get both. “Two plates,” we’ll tell waiters.
“It’s a Heart With Her Name Inside”
Dad’s tattoo is on his upper thigh, where his patients and teenage daughters won’t see it. Mom now jokes that Dad can never leave her because he’ll never find another Judi spelled with an i. When Dad has a beer on Fridays, he’ll tell us about Mom before we were around. How she danced on tables and made pasta from scratch and ran the emergency room of their residency program like nobody’s business. How on Friday nights, when they weren’t on call, they’d take $10 to buy soup from Chinatown and rent a movie. He’ll say, “You shoulda seen your mother,” and then beam like he could see her with her dark curly hair and green eyes right there in front of him.
Some local shop in Philly did it, I think. He signed a waiver saying yes, he was sure, and no, he wasn’t drunk and then they carved in Mom’s name so she knew he was forever and always, like the inside of their rings.
“And Other Places My Parents Built For Me”
I am built of logs and fireplaces and the first few chords of George Winston’s “Colors/Dance.” I am leaves in November and dog-eared chapter books and fairy houses made out of acorn tops and twigs. I’m pinky promises and a salmon entrée split down the middle, dancing on tables and Pennsylvania valleys from a little yellow plane.