Remembering my dad: Excerpt from my new book Water Oak: The Happiness of Longing – A Memoir
On the anniversary of my father’s death – an excerpt from my newest book:
August 1969 – Long Beach, Mississippi – My dad is sitting on an old wicker chair on the screened porch facing the sea, a bottle of Barq’s root beer, foamy and wet, on the floor beside him, legs crossed gracefully, one foot kicking a soundless rhythm, long thin fingers deftly weaving nylon fishing line through a tiny hole he just made at the top of a hollow branch of sugar cane cut fresh from our lot next door; he reaches over occasionally to the ashtray on the floor beside him to take a drag on his Viceroy, “It’s a new fishing pole for Tom,” he says, thin blue smoke curling from his mouth as he exhales, “we’ll use it later when the weather clears. I’ll make you one too.”
“Okay daddy,” I answer without looking up from my book. I’m down the porch from him, on the old wooden swing, the one Grandpa built years ago, hung from the ceiling so we could all sit together on the humid evenings, catching a soft breeze from the water, mosquitos buzzing against the screens while we jumbled on top of each other, arms and elbows everywhere, singing along to his favorite tunes; Take me out to the ballgame, take me out with the crowd, buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks, I don’t care if I never get back.
I’m reading Franny and Zooey again, loving the sound of the drizzle, steady and percussive on the wooden roof, loving the way it contains us in the house, pulls us in from the beach to watch the squalls move across the distant water in front of the house, the low lazy sweep of shallow that we were all just playing in, running from sandbar to sandbar to chase the minnows; almost beat Russell to the deep water markers just hours ago, waves once gentle now whipped into foamy rolling white caps.
Dad keeps glancing up at those waves and the distant sparks of lightening on the horizon, a contented smile on his face, inhaling deeply from his Viceroy, shaking his head at the sound of my two brothers fighting over a game of Parcheesi in the house, the smell of my Grandma’s fresh crab gumbo, rich and peppery, rolling towards us from the kitchen far back inside the house. My dad loves these squalls, always brings me to the porch to sit with him on stormy afternoons; Sue, you can smell the pine trees on Cat Island; inhaling deeply, closing his eyes to listen to the rush of whitecaps rolling towards the beach, pointing out the fierce billowy grey clouds skimming across the horizon. We both sit quiet, occupied, happy. From next door, a loud bang like someone slamming against a wall, then Aunt Bee Dee’s shrill voice rising, urgent, scolding my cousins Russell and Davis, telling them to settle down, stop fighting, read their comic books or they’ll get a spanking.
The screen door swings open and Grandpa joins us on the porch, stopping to adjust the squeaky spring, fiddle with the hinge, mumbling about how he just oiled it yesterday, turning to look long and hard at the distant water, quiet, thoughtful, “Tommy we need to bring the boats in today, before you all leave tomorrow.” My dad nods, “Okay dad,” he says, his voice is low and gravelly with smoke.
Then facing me, pausing for a moment, Grandpa’s Irish blue eyes bright, amused, his weathered face cracks into a big grin: “Hot damn, Sue Ellen, always with a book. You’ll be a writer someday, won’t you,” he comes to sit beside me on the swing, his white cotton pants deeply wrinkled, his white shirt showing signs of dark grease from the boat engine he was just working on in his tool shed behind the house; not a tool shed really, more like a church, his altar – where dozens of meticulously cleaned and polished tools hang in their precisely outlined places along the weathered walls; instead of incense, the air is filled with the pungent scent of motor oil, thick and spicy as the Chinaberry tree outside the entrance.
On sweaty summer afternoons, I love visiting him in his cool orderly sanctuary, tiptoeing carefully across the rusted sheet of iron salvaged from his ferry boat that flanks the drainage ditch around the shed; always hoping to surprise him, enter soundlessly to watch him work, but never quite able to prevent the noisy clang of bending metal at the door, the gong that alerts him of visitors; his surprised smile welcoming and unconditional, his hands still on the wheel of the sander or holding a well-oiled bolt just selected from his collection inside a used cigar box, its lingering tobacco aroma rising to mingle with the persistent scent of turpentine.
Today, sitting beside me on the swing, he smells of engine grease, Chinaberries, and Dr. Tichenor’s minty cure-all that he rubs into his swollen hands every morning.
“You’re not really going away to college, are you?” he asks, teasing. “Yes sir,” I answer awkwardly, never sure what to say, smiling at him. “In two weeks,” I add, hoping to keep him talking and sitting on the swing beside me. He pats my knee, clumsy and brief, but somehow sentimental; his way of showing affection, unable to say the words, but the wide smile, the moist eyes, giving him away. He is after all, the tough Irish ferry-boat captain Ralph Peter Nolan the “man of the river,” as he’s known in New Orleans.
