I always think about you on father’s day, how you didn’t get a chance to know your daddy. He died when you were just eight. Your few memories of him are vague; the too-brief reality of him was long ago overwhelmed by the hardship and responsibilities of all the fatherless years. Years in which you raised your sisters while your mom worked at the factory. Back then ‘single working mother’ meant widow.
There is a picture of him in the spare room, a handsome man with deep-set eyes and a full-lipped, sensual mouth. He is 38 in the picture, and doesn’t know he won’t live to see 39.
Next to that picture is one of you. You stare directly into the camera with those eyes he gave you, famously brown in a family of blues. You are not smiling, something I at one time attributed to the scratchy-looking dress with the stiff frill of lace chucking you under the chin. Later I learned the picture was taken just weeks after he died. You hold a gnawed looking teddy bear; it leans indifferently from the crook of your arm.
All of my life everyone has told me that I look like you. Traveling to visit your mother meant a constant procession of ancient men and women who lifted my chin with their gnarled blue-veined hands and exclaimed with pleasure at the face they remembered from their middle years.
But I wouldn’t, have never wanted to see the resemblance, not even in the eyes you bequeathed me, now too small in their caves, receding away from my understanding on a wave of unhappy flesh. I could not see myself in the way your hair smelled, or in the way you moved so slowly, as if you’d spent all your energy elsewhere. You were too diminished.
When you first showed me yourself in that photo I was eight, like you. The house rang with the silence that followed daddy’s rages. You brought me, cowed and weeping, to the basement, where you unlocked the cedar chest with a scrolled key. Tears forgotten, I helped you dig through the layers of your past. Beneath the old prom dresses and the jewelry box with its domed lid was the album, and in the album this picture of you, so small and unsmiling, your pale arms thin as cigarettes.
Seeing it, I suddenly knew what the old people meant when they said, you are the very image of your mother. It was that unmistakable. That picture of you is me, me in sepia, the old-fashioned dress like the fake wild west costumes people pose for at theme parks. You and I stare from the picture with dark gunshot eyes, eyes that know all about the pain fathers can bring, pain neither of us had suspected existed but had to learn to live with all the same. The eyeless bear dangles from our arm, precarious; it too has seen it all, and knows better than to expect anything more.