By Acacia Blackwell
My mother told me that my father had the sweetest breath in the world. This was a man who chews tobacco and has been known to go for weeks at a time without brushing his teeth. “And you have it too,” she said. She leaned her face close to mine. Millimeters. The kind of proximity reserved for mothers and lovers. She said, “Breathe on me.” My mother closed her eyes and inhaled my breath like she was breathing in a part of my being. The way I inhale my lover’s armpits, craving the raw, human intimacy of sweat. “Yep,” she said, opening her eyes, “sweet breath and too much gums in your smile. You are your father’s daughter.”
Father’s daughter. Fathers’ daughter. Fathers. Daughter.
Once, when I was almost but not quite yet a legal adult, I managed to piss my mother off in the way that only teenaged daughters really can. She seethed but for the first time I didn’t back down from her rage. I raged back. Her glare receded—a softening—and she offered only a resignation that, “You are me. And your father. But you might be more of somebody else than both of us combined. He didn’t bring you into the world, but he clearly brought you up in it.”
My father who has the same weird shaped feet as me is a drummer. He used to play in a band that was marginally famous and dated a grungy girl drummer who was even more marginally famous. More famous, not more marginal. I remember her dirty blonde dreadlocks and how she had a dog named Bam Bam who would only eat bits of dog kibble wrapped in butter. Now he is still in a band that will probably never be famous but he is also a lot of other things. He’s a rock-climber and a mushroom farmer and an excellent juggler. He’s a freak and he’s a family man.
The man who raised me taught me about Vagina Rock. He introduced to me to Aimee and Emily and Tori and Tegan and Sara. He told me that the raw beauty of Aimee Mann’s lyrics touches him in a deep and indefinable place. He said, “It’s all about the words she uses—words like ‘rubicon.’ Who says that? It’s incredible.” He taught me dirty words like felching and donkey punch and cunt. He taught me how to tell time, how to ride a bike, how to play cards, and the difference between right and wrong.
Once he walked in on me in the worst of all worst possible moments. The moment. The precise moment at which my first boyfriend, the one who gave me a Pixies sweatshirt and took me to a Modest Mouse concert and introduced me to Red Bull and vodka and cars and sex and sex in cars, reached his sweaty teenage climax in the TV room in the basement. We didn’t have school that day. We didn’t hear the garage door. We did hear the footsteps up the stairs and then, after the most painful near silence of our heavy breathing and his proximity, we heard his voice: “Ben, get your clothes on and get out of my house.” Not loud or hysterical but steady. “And Acacia, get up here. Now.” We didn’t laugh about it for a long time.
The one who has my same skinny legs used to wear long braids. One day he showed up after a long time away and he had a bright pink Mohawk. My mom made him sleep in my bed with me, which I thought was because he had been gone so long and he missed me. But now I understand it was because he had been gone so long and she didn’t miss him anymore. In the morning he was gone and my pillowcase was stained bright pink. I remember the acrid, chemical smell of the hair dye. How we had to bleach it out and how the bleach smelled like a different kind of chemical and stung my eyes and made the skin on my hand peel.
The man who raised me has no hair but he used to. He used to have thick chestnut hair that touched the tops of his broad shoulders: shoulders connected to arms connected to big hands that could maybe take a man out with one good punch, but never would. When I was five and we had just moved to Portland, my mom would go over to his house to braid his hair for him. He had braids, too. She would bring me along to watch. The way her fingers crisscrossed, rhythmically, twisting out tight, chocolate-colored ropes gave me some deep satisfaction. Or maybe pride. To this day, for me, braiding hair feels like the ultimate expression of intimacy.
My dad who lived in a school bus with my mother has a lot of tattoos. Some of them he did himself with a homemade tattoo gun. He has a tattoo—his first—of a fish skeleton, and another of the phases of the moon proceeding up his forearm. And my personal favorite, a tattoo on his shoulder of his skin ripping open to reveal lizard scales underneath. He’s had it covered up since then, but I’d always liked his reptile skin. His dragon heart.
The father who took me to get my first haircut also has tattoos. He has a tattoo of a mountain and one of a Celtic knot. He has one of a dragon and a koi fish for his best friend who died of AIDS, for whom he named my baby sister. Tattoos, these self-imposed markings, have stories of their own—stories of trauma and loss and acts of love. They’re ornamental. They help us tell the story of who we are. My stepfather’s tattoos are interspersed and overlaid with scars, mostly self-inflicted, so that to look upon his naked torso is to witness the great intersection between beauty and self-loathing.
The man who gave me bad eyes, long legs, the curve in my spine, and the grind in my teeth has lived in a tent, a teepee, and a tree-house in the mountains. I can still remember the cold when the roof, which was only a tarp draped over a massive space between two columns of pine, collapsed from the weight of the snow and buried me in the loft. He built that house up and then left it, locked the gate and let nature take her back for a few years. My dad has lived on the side of a mountain and in a lean-to shanty on a guava farm. He has lived in both a school bus and a tour bus. Now he lives in Eastern Oregon because he says he missed the mountains. He says he can’t swim in the ocean anymore. Can’t shit in an outhouse. Ever. Again. He cut off his hair and traded his Hawaiian shirts for business suits and his papaya farm for a patch of gravel in a town called Bend. He got his real estate license. He said, “I’m suburban and I love it.” He said, “I wish I’d listened to my parents.” This carefree, authority-bucking, living-on-the-fringe-by-the-seat-of-his-pants man had pulled a one-eighty, retraced his steps, and begun a new life in the suburbs. My father who had warned me against listening to anyone at all. Perhaps it was his mid-life crisis, or the fact that at forty-six he had a new family to provide for. He was frustrated, but he was excited to shit on a porcelain bowl again. Even the really hardcore hippies don’t actually enjoy using a composting toilet. Now it’s something it the middle. Now he has a toilet but he also lives by a river. He works, but he doesn’t wear a suit. He has long hair again and he always shows up.
