SERIES: Part 14
The strange thing about big, emotional, life changing moments, is that you then have to go back to all the regular, normal, everyday things, and it feels strange. I’ve just met my father for the first time, but now we must pull away from each other, wheel my luggage to the car, load it up, call my father’s wife, make sure we’re on the right road, etcetera, etcetera– and all those little things don’t match the indescribable emotions swirling inside me. It’s surreal.
The drive from Charleston airport to my father’s home takes about an hour, transitioning from multi-lane city highway, to winding off-ramp, to two lane country road, until finally, the car turns onto a long dirt road hung with draping vines and Spanish moss. Occasional animal eyes glow red in the car headlights before darting back into thick foliage. Driving through in the dark, this plantation that has been in the family of my father’s wife for over one hundred years, feels ancient and mysterious. I can’t believe I’m here.
I’ve seen portions of my father’s home from various angles in photos and videos, but now, pulling up in the drive, everything comes together to form a complete, 3D picture. A brick pathway curves through the yard of sandy earth and sparse, course grass; the only kind that will grow here. On the right, is the patch of tall bamboo where he was standing in the first video I saw of him. On the left, large trees dominate the foreground of a dark expanse of woods. Seven wooden steps lead up to the porch, with the landing high above ground to protect from hurricane waters. A bench swing is hung on one side, firewood stacked on the other. Two porch lights illuminate both sides of the door that is opened by my father’s wife, my new step-mother, to welcome us home.
The wide planked wood floor sounds our footsteps in deep clunks and groans as my father shows me to the spare bedroom. The first thing I see is a green antique dresser topped with old black and white photos. I don’t know most of the people, but one of them, I recognize immediately. I set my suitcase on the fold out stand while my father heads to the kitchen to prepare dinner. The photo I’m drawn to is displayed in the pocket of an old leather billfold that has been propped open on the dresser– an artful touch. It’s a portrait of my grandmother as a young woman, her 1940s hairstyle pinned up off of her face and neck, a big poofy roll curled on top of her head. She’s wearing a black, non-descript blouse and her only adornment is a pair of simple pearl earrings. She must be in her 20s and her face is flawless and beautiful. In the photo, her eyes are big and dark, but I know in real life they were piercing green. My eyes are green hazel. No one on my mother’s side has eyes this color. Her head is tilted in soft focus portrait style that creates a vibe of dreamy softness. Her nose is different from mine but her mouth is the same. So are her eyes, and the shape of her face. She is the only person I’ve ever looked at and seen myself. It’s a strange feeling and I wonder if this is what twins feel like. How can they not be amazed every time they look at each other? All the things I’ve never liked about my face don’t seem so bad anymore. I’ve always hated my thin lips, and as I get older, the lines around my mouth, but they are just like hers. How can I look at this woman that I long to know, whose love I can somehow feel, and hate those things in me?
Only one dim lamp in the corner competes with the warm, flickering glow of two candles. The wooden table, handmade by my father, is set with woven placemats and hand thrown ceramic plates that were a wedding gift from a friend. Everyone and everything in my father’s life is an expression of creativity. Antique rugs line the hardwood floor, paintings and photos are hung on every wall. Books, old family photos, and the occasional nic-nac cover every shelf and table top. Nothing has arrived here for the simple purpose of decoration. Everything has some significance or memory attached to it, and though nothing matches, everything flows together perfectly. I feel at ease in this space. The aesthetic is familiar and comforting.
My father is at the head of the table. His wife Laura and I sit on opposite sides, facing each other. We all hold hands, and my father says a simple grace taught to him by his step-daughters when they were little. I can’t remember the last time I did this, but I don’t mind. The prayer, and the moment, are sweet and comforting.
As we eat and share stories, I keep catching my father staring at me. I don’t know if it’s from amazement that he suddenly has a daughter, or because I look so much like his mother. I’m caught off guard when amidst the clink of forks and knives, between bites of homemade vegetable pie and flowing conversation, my father suddenly breaks down out of nowhere. “It’s like having her here with me again”, he says through tears. My grandmother has been gone for 16 years, but in this moment, her presence lingers around us.
My father’s breakdown is not awkward or uncomfortable; we are all in the same emotional space. Laura reaches over and touches his arm and I can see how much she loves him.
“Your father is a wonderful, wonderful man.” she had told me over the phone before we met. “You are so lucky.”
She’s a down to earth woman; what my father calls a “horse nut”, devoted to her job at a non-profit horse therapy ranch. She seems kind. I like her and I want her to like me, but however slight, I occasionally feel tension beneath some of her words. I know she must be struggling with this situation. I can’t blame her- I’ve just barged in out of nowhere and changed her entire world.