The father that I have been trying to love my entire life gave me a pair of hiking boots just before I left home at seventeen, along with my first overnight backpack, metal-frame and clunky; old-school wilderness style. It was the first gift I can remember him giving me. He isn’t fond of shopping. His second gift – the one I can never repay – was to give me his journals from the years when we were missionaries to Haiti.
My father’s anger is hereditary, handed down from men who worked long hours in the dry heat of the family date ranch, pushing their bodies to exhaustion as they wrestled irrigation pipes at midnight and beheaded rattlesnakes, coached and relentlessly cheered on baseball games, packed picnics up the canyon in the back of pick-up trucks, threw their children against walls, and grew into benign and genial grandfathers, pinching our cheeks when they were confined to wheelchairs, although I am among the descendants who never forgot what they were capable of.
One of my uncles told me recently, over pecan pie, that the first time he met my father was when he was invited over to dinner at our trailer in the desert. He watched my father throw my little sister into the couch because she did not finish the food on her plate. A story I had never heard before. But why had he waited so long to tell it? Why hadn’t he tried to protect us when we were too small to protect ourselves? Harm that comes through the hands of those we love must be wrestled with; it does not simply disappear.
No one mentioned my father’s anger as a concern when we were appointed as missionaries, though it welled up in him when the seedling trees he gave to Haitian farmers withered and died in the worst drought in seventeen years. As Haitian friends died of preventable diseases and the political situation exploded around us, he toppled tables, shattering candlesticks and carved wooden statues. His powerlessness erupted into rage. And then repentance. He wept into his hands and his anger went dormant, until the next inciting incident.
When I first started writing about our years as missionaries, my father’s journals were my first glimpse into his hidden vulnerabilities. I was struck by his honesty on the page, and I admired him. He didn’t care about being portrayed as a hero or a villain; he wanted me to tell the truth about what we experienced. About despair. About trees and why they matter. My newfound respect for him pushed aside my old hurt and fear. Indeed, I hoped that by having listened to his grief, my father’s anger might have finally been put to rest. I wanted to believe that I had been sent, like a missionary, to help him. That I could lead him home. I was blissfully oblivious to my own paternalism.
My father’s patience after my sons were born was extraordinary. They could and scream and scream but he’d never stop rocking them until they finally fell asleep, safe in his calloused hands. He was patient with infants, just as he was patient with tender roots and buds. I was the one who lost my temper and was quick to shout, who just wanted to escape. Once, stuck at home with two fractious toddlers, I called my parents in desperation after the youngest had worked himself into a red-faced panic. I was ready to start screaming myself but I put the phone against my son’s ear and listened as my parents told him about the full moon, about the native plant seeds that my father was sorting on the dining room table for his customers. Eventually, I heard my father calling my son’s name and when I went over to look, my little boy was fast asleep, his breathing soft and even, his face peaceful. I picked up the phone and told my father that he’d managed to soothe his grandson to sleep. ‘Whoa!’ he said, several times. The next morning, he wrote: ‘Thanks for calling and letting us talk last night. When you said that he was asleep I was overtaken by something very deep. I had to go lie on the floor in front of the wood stove for a while. It brings tears to my eyes again just writing about it. We should be home if you need to call again. Love, Dad.’
My father’s anger made me what I am; my father’s gentleness, in that moment, protected me from myself. The strange, looping weave of history. My grandmother assured me that he had been equally patient with me when I was a baby. She had taken a bus from the California desert all the way up to Oregon to see how red my hair really was. She slept on the couch as my father walked the floor with me at midnight, singing to quiet my fears. Does my body still carry the memory of that tenderness, just as it carries the imprint of his rage?
As my sons grew older, we began to see glimpses of his old, unpredictable wildness reawakened. ‘Grandpa Jonny wins the Worst Dad of the Year Award,’ my eldest told me after I’d left the boys alone with my parents while I disappeared to write. My son is like me in intensity: he loses himself in his work, sobs over books, and is righteously indignant at perceived injustice. At five years old, he hadn’t gotten out of the bath quickly enough so my father dumped a cup of cold water on his head. My son was livid. I took his side, arguing that it was not my father’s place to provoke his grandson.
Later that spring, my father came to collect seeds in our woods so I helped the boys put on muck boots to tag along behind him, but when we reached the gravel just beyond the barn, my father stuck out his foot in front of the six-year-old, perhaps intending to slow him down, but instead he fell hard onto sharp stones, cutting open his hands and knees. ‘Grandpa tripped me!’ he wailed, his voice raw with betrayal. ‘I didn’t mean to,’ my father laughed gruffly. He attempted a conciliatory hug, but my son dove for my arms, refusing to touch him. My father disappeared into the ferns, away from the scene of the crime. ‘Grandpa loves you,’ my mother soothed, ineffectually. ‘It’s just that sometimes he forgets to be gentle.’
