Guest Posts, Family


January 28, 2018

By Sheila Grace Stuewe

I darted into my neighborhood Hallmark store and held my breath. To my left stood an endcap stacked with plastic potpourri bags. Who’d buy that? Someone with a sewer back up? Homes should smell of pancakes on Sunday morning as mine once did, not like chemically altered flowers.

Past the dust-catching collectibles—statues, candles, and ornaments—to the rack of Father’s Day cards, I sped. I didn’t know why I had an urge to send Dad a card. In September, he’d reached the three-quarters of a century mark. He wasn’t going to live forever even with his Prussian peasant genes—stocky, sturdy, stubborn, and seemingly impervious to the effects of decades-long alcohol abuse. And I needed to stop exhuming what may or may not have happened forty years ago.

Standing in the middle of the dad-of-the-year aisle, I felt my throat close—an allergic reaction to that artificial scent? I coughed. I tried to swallow. I rifled through my purse for a bubble gum ball (the only kind I’ll chew—no mint for me). I popped it into my mouth. As my teeth bit through its hard surface, a burst of cherry—red, tart, yet much sweeter than the real thing—my childhood favorite. If only I were on a swing in Marquette Park, Dad pushing me higher, me leaning all the way back, my legs soaring in the air. Instead, surrounded by doodads and sentimentality, I wondered if I’d find a card I could send my father.

At the center of the red, blue, green, and gold Father’s Day greeting display, a lone pink one with flowing white script popped out at me. I smiled. It reminded me of the dresses I wore growing up: some had white bows while others had lace collars, but they were always pink. I pulled it out to get a closer look—Thanks Dad for Always Being There. I slid it back into its slot. Even when Dad was there, he stunk of Seagram’s V.O. Canadian Whiskey.

My father doesn’t drink anymore. He told me he stopped in 1980, twenty-five years ago, but I can’t recall him being sober when I was eighteen. He wasn’t around much when I was a teenager. Still, he rubbed off on me. I drink. Every evening after spending eight hours instructing energy companies how to position their financial results to the investment community, I take a bottle of Kendell Jackson Chardonnay out of the refrigerator, sometimes only one, most times two, lately three. I keep filling my glass until I turn off my bedroom light and my subconscious drifts off—unencumbered by that day’s decisions on which of my clients’ actions—spills, accidents, deaths, leaks, emissions—should be withheld versus disclosed. What could be swept away compared to what had to be cleaned up with a hazmat-suited crew?

My yearning for those fermented grapes and their magical assuaging powers has grown stronger as I’ve gotten older and my client base has expanded. Since I only drink at night (weekends, too) in my home, I can’t admit I’m an alcoholic. According to my definition, no one sees when I fall asleep still wearing my glasses, TV blaring, teeth not brushed, so I’m not addicted. Well at least not as bad as Dad once was.

Even though I’ve driven by it, I’ve never stepped inside Dad’s Hallmark store in Joliet, Illinois, the one where he buys all those birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and Fourth of July cards he sends every year. They arrive at my home in Houston, Texas, a day or two before the actual event. Usually, they have flowers on the cover, a poetic verse on the inside flap and some sappy sentiment—such as A daughter, like you, brings sunshine to my life. I keep them in a drawer under my cashmere sweaters and plaid wool scarves, the ones I rarely wear in Texas. I dig those cards out every few years, rifle through them, and cover them back up before I walk to the kitchen, open the refrigerator door, and pull out a bottle.

A thousand miles away from Dad, breathing through my mouth to avoid the faux-gardenia odor, I placed my hand on my hip and speculated on when was the last time I sent him a card. I knew it wasn’t in the past three years. Nothing material had happened during that time. I rely on Hallmark only when I can’t find the right words to say I’m sorry. When my sister had a miscarriage, I drove to Sally’s Cards and Gifts. I chose a card with a photo of two middle-school-aged girls, one with curly hair, like me, and the other, had straight hair, like her. Inside it said, I love you even though you have the better hair. I’m here if you need me.

Still standing in the middle of the aisle, now scratching my palm, I wondered why I was making buying a three-dollar card so difficult. At least my father didn’t really molest me like my friend Emma’s did. Last night before I went to sleep, I paced the hallway, a tumbler filled with Chardonnay in one hand and an excerpt from her draft memoir in the other. I read how her father snuck into her lavender room long after she should’ve been sleeping. When I reached the scene where she described how her dolls shut their eyes so they couldn’t witness what her father had made her do, I tossed the typed pages up in the air and knocked back the rest of my wine.

I called Emma on my way to work the next morning. We chatted about the descriptions, the images—not the horrific details. We were fledgling writers after all. We had been taught to comment on elements of craft and construction, not on how the author had been impacted.

“I still hate Father’s Day,” she said. “Every year I get a migraine.”