My stepfather has lived in a house with a gay man, his best friend, who my stepfather found after he’d shot himself in the head in the garage. He has lived many years with my mother, which I thought for a long time was the only thing he had in common with my dad, besides me. He’s lived in Alaska on a fishing boat, in a halfway house for teenagers where he worked as a counselor—he never let me come inside, though I begged.
“Come on,” I would whine, bored and stubborn and perhaps an early version of sassy in the front seat of his Mitsubishi.
“No, absolutely not,” he’d reply on beat.
“It’s hot in here,” I’d continue.
“It’s hot in there too. And it’s no place for a little girl, my little girl. Fuck no.” Even at age seven, I knew he was never going to let me follow him into a house of teenaged criminals, fresh out of the system. But I just wanted to stay beside him.
The man who I called Poppy, Pa, Daddy, Dad, Philly, Three Feathers, Pops, and Papa married my mother in a field at a hot spring and even cut off his braids for the ceremony: an offering. He held me in his arms as he said, “I do,” and kissed us both. The three of us: mommy, daddy, and baby, sealed before no God in particular. Now he’s married to a tall, beautiful woman with wild curly dark hair who teaches yoga and cooks with lots of spices. They have a little boy who has his dad’s curly blond hair and his mother’s chin and everyone’s wildness.
The other man, the one who I call by his first name, the man with the broad chest and thick arms and the dark voice like the sound of stepping lightly on gravel—the sound of safety—that man married my mother in a Catholic church, wearing a kilt. A church with beautiful painted ceilings and stained glass windows. The church my brothers and sister were baptized: a long line of Blackwells taking sacraments from another kind of father in the house of our mother’s God. I was baptized in a river when I was a baby—no sacrament, no service. Just the ritual.
The father named White knows about pain. He knows about deepness and darkness and the sick sexiness of needles. He knows about loneliness. He knows the pain of walking away. From mothers. From daughters. He knows the pain of mothers who can’t love you the way you have to be, of fathers who only decided much later that you, you are okay.
The father named Black used to drive down the highway with a fifth of vodka between his legs and a machete under the seat. I think he wanted to get shot. He was twenty-one or so, before he met my mom and me, and he felt he had nothing left to live for. He knew, he still knows, the crippling pain of inertia and silence. Some people never recover from fathers.
The man who calls me Sha-Sha gave me my first snowboard and my first climbing shoes. He gave me two pet rats, Jake and Elwood, named after the Blues Brothers. He gave me my too-gummy smile and a necklace made of beads from Africa, still hanging on my rearview mirror. He gave me the stains on my teeth (nature) and his irreverence for authority (nurture). Later he gave me my first magic mushrooms, and a place to lie down and melt when the time came. He gave me my name. He made my mother a mother and he made me a daughter and gave us his whole self for two whole years. Two years doesn’t sound like a lot, or enough. It wasn’t. But when I think about who my parents were back then, how young, how honest and open and loving in their intentions, I can’t help it—I forgive. That man gave me life.
The man who calls me Piglet gave me a Life. He gave himself—Husband and Father. He gave me five delicious, round-faced little brothers, and one silky-haired child goddess in the form of my sister. He gave me my first haircut and my first curfew and my first grounding. He gave me a pink beach towel with Piglet embroidered in bold violet. But that man gave me much more. Things not so easy to quantify or so natural to list. He gave me entry into words like “home” and “family” and “father.” He gave me my mother back. Gave her something to live for, besides me.
* * *
How much more can I tell you about love and genetics and drugs and abandonment or the texture of love from far, far away? What I can tell you about is the warmth, the safety, about how it feels to be scooped up into all-consuming love, enveloped in Father and Family by large and tender hands and yet find yourself holding onto thin, calloused hands that feel and smell like dirt, spices, sweat, and childhood.
Here’s something. I can write you a photograph and show you how I loved my daddy, how my daddy loved loved loved me. It’s a picture, developed on film in black and white, of my dad, supine and de-braided, his blonde curls encircling his sleeping face and mixing with my blonde curls—same shade—which hang over his face as I, at two years old, naked, embrace his sleeping body. It hangs on the mirror in my bedroom, reminding me that there was a time, there has been a time, there will be a time, when he’s all in for me. All in with me.
I’m older now, and I just got married. I’m thinking about everything that happens between women and men, between fathers and daughters and husbands and wives. I’m thinking about how I was born with one man’s name, came to take a second man’s as my own, and now I’ll take a third name, the name of a man who won’t walk beside me, but who stands facing me, making his own promises, as I make mine, ones we’ll try to keep to each other, to our children.
Acacia is a writer and human in Portland, OR, which suits her because sunshine gives her anxiety. She writes about love and bodies and family and anything that touches the real. Her work has appeared in Nailed magazine and when she’s not writing (for fun) or copywriting (for money) she mostly just plays with her dog.