after e.e. cummings

He wasn’t a dad to tell her she looked pretty in the turquoise voile dress her mother made for her 10th grade dance. He never saw her boyfriends as rivals, as some dads do, although he’d look at them with narrowed eyes, and they’d know to keep their hands to themselves, at least while they were in his house. At times, he drank too much, smoked too much, yelled too much. He was sometimes frustrating, sometimes sweet, and though he never could say “I love you,” could only respond, “Oh yeah?” when she said it to him, she never doubted him.

In time, she could laugh at how he’d lock the screen door at 2 a.m. that summer after college, so she had to knock and knock for him to let her in. And every October, when she opened her own door to trick-or-treaters, she remembered that first Halloween when she and her sisters went out by themselves. Her father, sisguised in an owl mask and dark robe, followed them silently up and down the streets, keeping watch as they shrieked in wonderful terror.

But it wasn’t until she held her new daughter in her arms that she began to grasp how innumerable dangers, visible and invisible, personal and impersonal, lay in wait everywhere. When she sent her daughter off to school, and eventually, to college, she realized fully how flimsy were her powers to protect, how futile her fury. And even though it still made her shudder, she finally understood that long-ago afternoon she never spoke about.

She was home again, weak and pale after a second hospitalization and diagnosis of a chronic condition. Her parents pressed her to live at home, abandon school, work for her bookkeeper uncle. Live like a little mouse. She couldn’t breathe, feared she’d never lead a normal life. She announced her engagement to a boy she didn’t love and they didn’t quite trust–they couldn’t say why. Her father sat at the kitchen table drinking, shuffling hospital bills, utility bills, car payments. A cigarette burned to ash between his fingers. “I don’t care what you think,” she said.

He stood clumsily and pinned her against the door, his breath beery on her face, his hands loose on her neck. She knew he wouldn’t go any further but the anguish in his eyes terrified her. And then her mother stepped between them and told her to leave the room and she did, shaking. She didn’t marry the boy, who she would learn was cheating on her despite the ring he’d given her in the hospital solarium. When she did marry, years later, it was in love, not panic. Her father wasn’t moony-eyed like Steve Martin in Father of the Bride, but he grinned as he and her mother walked her down the aisle.

Her father has been gone for many years, and she remembers many things, but what she returns to most is how he held her hair back as she vomited into a pink plastic basin he held with his other hand. How he was there each time her stomach lurched throughout those feverish days when she and her sisters were all sick with flu. She remembers how he would massage her calves and ankles with witch hazel, then wrap her legs in ace bandages, stilling the electric current of pain that always came after ice-skating or too much hard running, the “growing pains” he promised she would eventually outgrow. And did.

Mary Rohrer-Dann, author of Taking the Long Way Home, (Kelsay Books 2021), and La Scaffetta (Tempest Productions) also has work in Orca, Clackamas Review, Philadelphia Stories, Ekphrastic Review, Panoply, Third Wednesday. A “graduated” educator, she paints, hikes, and volunteers Rising Hope Therapeutic Stables, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and Ridgelines Language Arts.