Teaching moments

Kristen Tsetsi, the author of the novel Homefront and the short-story collection Carol’s Aquarium, reveals how a father’s subtleties, added together, amount to something big:

My father has the color hair I hope mine grays into when I’m in my sixties. It has the shade variations of a rain cloud backlit by the sun—dark blue-gray at the roots, but at the tips and circling his face, it’s perfect, brilliant white. Two years ago, when I first saw him trapped by a breathing tube and induced into a coma (one I watched him hiccup, squirm, and wince through over the next month), I touched his hair and was surprised by how soft it was. I almost couldn’t feel it. My sister, standing over him on the other side of the bed that day, touched it, too.

Touching his hair isn’t something one does. In high school, the days I overslept and missed the morning train, my dad—who worked just across the street from my school—would drive me. (Had he not worked so close, my missing the train would have been tolerated just once.) He would have a cigarette on the way, and I’d watch him roll down the window: half a rotation of the knob. Just a crack, maybe a centimeter or two. Enough to pull the dancing stream from the cherry, but not so much the wind would mess up his hair.

We also don’t touch his hair because we’re just not a physically affectionate family—we don’t generally touch, unless it’s a brief hug after a long absence, and then another before saying goodbye again. When I was younger and still living in his house, before there had been many opportunities to say goodbye, I hugged him once after his father died. I felt shy about it. It didn’t come naturally. Not only had I not grown up in a hugging, touching environment, but I was also one of those teenagers who kept as much distance as possible from authority figures, and that included my dad. I would hide out in my attic bedroom, listen to music, and sneak my own smoking habit by standing on my bed and sticking my head—and the cigarette I was holding—through the open skylight. I was scared of my dad when I was a teen the way I think all teens should be; a parent’s authority, a tone or even a facial expression, should inspire nauseating anxiety.

The morning my dad caught me smoking, I hadn’t put too much effort into being careful. I’d thought I would hear the hinges of my heavy, metal door groan and would have plenty of time to toss the cigarette and pretend I was looking outside. Our house sat at the top of one of the many hills in our neighborhood, and from my skylight, I could see blocks of snow-topped terra cotta-tiled rooftops. I used to climb onto the roof pretty regularly to do my teenage brooding while looking out as far as the Neckar river, and to the bike path on the other side that circled the base of the lush, tree-dotted, hill crowned by the walled-in city of Dilsburg.

I was reasonably confident he wouldn’t come upstairs, because he never had, before, in the morning. Also, I was confident simply because I was seventeen. A high school senior, no less.  Hell, for months I’d been stashing a bottle of Amaretto and a shot glass between my bed and the wall so I could catch a buzz now and then, and he hadn’t found out about that. I was pretty sure I was getting away with just about everything.

But because—like most teenagers—I was just as certain I was clever and invincible as I was scared to death of getting caught, when I heard the hinges of my bedroom door croak that morning, I flicked my cigarette with immediately shaking fingers. In what seemed like slow motion, I saw the butt fly, but not far enough. Not only did it not make it over the edge of the roof, but it landed short of the gutter. I felt the way a horrified cartoon character looks—eyes bugging huge, lower jaw hitting the ground—when I saw the red cherry glowing bright in the thin layer of snow, a frigging beacon. By the time I turned my head, my father was standing beside me in his bathrobe, his hair brushed and styled, looking out onto the roof.

He said, “What’re you doing?”

I tried not to breathe. “Nothing,” I said. And then—and I will never know why I did this—I contorted my mouth to the side and exhaled the smoke I’d been holding. Pffoooo.

We held our positions for a good half minute. Those silent moments, when his nostrils would flare and he’d look at me with his unwavering, hazel eyes—he gave me his eye color—were often the worst.

But then he turned to leave, stopping at the door on his way out only to tell me to write an essay about the benefits of smoking. The next day, I found an ashtray in my room and a note that said, “Quit putting your butts on the roof, eh?”

My dad wasn’t foolish enough to think yelling at me, telling me to stop, would stop me. I would have found a different way to sneak cigarettes, and there’s little he despises more than lying. The ashtray was one of his many gestures that, over the years, have epitomized the nature of our family’s style of affection and that have made me feel more loved and respected as a daughter than any hug possibly could. With that single ashtray offering, my dad showed me acceptance, love, understanding, and the value of honesty.

While he was in his induced coma, my sister and I both touched him more than we probably had our whole lives. Checking his arms for sores, moving his feet, holding his hands, combing his hair away from his forehead, and even hugging him now and then those first few days. But when he got better, the physical affection—minus the rare, signature hair-strokes he gives as we walks by—stopped, and we were quickly reminded that overtly sentimental expressions, physical or otherwise, are as unnatural to us all now as they’d always been. That kind of thing doesn’t automatically change after thirty years just because of one little coma.

“I don’t say ‘I love you’ very often,” he said once. “But you know I do without my saying it, right?”

Yes. Yes, I do. And in fact, it’s the not hearing it, but knowing it anyway, that makes it mean that much more.

*****

Homefront

312 pages, Penxhere Press

(Kindle version)

“By alternating plot with a slices-of-life format, Tsetsi gives dimension to her book in a subtle and masterful way, contrasting her clear, precise, concrete prose–which makes up the majority of the book–with a quasi-stream-of consciousness style interspersed throughout. Her solid, seamless and detailed writing has the power to bring us into each scene. The result is an engaging, realistic portrait of a lover’s life at the homefront.” | Bookpleasures.com

Carol’s Aquarium

Kindle edition, Penxhere Press

“There isn’t a bad story in the bunch. Mortality, depression, desperate delusional love, jealousy, insecurity, envy, guilt … actually, I think all the 7 deadliest are represented here. These are real people in real pain, self-inflicted or otherwise, and they hit the page with a subtle vengeance.” | POD People

Learn more about Kristen Tsetsi and her writing at KristenTsetsi.com and BackwordBooks.com.

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