Maybe that’s why I turned left into the strip mall and landed at Hallmark on my way home after work. I needed memories of Dad pushing me on the swings at Marquette Park when he wasn’t sipping from a paper-bag-covered bottle hidden under his jacket. I wanted to once again laugh at us soaring down the snowy hill in our toboggan screaming, barely missing the only tree in our path, forgetting that he’d aimed for it. Yet I couldn’t reach for a card. My arms wouldn’t move.

I rushed to the back of the store and stopped at a display of frames on clear shelving. Instead of a card, maybe I’d send Dad the photo of him holding my hand on our apartment steps before church—before the divorce, before I started kindergarten, before he escaped from rehab after only a week, before he lost his job selling restaurant supplies. He wore his double-breasted blue suit. I donned pink. The shop’s halogen lights reflected off the glass, so I had to bend forward to see the people in the pictures. They all had straight white teeth. Not one of the teenagers had acne. No blotchy intoxicated faces. No father with glassy, bloodshot eyes.

I reached past a teenage ice skater executing a spin, and picked up a five by seven-inch silver frame with the photo of a man with brown curly hair holding the hand of a pre-school girl with auburn ringlets. I’d had auburn curls. If the man in the shot had a bigger nose, a broader face, and shorter hair, he would’ve looked like Dad. The little girl glanced up at him, and they both seemed to be giggling. My shoulders shook. Why hadn’t I found a happy hour and slurped down a glass of cheap wine or two before entering this store? Because the saleslady would smell it—stale, acidic—it can’t be covered up by potpourri.

I had almost given up on my quest when I saw a midnight blue metal border around a black and white snapshot of a woman standing, alone, on the edge of the ocean, the sun was about to set. Her face, unrevealed, peered out toward the water.

Four decades ago, I was the last third-grader standing on the street corner staring down the bungalow-lined street on that cloudless-sky Saturday, the day before Father’s Day. Dad had told Mom that he’d pick me up from choir practice, since she couldn’t leave her second job, handing the dentist his sterilized tools. I hoped he hadn’t stopped at Foley’s for a boilermaker—downing a shot and chasing it with an Old Style. Pacing in front of the church, I must have straightened out my pink sleeveless dress with its white Peter Pan collar and sash around my waist a hundred times. I didn’t want to sit on the pavement and get it dirty. Dad didn’t pay child support, so Mom could only afford to buy me one new frock each year.

When I was about to give up and to start walking the mile home, a powder blue sedan plowed around the corner, jumped the curve and barely missed the No Parking—Fire Lane sign, its brakes shrieking. He reached over and pushed open the passenger door. I had no choice but to get in. The smoky, spicy scent of whiskey ignited my gag reflex. I kept swallowing to keep whatever remained in my stomach from traveling upward. Dad chewed Clorets—minty and pungent—but that disguise wasn’t working. To this day, I detest those green tablets. That afternoon, I rolled down the window and stuck my head out.

“Dad, did you stop at Foley’s?”

“The Cubs won today,” he said as he shifted the car into drive. “They’re playing a double header. We can catch the last few innings.”

“I want to go home.”

“I’ll buy you a kiddy cocktail.”

I shook my head. Although he was driving within the correct lane, not going back and forth over the thick white line, which Mom had instructed me to watch for, I wasn’t sure what would happen if he gulped one more shot.

A few blocks from home, he took his right hand off the steering wheel, reached over and started tickling me, first at my waist, then under my arms. I stiffened every muscle I could and fought to keep from laughing. I was still mad that he had been late to pick me up, and I wanted him to know it. What if it had been raining? He moved his hand to my knee, and the car crossed the white hatch mark separating the lanes on Keddie Avenue. I sat straight up.

“Dad, stay between the lines.”

“It’s okay if I cross over them as long as no one is in the other lane.” He moved his left hand on top of the wheel and placed his right one on my shoulder, touching my long auburn curls, twirling then between his thumb and first finger. I sidled up to the door, and crossed my arms in front of me, hoping he would stop.

In the Hallmark store, the frame slipped out of my grasp. It fell to floor, but it didn’t break. I picked it up, and mumbled, “Damn him.” The sales clerk scooted from behind the check-out counter and started toward me. I headed the other way, back toward the cards, past a bin overflowing with stuffed bunnies and puppies, and boxes filled with candles—bayberry, vanilla and peppermint—but, those scents couldn’t suppress the Clorets and whiskey in Dad’s car so many years ago. I reached for a light blue card—From Your Grown Up Little Girl, and pretended I was studying it. The salad I had for lunch started its way back up my esphogus. I gulped and took a few deep breaths. I tried to think about Marquette Park, sledding, tea parties, Dad making banana pancakes before church, anything but that day.

Had I remembered it right? Did Emma’s essay influence my memory? Every year, I became anxious the week before Father’s Day. I never told anyone. Who’d believe me? Plus, nothing really happened. Right?

