by Dan A. Cardoza
Hi, my name is Massey. My name is Germanic, with deep roots in measuring and judging. Up until recently, my life has not measured up.
I visit my father's grave twice a year, now. I'd visit more, but there's no point; we were spiritual, hardly sentimental or religious.
My father Eddie was bigger than life, though he never acted the part. Even if weren't for his large granite tombstone, you'd be hard-pressed not to notice him, the rectangular bulge in the earth, the different species of rye over his coffin. The groundswell is the look and shape, width and length, of a meat market butcher block.
When I was a little, mother would bore me with her incessant blather about the time she'd bet the birth doula even odds at $50.00 that my father Eddie would show up late for my birth. She hadn't explained how he was the only community butcher, worked longshoreman's hours, or that a lot of customers depended on him. So in a sense, mother was cheating.
The same story often varied in arc, but the plot always remained the same. She fed me her rant in spoonfuls of a children's vocabulary, carefully choosing the words I could swallow without choking. The back-story’s essence was how much she resentment being married and giving birth to her only child in the first place.
I clearly recall my last shampoo. I was gazing up at the ceiling, being very patient with my twice-weekly hair scrub. I was flat on my back, calm as a corpse on the vintage kitchen Formica counter. My hair was a cornflower waterfall, cascading over the edge of the chipped porcelain sink.
"Daughter, you know you're loved when the obstetrician has to wrestle you away from your father's tight-end, bloody paws."
As she droned on, deep cleaning turned into scouring. As usual, she failed at football analogies too.
"At least he showed you, passion girl. Showed up right on time. Did I tell you I lost the bet with the doula?" she’d said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her, I’d heard the same ole story scores of time.
Through soap burned eyes, I could make out her avian sadness, feel the sharpness of her talons as they began to clinch the walls of my skull. After her claws evolved into fingers again, she squeezed out the remaining shampoo, "They were quick," She’d said. "Dr. Cunningham and the doula recovered a fumble at the finish line."
Mother claimed that she was exhausted back then, when I was born, over-medicated from the difficult labor, and a bit confused as usual.
She'd always end the damp shampoo lecture with, "From that day forward, you were never easy to hold."
Mother’s facts were often convoluted. Truth is she was resentful that father wouldn't let go of me for all his worth. He was fully committed. Mother was committed over the years, three times to the psychiatric wards. I was less embarrassed than relieved.
After the final rinse, my mother would pat my hair squeaky fresh with a dry towel. That felt the best until she buffed, and fluffed and ratted my hair into knots and nests, in what was an effort for her to distract me so I couldn't see her real thoughts. Most of the time, she seemed angry, not present, except when she told her wild tales.
"After they stole you, the fumble, back from your father, he was forcibly removed from the delivery room by Sumo wrestlers who worked the security detail at the Kaiser Permanente Hospital.”
All and all, I remember a mostly happy childhood, one with a special connection to at least my father, no matter the distance my mother attempted to create. For her part, mother was out of reach, or in another room. There were no brothers or sisters, "One was damned well enough,” she’d often said.
As for father, he was a quiet and ponderous man. He was a hulk of a man, plank-shouldered, and gruff on the eyes when you first met him, an earnest. My father was the dependable, neighborhood butcher. He was Eddie, of Eddie’s Bounty of Meat.
What he brought home for supper was always deemed a surprise. Memory has a way of marinating and softening most things. Father didn't cook much, but when he did, his meals were superb.
When I was very small, on special occasions, my father Eddie would bring home slabs of baby-backed ribs. He'd barbeque them on the grill, conjure them into tender Baby-Ray sauce keyboards, as sweet as any karaoke rendition of, 'My Cherie Amour,' by the famous Stevie Wonder. And there was the occasional Rib-eye’s, unsold T-bones, and filet mignon steaks too. To be honest, everything tasted better when father cooked. He threw his heart into it. But of course, I was sensitive to never let on to mother.
