Dad's in the Yukon, following the call of the mother lode and the mysterious pull of the North. My siblings and I have gathered to celebrate Mom and Dad's 50th Wedding Anniversary. We'll celebrate this occasion without him. Our family portrait will have an absent parent.
Grandpa's going to be sorry he's missed his early anniversary celebration. "Maybe we should cancel the family portrait for now," I suggest. Tired from a long evening of story telling and the grandchildren playing Grandma's Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton discs at full volume, I slip into bed with my mom. Dad would be amazed at how much these kids have grown," I tell my mom. We lay in the dark sharing 'Do you remember?' stories. "I bet he's sorry he's not here," I yawn as I drift into sleep on my memories.
A skeleton that looks like my dad stands in the doorway with its arms wide, a sheepish grin on its face. With a scream my mom rushes into the arms, tears streaming down her face. My brother sits on the floor pushing building blocks around. I stare at the apparition bending into a shaky crouch with arms widening. My mother smiles encouragement through her tears. I run into the bear hug.
My dad's been gone seven weeks. He was only supposed to be gone three, four at the most. "Jim walked us all over the MacArthur Range looking for that outcropping he saw years ago," Dad explains to my mother. "We ran out of food and we had to compete with the bears for fish. I finally told the old man that he didn't know where the hell he was and that I was finding my own way home. He could do whatever the hell he wanted. The old man decided to place his bet on me. I kept thinking about you at home waiting, not knowing Jim had gotten us lost. We walked out to Pelly River Crossing. I threw up my first meal at the Highways camp."
Dad's soft whiskers smooth the skin on my cheek. Later my mom and I laugh at her artistry as she shaves his beard into different styles, revealing the sharp angles of his cheekbones and the hollows in his cheeks. Brian pulls himself up on Dad's knee as glimmers of recognition come with the revelation of the stranger's face.
"I was going to mail your letter in Whitehorse so that it would arrive in the mail. I didn't get there," my dad confesses, directing me to the rolled birch bark tucked into the side of his pack.
"Dear Linda, Jim and I have covered a lot of ground this summer. We have eaten a lot of berries and fish. Bears got into our cache eating and scattering our supplies. We'll have to cut this trip shorter than we expected. Have you been helping your Mom look after Brian? See you soon. Love, Dad." I hide the letter away from Brian's curious fingers, then throw my arms around Dad's thin shoulders and breathe the sent of his shaving soap.
The Christmas tree twinkles under our hands, a scrawny celebration of the season. We had bundled Brian, protesting, onto the toboggan as soon as the first weak rays of light let us see the spindly shapes of trees. Today we couldn't let him dawdle behind the toboggan as we searched for a tree that we could shape into our Christmas tree. Mom hadn't heard from Dad. Her silent worry trailed after her as she shuffled through the snow. We had to get a tree for tomorrow, Christmas Eve.
This drilled and tied specimen is the result of the sticks we hauled back, brittle frozen branches snapping off as we bumped over buried bush and hard muskeg hummocks. "I'm going to have a baby, Linda," my Mother tells me quietly as she adjusts the popcorn and cranberry garland. Avoiding her eye, I digest this news with dismay. "What will people think? My mother's old, too old for babies. What do we need another person in our family for? My friends will think she's weird. Does Dad know?"
"I wrote your dad, but I don't know if he got my letter," Mom answered my silent question. "He's been gone two months. He said he'd be home for Christmas.
I was upset at first, but now I'm looking forward to having a baby. I hope your Dad feels the same," Mom confided.
Brian slept with his Tonka truck beside his bed. Mom went to the kitchen to take a matrimonial cake out of the oven. Nancy Drew and I curled up in a corner of the old couch. The oven door slammed as boots stamped on the porch. The door creaked open on its big iron hinges. I flew into the kitchen to see Dad dropping his pack and parcels on the doormat in order to wrap his arms around mom. I was next. He rubbed his whiskers on my cheek as I breathed in his cottony, Dad smell.
