As my father and I passed the exit for Philipsburg, I asked if we could drive through the small, Montana town on our return. It would add a little over an hour to our trip, but I wanted this pilgrimage to be an adventure, not merely a transaction.
“Why?” he said, his arm draped out the open window. It was August, sweltering even in the dry recesses of the Inland Northwest, and he refused to turn on the car’s ancient air conditioning.
I tried to explain. Famous poem. A poet I admired. Yes, something about grad school. I soon lost interest in battling both my father and the wind, so I sat back and watched Big Sky unfold before me.
My father was at the wheel of his mother’s car, her ashes packed in cold, stainless steel. She fit neatly in the trunk like an oversized can of sardines. While she was technically my grandmother, I secretly called her by her first name, Wilma.
Before Wilma died, she made my father promise to take her to her family’s burial plot in the Ozarks of Arkansas. He had planned to drive her car, alone, to the place his parents called home. It was only when my mother stepped in, with her ability to manipulate him even thirty years after their divorce, that I was finally allowed, reluctantly, to go with him. Probably, I should have seen this as a red flag.
To me, being Southern isn’t part of my history. Though I had traveled somewhat widely, and lived in cities on both coasts of the United States, I had never really visited the American South, despite my father’s family consisting of self-proclaimed “Okies and Arkies” and a high school band trip to Washington D.C. that included attractions in Northern Virginia. Instead, I took after my mother’s family, a clan who ranged between Butte, Montana and Cashmere, Washington.
In my photo albums, there are few photos of me with my father after 1982. After the divorce, my mother towed me with her from Central to Eastern Washington. He’d drive us the three hours back to my home in Spokane after a weekend with him in Wenatchee, turning on the CB radio in his Ford pickup, a rig that had belonged to his father. I remember loving to listen to the men who chattered over that radio. They had a magical language that I knew was special, even then. But my dad would pull the microphone to his black-as-night horseshoe mustache and break in early on.“Let’s keep it clean, guys,” he’d say. “My daughter’s in the cab with me.”
Once, we stopped alongside I-90 to collect volcanic ash in Gerber baby food jars, several years after Mt. St.Helens erupted. I handed him my jar of ash and wiped my hands on my pants before we got back on the road. Like many Northwesterners alive at that time, he still has these relics in a box in his basement. My jar still has my name on it, our family name.
Though I have some fond childhood memories of my father, I remember him mostly as a man I saw on a weekend here or there. When he promised he’d visit, he wouldn’t show. I’d watch out the front windows of my house, patiently, then frantic, then inconsolable. I now wonder what it must have been like for my mother, who had to watch her child pace around the living room and weep for him. His child support only ever trickled in, then eventually dried up like an old creek bed.
My step-father, on the other hand, had become a constant, a staple of our household, someone I could rely on. I was old enough to feel awkward when I’d slip up and call him dad when I meant Jack, and vice versa, but when my brother was born, it became easier to switch. For a while, I had two people to call dad.
Months after the wedding, my father called and asked my mother if he could relieve himself of his parental rights to me. For the next two years, people from Child Protective Services and other agencies interviewed us. Was my step-father a good man? What did I think of the situation? Did I feel safe and loved? Did I understand what was happening?
I was eleven years old when the process started. This was the year I wore pink lip gloss and mascara in my school picture (then suffered the wrath of my mother), started my first diet, and no longer allowed spiral perms of my hair.
Hours passed in the Taurus while I sat next to my father, an earbud playing music and audiobooks in my right ear. He could have been anyone in that driver’s seat, and I could have been a hitchhiker picked up outside Billings. I breathed in his cigarette smoke that swept through the car, and my clothes were marked with the smell of it. I wanted to ask if he could try a nicotine patch, but I kept my mouth shut, afraid of what he might say.
I called my mother from Sheridan,Wyoming, from a Kmart parking lot where we stopped to eat our packed lunches.We’d been on the road two days.
“How’s FF?” she asked. It was our name for my freaky father. She knew the answer before I said a word.
I wanted to tell her that I almost wished I hadn’t come, but I was never too far out of his earshot. Besides, I wanted to see Arkansas.
Two weeks after eighth grade began, my family and I dressed up for our day in court. I agonized over seeing my dad one last time, of finding the final words we’d ever say to each other. But, of course, he didn’t show. Afterward, I often imagined that he’d lingered just out of sight, to see me once more before I disappeared from his life.