“She’s going to Missouri,” says my dad from across the porch, looking up from his fishing line, briefly smiling at me as he takes a swig of foamy root beer.
“Why so far?” says Grandpa shaking his head back and forth; It’s not a question to be answered, just a comment, and feeling shy and awkward as always I say nothing; just smile, happy to sit beside him as he pushes the swing back and forth with his feet.
He looks over at the water again, studying the thick clouds to the east and west. “I think it’s going to be a big storm,” he says. “We’re due. But we’re fine here, no hurricane has ever hurt us, these homes are built strong.” I nod and say, “Yes sir,” having heard these stories so many times, the way his father John Peter Nolan bought this land at the turn of the century, built these two sturdy homes for the Nolan clan, side by side, separated by an oyster shell driveway with ancient water oaks reaching protectively over each house, gracing the long driveway with silvery moss.
From as far back as I can remember, dad filled my head with Long Beach. Instead of nursery rhymes to send me to sleep, his bedtime tales were of childhood summers and long weekends “across the lake” playing all day in the warm Mississippi water with his two older brothers; hauling Grandpa’s hand-made nets to the rock pile to catch jumbles of blue claws for Grandma’s spicy gumbo, chasing minnows in the shallow pools, finding cold freshwater springs bubbling up impossibly through the sandbars, good enough to drink. And when the afternoon high tide rolled back in, launching their sailboats and dinghies to race each other, capsizing in the summer squalls, sometimes making it all the way to Cat Island.
I hungered for these stories; tell me more, I pleaded, about when there wasn’t a beach and the water came right up to the sea wall; or how your mom got mad because Grandpa named the skiff Salty Dog instead of Ruth, or how you and your brothers would beg and plead in the back seat on the way home to New Orleans until Grandpa stopped for chocolate malts at Little Man’s.
Dad would acquiesce, lighting up another cigarette, leaning back against the headboard, happy to have an audience; describing how he couldn’t pay attention in class because all he thought about was getting back to the warm shallow Gulf, the earthy smell of mossy oaks, the wooden dinghy he was helping his brothers build; all of it dreamy and true, yet somehow too good, too impossible; a place to long for.
He found his soul in Long Beach, he told me, felt God’s presence in the moonlight streaming through the windows, luminous stars reflected on the foamy waves, sugar cane swaying and cracking in the lot next door; Long Beach was holy ground for my father who once dreamed of becoming a priest.
It had become my altar too, confessing my darkest adolescent desires, guilty Catholic sins, to the brilliant stars above the pale sand; climbing high into the water oak at the top of the yard; its trunk so wide we could play tag around it, branches twisted and majestic; it held Russell and I safe no matter how high we climbed, no matter how big we grew; straddled beside each other on its rough and knotted limbs to survey the miles of silver beach, pointing out white sails dotting the flat horizon, mesmerized by the endless flow of shallow waves along the shore, the distant outline of tall trees on Cat Island; calculating how far away the afternoon squalls were by counting seconds between the distant flash of lightning and the slow rumbling heavy thunder, holding our arms tightly around the Oak branch where we sat as the wind kicked up; daring each other to stay even when electric flashes lit the air around us. This land was my goddess, my Holy Communion, my respite from Mobile.
And there were ghosts of course, the spirits of departed Nolans walking the creaky floors at night; all of us kids gathered around Grandpa as he told stories of seeing his dead father, John Peter, walking through the bedrooms, making us laugh and scream with delight, afraid to go to bed; but I’d seen him too, the bodiless white cotton shirt floating across our rooms in the dark; sweet and benevolent, making sure we were safe.
But the spirits I felt in the house most often were the never-mentioned daughters; my dad’s only two sisters, Muriel and Ruthie, born long before he was, both of them suddenly ill in their adolescence, doctors not knowing why, putting them in wheelchairs to spend their last summers in Long Beach hoping for a cure, until they both died before the age of 18; my father, the youngest, having no memory of them, their names rarely mentioned in the family.
I felt their presence most when dad sent me back to the house alone at night to get salt for our watermelon or buns for the hotdogs, all of us sitting jumbled and happy along the concrete sea wall that led down to the beach, sharing thick curved slices of watermelon, chewing down to the rind, chins dripping with sweet red nectar, spitting the dark seeds at each other; my Grandpa hauling dead branches out from the woods behind our house to build the tallest bonfires we’d ever seen, taller than my dad, so we could wave sparklers, shoot fire crackers, punch each other late into the night under the stars on the warm sand, barefoot since sunrise; tiptoeing back towards the house obedient, alone, afraid; seeing Muriel and Ruthie’s faces in the tiny attic window above the porch; singing as loud as I could to alert them, tell them I was there; a kind of permission I needed to enter their dark sanctuary, knowing in my bones how they loved this house, this land; their spirits never leaving for heaven, no reason to go, this was, after all, better than anywhere.