I recall the winter we mostly ate deer venison. That was because of Uncle Charlie's unpaid cutting and wrapping bill from deer hunting.
In a not so secret back porch shadow, my Uncle muddled on about his debts and land sharks. He’d said he couldn’t pay father a penny. In order to teach his younger brother a lesson, father kept half of the butchered forked-horn buck. And after, he hung the antler spread over the garage door as an anti-gambling totem. It seemed to work; with every visit, my uncle reaffirmed father how he'd quit gambling. Father was fair though and earned the respect of everyone he met.
Most of the time, mother cooked, if you consider burning things a meal. Most evenings, dinner at our house didn't happen unless there were unsold hocks, back-strap scraps, or chunky scraps from rump roasts. Father preached all things meat at the large planked kitchen table. "The closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat," he'd said. Even as a child, I understood what the metaphor meant.
Most evenings, mother would torture fleshy things in a large pressure cooker. The cooker held permanent real estate on top of the cast iron, gridded stovetop. When it rattled, its essence was that of an imposing, hot Kilimanjaro.
If forced to walk near the steaming works, I'd scurry like a hungry rat to avoid the oncoming explosion. I memorized the ticking time bomb sound coming from the top of the pot. As I’d run past the steaming contraption, it would rattle and hiss until I disappeared. How it quickened my step, shook its angry fist like a guiro.
Inside the hot chamber could be beef tongue, scalded silent like father's words when presented at the dinner table. On another occasion, the steamer might choose to punish the tripe. Father never had the stomach to confront mother about all her unnecessary drama. And she was the one to always over spice things.
When dinner was somehow different, it might include sweetbreads with leeks, and tender, balling veal brains. No matter what was cooked, if she wasn’t complimented, she’d run off to her bedroom in tears, slamming the door behind her. I recall one night in particular, when she shouted, "Does everything around has to keep changing right in front of me?" Father and I never complained about the sameness or her cooking.
Father wasn't picky about when or what mother cooked, though meager, he considered our food substantial. With layers of years and maturity, it grew obvious that no one's cooking fulfilled her.
I would learn much later when I was much older that when it came to other men, mother reveled herself as a gifted chef. At times, her cooking was confident and sublime, especially when it came to sautéing the tenderloins of wild game for other hungry men. Only then could she be satiated. She’d once told me a psychiatrist explained it was not sinful, it was simply a phase of hypomania.
Mother kept track of the young men father brought home, drunk from late-night gambling at the corner pub, too shit-faced to turn a steering wheel. Our two tattered sofas turned into cowboy bed bunks.
When I was a child, my father could only embarrass me at the annual school open-house. No, it wasn't because of his dingy white shirt, the one with cauliflowers at the end of each collar, or the jagged part in his hair he carved with a cleaver.
It was from his unsubtle handshake with all my teachers.
I feared that before father would break their hand with his grip, they'd first notice his two fingers' missing tips. When the teacher's gaze was too uncomfortable, father would laugh how his two thumbs were spared the guillotine. God forbid they'd notice either of the stubborn, mashed digits. If they did, he'd deflect their focus by using his rehearsed, infectious bellow of laughter. He'd say, "My thumbs have been pounded thick. They were too slow and dim-witted to dodge the steel mallet, they were."
I'd find myself digging my perfectly shaped hands in my sweaty dress pockets all night.
Hands––father's hands couldn't be anything other than iron. After all, he was the first son of a Dutch Boiler Maker. His palms and fingers the pedigree of hammer and anvil, forged in the design and fashion of a bench vice, made for twentieth-century tightening.
Looking back at my childhood, I'm not sure anyone really cared or noticed either father or me or how we behaved during those short evenings at school, including mother, she never showed up, her damned tarot cards and all.
At open-house, my father, Eddie, the butcher, was always there with his incise questions. Is my daughter, loving? Does she play well with others? Is she kind, strong-willed, and tough? Father knew me well enough that exceptional grades would follow.
It was during my mother's death bed confession, near the end, that she shared what she was really thinking the day I was born. It seems crazy sells better when you have nothing to lose.
