Road Trip with Dad and Blue Bullet

Dad and I packing my possessions into blue bullet.
Dad and I packing my possessions into blue bullet.

Blue Bullet chugged as she ascended the last few hundred feet to the summit of the Colorado Rockies. The 1985 Toyota passenger van was weighed down with my post-college graduation possessions, like books, a futon and my hot pink Vespa scooter. My dad and I were moving me from my childhood home of Chicago to my new home, 2,000 miles away in San Francisco. Blue bullet was our trusted family car for the last seven years, and dad drove her with confidence and determination, towards the summit. He knew his little engine could make it up that mountain and onwards towards San Francisco.

This side trip to the Rockies was dad’s idea. I’m pretty sure Blue Bullet didn’t want to climb these steep mountain sides with all of this extra weight, and a battery that wasn’t working quite right (more on that later). And I knew I wasn’t completely gung-ho about the extra time the side trip would add. I wanted to get to San Francisco quickly and I was afraid of unplanned adventures.

Dad and I weren’t close.

My dad, master violin maker!
My dad, master violin maker!

I know it sounds cliché to say my dad wasn’t around much when I was a kid, but it is true. He emigrated from Germany when he was 26 years old and brought with him an old world craft and old world work ethic. His six-day a week, twelve plus hours a day work schedule as a master craftsman making violins, violas or cellos left little time for the family.

On Sunday’s, his only day off, he would split his day between two families. In the morning he would go to his church, Kingdom Hall, to be with his Jehovah’s Witness brothers and sisters, a religion neither my mother, brother or I subscribed to. In the afternoon he would gather his biological family, us, to go on an outing. A typical outing, I would later label Germantime, consisted of traveling to a museum or zoo in dad’s car while listening to the oompah of German polka music, visit said zoo or museum for an hour or two, and end with a visit to his favorite German café for coffee and pastries. Germantime was the only time I felt we were a happy, loving family.

Through my adolescence the Jehovah’s Witness family got more and more of dad’s free time. I was left feeling he wanted to be with them more than with us. When dad was home it wasn’t pleasant. My mom would vent her frustrations with having to work, take care of the kids and do all the chores, while he was with his JW family, always leading to arguments. If that wasn’t bad enough, dad would nag me – telling me to wear more dresses like a “good German girl,” and to stop wearing those “awful American blue jeans” or to remove purple nail polish from my freshly polished, sophomore in high school, nails. I didn’t think an absent father had the authority to tell his child what to do.

My heart grew hard towards him. The sadness of a little girl wanting to be hugged and kissed by her dad, evolved into resentment and anger of a teenager not wanting him around. Now as a college graduate, I still had my issues with dad, but I couldn’t be too disagreeable since he offered to help me move away from home and towards a new life. Renting a moving van was economically out of the question and I had too much stuff to neatly put in a box and send by mail. I just hoped we could get to California peacefully.

Dad unplugging blue bullet, he was charging her batteries...
Dad unplugging blue bullet, he was charging her batteries…

My other biggest fear was blue bullet would break down, stranding us in the middle of the desert. On the day we were set to leave, my fears were validated when I saw dad’s latest experiment in the back of the car.

“Dad, Why are there two batteries behind the drivers seat with wires leading under the seat?”

“Just as a precaution.” He assured me, his balding head dripping with perspiration from packing the car while wearing thick corduroy pants and a wool sweater on a late summer day. His old world aesthetic discouraging him from ever wearing shorts and a t-shirt. “The car battery sometimes doesn’t recharge and I want to make sure we don’t get stuck.”

“Is the alternator going out?” I asked, just having learned what an alternator does from a friend whose car battery wouldn’t keep a charge.

“I don’t think so.” He said with a tone of certainty, accentuated by his deep German accent. “I brought the car to the mechanic and they said the alternator was fine.”

Blue Bullet and a road trip with dad was my only option. I had to trust that together we would get to California, safely, without too many unplanned adventures and without arguing.

Off we go!
Wish us luck!

Note: This is an excerpt of a personal essay I have been working off and on since 2012- to hopefully be submitted to an online publication. I told dad about the story before he passed away in 2013, he mentioned how much he loved that trip and the time we had together. I hope to share the whole story of this trip one day! Happy Father’s Day! 🙂

My dad was only human…

Author’s note: This story shares an event in my childhood, my dad’s 40th birthday, whose impact subconsciously stayed with me into adulthood. Today would have been my father’s 80th birthday – he died last November, ten days before my 43rd birthday, a few months after I finished this story. I grew to love my dad very much, once I learned he was only human…

___________________

I awoke with a gasp. Today is the day.

My eyes popped wide open, my heart raced, I threw off my red plaid comforter, bolted around my brother’s bed like the next contestant on the Price is Right, not caring if I woke him.

Today is March 31st, a Sunday, Dad’s only day off, he should still be in bed.

I slipped and slid across the parquet wood floor, down the short hallway in my slick footed pink polka dotted pajamas towards my parent’s bedroom. It was a small two-bedroom apartment, in a building finished in the early 1960s on Howard St. in the northern Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park. Sundays were quiet, not a car stirred in the parking lot below my bedroom window, no TVs blared through the plaster thin walls, no babies wearing shoes stomped across the bare wood floors over our ceiling.

The door to my parent’s bedroom was slightly open. My mother was up making coffee in the small galley style kitchen. The smell of Folgers wafted through the air. I had him for myself. His eyes were closed. He didn’t hear me come in.

Without a thought I leapt onto the big bed and bounced my way toward him, a big grin stretching across my face. “Happy Birthday Daddy!” I yelled. My heart bursting with joy, my mind swimming with images of balloons, strawberry whipped cream cake, presents and a piñata like the one I had at my third birthday only four months earlier. I was ready to celebrate the birth of the man I loved with all of my little heart and soul.

