Monday, December 23, 2013

Missing my dad at Christmas (which he hated)

Why do I think so much of my late father, our family Grinch, at this season? Because I always suspected his way of loving the holiday, as a Jew who celebrated it to please his family, was to grumble his way into the whole joyously chaotic event. This poems, from my first book, Earth Lessons, celebrates the frictions that ultimately became a gift.


CHRISTMAS WEEK IN SAN FELIPE

Up my nose, between my teeth, tiny bullets
of sand flew thick and fast. I lay down
lost in wild howling on a dirt road
in Baja California. A dim dream,
my parents shouting as I was tucked
under the sky’s fierce blanket.

As quickly as it arose, the storm died.
I ran back to our car, oasis in blinding dunes.
Our voices swooped over the expanse like gulls.
Unrelenting sand glittered like a snowfield.
Christmas week in San Felipe.
Why did you wander away? -- they said.
I shot back -- Why did you bring us
to a vacation on the moon?

In the front seat, my parents' disapproving silence.
My younger brother and I 
stared out windows rolled up
against poverty and dust. Windowless
houses, children without clothes. A desolate
Mexican town and beyond, the beach --
aquamarine water ringed by rock spires.
Burning sun and sand
from horizon to horizon.

We tumbled out and filled the void
with a fight. My father’s voice boomed,
a train freighted with spit consonants
that hurtled at my mother as she sat
blowing up air mattresses.
My brother scampered away. Behind a dune, /
Dad's rasping breath and rhythmic cursing
as he pounded tent pegs.
His tent, his family: enemies.

My brother rolled in, a small wave bearing shells,
only to be brushed aside, flotsam.
My father saw me and exploded
into blue-word jazz. Control those kids --
he ordered my mother, his hammer.
Obedient, she fell -- Fill this pail.
The ritual smacked so hard I saw
my family’s outline -- them.
I stood at the surf, tears mingling
with the wind’s gritty lace.

A week of sand stuck to sweaty skin,
crunched between teeth, rubbing me red.
A torture I learned to shape
into wet mounds, sand forts, sand doll houses.
A week amid the dunes
learning to imitate sand --  answering
threat by being limp and malleable
or wild and grating.

Fishing rod propped in a spike,
my father drank tequila and sang
Louis Armstrong songs on New Year's Eve,
capering in the surf. Alarms in me
squealed shrill as the fishing line
that raced unnoticed through his reel.
Giggling, he fell asleep on the sand.
In the morning we walked down the beach,
peering into tidepools. He reached down
and scooped up a dark blob, /
handed me a tiny, squirming octopus.
The water baby slithered in my hand -- velvet-wet
exchange of softness in this hard expanse.
A gift fished out of murky depths,
and released to float
in the years of silence between us.

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