For the adoption to happen at thirteen was not a blessing. I felt adrift—too old to forget, yet too young to understand that my father was just a man.
Upon entering the highway to the Badlands, a distraction my father allowed, we were stopped by a cattle drive. He seemed annoyed, but this was part of an adventure I’d been hoping for. Cowboys on horses worked the cattle across the road. Scatterings of dust blew up from the blur of animals, and I could feel the rumble of hooves even eight cars back. The work was hard, all muscle and grit, but it was beautiful, orchestrated like dolphins fishing for mackerel. I wanted to talk about it, but my father just kept his gaze on the men and the distant hills.
Had my father been more present, I likely would not have analyzed his shortcomings, all of the things he had missed. But as I sat next to a silent man who chain-smoked his way to Arkansas, I couldn’t forget that he also hadn’t had to endure my teenage years, when the permanence of what he’d done made me unbearable at home. I’d lash out at my step-father, accusing him of loving my brother more than me. I’d quietly get drunk on weekends so I could escape my feelings but still graduate high school with honors. I’d binge on junk food and then purge until all of those feelings disappeared. But over the following ten years, I started to take control of my past. Jack and I came to an understanding, a civil impasse not unlike typical blood-related families. I stopped binge drinking early in college. I got help for the bulimia.
A few years later, my mother announced the divorce. I can’t say I was ever upset about it. Mostly, I was relieved. I had consoled my mother as she struggled with the death of her parents, just five months apart, and Jack’s unilateral decision to change jobs. When my mother told me, “never settle for anything—or anyone,” I took it as a mantra to live by. Jack and I drifted apart, and I willingly let it happen. We were just two people thrown together by fate. And once we were released from our obligations to each other, we were like seeds on the wind.
During this time, my father had seen my grandpa’s obituary in the local paper, had read preceded in death, and had sent us cards that almost asked for forgiveness. It had taken my mother a year to hand me the envelope with my name on it, knowing that an unexpected greeting from him was not part of my grief and recovery plan. Another year would pass before I put pen to paper. When I did, sixteen years separated us, longer than I’d known my father as his daughter.
It was exciting to write our letters back and forth, learning about his new life: a wife, a step-daughter in high school. I often wondered if it was strange for him to write my adopted last name, if he still pictured me as a young girl, if he regretted his decision. Perhaps he’d start addressing the envelope and write my first name with his last name, and then he’d pause before tossing the envelope into the garbage. The repressed anger subsided, and my father drove to visit me in Seattle. He seemed like a changed man, like someone who had learned from his mistakes. As we sat for hours in a restaurant inside Pike’s Market and ate breakfast, I wondered about the last time we’d sat across from each other like this, a lifetime ago. Eventually, I made the three-hour trip to see him and meet his family, including Wilma and his sister, a whole group of people I was supposed to have known.
A couple of years later, as I was making Christmas plans to fly home from graduate school in Boston, my father suggested the unexpected.
“Fly in to Seattle,” he’d said. “But ride the train to Wenatchee and spend Christmas Eve with us.”
Traditionally, I opened ornaments on Christmas Eve with my mother. I didn’t want to spend Christmas Eve in Wenatchee. For a moment, I felt guilty that I wouldn’t see Jack while I was in town—and that he didn’t know I was talking with my father—but we hadn’t spoken in two years already. Blood did not bind us. I only used his name.
I was jet lagged when my father picked me up from the dark Amtrak station, my body and brain operating past midnight. I saw Wilma a couple of times while I was there, but I mostly felt isolated, with no car, no friends, and no understanding of the town where I was born. My father never made it easy to ask for favors like a trip to the grocery store, and I suspected my picky eating annoyed him. He must not have remembered these tendencies from when I was a child, but then, I spent precious few moments of my childhood eating with him. I felt not as a daughter but as a visitor, someone uncomfortable asking for the silverware drawer or spare rolls of toilet paper. I saw myself as his problem-child, a master’s level know-it-all who didn’t eat normal food, an adult he was supposed to love because of blood. As I learned in the Taurus, both of us would come to resent this kind of obligation.