He protects birds’ nests and seedling trees. He is capable of gentleness. He will not allow the boys to rip out the stinging nettles because the bees need the pollen in the early spring, when little else is in bloom. And yet, during a game of Capture the Flag at his eight-year-old’s grandson’s birthday party, intent on rescuing the prisoners on his team, he ran out of the woods swinging a whip of uprooted nettles at crying children. I ran after him, whacking him with a foam sword, and asked what the fuck he thought he was doing. He admitted that he got a little competitive, but he thought the kids would be smart enough to stay out of his way. ‘You’re banished,’ I told him, though I later offered him a cupcake. He shook his head and did not take one. I could not tell if my offer – and his refusal – were due to penitence or stubbornness.
After the stinging nettle incident, at the boys’ insistence, we wrote out a list of rules for Grandpa to follow, and he promised to comply: No wrestling unless you ask us first, and we say yes. No calling us sissy. No pinching. No sneaking up on us. No yelling at us (too loud and too often). Reasonable rules, rules that I wished my sisters and I had insisted on when we were kids.
I wanted to convince myself that the problem had been solved. My husband and I had planned a kayaking trip in the San Juans for our anniversary and my mother made extravagant plans for five days with the grandsons: bike trips to the skate park, movie-editing, cake-baking, canoeing on Muddy Creek. My father helped them construct a raft out of scrap wood to float to their island, and their voices were full of excitement when they told us about stepping onto the waterlogged boards, water swirling over their ankles. We called every night. It seemed to be going so well. Until, four days in, our youngest son hid in his grandparents’ office with the phone pressed against his mouth and told us that Grandpa had grabbed his brother and thrown him. My mother got on the phone and sounded stricken. Everyone was crying. It had happened two days earlier, but they had been too scared to tell us. I told the boys to pack their things and that I’d drive down immediately to get them. My father had been out in the garden digging potatoes with the boys earlier that morning and he assured me that I was over-reacting. ‘Your boys are too soft, they need toughening up,’ he yelled, when he finally got on the line. I put him on speakerphone. My soft-spoken husband is the only man that I have ever heard shout my father into silence.
The boys and I cried together on the drive home. We bought fresh-pressed cherry juice and goat cheese and avocados, beauty that we could put into our bodies, and I explained what no one had ever explained to me: it is not your fault. You’re a kid. You get to make mistakes. If you take too long getting into the shower, if you don’t listen perfectly, that’s okay. Grown-ups are NOT allowed to hurt you. Grandpa doesn’t want to hurt you. He didn’t want to hurt me when I was a kid. He really does love us. But anger entered him like a poison through the hands of those he loved, and his heart was broken. And it’s my job, not yours, to protect you.
We told my father that the boys would not be able to visit unchaperoned until he dealt with the source of his anger, but years went by and he made no movement towards therapy. He sent photographs of happy sleepovers with his other grandson, my nephew, who was not yet old enough to defy him. I stopped calling. My parents stopped calling me. Frustrated, I sent a handwritten letter, hoping to jar him back into connection. Words on the page – journals, letters – had been the only way we’d managed to find our way back to each other after our years as missionaries. He sent me a terse email to say that his eyesight was getting worse and he couldn’t read my handwriting.
My husband and I still drove the boys down once or twice a year to my parents’ farm, though we rarely stayed the night, and my father still came to collect seeds in our woods, but seldom stayed to talk. My anger and his silence had created a wall between us. My therapist asked what it would take for me to stop trying so hard to save my parents. I had no answer. I had finally published a book about our complicated missionary family, but it hadn’t saved anyone. If anything, I had stirred up family tensions and put us all at risk by exposing our flaws and sorrows and unresolved questions. My parents remained supportive of the book – they wanted others to learn from our past mistakes – but it was the present that haunted us. It seemed an impossible task: to keep talking about the moments that hurt, about the harm we inevitably left in our wake.
When my mother and father first met and fell in love, high in the sugar pines of the San Jacinto Mountains, my father wore a uniform with a grizzly bear stitched in gold. My mother had iron calves and a winsome smile. He asked to see her hiking permit. She still refers to him, in affectionate moments, as Ranger Jon. In their twenties, my father put words by John Muir to music – Climb the mountains and get their good tidings – and my mother accompanied him on her autoharp. In recent years, he built a trail behind their farmhouse to follow at dusk, listening for owls.
This winter, after coming back from a walk along the creek with my mother, my father sent my sisters and me an email. It was New Year’s Eve. My husband was in bed with the flu. The boys were asleep. I read his words at midnight as a storm tore through our woods, ripping branches and toppling trees:
I was recently inspired to add more verses to the John Muir words that have been sung to all of you and to the grandsons and others as well. Blessings to you for 2018. Love, Dad
I cried when I read his lyrics, and cried again when I read them to the boys the next morning.
Walk a trail and see where it leads to.
New found places will welcome you
Like a mother glad you’ve come home.
And wild birds will sing
Exuberant songs to you.
You’ll know this is where you belong.
A few days later, he wrote to tell me that he’d just filled out a five-page questionnaire to start meeting with a counselor. He said he hadn’t intended it as a birthday present for me, but there it was.