Photo Finishing

The photographer is standing on the trail far enough below me that in the shot I am small against the granite cliff and the waterfall is unseen to my right — my hair is caught in the spray and I am raising my hands to pull it away from my face. I am in cut offs.  I am not yet 27.  I am not smiling with a gaze made for a photographer the way one does, turning our heads to the light, the angle.  I am squinting and my nose is wrinkled and my head looks small and my legs look large but I am so in my body in that moment.  I am not manufacturing myself for the moment and it struck me enough to take it out of the shoebox and study it.  The camera’s eye misses the waterfall even — taken from the side to get the scrubby grass and the fractured rock.

I’ve fallen silent.  In a way my blog forced me to confront the fact that I’m still silent in a million different ways that matter the most to me.  I am silent about my childhood, my father’s death, my role in all of the various families that I inhabit.  There are so many things in my daily life that remain unsaid and so I, for years, said them here.  I mentioned it before that the task, of course,  was shifting the narrative —  that in telling about everyone else I didn’t have to turn that lens on myself, or, at least, not wholly on myself.

I started running again.  In fits and starts I get back on the treadmill and log three miles and then ask myself why it is that I never remember how it saves my life each time.

There are things I rarely do anymore.  I don’t listen to music.  I don’t watch anything filmed in  the mountains or the American West.  I don’t grieve for my father.

I don’t grieve for my father.

I spent my entire life grieving my father.  One of my earliest memories is of being in the apartment where I lived with my mother after she and my father separated.  I am in a room alone with a desk he’d given me the last time I saw him — the top opened I remember — it had a pegboard top and it smelled of pressed laminate wood — and my mother — what I remember really is my own rage and her coldness.  My father was gone and it was he I wanted.  He wasn’t truly gone yet — he was still alive and would come into town and I would stand next to him in the motel room and stare into the mirror as he shaved.  We would talk into an audio cassette.  He would sing.  Waltzing Matilda.  I, for my part, It’s a Grand Old Flag.

The February I had my transfer it was nearly on the 31st anniversary of my father’s murder.  I wrote about the moment I had pulling into my driveway when the winter sun was hitting the tops of the stalks of the prairie garden sticking out of the snow — and I felt my father’s blessing and I knew, I knew that Z was coming.  I can’t explain what it was to be lifted from beneath the heavy blanket of that lifelong grief.  It was as if the winter sun was streaming in — like a cathedral light.  Dad, I said aloud in the car.  I know you’re here.  You can go.  You can go.

And he did.

In my young life I did a few things because I thought doing them would bring me closer to my father.  That’s a lousy excuse for the kind of drinking I did for years but there you have it.  I remember being a Freshman in college and sitting in the backseat with a friend, a fellow Minnesotan — sweet and blond and young and stable — we were going to a Jane’s Addiction concert in Denver — and I remember the red tail-lights blurring past and the way my heart would race in anticipation of a night ‘partying’ — and she said to me, so sweetly, so frankly “you are a different person when you drink.”  She was right, of course.  I was.

The other thing I did to find my father was run.  I had a picture on my nightstand as a child.  It was in a cheap gold metal frame the size of a deck of cards.  The picture was a square photo — the kind you would pick up at the photomat booths in the parking lots — remember those? Photo finishing.  My first day of kindergarten.  It is faded to a red patina now.  I am in a white dress with blue stripes and a wide collar, my hair in braids.  My mother’s hair is pulled back in a tasteful ponytail — thick, small gold hoop earrings in her ears, a cream-colored blouse.  She is standing near me and a few steps behind is my father.  He is looking straight at the frame.  He has a red sweatband around his head — and is clearly in running gear.

“Your father would run along the highways in Illinois and the police would stop him” my mother would say “this was in the days when no one ran. ‘Whaddaya doing?’ the police would say.  ‘Running.’   — ‘From what?’ ” — and so goes the family joke.  My father ran marathons.

I was a child who ate her way to comfort.  My mother, a single parent, had no way to support me in any kind of extra-curricular activity — I can see that now — knowing what I know as a parent — the time it takes to nurture a sport, even a hobby — and the money.  I would have lessons in a few things until my grandmother’s money stopped coming and then whatever it was would be abandoned — ballet, horse-back riding… the one thing I always did was ski, but I wasn’t athletic as a child.  I couldn’t run and wasn’t inclined to.  No one was clamoring for me to be on any kickball team of theirs.  When I tried running in high school with two friends who had taken up track I would find myself — a quarter mile from my apartment — on the path along the city’s lake — doubled over with a side-stitch and out of breath.  I remember each hard won mile of that lake path. Each of its three miles.  It didn’t come until after college.  The relative ease.  Every time I run I remember.  Every time I run I am a fighter.

My father ran, I’m sure, to banish the demons for a little while.  I understand that now.  After a run something in my chest loosens.  I can see the late day winter light. After running my best friend’s illness, my mother, my isolation, my anxieties in motherhood and stepmotherhood, my fears about my own irrelevance in writing or beyond — all of it moves back for a moment to give me space to breathe in.

A few years ago a cousin sent me a video of old family movies transfered to DVD, a nice gesture as my mother appears nowhere in them —  it is a world belonging to my father’s first wife, my brothers, my cousins —  a life before our arrival or one where we simply aren’t visible.  In one of the last frames there is footage of the last marathon my father ran with his twin.  1976.  The camera pans to the skyline of Chicago, the runners streaming by on the sidewalk of all things — a man holding a mile marker sign — 13 miles — and my father and  his twin — same fast-paced, short stride, arms pumping, head slightly down and jutted forward — my father sees the camera-man before my uncle — and he raises his fists high in the air — pumps the air twice for victory and runs steadily past.  His dark hair is peppered with gray.  In the last frame you see the finish line.  You see my father and his brother — in stride — my father receding in the distance finally blending into the crowd.

On the treadmill yesterday I suddenly thought of my father.  I had no cause to — I don’t know why but I felt him there with me.  I felt this sudden swelling of loss and love.  I ran and in my head I heard him say “Keep going Tiger” — because he was the only one who called me that.  My uncle would call me kitten — and everyone else found something diminutive and cute to call me, but he… he called me tiger.

And I kept going.

3 responses

  1. I love how you use photos to think about what’s visible, what’s not in the frame, what is captured, and what is behind the surface. You’re so good at creating the word-picture for us to see. And this post made me cry… twice.

  2. This post brought me to tears, really. I can just “see” everything so clearly. It made me wonder if you’d like to participate in some kind of advocacy work with victims of violence (or something along those lines). I just commented on a blog about being authentic and how I used my writing on my blog to be fully authentic in ways I just can’t seem to be in my everyday life. The mothers I know spend a lot of their time accommodating other people’s schedule and try to squeeze time out for themselves in dribs and drabs. My point is feeling you have when you get to be your larger self- the tiger – the loosening in your chest – it’s like freedom, isn’t it? For those 3 miles, you’re free from being anything other than the tiger. It’s like when I hear the smack of my boxing glove on the sparring mitts, my arms ache, I’m sweating and puffing like the overweight middle aged woman that I am, and I don’t care anymore cause it just feels good, I feel so happy to just land a proper punch and in that moment, it’s all that matters.

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