The naked trees tremble before cold daybreak. Like sleepwalkers they awake slowly after having dreamt of their sumptuous verdant trappings of July. They long for summer and, like Tantalus who always wished for what he could not have, the trees extend their branches in vain, praying to the mocking sun, covetous of the heat now so out of reach.
There is a street called Bone Mill Road. A rocky grey wall stained by moss and lichen chases the dirt road. An abandoned farm sits a sleepy vigil, skeleton buildings. A crow calls from a roof. In a cemetery between a spring and a small, young forest, the founders of the once exclusively farming town, lie in their hallowed tombs. A herd of cattle still graze in the surrounding fields. My father passed through here a few times with me and he always commented how much the landscape made him remember the old country of his parents.
Among the thousands of articles scattered across the floor of our father’s Florida apartment, in the wreckage of the newly emptied boxes, my brother and I discovered photos. Smiling and holding the hand of an unknown beauty, my father is crossing a street in Dublin. He is wearing checked pants, his dark wavy hair falls happily on his brow, and it is easy to see in his posture that he has a certain confidence in himself. He had recently renounced his studies to become a Catholic priest and I can see that he is feeling free. He is embracing the world and the feminine affections that had eluded him during his seven years enclosed in the seminary. A midday light illuminates the couple from behind, and I see him as he was in that moment, a fallen angel with invisible wings, ready to wander the world without the faith of the god of his childhood.
In another he reclines on a towel next to the sea. It’s additional photo from his trip to Ireland. At his side, my father’s first cousins and some young women companions enjoy the scarce Irish sun. I see the waves softly saluting the shore and I imagine the Selkies playing beneath the surface of the water. This mythic trip was later woven into tales my father told to sleepy ears at bedtime.
At fourteen years old my delicate paternal grandmother left her home in Elphin, a picturesque miniscule town in the “west” of Ireland. She began to work in a factory in the capital and sent money home to support her family. With her was another, a best friend from the same lost town, and on weekends the two would make mischief, escaping to the sea. Her hometown was far from the ocean, and perhaps, for this reason they were drawn to the enormity of the water. Once and again they invented lies and stories spun to bus drivers and guileless guardians to be able to return to this magical place without having to pay the bus fare.
At seventeen years old, her parents sent her passage to cross the Atlantic with her friend to go to live with an established Irish family in New York City and start a new life. She hadn’t seen her parents since leaving Elfin, and she would never see them again.
With her pale skin of indescribable white, curly black hair and dark vivacious eyes, my grandmother embarked on a long journey. Shortly after her arrival and the receipt of her first paycheck, my grandmother went to buy a modest fur stole and a stylish hat. A professional photo followed her purchases and was dispatched to her family in Ireland to show to them how well she was doing in New York. It mattered not that she spent long hours working on the shop floor nor that she was earning half of what the other girls were since she was an immigrant, my grandmother knew how to enjoy life and she was going to do it. And on the Sundays she had free? It didn’t take long for her to find a beach to nourish her soul alongside her best friend. So inseparable were they that they became known by the shop customers as Mossy and Ivy, after two plants often found side-by-side in their native land.
When I was little we would wake up early on summer Sundays to accompany our father to the beach. It was a ritual of ours, or better said, his, and if my siblings and I woke up too late, he would have left without us. At least one time each winter, we would wake up one Saturday to learn that he had left and he would return in a week. He had gone to Florida for the sun, the water, solitude and the purification of his being. There were no good-byes, which he had never liked, nor were there phone calls to speak to us. We would receive the news about him from our mother who acted as messenger. Now I realize how sensitive he is and I understand that having to have bid us farewell would have made it difficult for him to go inside himself and find the strength to continue being our father and her spouse. After so many years of meditation and investigation in the Oblates, our father needed to isolate himself from everything. He needed to be near the mystical water that had also whispered to his mother. Our father needed this escape so that he could live the life that had entrapped him.
A couple of years after his first grandchild was born, he decided to break up with the Indian woman he had been dating for almost eleven years and move to Florida, to “paradise.” The decision seemed sudden, springing from nowhere, and now we see it as the first clue of the effects of the disease now gnawing at his brain. And he left. This time he left promising frequent visits, phone calls and emails. His mother had recently died at 93, and now he wanted to fulfill their shared dream of living near the sea. We visited him once with our children, and he came up to see us a few times, and each encounter left us more certain of the fact that he was losing his mind. There were a few chaotic visits with my brother, followed by a painful decision to force our father to move back north. His visit to paradise only lasted five years, too short for his liking.
His mother used to say to me that that her mind was like a grey sky. Before she died, I sat with her caressing the back of her hand, recording the sensation of her soft skin in my fingertips. I have heard that memory doesn’t only reside in one’s mind as many believe, but that memory also exists at a cellular level, and I hope to safeguard the recollection of this contact—this affection—always in my fingers. When I was very little, in another effort to feel connected to someone who I adored, I would nestle in next to my seated father with my head on his chest and try to make my heart beat in rhythm with his. I would try to breathe in sync with him and, by doing so, try to calm the incessant worry that has accompanied me since childhood.
In spite of complaining that her mind was cloudy, my grandmother always knew us. She was always happy to see us, though she couldn’t sustain a long conversation nor could she tell us stories from her past any longer. The difference was that she was already much older. My father has only recently entered his 70s. He has no short-term memory, and is more absent by the day.
One early March day, I drove along Bone Mill Road. Everything was grey. The blue sky remained trapped behind the threatening clouds, the cold walls maintained their vigil over the herd of cattle, and the trees trembled with cold. With my father now living in a new kind of cell, on a Memory Care floor, I thought about an uncertain future. My father’s sisters once told me that when my father was first diagnosed he began to write about just that. His uncertain future. The memories, once his, now held tantalizingly out of reach. Our father wanted to allay our fears, to reassure my worries. Now that he is no longer able to put pen to paper, I want him to know that I am avariciously collecting my remembrances of him. I hoard his thoughts, recording his shared experiences wherever I am able in a desperate act to save his mind from the encroaching storm.
I appreciate the gifted treasures: his mention of his work with community organizer and activist, Saul Alinsky; the flashback to when I was five with my head on his chest willing my heart and breath to match his; the tickle-fights with him and my siblings; my father as a somewhat severe softball coach; his fierce temper; his reserved love; the adoration he had for his mother; his great intellect; his trust; his suffering; and the books he gave me with detailed inscriptions. I will continue accumulating fragments of his soul before he disappears into the fog without knowing how to find us any longer. I embrace the grey sky because by knowing it, I better understand the richness that still exists in the shadow that remains of my father.
Amy Nocton lives in Storrs, Connecticut off a dirt road in the woods with her family, wonderful neighbors and a variety of woodland creatures. She teaches Spanish at E.O. Smith High School and English composition for non-native speakers at the University of Connecticut. She has also taught high-school Italian. Since participating in the Connecticut Writing Project Summer Institute for teachers at the University of Connecticut in 2014, she and her husband have met monthly with a group of inspiring writers to share their writing and offer constructive criticism. She thanks them for encouraging her to submit her work and for their friendship.
When not writing, Amy enjoys reading, cooking, traveling, and visiting with family and friends both in the States and abroad. She has been previously published in Inti,: Revista de literatura hispánica, The Bookends Review, The Pangolin Press, Moonchild Magazine, and by the Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut. She also has several poems pending publication in the Peacock Journal.