I believe I can remember the first time my father was really angry with me.
We were going to the store together. I sat in the front seat with him, on a long upholstered bench big enough for four. My habit was to slide over close enough to touch him. I might put my hand on his big leg for comfort, or lean against his body if I was sleepy. Sometimes I sat straight and tall to peek over the dashboard. We talked. I was five years old.
The car was a two-tone green and white 1956 Chevy. Before this there was a blue ‘49 Mercury, the first car my father ever owned and his transition from mule and wagon days to a man who boarded in town and carried in his pocket stiff cotton-mill cash. Then he met my mother, an irrepressible generous mountain girl with a pin-up poster body, and she got pregnant, probably in the Mercury coupe. They got married I was born several months later.
So my father traded in the Mercury for a four-door family car, but he described the coupe so well and so lovingly to me that I can almost think I knew it. I can imagine myself captured in my mother’s arms for safety or sleeping in the wide back seat of that luxury world which was my father’s first taste of owning something fine, him still close in the shadow of the boy who went barefooted to school, who got oranges for Christmas if he was lucky, whose father took him out of the eighth grade to make him walk behind a mule for fourteen hours a day.
We are driving to the store, my father and I, and I am sitting close beside him on the long bench seat. My hand is resting on his lap and I am excited: we are going to the store. The store is the only store I know, a rambling old frame building at the crossroads of Green Creek, with a high porch, dark wooden floors and a fat round wood stove. The wood stove is always surrounded by white men in overalls, kind men mostly, at least to me, men who daily pass judgement upon the workings of the world as they take turns opening the stove door to spit tobacco juice into the fire. I can hear the sizzle; I can smell the wood smoke and tobacco runnel.
I want a treat. I need a nickel. When Daddy says: “No, you can’t. Now get along while I pay for the gas,” I am not disappointed. I have friends here. I walk into the circle of old farmers and beg a coin. They give without a pause, a good-humored laughter their reward for the generosity of the moment. They know my father; they respect him. They know me from the store banter of everyday. They all want to act my grandfather; it’s the way of the country world, where family extends into familiarity and all life’s connected to locality with a thick rope of communal love, at the best of times, or hard-edged and deadly prejudice at the worst.
I walk up to my father with an ice cream bar in my hand, triumphant. When I reach for his hand I see dark clouds gather in his face and I am confused, lost. I wait, still as a cat.
“Where did you get that?” He has my other arm in his hand, the one that does not have the ice cream.
I point to the men around the stove, who are silent and watching. I see them rise in their bodies as if to attention and say (I know that only one man speaks but somehow it seems as if all are speaking): “Aw, it’s okay, Gurley . . .He just . . .,” and something else but I cannot listen because my father has turned his attention to me again, and I am afraid of him. He makes me take the ice cream back to the grocer and exchange it for the nickel and take the nickel to the men while he leaves the store without me. When I climb down the long steps of the porch with tears in my eyes he is waiting, still storm-faced. On the ride home I hug the door at the other side of that bench seat while he says over and over: “Don’t ever do that again. Don’t you ever beg money from strangers again, or I’ll stripe your legs so hard you won’t sit for a week. Do you hear me?” I hear him, staring out the window to the farm fields and the barns and the cows.
I puzzled this knot for years, puzzle it still. How can a person who loves you and nurtures you give you harm? Love and hurt can be so closely twined, like a snake around a stick. It happens too at the other end of that dark tunnel: the child who hates you just for a minute, the scorn in his eyes when he looks at you across a table, a room, a world.
Sometimes love is hugging ourselves until we come to, come around, consciously uncurling our body from its stick of fear. Sometimes love is leaping across the spaces of our fear to find the other shore, the far green country, if only for a while. In love, we wait. In waiting we love.
My father helped me with this, sitting a full generation later in the same kitchen we returned to when I was five years old. He told the story to me while my own boy slept in my lap, the story of a young scared father who felt humiliated and angry at himself because he didn’t have a penny in his pocket past the gas money to get himself to work, who couldn’t give his son a nickel because he didn’t have a nickel, not in his pocket and not in the world, who had tears in his own eyes for the long ride home and his son who pressed himself against the door at the far end of the long bench seat. It was a revelation to me, holding my Adam’s little body in my arms, how my father felt it so intensely every time I withdrew myself from him, how abandoned he felt, how lost.
I saw the vulnerable five-year old that was me; I saw the stubborn adolescent; I saw the teenager raging out of the house with a scowl. In a moment of clarity I saw my own sons and how they would hurt me, drag me through the mud of love to some other country, some other person waiting to take my skin. I hugged my son so hard that he woke for a second, put his hand upon my cheek, and drifted back to sleep.