“I don’t celebrate birthdays,” he snapped looking off towards the closet.

Laying like a mummy under the covers, his balding head all I could see, his unshaven face showing no emotion other than a look of disgust as he turned slightly away from me as if I was spreading a disease called birthday. My body stiffened, I had run into a stone cold wall where I thought a soft warm embrace was awaiting me. My heart cracked, withered and then dropped into my stomach with a thud.

What had I done wrong?

My three-year-old brain understood that birthdays were for celebrating.

Wasn’t that my dad behind the camera at my birthday party?

Third birthday of author...
Third birthday of author…

Our small apartment overflowed with our Chicago relatives, his German relatives in the living room waiting for the cake to be served while my mother’s Cuban relatives were in the kitchen chatting and cooking up a storm. Simple white streamers and pink and red balloons were strung across the heavy dark green curtains. A burro piñata waited in the corner to be sacrificed by the hands of my cousins.

Photos captured me prancing between the groups in my pretty new light blue eyelet dress made by my Cuban grandmother.

Photos captured me excitedly greeting my Uncle Danny at our front door to see what he had brought me.

Photos captured me blowing out a number three candle.

My dad bore witness to the celebration and the happiness all from behind his camera. Doesn’t this make him a participant?

My innocence assumed my father shared my vision of the world. At age three, I loved celebrations, I loved my relatives, I loved cake and I loved presents. I knew birthdays were when all of the things I loved came together. My father was part of that world.

I loved his musky smell of wood and sweat. When he came home from work I would find wood shavings in his clothes or hitching a ride in the hairs of his large Popeye-sized forearms. He was a man dedicated to his craft as a violin maker, a trade he brought with him when he emigrated from Germany. He also brought with him, the old-school ethic of working 16-hour days, 6 days a week, leaving little time for anything more than eating, sleeping and watching TV.

Dad at work circa 1980s.
Dad at work circa 1980s.

Brief visits to the violin shop he owned with his brother peppered my childhood. Its location between our apartment and my elementary school provided us with a special opportunity to see my father while he worked.

Everyday he had a different routine, whether it be varnishing finished instruments, bending ribs, or chiseling violin tops and bottoms until they were the perfect width.

On Tuesdays he rehaired bows. I remember sitting and watching him carefully remove the old hair off the bow, then cutting a hank of new blonde hair from what used to be the tail of a horse, stuff one end into the tip of the bow, wedging it in with a small piece of wood, then combing the three-foot strands of hair before wedging the other end in with a mortise joint into the frog or base of the bow. I was mesmerized by the fluid almost poetic motion of his hand going up and down while combing those strands of horsehair. I secretly wished he would comb my hair too, and then adorn it with a beautiful piece of abalone shell similar to those that cover the mortise joint of the most beautiful bows.

I was jealous of my wooden siblings. The intimacy my father shared with each of his instruments, his attention to detail, his flawless craft, and words of pride, was never bestowed on his creations that shared his DNA.  I desired to be the focus of his attention. I wanted him to know me as well as each curve of a violin. I wanted him to know the songs that sang from my soul. His violins, violas and cello were his other children and there were many, almost 1,000 by the time he retired.

But why didn’t he celebrate birthdays?

In confusion and terror I ran towards my mother wailing, aftershocks trembling through my tiny body, a trail of sorrow following me.

My mother roared like a mama bear, thrashed like a tornado through the living room towards her bedroom. I trailed the vortex, as I ran to my room, crying uncontrollably at the storm I had created. I found shelter under my covers, was comforted by my stuffed animals, as I listened to my mother scream at my father. “She is only a child!”

At age three, I didn’t understand how a person’s value system could change so drastically with promises of everlasting life.

I didn’t understand how celebrating a birthday was a sin, an unspeakable event.

I didn’t understand how an adult could be so cruel and callous to his own child.

To this day, almost 40 years later, I still don’t completely understand. What I do know is on that day the universal treaty of trust between father and child broke.

I would try for most of my childhood to get my dad’s attention – something he so easily gave to his instruments and his new religion. When I was seven I started to go with him to Wednesday night bible study. I didn’t go because I loved the Lord’s word, or felt I had a duty to attend. I went because I wanted to be with my dad.

Sitting in the cramped basement of my Dad’s brother’s house with a handful of others, everyone taking turns reading from the Jehovah’s Witness version of the bible. I sat next to my dad, feeling his warmth through his flannel shirt, our hands touching as we shared his bible.  I eagerly waited my turn to read. I didn’t care what Job or Matthew said, I wanted to show off my reading skills to my dad. I wanted him to hear how his seven year old daughter could read at a fifth grade level. I wanted him to bear witness to my evolution, be proud of me, to love me.

The calm after the storm was eerie. We ate breakfast in silence. My father quickly disappeared to the Kingdom Hall, to be surrounded by his new tribe. My mom may have taken my brother and I to my grandmother’s house a few blocks away or the Laundromat across the street. We never talked about this again. There were no apologies, no consoling words, no hugs, no admissions of love.

Author with dad circa 1994.
Author with dad circa 1994.

 

Throughout my life March 31st was a day I tried hard to ignore. I suppressed urges to buy a birthday card with a sarcastic remark – those years I was angry with him – or one with sappy proclamations of love to a fantasy dad – those years I loved him.

Two years ago my father wondered aloud to my mother, why I hadn’t called him on his birthday. Was old age lifting the dams of religious dogma from his heart allowing him to recall the things he truly enjoyed in life?

He would have turned 80 this year, 40 years since I last wished him a happy birthday. I was planning on surprising him with a visit, to tell him “Happy Birthday Daddy!”