Writing About My Father, Day 13
My sister at Christmas, circa 1977-78
I don’t have very many memories of my father before I was in double digits. He had separated from my mother by the time I was eight and I’d only actually lived in the same place with him—first an apartment in Brooklyn and then a three-story house in Queens—for about half that time, due to my first few years spent living with my grandmother in Guyana and then a year in Trinidad with my maternal grandmother shortly after I turned four and my sister turned one. My father worked nights so once I started going to school I never saw him. I remember that on Christmas Eve my mother would give my sister and me a little brandy to settle us to sleep, and then she’d wake us up to open our gifts when my father came home from the night shift some time before dawn. But though I know the story of what happened, I don’t actually remember spending even those times with my father.
In Queens we lived in the corner house of a long row of attached houses. We didn’t have the corner lot, however. That was populated by a string of stores, which I remember as mostly abandoned though at the edges of my brain hangs a vague memory that one of the storefronts was filled with dusty broken furniture as if it was once a repair shop. What was most noteworthy about the stores was that they regularly burned down. (They were eventually paved over to make way for a Burger King.) The way I remember it is that the nearest building was separated from our house by only a few feet yet we never evacuated on the nights it erupted in flame. One of the only clear memories I have of being with my father at home is standing with him and my sister at the window in our formal dining room one night watching the storefronts burn. That memory prompted this poem, which was recently published in Josephine Quarterly.
Theme & Variations on a December Night
We stand at the window, my sister and I
the house next door burning, our house
night-hushed except for the hum
of sleepy eyes opening, closing.
Houses further down our neck of
Francis Lewis Boulevard empty
their families, parade of sneakers, slippers,
bare feet. Arms wide with books
and photographs and children. My father
urges our small faces to the window
overhead his camera sighs and clicks.
I don’t wonder how long Daddy will wait
before herding us to the street. I know
we won’t leave—this time or the twice more
that house burns. I know already
my father will choose another time to leave
arms wide with books and photographs.
We are always practicing for fires.
We stand at the window.
I want to remember so
I can tell the story of us watching. So
I can tell a story about not leaving.
There is a window.
I am standing at the window.
At the window I am standing
my blue gingham nightgown blinking.
A house next door burns.
Next door a house is burning.
One house in a long block of houses.
In a long row of houses
end to end chimney to chimney
a girl watches.
Books are carried by others.
A burning house is left by others.
There are books. There are photographs. There are children.
this bird wing
for the father
to arrive the father
to show his awesome powers
know with uncertainty the father
the underbelly of salvation
his great burning wings
She hoards always
the relentless gossip
of fire engines her skin
will not yield