I was asked to write a piece on the theme, “Gold Rush.” I struggled for weeks.
Then I found my vein. My connection. The reason why I tell the stories that I do. You see, I just returned from a long weekend with my two younger sisters to begin the relocation of my 83 year-old Father. He is a retired lawyer, who at one point was the Director of the Health and Human Services Department. He was known in our town for his lethal argumentative skill, biting sense of humor and being the father of five girls. He has suffered from severe depression for most of his life. He now resides at a KOA campground in New Mexico and is a recluse.
At the beginning of the weekend, as we made our way from the KOA with him in the back seat struggling with his seat belt, I felt my pity for my father. The feeling was quickly replaced with my familiar sinking self worth as he stated his view of our whole endeavor – “Well, Jennifer, you may be good at the dramatics, but you are a horrible manager.” In one moment I had seen his watery gray eyes tearing up in his desperation to understand the seat belt mechanism turn steely as he cast his rod and buried his hook in my scarred psyche. My rebuttal, “Well, I’ve been paid quite well as a manager and I’ll show you what I can get done in 3 days.” He scoffed and laughed out a “We’ll see.” I was back in familiar territory again.
It was his automatic mechanism in dealing with his embarrassment or failure or disappointment by striking out at one of us. This was a familiar feeling, a memory. An explanation. A reason. My mother spent most of her time explaining our father to us. “He had a tough childhood.” “He’s had a hard day.” “He’s under a lot of pressure.”
“He can’t get his seat belt fastened.”
My sister and I just looked at each other knowing that we were still going to be sitting at the intersection of pity, anger, need, and hope. It was going to be a long weekend.
We made the trek to a storage unit in El Dorado that held his life and hadn’t been opened in 10 years. It was over 100 degrees outside. The dust in New Mexico is fine and has a reddish-brown hue and finds its way into every crack and crevice. It is the same dust that was in the hills behind our house where we would look for arrowheads and mica and fools gold to keep on the rough boards that made up shelves in various forts above the arroyo. I would make believe I was Laura Ingalls Wilder and my father was Pa – a man with twinkling eyes, who played the fiddle and always had a story – a man who loved his four daughters.
My father sat on a folding chair while we sifted through the treasures of his life; fishing rods, shotguns, back packs, camping gear, cross country skis, climbing gear, tackle boxes, dog beds, crates and bowls. Activities and pets not shared with his daughters. His passions. We found a photo of him shaking LBJ’s hand. We gathered around, excited, how had we never seen this? We carried it gently to him, asking him loudly, “When did this happen?” He shrugged and offered no explanation, no story. We put it in the one box that held the slides of our childhood, always taken at my mother’s urging. I found the dictionary that carries one of my few memories of sitting at his feet while he picked out words for me spell. On it sat two bookends that had his name and the year 1945” carved on the bottom. He pointed and said, “I made those in wood shop in Jr. High.”
It was a rare nugget of information. I put them with the dictionary, knowing I would take them home. You see, we know very little about my father, so these rare facts always come as a surprise. “Oh, yes, he was on the fast track to be governor.” Really?
But more than the dusty remnants of his past, my own quest for hidden treasure is my need to understand where I fit in his world. I looked for myself in boxes and boxes of his life and came up empty. I was nowhere. Except for the slides, my sisters and I were not there. No memories except for exclusion.
Over the entire weekend I sat with my pan of rocks, sand and dust sifting through hoping to find something shiny. A compliment that carried value, a memory that included me.
Then we were driving and saw a camper pulled off the side of a road with a flat tire. The driver and family sitting in the hot sun. My sister and I turn towards our father who saw them and stated, “I don’t envy them.” And we all started laughing. And there we were. We did exist.
When I was 10 years old between my father’s state job and him beginning private practice we piled into our gold and white suburban, hitched up our Jayco camper and began our own cross country journey from New Mexico through 26 other states, over 12,000 miles and parts of Canada culminating at Disneyland. Oh, and we brought a friend because 5 girls just isn’t enough. It would be the only family vacation we would ever take other than a weekend camping trip in the summer.
My father calculated that at the end of “The Trip” we had spent a solid 2 weeks – 24/7 putting up and breaking down camp. He clocked it under 12 minutes. My job was unhitching the Jayco, placing the bricks behind the wheels and pulling down the stair unit. I also helped pulling the elastic bungees under the “wings.”
Around half way through that trip we had a flat tire on the Jayco in one of the Dakotas. Does it really matter which one? My father’s curses echoed and bounced off the flat rocks in the noonday sun, our panting beagle, Ralph dogging his heels. All of us thinking, ‘I don’t envy him.’
One of my strongest sense-memories was the feeling I had at the end when we turned onto Valley Drive, the smells of home finding their way to the 2nd back seat. The dusty chamisa laced air making it’s way into my pores. Sleeping alone in my own bed surrounded by my stuffed animals with my imaginary Amish friend I found in Pennsylvania, whispering dreams into my ears.
My pan is overflowing with memories of our summer camping trips. None as long as “The Trip.” I remember my sisters and I rolling up our pants and wading into ice cold streams with minnows kissing our toes. Songs with my father’s strong tenor being sung around the campfire under a blanket of New Mexico stars. The smell of eggs cooking in the cast iron on the Coleman stove and my father’s white porcelain coffee pot scorched black sitting on the campfire with “sheepherder’s coffee” made with egg shells. Melted tips of sneakers from getting too close to the fire. Finding the perfect stick for roasting marshmallows. Fighting over the last Shasta Root beer. Skipping rocks. Playing double solitaire.
Watching his straight back and assertive stride as he and the dogs walked away from our campsite with his fishing gear every morning without us, to return with fresh rainbow trout he’d fry up for dinner.
Fishing rods, camping gear, shotguns…
We finished going through his storage unit. His life reduced to a quarter of the space. We fished for compliments after our hard day of work for him – he reminded us that he had loaded the whole unit by himself. We went to dinner and drank beer rinsing the dirt from our lips, ate green chile cheeseburgers and asked questions. He told us about the photo with LBJ – it was taken when he worked for Health & Human Services. He was ahead of his time. On the fast track…
It’s risky to go looking for something that is rumored to exist. I have come up empty handed before. But I’m betting there’s more to be mined. I return to New Mexico in September, to move him to my sister’s in California, but on this trip, I gathered every golden memory to take home with me.