Elegy in Prose for My Father

Written as an assignment for a literature class, I used Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse as my inspiration, employing her stream of consciousness technique to create an elegy in prose for my father. The piece was published in the literary magazine Zaum: eleven, Copyright 2007.

I did not bury my father when they scattered his ashes on San Francisco Bay. Instead I created a world, my father’s world, where he could live—a paradise without hotel chains, intoxicated American tourists, and souvenir shops selling three t-shirts for nineteen ninety-five. He now resides in the Mexico he loved with uncluttered beaches; fishing boats, small, medium, and large; mariachi music; and street vendors offering corn on the cob, bolillos con jamon, and peanuts dusted red with chili powder—a place where faces smile back without recognition; where albañiles lay mortar and bricks that will house three generations of family; where women walk hand in hand; where men give men abrasos in lieu of a hand shake; and where the pace and rhythm allow time for kindnesses. Few people have phones; he has none, and there are no computers. Communication, informal or formal, is in person.

But some things have not changed; he still has the cancer. No one could change that; it was out of everyone’s control. And it has changed my father’s world, as it should. He doesn’t smoke now when he meets his compadres for a game of dominoes, and his glass of beer remains half full even after a long day in the sun fishing. But he still is who he was; a bottle of Cutty Sark and a pack of Del Prados sit in his kitchen cupboard just in case they find a cure.

He now lives with a view of the ocean in a small town where cars, trucks, and buses climb away from the beaches, the sound of their tires bumping across cobblestone streets mingling with sea air perfumed with intoxicating spices. But my father never drives; and that seems strange to me for I know the back of his head and his profile from years of being a passenger. Now he walks and I don’t remember him walking much. He ran once—challenged us kids to a race back to the hotel and without thinking we ran after him leaving Disneyland in our past. Yet I recognize his walk, and along with his stature and clear blue eyes he stands out walking among the people he admires and envies— people bronzed from the heat of the sun and uncomplicated by pressures from his life.

I worry he still wears a frown even though business is part of the life he left behind, like the white band his watch left, branded by the sun from hours of driving to jobs, measuring, inspecting, calculating between profits and repeat business, ethics and success, family responsibility and sailing into sunsets. I have to remind myself not all the lines were etched by responsibility. There were days of fishing, sailing, and splashing in motel swimming pools to wash away dust accumulated from miles of hot desert driving in the Ford Victoria. Green and white, it is in the photograph with me leaning on the back bumper; I am wearing red shorts, the ones bought in a department store across the boarder on our trip to visit his parents, his brother, his sister who are part of his life I still don’t know very well, even though he made me an album I cherish with all the pictures of people who sit in our family tree. Guadalajara was home then and I was so young, my hair so blond, my ideals so bright and shinny.

There is also a photograph of my father standing by the same car, the same bumper, but it’s in black and white, the car brand new—an accomplishment. Maybe that is where I got the idea to take photos where he once stood. And I have two, one standing next to a sign for Brechin, the Scottish city where it is rumored our ancestor came from; and another one, a color photograph of his three kids taken in Schwalingen, Germany, where a store still carries the name of his grandfather. However, I don’t see my father blocked in time like a photograph; his life has movement for it changes with a smell, a tune, or seeing his handwriting on the inside of a book cover. And although his world does not require detail, the table topped with dominoes joining him with his friends feels more real than the hours I spend coming and going.

I don’t think he owns a photo album any more, and I don’t know if he remembers the house on Robert’s Avenue before we moved to Mexico; or the trips we took; or the monkey at Tom Brenen’s posada; or the fish I caught in Mazanillo; or the time he paid for water skiing lessons in Puerta Vallarta and I got up on my first try but almost lost my bikini; or that time in Riverside, when we did not speak, our hands touching with understanding, the cancer making anything we might say irrelevant. Memories are a personal experience. I cannot watch him rummaging through them, nor can I see the portraits leaning on his desk. But I know as he walks along the beach looking forward to a day of fishing it is because of us that he stops and watches the children running in the surf, two girls and a boy, and I imagine his frown lines disappearing.

In his new world, no longer bound by black map lines, or incapacitated by chemotherapy treatments, he is traveling again always ahead or behind me. In Madrid I wondered if he once sat at the same outdoor café on Paseo De La Catellana enjoying tapas made with eels and having a drink amidst noise that escalated with the hour; and when in Hamburg, visiting my brother, I knew he would have loved the canals, the river, the ships—and like us he would go on a boat ride becoming quick friends with the captain. He was like that; people were attracted to his uncomplicated honesty. If he was your friend it was without judgment, simple, without rules—a policy he never broke. However, his mother, his brother, and his sisters held the only ideals he carried from childhood; and his cynicism he shared only with those closest to him—few ever got that close.

It is much better this way, my father in his world, as we followed his request. There were no processions, no funeral, and no mourners who had to have their hands held requiring reassurances we did not own; and he saved us from pilgrimages to a grave site where he would decay leaving the smuggling of his ashes across the Mexican/American boarder our only last rights. Therefore I don’t pick flowers to be placed on a grave where I must remember we buried him; I simply make a toast every March 27th and he lives in his world created with the familiar stroke of my hand.