“Oh God, I miss my father,” it’s both a prayer and a lamentation. He was a man open to possibility but impressed by the facts. Those on the outside saw a solid citizen, a good neighbor and a business man with a balance of heart and horse sense, but to my sister, my brother and me, Dad was magic. At least I know that in retrospect. He had a way of being in tune with people, meeting them at the crossroads of who they were and who they needed to become.
The little brass plate on our old mailbox still displays his name in tasteful engraved letters, as if he’s just inside our house, waiting for a postcard from Charlie or the latest copy of the Reader’s Digest. Each time I approach the door, I pause to touch my fingertips to the etchings that mark the metal, a negative space. I wonder how long his absence will continue to speak about his presence.
His given name was William, but if you called for him at his office or looked him up in the telephone book, it was Will you were looking for, Will Kimsey. He was decidedly Irish, with a shock of thick red-brown hair and ruddy cheeks. His eyes, like mine, were blue, or green, changeable with the sky or the color of his coat. I always thought him a handsome man, in a friendly sort of way, tall and angular, with a limber grace, the sort of grace that undulates through thin-limbed trees when the wind rustles them and whispers through their branches.
He had come all the way from a not so prosperous Irish neighborhood in Chicago to our little town nestled in a pleasant hollow created by the foothills of the San Juan Mountains. I suppose he was attracted to this particular place by the romance of the name, Durango, but he always said it was no accident.
His trip west was one of our favorite bedtime stories, one that, over time, became a family legend. If I close my eyes, I can see him still, waiting for us on the family room rug, his back against the base of our couch, knees bent supporting his arms, leafing through one of his magazines or doing a crossword puzzle against the hard cover of our Atlas. Most nights Charlie sprawled in back of him on the couch, a right angle to Dad, his head propped on a mound of fringed upholstered pillows, his face buried in one of his comic books.
Claire and I bickered our way down the stairs. She resented me most at bath time when she had to watch that I kept my braids inside my shower cap and make sure my ears were clean. And I taunted her for the prissy ruffles and hearts on her nightgown, though the rules of growth, gender and succession decreed that this same flouncy concoction would, in time, end up in my dresser. I preferred the pajamas Charlie passed on to me, Mighty Mouse on blue flannel or red fringed sombreros on yellow cotton.
But we put on a new attitude when we faced Dad, and he freed his hands and opened his arms, inviting, teasing, ready to tickle. “And what will it be tonight, my chicks? Babe the Blue Ox, perhaps The Snow Queen, or maybe you’d prefer something original, say The Day the Three of You Had Frogs for Breakfast and Got Warts for Lunch. What do you think?”
That was our cue. The three of us would shriek and tumble onto him, giggling, pulling his nose, mussing his hair. Finally, we settled to arrange ourselves, two in the curves of his arms and one reclining, resting a head on his leg. Then one would choose, and all faces tilted up. My mother, listening for that exact moment of calm, emerged from the kitchen into the doorway, still holding her dish towel. She paused there, her weight shifted to one foot, her shoulder resting against the wooden frame.
On nights when it was my turn, he began talking just to me, then pulled us all in, telling us how he came west looking for a place with a wild fresh soul, and saying he was blessed. Blessed because in this place he knew he had come home to his heart.
As he talked, I pictured him and my mother, planning a life. World War II was over, and he was out of the Navy. He needed a job. My mother was miserable in Chicago and Dad was scanning the horizon. It was a strange combination, one of them running away, aiming to telescope toward a fixed secure point, the other one coming back, looking to magnify and elaborate. It was a serendipitous coming together, a rare occurrence when two opposites converged in harmony. It freed them up, put them on the move. And there was Claire to consider, unknown yet, except for the soft expanding bulge under my mother’s shirt.
My dad loved to talk about his De Soto Airflow, streamlined among its peers, but already dated when America joined the war effort. He called his car Delores, Delores De Soto. The name fell off the tongue like a lemon drop. It made us giggle. He grinned at my mother, teasing her, saying that before they met, Delores had ruled his life. To prove it, he pulled a black and white photo of a glimmering Delores in profile, parked on the grass next to Grandpa’s woodshed, a younger Dad reaching over her hood with a chamois and a smile. The picture had been with him everyday overseas, and he still carried it in his wallet. It was a small photograph, dog eared and soft with pressure and time. He eased it, like a living thing, onto an extended hand and let us pass it around, each of us holding it flat against our palm.
It was the De Soto that carried them away from Chicago, along a meandering route going west, a path determined more by the sofas and spare rooms of relatives and friends along the way than by travel time and distance. Still, the two of them pushed forward with an unbroken momentum, moving toward Albuquerque and the possibility of a job there. It was in Denver that Dad stalled. On his penciled itinerary, Denver was just another overnight stop, but when he stood on Cousin Benny’s back porch at dusk and discovered the mountains in the distance, his heart pushed up close behind his breastbone in a quiver that felt more like a prayer. Three days later, though still making practical moves toward New Mexico, his focus had shifted, and he began to look at everything through the lens of the Colorado landscape.
They rose early on that third day, the day they left Denver. The moon was still a bright crescent among stars, and my mother was trying to muffle the sounds of her movement in the kitchen, packing sandwiches and some cheese and fruit in a little cooler for the roadside picnic they planned along the way. Dad tiptoed between the kitchen and Benny’s front door, loading their suitcases and anchoring the burlap-covered water bag where it could catch cool air off the chrome-work of Delores’s hood.
