With Father’s Day fast approaching, I sit here, lured by the memories of my own father. My face buried in the damp wool of his overcoat, lightly sprinkled with beads of rain still clinging to the fibers, a mix of lingering cigarette smoke and his after shave brush my cheeks.
The memory of his face has dimmed, but here, right now, I long to be pulled back into his familiar embrace.
When I was a young girl, I rode the ‘L’ downtown to Chicago, the city, the great big city by the lake, to visit my father at his workplace. Riding solo, allowed to ride the train alone on a Saturday morning, was a a badge of maturity I wore proudly on my lapel. I knew every stop by heart. Austin... then Central and the slow but steady rise up the ramp to the truly elevated Laramie Street station. My final destination, the La Salle Street station. The car I rode in was well past its prime and soon to be replaced with a newer and sleeker silver version, much more modern. The car I rode in looked like a big wooden crate on wheels that shimmied and shook along the track. The seats, made of leather, cracked from years of wear and tear, cornered by solid brass...hold-on-to-me handles.
Windows opened to let in fresh air during the summer when the heat became oppressive. Two long bench seats sat opposite one another at the front of each car. I remember those benches, as there were leather straps overhead so that men could stand in the aisle and sway back and forth to the rhythm of the train on the tracks, hovering protectively over their wife or their children seated nearby. My father could stand with one hand looped through the strap while reading the Chicago Daily News, folded in his other hand. He taught me how to fold the newspaper, so that you could turn the page and read without it falling to pieces on the floor.
He also taught me to mind my own business and to avoid eye contact with strangers. I did as I was told, because a trip downtown on a Saturday morning, alone, a wide eyed young girl keeping her own company, was a precious gift.
He would meet me at the station, clad in his trademark overcoat, and we would walk down the metal steps to the alleyway that ran behind the Post Office. As we strode by, we glimpsed the postal carriers loading their trucks for deliveries throughout the city. At the very end of the alleyway stood the seven story building where my father worked as a printing salesman. The outside was covered in dark sooty brick, the windows dusty and dark this Saturday morn. We rode up in a rickety service elevator, the sound of its creaking gradually drowned out as we neared his floor. The printing presses were running and the smell of ink permeated the air. Frosted glass on the door, and behind it two enormous black maws of machinery hungry for paper and thirsty for ink, sat growling and clanking. Along the wall, the linotype lay filed in alphabetized drawers, while the typesetter sat on a high stool and set the copy in rows.
A husband and wife sat near the presses eating sandwiches in silence. One hand to eat and the other to sign. Deaf. Profoundly deaf, but definitely not oblivious to the singing of the presses. They felt the sound through the wooden floorboards under their feet and knew exactly when to rise and replenish the rolls of paper at the end of the press, moments before it was depleted.
I sat in a chair at the end of a row of type, and my father would hand me the heavy text and let me write my own story. I only used leftover broken pieces so the letters were never even and smooth. Upper and lower case, italic and cursive, block and flourish. How I wish I had some of those letters now, as I doubt they were noteworthy to anyone but me. However, I would treasure them as a memory of composition. In the air, the moving hands of sign language, in my hands the the moving lines of type and in the middle of the room the pulsing print of the final product.
On our way home we retraced our steps through the alleyway, up the steps and if the train was late, a quick peek into the station to Heineman’s Bakery for leftover rye rolls and a slice of pistachio cake for me. Once, we lingered long enough to walk through the station itself, and out onto the platforms where the waiting trains sat cooling their heels waiting for the passengers to disembark or to arrive. Steam hissed past our ankles and we dodged the luggage carts. Just above my head I could see people sitting in their seats, staring down at me. I wanted to climb on board. I wanted to go where they were headed. Ohio, perhaps. Pennsylvania. Michigan?
Instead, we climbed aboard the ‘L’ and turned toward home. I always held my father’s hand when we crossed the Chicago River. The train slowed down just as it reached the trestle, and it jinked slightly to the left and then right. I was sure the train would tumble right into the river. Though it never did.
I rode that train alone. On hot summer Saturday mornings. When the windows were open as we pulled into a station. The trains ran above the ground here, level with the second stories of apartment buildings close behind the platforms. Oftentimes, the apartment windows were open with soft billowy curtains fluttering out on the ledge. And I could see, I could look into, someone’s home. See the sofa and the chair. Or the bassinet near the wall. A small black and white TV with Saturday cartoons blaring.
I lived in an apartment too. Close to the ‘L’ station. But not this close. Our apartment was a block away. Too far to really notice the sound of the trains, but close enough to recognize my father’s inimitable stride as he stepped off the train. Then I would run and meet him on the corner and we would walk home with my hand in his pocket, searching for a bar of chocolate.
One Saturday morning, I rode along and as the train slowed down, a boy about my age, leaned out of his apartment window and rested his elbows on the sill. I knew not to make eye contact with strangers, but in this one moment, our eyes met. I wanted to smile, but something in his eyes made me feel like an intruder. Just because I could see into his space, his place, did not mean I was welcome. And I didn’t blame him. Instead I held his gaze and simply nodded. Perhaps, I thought, one day we will both grow up, and move away. Get on a train or a plane and move to a place, a space that is ours to treasure. Where the breeze is cool, the air is quiet and grass and flowers will grow. Where anyone who enters in, will have to be invited and welcomed.
Over the years, I did ride a train, I did fly on a plane, and I moved moved moved. From one apartment to another. But in my heart, I longed for a space, a place to own. So the story began, as one single line of type, then another, then paragraphs and chapters and pages of living and scrimping and saving. Dream after dream. Room after room. Slowly building a house in my head. Until one day, the piggy bank was full and I signed my name on the dotted line. My husband carried me over the threshold.
My space. My place.
I learned how to mow and to weed and to paint and wallpaper. How to rip up a carpet and sand a floor.
How to weather a storm and to shovel a driveway.
Oh and yes. Best of all. How to tend a garden.
And how to take it all for granted.
Until I saw him.
The day a new neighbor moved in and I saw him. Walking through the back yard at dusk, slowly, meticulously, stepping out his property line. Pausing at each tree lining his yard, and running a hand over the bark. Reaching down into the grass and gathering up small sticks and fallen branches. Lovingly, tenderly. Holding them close until he had circled the perimeter, and was about to move out of sight.
Our eyes met.
We, had yet to meet, so he was to me and I to him, a stranger.
But maybe not. For there was something in his eyes, something achingly familiar, so I did not smile. Nor did he. We simply nodded. And then I knew. Then I remembered. The boy at the window. The girl on the train.
We were both at home. At peace in the garden.
We would welcome each other here, side by side in the garden, our hands in the soil, having grown up together....
...once upon a time in a city by the lake.
Love You Dad...
and while we're on the long ride home...
The Yard Yetis A Gardeners Tale Continues here...