Grandpa stands up now, walks the length of the porch, studying the sky above the water, “We’ll have a break in the storm this afternoon, Tommy, let’s get ready to go,” he says, something in his voice anxious, worried, a twisting I feel in my gut, a sudden dropping of the stomach for no reason, a thing unknown, or known but not spoken. Grandpa slowly turns to go back into the house, smiling over at me one last time, those brilliant sapphire eyes framed in delicate round glasses, his stark white hair strangely luminescent in the rainy light; this image becoming one of my strongest memories from that day.
“Run and get Warren and the boys,” says my dad gently, putting his cigarette out in the metal ashtray, laying the cane pole carefully along the edge of the porch. “Yesssir,” I answer eagerly, closing my book, relieved to have a task, to feel included.
For the rest of the stormy wind-whipped day, my dad, his brother Warren, my brothers Tom and Jim, my cousins Russell and Davis and myself all wrestle with the odd collection of wooden boats anchored in the salty shallows needing to be hauled back to the house for winter; including the ancient skiff named Salty Dog and Uncle Warren’s slick new racing yacht, The Indigo, that he and Russell sailed over from New Orleans earlier in the summer.
Uncle Warren sends Russell and me out to where the Salty Dog is anchored, the old wooden skiff rocking crazily in the waves. We gladly obey, trudging side by side against the whitecaps until the water reaches our chests and I’m jumping up on tiptoe to keep my head above each wave. Russell glances over, “Stay here Sue Ellen,” he orders as he makes the final steps to the boat. But I don’t listen, wanting to be there when he reaches up for the side of the skiff and heaves himself over, losing balance briefly in the waves, then grinning down at me and reaching over to pull me up with one arm; both of us grinning, chuckling, nervous, excited by the wind, the silvery color of the air.
We’re the same age, born months apart in side-by-side duplexes Grandpa bought on Canal Boulevard in the heart of New Orleans, right on the streetcar line; friends since our mothers bundled us together in carriages to stroll through Audubon Park, or take the little train around the zoo. Russell carries the Irish blood of our Grandpa, fair skin freckled by the sun, straight dark hair cut short against his head, sky-blue eyes reflecting light even on rainy afternoons; I’m dark eyed and olive skinned, deeply tanned from the first day of summer.
“Get the oars ready, Matey!” he barks, from the front of the boat – assuming the voice of a crusty sea captain, dreaming of a future in the Navy like his dad.
He leans over the bow, the choppy water rocking us side to side as he pulls up the thick frayed rope that leads to the anchor, the boat facing into oncoming waves, salt spray peppering our faces; he heaves the rusted anchor aboard and yells at me from over his shoulder to start rowing. I try to get the bulky wooden oars coordinated against the waves but to no avail and the sea knocks us sideways, pushing us closer to shore, nearly capsizing us in the swells until he secures the anchor, grabs the oars from my hands, and without much effort, turns our boat to face the rock pile, rowing us steadily across the turbulent surf; both of us wind whipped, soaking wet and grinning, loving the cold drizzle on our cheeks, the thrill of lightning in the distance, the air charged with fear and anticipation until we arrive at the rock pile and Uncle Warren tosses us a rope.
It’s a windy day, squalls moving in and out, Grandpa’s white hair pushed straight up whenever he faces the horizon, delicate eyeglasses dotted with sea water, an anxious expression on his face, yelling orders at Warren, who then yells them at us; bring me that rope, secure that line, help me carry this anchor; all of us struggling to get our tasks done in the chaos, to hear his voice above the thunder, the sound of Davis yelling that he is tying the knot correctly, Russell shouting over at Davis, Uncle Warren calling someone stupid, my dad yelling at everyone to stop fighting; the men now a chorus of angry shouting that rises sharp and disturbing through the pounding rain. I feel stupid, inept, unable to handle the heavy oars, help carry the anchor, be important enough to get yelled at.
The next day when dad finishes packing our station wagon with suitcases and fishing gear, Jim, Tom and I stand nervously by the car, not wanting to pile in, picking up oyster shells from the driveway to bring home in our pockets for the long drive along Highway 90 to Mobile.
Grandpa and Grandma give us quick hugs, my Grandma moist with perspiration in her long cotton dress, low heels, smelling of brushed powder, rich and fruity. Grandpa tells my dad not to worry, that they’ll only stay in Long Beach one more day before heading back to New Orleans for their flight to California to visit their oldest son Pete who moved there a decade ago to become a naval architect.