Goodbyes had been said the night before. Still, in the last moments, just before they were ready to leave, Benny was out of bed and wrapped in his bathrobe, anxious to shake Dad’s hand one more time. All their things were loaded into the car, and my mother scooted across the front seat so her shoulder was touching my father’s. Benny stood, half out of his screen door, smoke curls from his cigarette drifting toward the porch light, watching while Dad turned the key and coaxed the engine. As they backed down the driveway the harsh beams of the headlights washed over the pale skin of Benny’s bony wrist and large bare feet, and in the stark light, those gangly appendages glinted back an eerie plaster white. Benny lifted his arm and waved.
They were on their way, heading out of the city with the sunrise at their backs. They sped southward toward the spine of mountains, the same snow capped peaks that caught Dad’s eye from Benny’s back porch. As long as there was the perspective of distance, they spent their energy on eagerness. But when they entered the valleys and began to climb, the mountains took them by surprise, looming up and closing around them with an unexpected power, mythical behemoths. They edged their way along the rutted roads of mountain passes with wild sounding names like Wolf Creek, Monarch, and Slumgullion.
The drive was an experience that put their mettle to the test. The road was merely a slender ribbon running next to a precipitous and dazzling drop. The two of them got into a rhythm of breathing on the long stretches and praying their way around the curves. My mother was frightened, and she clutched the little wooden handle of her woven handbag so tightly that her fingernails left indentations on the palms of her hands. She sat upright and stiff next to Dad, looking straight ahead or quietly pinching her eyes shut.
The narrow highway looped, and the stream of his voice telling the story looped too, pulling us gingerly around the mountain, jerking us back and forth. We hugged that mountain with him and rode on his words, barely breathing lest we should miss one of those sharp blind angles and send Delores plummeting over the edge. We gasped at the rock slides that littered the roadsides and felt the chill trickle of snow fed springs as the car inched along the walls of sheered off stone.
Staying in tune, the three of us snuggled in, and I scooched down and pressed my ear tight against the breast pocket of my dad’s shirt, close to the thrill and vibration of his beating heart.
By eleven-thirty that morning, the terrain had mellowed into hilly meadows crowned with groves of aspen, their leaves shivering silver in the slight breeze. Weathered split-rail fences and sometimes barbed wire with posts, framed pastures dotted with horses or a few cattle. The road was posted with signs warning motorists—Deer Crossing, No Hunting. No Trespassing.
Weary of the drive and feeling stiff and fatigued, the two of them looked for a turnout or wide place in the road with a tree or two to shield their little picnic from the sun’s midday brightness. But as they scanned the sides of the road, the wispy clouds that had seemed merely ornamental were overwhelmed by dark shapeless billows. A cool and gloaming light dimmed the reflective landscape, transforming the hills and meadows with somber shadow and concentrated color. Large heavy drops spattered onto the windshield, first slowly and then one after another in rapid succession.
The rubber surface of the wipers was worn, shredding at the tip on the driver’s side so the metal tracked the windshield in a grinding arc. “It was just like Delores,” Dad said, “to pick a time like that to complain!” and he mimicked, pulled a wailing noise out of his throat “scre-e-ech, hal-T, scre-e-ech, hal-T.” We laughed and he would stop to squeeze and tickle us, smiling and catching his breath.
He would clear his throat and continue. By then, the rain was coming so fast it washed over them in sheets. The feeble wipers were useless, and to make matters worse, every car or truck that passed sent a blinding spray, smack, against their windshield. They veered off to the side between posts leading to an unmarked dirt road, resigned to hole up there.
Hungry and giving up on the idea of a picnic, my mother leaned over the seat and pulled the sandwiches and a coffee thermos from the bag. They sat there beneath the hollow thump and spatter of rain, eating and listening, the smell of hot coffee, warm and comforting And then, as quickly as it had come, the rain was gone. Sunlight streaked across the wet surfaces, the reflection so intense and abrupt they squinted against it.
They were both in need of a stretch, and my father reached to grab their jackets from the back seat. But when he turned back to help my mother with hers, she had already kicked off her little leather shoes, thrown open the car door and was walking barefoot toward a clump of trees. He watched her picking her steps, the paper bag with the remains of their lunch dangling from her left hand. As he stepped from the car to join her, his pants caught on the sticky head of a thistle and he bent down to pull the spiky nettles from his cuff and stocking. A warm moist breeze rustled across the wet weeds and grass. It kicked up the scents of pine and damp earth.
Snuggled in his arms, I felt his chest expand as he drew in a breath, eyes closed, living that smell again. And I breathed too, drawing a breath of him smelling the way the shirts in his closet still smell, a faint mingling of soap and Old Spice.
He told us, that as he rose up and tuned to move toward my mother, he was taken by the sight of her standing at a distance. Out there in the moisture laden air, wavy tendrils of hair pulled and twisted away from the little bun she wore at the nape of her neck, and shorter unruly curls formed a frizzy halo around her face. She stood bare armed, the fabric of her maternity dress clinging to the soft curves of her body. She looked like an angel. And there, arcing over her and set against tree tops and blue sky hung the iridescent bands of a rainbow. And at that moment, he knew they weren’t going to Albuquerque after all.
Rainbows and angels. He said you might dismiss one, but you would never ignore them when they came together in the midst of so much natural beauty. It went along with one of his basic principles, that if you asked God a question, you had to be open to listening for uncommon answers.
And so it was that he and my mother peeled oranges and ate oatmeal cookies standing in the grass under that rainbow because the ground was too wet to sit on. And when their little picnic was finished, they got back into the car and spread the map out over the steering wheel, looking to settle in the very next town.
“And that,” he would say, “is how the three of you came to be natives here, along with the trout and the elk and the mountain lion. Wild things all.”
[Rocky Mountain Lullaby was written as part of the discovery process when I began writing my novel, To Swim Beneath the Earth. I talk about all the ways it helped me find the story, it’s structure and characters in The Writing before the Writing.]