Later, after a late supper of moose gravy drippings on bread washed down with strong, sweet tea, he gazed on our spindly tree. "You outdid yourself, Frank," Dad congratulated Mom, using the nickname only he could get away with using. He dropped parcels onto our knees. Her eyes bright with pleasure, Mom untied the bundle on her lap as I clutched mine, savouring the moment. Blue velvet slipped out of the paper followed by a length of black. Mom delightedly held up a maternity smock and skirt. Glances passed. "Where will I ever wear this?" she protests unconvincingly. Dad grins his dad grin. I carefully open my parcel. Chic, sophisticated, too old for a twelve year old my mom's probably thinking. I let the black sweater sift through my fingers and lovingly stroke the wool of the grown up trousers and vest that would fit perfectly. Then dad went to wake his son, gently rasping round cheeks with his whiskery kiss.
Sobs ache in my chest as tears roll down my cheeks. "For God's sake, Linda, pull yourself together," I chastize myself. "Blanking out a lecture and not remembering how you got home isn't the end of the world. Big baby, lot's of people go to university and don't know why they're there or where they're going. I can't think. What's happening to me? Maybe I'm going crazy, maybe this is what happens to those people in that river place."
Clank. Metal hits metal on the outside basement door. Hurriedly I swipe the tears on my cheeks, composing my face as I answer the door. Dad stands there in black topcoat over navy suit, grinning his dad grin. Pulling him into the living room my face crumbles, damn tears pour down my cheeks again. "I'm going crazy," I sob. " I can't remember my lectures, my papers are blank, I can't even remember getting to and from the university."
Dad sits gently beside me. " Linda, you've always worked while going to school. This summer you waitressed two shifts a day and burnt the candle at both ends with your social life. Take some time away from school, take a holiday, have a rest. Go to Mexico, have some fun."
"I just want to go home." I sob.
"University is an experience we wanted you to have for yourself, Linda. We want you to secure your own future, not make yourself sick over it. Come home, take a holiday, do nothing and you'll find what you want." Dad wraps his arm around me and gives me a prickly kiss on the cheek. It amazes me how smooth looking skin can rasp you to awareness.
Mom moves gently in her sleep, waking me for a brief moment. I drift back to sleep, my dreams flitting through the years of memories as a voice from a more recent past calls.
"Anybody home in this house?" Dad's voice chortles, pleased that he's taken us by surprise. His hat's on backwards, the plastic strip drawing a line across his brow. The last time we'd seen him he had asked the boys why kids wore their hats on backwards. "It looked goofy." he'd said.
"It's not goofy, Grandpa," my son, Christopher, had said, "It's cool."
Mom and Dad settle in the living room and Dad, who never wears a cap in the house and is disgusted when people wear their caps while eating, even in restaurants, still has his cap on backwards. Christopher bounds noisily up the stairs in his gangly teenage way and sits down smack dab beside his grandfather, throwing his arms around him and giving him a smacking kiss on his whiskery cheek. Surprise lights Dad's face and his grin expands as my teenage son snuggles up beside him.
Plop! Patrick and Derrick are suffocating him, struggling to sit as close as possible. "We missed you, Grandpa. How come your hat's on backward? You look cool, Grandpa." Ah, we get the point, Grandpa.
A whiskery cheek rasps mine and I hear my mom say, "Don't wake her up, Ray."
Struggling through the mists of dream sleep I smell the dad smell of cotton, smoke and fresh air. "Dad, you made it. We knew you would." Dad's grin peers down at me as he leans down to plant a long smacking kiss on my cheek. Bracing myself for the rasp of his whiskers I think, "I get the point, Dad, I love you, too." Sleep drifts over my consciousness as my parents tiptoe out to make tea.
Amy and Jeanine have borne the brunt of Grandpa's teasing all weekend. The boys are glad they had someone to share the attention withthem. They wrap their arms around my dad in big goodbye hugs. The girls hide sleepily behind my sister, Tara. Dad looks for them, capturing a willing Jeanine in his arms. Amy anticipates a quick peck and a darted get-away into the car. Dad grins his Grandpa grin and wraps her in his arms, lowering his cheek to hers.
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