Standing beside our car, Uncle Warren and Russell argue about whether to drive back to New Orleans tomorrow with Aunt BeeDee and Davis or to sail their boat home; not sure if it might be safer to sail into Gulfport for the pending storm; stopping their argument long enough to look into our car windows, Russell smiling over at me, “Bye cuz, be good at college.” “You too,” I answer, “Send me a postcard if you have time,” I yell out the window as our car backs down the driveway.
Davis stands on the highway median to wave good-bye like always, lighting a firecracker and tossing it high into the air for our farewell; Russell, Uncle Warren, and Aunt BeeDee walk alongside our car, closing the gate behind us as we pull out onto the road.
From the back seat, windows down, we wave and yell good-bye, throwing kisses as the car pulls away, already beginning to cry as we pass the old St. Thomas church on the corner, sick with regret that summer is ending, that we’re heading home to Mobile where school is about to start and mom awaits with our younger sister Beth.
In the gloomy quiet of the back seat, I dream of our annual Easter weekend returns to Long Beach; how we run outside early in the morning right after mass at St. Thomas Church to find our hand-dyed Easter eggs hiding in Grandpa’s rose bushes or in the cavernous roots of the Oak tree; the younger kids screaming and pushing each other out of the way to grab the jelly beans and gold nugget candy bars before we change into bathing suits to spend the day racing on the warm sand, chasing minnows between the sand bars, building our first sand castle of the year.
But none of this is ever true again.
What Grandpa senses happens in the next few days, after he and Grandma have flown to California to visit Uncle Pete; and even though none of us are lost in the hurricane, it changes him, eats away at his insides when he returns to see our land scraped clean of any trace of us, dish towels hanging from the tops of oak trees.
Everyone is found safe after the storm, even though Uncle Warren and Russell stayed another night to secure their boat, tried to sleep as the water began to rise, electrical explosions from the neighbor’s house waking them to stand on the porch and see the Gulf of Mexico rolling into our yard. They’d somehow made it inland to higher ground at the Anderson’s bicycle shop until the waves retreated in the morning and they stumbled back to find the land unrecognizable, too stunned to speak, hanging onto each other, sobbing like children.
That day of leaving for summer’s end in 1969 is the last day we ever stand around the oyster shell driveway, hugging and fighting, watching Davis light the farewell firecracker, waving at Grandpa at the gate, eyes moist, arms crossed, shaking his head.
As we drive the long wordless trip to Mobile, Hurricane Camille is already gathering strength in the Atlantic, making its predicted turn into the Gulf of Mexico, stalled by the warm water; furious clouds spinning waves into a frenzy from three feet to 30 feet high by the time they roll through our yard, slice limbs from the Oak trees, scatter the oyster shell driveway, lift Grandpa’s sturdy homes from their concrete foundations and smash them angrily on the railroad tracks two blocks inland; Grandpa’s tool shed vanished completely, leaving only the metal sheet that once noisily marked its entrance.
Back home in Algiers, Grandpa is never quite the same; rising in the mornings to fumble with his white cotton shirt, telling Grandma to wake up “it’s time to drive across the lake;” his memory, his mind as smashed and scattered as his once sacred tools. He dies a few years later from a stroke.
More than a week after the storm, when the roads have been cleared of enough debris that dad can finally drive us over, we find one rusted wrench from Grandpa’s tool shed laying on the ground where the Chinaberry tree once stood; my dad climbs silently through piles of splintered branches, steps carefully over a shattered kitchen table leg and across an oddly bent piece of wood from the porch swing to find it; saying nothing, shaking his head and turning to walk away from us.
It marks the end of most good things for a very long time. Russell leaves for college a week after the storm, joins ROTC, trains to be a navy pilot, is sent to Vietnam. His younger brother Davis, troubled and searching, takes off for parts unknown to become a musician.
My dad drives over to Long Beach by himself on weekdays, secret detours from his business trips, taking Polaroids of the disheveled land; filling our family albums with pages of devastation.
I leave for my freshman year at University of Missouri the next week; haunted by images of Long Beach floating away; startled awake each night as the 30 foot wall of water tumbles towards me; grieving for what I’ve just lost – not fully understanding yet that it was everything.
Long Beach is never rebuilt; property values plummet after the storm; insurance companies refuse to pay for water damage. Our lots stand empty and forlorn well into the early 90s when they’re divided up and sold to condo developers.
Later Hurricane Katrina sweeps in and restores grace; clears away the soulless condos and leaves our land vacant and sacred, the battered and hollowed remnants of our two majestic water oaks standing guard.
Excerpted from my newest book: Water Oak: The Happiness of Longing – A Memoir