My aging father is not an easy man to know. He suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, which means he’s on any number of prescription pills at any time. Pain pills, steroids, anti-inflammatories. He keeps a small flip-top container at-hand with the day’s medications and asks the same questions over and over, presumably a side effect of the drugs. It’s maddening, and I had no idea of its severity until trapped in a sedan for three-and-a-half days. With his hand draped over the wheel, he’d tear into the silences, clearing his throat to ask, “Get into the pillbox and hand me the big white one, would you?” I wouldn’t know what this meant, only to do it without asking questions. I didn’t know if he’d registered what he’d already taken and what he hadn’t. There were moments when I’d wonder what I’d done and measure his composure, his breathing, his grip on the wheel. I’d dial 911 from the remote shoulder of freeway, pump my compressed hands on his chest, a froth forming at the corners of his lips. Despite my years of pent-up frustration, I didn’t want him to die. Mostly, I didn’t want to kill him. I pushed away these images as he remained steadfast, his eyes clear and focused on the road.
Through the years, I’d come to find that underneath the exciting newness was the same guy I remembered: a fascination with the Great Northern Railroad and a penchant for modifying names of everyday objects. (English muffins remain “English Martians” in his house.) And while my trust in him had resurfaced, my skepticism had as well. Too often, he would reprimand as a father would, but too much time had passed for him to be a dad. And he made it clear en route to Arkansas that I was not welcome on this trip. To other families, this may simply translate as a son’s over whelming grief for his mother. To me, this only meant that my father was still someone I couldn’t rely on. His attention and love were always going to be evanescent.
When we finally got to Arkansas, I met the rest of my father’s family. For over twenty-five years, my family was only my mother’s small arrangement of a sister and two brothers, their children, and my grandparents. But here, there was a sea of cousins, and I was related in some way to nearly everyone I met. In Calico Rock, grave markers showed my original last name, unsettling reminders of the past.
I thought about the photos of me making homemade biscuits and gravy with my father’s family—his mother, his grandmother—in various Northwestern kitchens, and all of the years these people toggled back and forth between the Ozarks of Arkansas and the orchards of Central Washington. How many years had we shared the same space, traveled the same roads, breathed the same air? How many years were we supposed to be a family?
My father remained ambivalent, simultaneously resenting my presence (I was too happy, he thought, not overcome with grief for his mother) but then nostalgic with me about his childhood summers spent there with his own grandparents. Before my father withdrew from me, steadily, over the few days we spent in Arkansas, he drove me to the house in Mountain Home where he and my mother had lived. (As my mother tells it, she was young and naive and made a mistake by marrying my father and leaving the Northwest. She lasted one year before returning to Washington, as she says,“with or without him.”)
At the funeral, he tried hard to keep it together. I remember reaching out and holding his hand. Afterward, he buried the stainless steel box of Wilma’s ashes next to his father—my grandfather, I realized, a man who had died when I was three—and each of us threw in a fistful of dirt. I lamented the fact that I hadn’t really known Wilma, that I had no childhood memories of her, and instead of mourning her at the service, I dredged up the devastation I’d endured when my grandma had died. I thought of the months I’d heaved desperate, aching sobs every time I even started to miss her. My father saw the tears and assumed I was finally bereaved for his mother, which became a truce between us.
As we left Arkansas, I knew things had changed again between my father and me, and time has shown that I was right. The hope for having a dad disappeared years ago. Now, he is just FF, the one who walked away, but, in my more hopeful moments, also the one who came back. I never expected that this would be the way it would turn out, that none of the fathers in my life would last. My father and I haven’t spoken directly now in over six years, but he’s taken to sending text messages every few months, presumably to patch things up at some future confluence in the lines of fate.
Last spring, seven years after burying Wilma in Arkansas, I drove to Spokane from my new home in Baltimore. I planned a general route across the country, noting landmarks of particular interest, especially in South Dakota, where I would order a steak so tender that I would call home simply to remember the moment. But before I could reach the World's Only Corn Palace and the steakhouse in Mitchell, South Dakota, Iowa loaned a strange sense of déjà vu. As I approached the signs for Interstate 29, the freeway that had taken us to Arkansas, in an instant, I remembered my father at the wheel, southbound on this road, to catfish and sweet tea and the unexpected onion of hushpuppies. To the broken promise of what would remain my father’s family. As I merged, northbound, onto I-29, I saw my father’s absences stretch out in the rearview, unfolded behind me in the vastness of this land, and I vowed that I would make time to stop in Philipsburg.