On the way home from choir practice, Dad had turned the radio knob to WLS—Chicago’s pop rock station. I can’t remember what was playing. The Beatles? The Herman’s Hermits? Paul Revere and the Raiders? But I inevitably started tapping my feet, which barely touched the floor. I moved my shoulders to the beat and Dad started tickling me again. This time, I laughed. I relaxed my arm, so he could reach my armpit, my most sensitive spot. Then his hand slipped, to my waist, my hips, my thighs.  He inched his way up the inner portion of my legs, and when he reached my white cotton underpants, I yelled, “Stop.”

He jerked his hand back. He stared at the road in front of us.

“You’re drunk,” I echoed the words Mom had used a few months earlier after he threw up on the sidewalk in front of our apartment building and she refused to let us go with him to the movies. I wrapped my arms as tightly as they would go around me.

I can’t remember what happened next.  Did I jump out of the car when we reached the house? We could’ve gone to Foley’s to see the Cub’s second game.

At nine years old, I didn’t understand why my father put his hands up my dress. I can still see his red face, his fingers grabbing the wheel so tightly they turned stark white. If Dad hadn’t been drinking, he would never have done that touching. When Dad was sober, he pushed me on the swings at the park and took me to the movies. He hugged me. He didn’t touch my curls. My dolls never had to close their eyes. There were no toys in the blue sedan.

Surrounded by Hallmark cards, why couldn’t I get that day out of my mind? After all, he had stopped. He never tried to touch me between the legs again. In fact, he didn’t even show up the next day to celebrate Father’s Day. He had called in the afternoon and said he had to work, but I didn’t believe him since he had slurred his words. Two months later, when summer was about to end, he took me for ice cream. Not one word was spoken about that ride. It was nice to have Dad back—sober. But we didn’t hold hands as we walked, not even when we crossed Kedzie Avenue. We talked about the double play the Cubs made the day before, forcing the out on second and tagging the runner headed for first.

Standing in front of all those Father’s Day cards, I needed a drink—not a six-ounce splash, but a brandy snifter filled to the top. At the end of the aisle, I saw a card with Snoopy dancing around his dog house. I grabbed it and headed to the check-out counter. Before I handed it to the saleslady, I noticed that Charles Schultz had drawn music notes above the dog’s head. It reminded me of the time Dad and I watched the Peanut’s Christmas special on television with a bowl of popcorn in our laps. He was still living with us. He had made popcorn the old-fashioned way, jiggling the covered pot over the gas burner on top of the Westinghouse stove. Dad teared up as Linus recited the New Testament passage about the shepherds and the angels. Before it reached the point where all the kids joined hands and sang “Silent Night,” I’d made sure a box of tissues was placed next to him.

The few cards I have sent my father over the years have had Snoopy on them. He was the only character in that comic strip that didn’t appear to have a reliable father. Somewhere in my drawers, tucked away with my childhood photos, is a Peanuts cartoon that was published on a Father’s Day that I cut out from the Chicago Tribune with my dull, round-edge scissors. Snoopy was wondering what happened to his father. At that time, I felt sorry for Snoopy, but he turned out just fine, and he had a nice owner—Charlie Brown. Even though we never saw Charlie Brown’s parents, we knew they had to be good ones; after all, he had a dog, and he never seemed to want for anything, other than coordination and self-esteem.

With the Snoopy card in hand, I exited the store, got in my beige Camry, put on my safety belt and headed home to make dinner. Once there, I downed a half bottle of wine while chopping up a cucumber, and called Emma.

“Are you crazy?” she said. “Walking through a Hallmark store is like navigating a minefield.”

“Great metaphor,” I said. For years, I tightly crossed my legs and wrapped my arms around my middle when I had to sit next to him in church or at a movie. When we took the bus, I insisted on knabbing a spot near the driver, so I didn’t get motion sickness—what a lie. I wanted someone watching, even if it was from a rearview mirror. I never walked close to Dad after that day, veering away whenever I could feel him closing the gap I desperately needed. But he never touched me again like that. Never. Ever. Whether he meant it or not that afternoon after choir practice, our hugs never imitated bears again. No more Eskimo or Butterfly kisses. No more watching Cubs games together at Foley’s. I still need to believe he was just drunk. Maybe he hadn’t realized his fingers were under my dress. Maybe he thought he was only tickling me. Maybe he was. Then again, maybe he wasn’t.

I opened the refrigerator and reached for the open bottle. Two others, yet to be uncorked, sat on either side of it.

After three decades of manipulating numbers, Sheila Grace Stuewe came to her senses and turned to words. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2010. Her essay “Residual Value” won an Association of Writers and Writing Programs Intro Journals Prize for Nonfiction and was published in Artful Dodge. Her essay “Star Struck (1982)” received a notable acknowledgment in The Best American Essays 2017. During the summer of 2017, Sheila was chosen as an Associate Artist by Mitchell S. Jackson at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. For the past few years, she has taught composition at Lone Star Community College in a suburb north of Houston, the best job of her life. 

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1 Comment

  • Reply Molly Krause January 29, 2018 at 8:15 am

    Beautiful piece – I can relate on so many levels. Thank you!

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