"I was so damned groggy, Massey. After the nurse wrestled you back," she rasped, "everything appeared in as a mist or didn't exist. Those strange images still haunt me. Three robed ghosts exited the delivery room, with your father arm and arm."
"Really mother?" I cynically responded and took another sip of tea at the Mad Hatter's party.
Mother described her fantastic hallucination. "Sometime later, after I woke in the room, the doula unclouded the mystery. It was two security guards that removed your father from the delivery room. They tossed your father, ass over tea kettle, out into the sweltering heat of the late morning Mayan madness."
In her fading, vaporous voice, she shaped the convoluted story, "You see Massey, I’d witnessed a sacrifice that day at Chichen Itza. Somehow, I knew it had something to do with the National Geographic that was left on the delivery room nightstand." Mother's eyes grew wide and shiny as she continued. "Right before your birth, I read an article about the temple's twice-yearly equinox and all the offerings."
A few years later, I'd learn more about Postpartum Depression and mother's matrix of medications she’d needed to avoid an elongated hospital stay.
Mother's eyes widened as she entered her own story, "Here at Chichen Itza, during the equinox, legend has it, the setting sun's shadows morph into serpents. It's here, at the top of the pyramid, that the god's command all the snakes to slither down the bloody steps."
As mother refocused, she sucked in oxygen as if she was gasping and staring at all the intimate, horrible images. "Once on the dirt, the shadows crawled off into the thick of the Yucatan forest. Since the day you were born, Massey, I dream of ruins."
Her words were mercurial poison. Until her final breath, which I wasn't there for, mother had seen something reptilian in me. It showed in the slits of her hazel eyes anytime I was near. I felt there was something about my father's ability to love that disgusted her all those years. She often had said, I’d taken away her freedom somehow.
I was barely a teenager when my mother died. After, father cleaved into a million emotional pieces, each shard, a jagged tight fit in his mosaic of a broken heart. Above all, his true grief demonstrated how much he truly loved her. I loved her too. I just didn't like her. Somehow father finished raising me. Everything just seemed easier. I was no longer someone's burden.
I'd just turned seven when father went off to war.
Father commanded a Challenger One Tank, in the first Gulf War. He was Saddam Hussein's worst nightmare, the quintessential American bull in a Middle-Eastern hourglass. Father's unit advanced, gutted Russian T-55's, rolled over ghostly obstacles all the way to Baghdad. After Iraq, he made sure his unit arrived home safely to raise one day daughters and sons in the homeland.
I became one of those daughters.
I'd discover one day, while father was away, mother dealt her tarot cards from the bottom of her custom, 78-card deck. Oh, how she loved the smooth Italian's, the well waxed Tarocco Piemontese brand of playing cards. Each clandestine relationship began and ended with a royal black heart. Nothing inside mother fulfilled her, and with time, all things changed around her.
Ten years after father returned from the war, mother left Eddie the butcher, "for good," she’d said.
Gone only a few years, she attempted to sell father an empty package of regrets. She said she was sorry, how much she wanted him back, and how it's never too late. But father's mind was set. Love doesn’t mean you have to bargain yourself away.
Mother eventually died from reoccurring breast cancer, alone in a studio apartment hospice bed.
After she passed, I finished high school, and went off to college, began a career, loved a husband, had two children, the usual sweet demands. Moving to the west coast made visits with father uniquely impossible. Time got away from us both. I'll be honest; everything got away from me, including a cheating husband. Everything went off the rails. The part of me in the center became a cored apple.
But now that my kids are grown, I've moved back to Rochester, Minnesota, and not for any particular reason. I've gotten past forgiving myself, and for not forgiving Mother.
I can't lie to you. I moved back home to rediscover what a simple man saw in a daughter who's lost her way. If I was taught anything, it was that I am strong and independent.
I know in time, I will discover the person inside worth loving so much. And with more time, I hope to discover that truly loving a dead mother is never too late.
About the author