I’ve only seen my father cry a handful of times. There’s an immediate sense of betrayal in typing that sentence, and in exposing his vulnerability, because that’s not how we do things in my family. Keep your cards close to you, my father always told me, when we played gin rummy together on the living room floor. I shouldn’t be able to see your hand. Yet, that’s where writers so often need to go. We reveal. We search the room for the overarching tell.
When I was five, sick on the couch with bronchitis, I witnessed the worst moment of my father’s life. He walked in the front door after work and answered the angry, jangling wall phone in our kitchen, which informed him of a terrible thing: his father, my grandfather, had been found dead at home from a massive heart attack. He didn’t cry then. He dropped his briefcase, and he drove our car away from the curb at a screaming, furious pace, but I didn’t see him cry.
He didn’t cry when I graduated from high school or college, or on my wedding day, or the first time he held his granddaughter. Such displays, he believed, were for amateurs.
He didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, but stood stoic and still, as he so often did in times of grief. The only movement from his form came from the collar of his Burberry trench coat, which flapped wildly in the December wind at her graveside. I gave him space and distance, as experience had taught me, and stood a few steps behind him, in silence. We were Irish, for God’s sakes. We held it together. We stood straight and apart and alone over the bones of our dead.
This was a man who found solace in hard packs of Marlboro and scotch, in workbenches and worn-handled tools, and in long drives behind the wheel of stick-shift sedans. This was a man who sat me down to watch “The Guns of Navarone” and “12 Angry Men,” and who instructed me to read this short story written by John Steinbeck, and not that one. This was a man who sorted through hardware store drawers for molly bolts and flathead nails, and who paused to explain their uses to me. This was a man who said little, but whose actions were deafening — bold as brass, as the nuns had said, swaggering. This was how I came to know my father, over and over again, at each interval and occasion. This was how I learned.
The first time I ever saw him cry was when I was ten, at a time when my parents’ marriage was wildly unraveling. We were sitting at breakfast at the kitchen table in our first home in Queens — a house of their own, where they could finally paint the walls whatever damn colors they wanted, a house that he and my mother had worked so diligently to restore for many months of weekends, after working long hours at their respective full-time jobs.
My mother had left a wrapped package at his place, and he opened it while we ate. I don’t remember what the occasion was — it might have been his birthday, the anniversary of their first date, or the anniversary of their engagement. It might have been the day that one of them decided to turn a corner, and stay.
That morning, he tugged at the curled ribbon, and separated the Scotch tape from the paper to reveal a cut-glass ashtray with the words “The Pierre” painted in black lettering on its white-lacquered center. He gripped it until his skin turned white at the knuckles, and said nothing. His face contorted into tight, creased lines. Then, his shoulders rose and fell. I realized that he was crying.
I’d never seen this before. I instinctively looked at my mother to explain his behavior, and to somehow make him stop, because I felt frightened and sick. Her eyes stayed on him, and she seemed oddly pleased at his reaction to the gift. To her, it must have proved the existence of something still between them to mourn, and perhaps, fight to keep. “That’s where we went the night we were engaged,” she said quietly, eyes still on him. “Your father took me to The Pierre.”
They had planned to separate that year, but quietly changed their minds. They told me of their plan, then simply didn’t act upon it. The other shoe hovered overhead for the remainder of my childhood. Twenty-five years later, it would drop. After thirty-six years of marriage, they would finally divorce.
My father cried twice more in front of me — both times about his middle sister, Maureen, whom I’ve always believed that he loved more than anyone else.
Maureen was twelve years older than he, and assumed the roles of his second mother, his confidant, his nemesis, and his protector. When he was sixteen — and when she was twenty-eight, an unmarried working girl, still dating and living at home — they’d return from their respective Saturday nights out in Brooklyn, and watch Zacherley’s Chiller Theater together on Channel 11, both of them laughing on their parents’ plastic-covered couch at the host’s campy take on B-horror films.
