My father died prematurely while away on
a business trip from a rogue blood clot to the heart
I never doubted he loved me, would have liked me,
(not the same thing), adult to adult, provided I
was not too strong a woman for him. He was difficult--
a Henry VIII of the times, two divorces, a first wife
we never knew, one from my mother when I was six,
then heated voices from their bedroom with a third,
heard in darkness beyond my door, hands over my ears.
But, he was DADDY. the god-like person who emceed
his daughter's birthdays, planned games, gave out prizes,
while a backstage stepmom provided cake. Cake
mistress, fond father. Thus, I learned to turn to men.
Tennessee Williams wrote, "My sister was quicker
at everything than I." I was like that, maybe not quicker
than my brothers, but quick to fall in love with cities,
objects, water anywhere: tide pools, oceans, rivers,
mountain streams, stately geese, lake ducks in queues,
the vermillion of winter sunsets, purity of cumulus
in a summer sky, the scarlet flash of a cardinal from tree
to tree. Good luck, always, but with bad luck, I always
fell in love with impossible men, ones who left me, or I left
them. The husband who stayed? He was the true one.
Then, there was Mr. K, my high school principal, a dead ringer
for Thomas Wolfe, with whom the girl I was must have
thought she could go home again. His costume
"de rigueur" was a rumpled white shirt, black trousers
splayed with chalk dust, coal black hair, and an imposing
presence no one took issue with, maybe not even his
British wife, teaching English in the same school.
I sent him my poems by a classmate to his office, too shy
to deliver them myself. Years later, "Poetry mash notes,"
a colleague said, inciting laughter in a poetry audience with
whom I shared my youthful infatuation, the energy lingering
long after he signed my graduation diploma, because Yes,
he read my poems, and Yes, I sat dazzled in his English Lit
class to "Beowulf," "Chaucer," and the Shakespeare plays we
took turns reading aloud. When he chose another to read
Portia instead of me, "for her gentle voice," I was devastated,
yet when a boy spoke out in class to criticize my poems:
"No one can understand what she writes," Mr. K. replied
"On the contrary, she writes about very complex things with
very simple language." This praise never left me.
Years after, moving to Atlanta with my husband and small
children, our paths crossed again. Living there
at the same time, Mr. K. and I found each other in an
Episcopal parish, its satisfying high-church "smells and bells"
the only show in town, "Spiky," his wife said. There, our
friendship deepened, until Mr. K. moved to England with his wife,
she returning home to complete the cycle, finish out the years
at point of origin. We do go home again, Thomas Wolfe not-
withstanding, as did I, seeking toward close of life
the comfort and substance of birthplace.
Mr. K. returned occasionally to Atlanta for a visit with his son.
He would call me, and it was then that we met for dinner,
most often at Zazu's an intimate bar and restaurant on Peachtree.
What did we talk about sitting across a table from each other?
I do not now remember, but once I observed him glancing at
his aging hands and comparing them to mine, younger by a few,
completely irrelevant years. I once asked him as he entered
his later years if he ever felt "old." He said No, he felt the same
as he always had. This was a revelation: I imagined people
felt as old inside as they looked. This is not the case, as
I was to discover in my own lifetime.
On one evening I did not know would be the last time, Mr. K.
and I sat in my car in darkness after dinner in front of his son's
house. As he prepared to leave, he said, "I don't know how I shall
get along without you, though I've been without you all these
years. We never touched, save in the bond of friendship, and more's
the pity. Some time passed. I wrote a letter to Mr. K.and his wife.
It was returned unopened with a message on the envelope,
"Both deceased." In my car, then, that last night, it was Adieu --
To God, not Au Revoir. Now, with "All time, all attitudes washing
away," as I wrote in a poem called "Fernandina," he lives
in the room in the heart where no one enters but me.
No need for a phone call. I hold the key.