Two Fathers

For Ed Baer (1923-2008) & John Birkett (1937-2009)

I know her father from her poems and stories.
James Dean handsome, your high school crush,
in my mind’s eye he holds court in a corridor
surrounded by guys so full of testosterone that you
go back down a floor and up another stairway
afraid they’d jeer, whistle, or ignore you entirely.

In his eighties, her father was a perfect gentleman
complimenting the women in his writing group,
singing old songs slowly and with gusto,
telling of the days when Fourth Street was home
to delis and dancehalls. He was a happy man.
He glowed when he talked about his wife. A man
who made you love him the way he loved his life.

A soldier with big dreams and sensitive skin,
my father courted my mother by mail daily
from Biloxi, Mississippi and Hadley, Massachusetts.
An airplane mechanic who’d never held a wrench.
Gave up on being a writer to support his wife
and baby me. Worked in a liquor store at night
studied law at U. of L. on the G.I. Bill by day.

As a young soldier from the streets of Detroit,
my father met my mother on base. He wrote
her love letters addressed to Lizard and coaxed her
into bed, then pregnancy, thus marriage. He worked
at the P.O., drank, argued, wanted to be Hemingway.
Started school on the G.I. Bill and quit. There were three
daughters, a typewriter and lots of yelling.

My father never yelled, just simmered.
My brothers and I cringed at his stinging
retorts and they feared his belt, though
he rarely used it. His male smell filled
the den—peanut shells everywhere.
The seats of his blue Nash Rambler covered
with clients’ files, ashes spilled from the ashtray.

My father rarely smiled, but he read
to us at bedtime and took us on the
bus to the library. But mostly, he would
smoke and type, a million miles away.
At night Dad and I would sit on the couch
reading while my sisters played. When he left us
I sat on the couch alone. A single lamp lit.

Saturdays we hiked Big Rock. My father
taught us badminton and tennis.
We never learned enough to beat him.
Years of hitting balls against Smoketown’s
brick walls honed his reflexes
the mind games he could play
disarmed us. Then his heart went bad.

It begins and ends with the heart,
its metered tick measuring time
until its clock is too tired or broken
to keep up the pace. My father’s
heart broke when he lost his second wife
to an illness that erased her memories.
Only he remembered what they’d endured.

Death came slowly, stole his ambitions,
his memory, his inner gyroscope.
He still knew our names, still brightened
at my daily phone calls. Laughed at
my poem in the right places the day he died.
Ate his last meal at the Empress of China.
The fortune cookie said, “You will live
surrounded by your family.” It lied.

He was transformed at the end, gentle
and loving, living in the heart of each
moment, noticing the sun on the wall.
I read to him and held his hand.
His last breath was a sigh.

I imagined her father as the sleuth
in his mysteries. Hunting a missing mare,
still handsome but leathery as a saddle.
Unbridled in his love for long shots,
shots of bourbon, and the written word.

Her father was the leader of the band,
full of story and song, smiling as
he kept time, occasionally singing
along. Gentle, kind, everything I’d
thought I’d wanted all along.

Note on the collaboration: Ellen met Ed Baer in a writing group and fell in love. When he passed she inherited Lois.
Lois tells her friends that she inherited Ellen. Now Ellen and Lois read one another’s stories and poems via e-mail.