In my junior year of college, my father answered another angry, jangling call as we returned from dinner, and learned that his sister Maureen had suddenly died. I was there when he threw his wire-framed glasses from his face, and dropped to his knees while still clutching the phone. Instinctively, I turned away. I heard him choke out sobs while he spoke to their other sister, Pat, who had called with the news, but I waited until the awful sound of him stopped. Only then, when I heard him corral his uneven breathing, silence his cries, and reach for a bottle of whiskey to numb the pain, did I offer him my condolences. That’s how he wanted it.
Years later, while celebrating our daughter’s first Christmas with my parents at our apartment in San Francisco, he opened a gift from my mother: a compilation of Billie Holiday CDs packaged in a box set, a seemingly innocuous gift. He started to cry, or rather, act as if he wasn’t crying.
“What’s wrong?” I said, to no one in the room and to everyone at the same time, shocked.
“He used to listen to Billie Holiday with your aunt when they were kids. Lady Day, Maureen always called her,” my mother answered.
My father tried to smile, and patted my daughter’s head. I said nothing, stunned at his emotion and at such unknown details. I rushed to pass out more gifts, to mercifully draw attention away from him, and to right the room again with rustles of tissue paper.
I never knew that my aunt liked Billie Holiday, or that there were Sunday afternoons in Brooklyn when they played her records on the turntable together. They never knew that I’d slide a cheap pressing of “The Quintessential Billie Holiday” onto my college-apartment stereo, and soak in a cracked cast-iron tub on the few afternoons that I had the creaky old house to myself, while my four other housemates were at class. None of my roommates had much interest in housecleaning, so I’d be the one to scrub the tub, clean the lip and the sides. I’d run the water and add the cheap bath salts I’d bought at the head shop on Marshall Street, and allow myself the indulgence. Rich relations give / crust of bread and such / You can help yourself / But don’t take too much / Mama may have, Papa may have / But God bless the child that’s got his own.
I never knew my aunt when she was young and lithe and single, before God knows what came forth and tested her. I never knew my father when he was ten and fourteen and nineteen, black-haired and slim-tied, stepping confidently out onto the path of life, sure it would take him far from his alcove bedroom on the top floor of a two-family row house in Flatbush.
My father is not one person. Nor was my aunt. None of us are. We all have so many hats to wear. I’m his daughter, and I’m their mother. I’m a writer, and a lover, and his wife. We are children and siblings and sons and daughters. We are someone’s grade-school crush, still recalled in a warm, foggy dream, as they nod off in the lulling rhythm of a traveling train. We are someone’s baby brother, no matter how old we are lucky enough to become. We are unknown heroes. We are adored. We are hated. We are revered.
Two words uttered out of context — “Lady Day” — so seemingly ordinary and plain, can still bring me to that glaring, charged Christmas morning, to a tiled bathroom in central New York, and to a place still so far from my father.
My father and I haven’t spoken for the better part of five years. His second wife doesn’t want me around. She doesn’t want any reminder of the fact that he had a life before he met her. He’s happily enacted her wishes, because he doesn’t want that reminder, either.
There’s so much about my father I don’t know, so much I shouldn’t know, so much of his life that belongs solely to him. But there’s so much more that I yearn to have been given, so much I wish that we’d risked in our relationship, so much that I would have held and carried and caught for him, if he’d allowed it to be so. There’s so much tenderness, so much possibility there, now laid fallow and idle.
We should break the hard ground, reap in mercy. But we do no such thing.
All that’s left between us now is the fear of receiving my own angry, jangling call.
Kathleen McKitty Harris is a fifth-generation native New Yorker whose work has appeared in Longreads, Creative Nonfiction, Sonora Review, McSweeney’s, and The Rumpus, among others. Her essay, “A Timeline of Human Female Development,” appears in the anthology My Body, My Words (Big Table Publishing, 2018). She has also performed as a storyteller at The Moth in New York City, and co-hosts the ‘What’s Your Story?’ live-reading series in northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two teenaged children.