My childhood after the divorce was a slide projector, a long spell of darkness and emptiness between each color slide. I spent five bleak weekdays with my mother and only the bright, short weekends with my father.
Friday evenings, my dad settled me in front of him on the edge of his bed, on a brown, velvet bedspread soft and warm as mothering. Focused like a weaver at the loom, his hands moved through my long, baby-fine hair, thread by thread, unweaving. “I’m sorry, Mis, I know this hurts,” he said. I leaned tense on the edge of the bed in front of him, feet on the floor and knees bent as if waiting for the start of a foot race.
“It hurts, Dad,” I pleaded. “Please stop.”
The Navajo believe hair is a manifestation of thought, the proper combing of hair the alignment of thoughts. Strand by strand my father aligned me to a whole version of myself, realigned me with care. With this ceremony my father marked my passage between two worlds, from her house to his house. He cussed the mats burrowed deep near my scalp, whorled nests of thought knit of childhood indifference and a mother’s distraction. He wondered aloud at my mother’s neglect of me, “That woman.”
It was all misery and fidgeting, the interminable sitting still, my sore scalp. Then, in the very worst of it, he trimmed my nails, the severe mouth of the nail clippers nipping my fingertips like a hungry mouse. With the blade of the nail file, my father slid away black crescents of dirt. I knew father loved me. I did not know to call this love.
“Okay, get in the shower.” My father nudged me off the bed towards the bathroom, I so hunched and pouting I nearly fell over forward.
“I don’t want to,” I whined.
“And make sure to scrub the shampoo all the way down to the roots.”
The bathroom walls were covered with silver foil wallpaper, walls glinting with my every movement as if I were inside a Christmas present. Despite my father’s devotion, personal grooming would forever be an unnatural chore, exacting heroic acts of self-discipline and concentration. The tentative thought, “Is this how I do this? Now I comb my hair? Now I brush my teeth?” would always be with me.
While I showered my father cooked: spaghetti or hamburger helper, a can of roast beef hash, scalloped potatoes from a box. He brandished a spatula in mock theatricality over a pan of polish sausage, waving mystery into his bachelor food. When dinner was ready, he cryptically announced, “Soups on.”
I stepped from the shower and pulled on my nightgown over my wet body. Wet tendrils of hair washed down my back. I padded into the kitchen. “Get what you want from the ice box, Hon.” “Ice box”, like “soups on”, was a vestige of his 1930’s childhood, something I never heard anyone else say. I opened the door of the ice box to a chest full of jewels. Coke cans glittered on the middle shelf, hard, cold cans, a brilliant red, next to glistening containers of store-bought jello salad iridescent and storied as stained glass, a drawer full of apples.
There were always apples, hard and fresh. “They taste so much better cold,” my father used to say. And I could help myself to anything, like a millionaire. Food at my fathers had a different taste, a depth and cleanness and freedom, like swimming underwater with my eyes open. Everything is relative. It does not take a lot of food to feel fed. It does not take extraordinary attention to feel loved.
We carried our plates to the family room, plates full of a mound of hot hash that greased the inside of my mouth or discs of polish sausage only a bit more malleable than milk jug caps, a shiny pile of green beans, a spill of apple sauce. We sat at the coffee table in front of the television. The dog—Chopper then, a white scruffy mutt who didn’t like children— waited by my feet. My father took small bites, dabbed his mustache with the corner of a paper towel. “Do you like it,” he’d ask, whatever we were eating.
“Yes, Dad.” Questions embarrassed me. I did not have the words for everything I thought and felt, so every answer felt like a lie. Yes, Dad, I liked it. Everything depended on it, on your beautiful hands that did the untangling and then made me a hot meal.
Childhood was a slide projector, a long spell of darkness and emptiness between each color slide. My weekends lit up like a carnival, sparkling and expansive with opportunity. I had no thoughts for the future, for a time when I would make my own way in the world. I never hoped for more than the next Friday afternoon with my father, our two days together. Almost every Sunday night of my life I walked out of the iridescent contentment and rest of my father’s house to face a drive towards darkness and isolation.
During the Sunday drives back to my mother’s, the vast desert, the ironwood, mesquite and paloverde crowded the roadside, muted and quiet at dusk, like a choir trying softly humming in an effort to soothe me. My father and I did not talk much. Silently, I began repacking the parts of myself that knew my father, the parts that he recognized. Streetlight by streetlight my thoughts recoiled and entwined. Worry began its slow contraction around my stomach. My fingers clasped the ends of my hair and twisted. My weekend, like a candle, was about to be snuffed out.
-excerpted from my memoir of childhood abuse, depression and spiritual awakening.