Isabelle’s column “Paper Scraps” explores the way memories come in pieces and how we put them together.
When my father plays the Entertainer, he looks like a little boy. It’s the only thing he knows how to play. I was the sort of child who was always cold and always in the ocean. He tossed me in to see if I would float and I did. We swam while Hurricane Earl was clinging to the horizon.
The water I swam in as a child was silver. Something metallic. I’d hold my hands up, showing off my fingers when they began to discolor from the cold. He’d kiss the center of each hand, his lips the size of my palms. Then, with force, he’d hit his hands into the sea, call it seltzer water, then hoist me by my armpits to his shoulders. I’d imagine the bubbles floating into the air underneath my small feet.
He’d say from up there you can see better. Like the cormorants, like the osprey. And I began following the minnows in our silver ocean where none of us — my father, myself, the osprey, the fish — worried about hurricanes or cold toes.
The minnows were like the dimes, nickels and quarters my father kept in a seltzer can in his car to shake at the dog when she barked at motorcycles. The sound made her lie down. Scared her I guess or maybe reminded her of something that had happened before. And the minnows swam around us, circling my father’s feet and my feet on his chest, lifted up by bubbles.
My father calls me honey and says ciao bella when I hang up the phone. He puts too much cornmeal in pancakes and calls me by the dog’s name. He keeps old pretzel jugs filled with water in our basement just in case and is proud of the fact that we live 50 feet above sea level. When all the other houses are knocked out, we’ll be okay. Six Haynes Avenue will be just fine and everyone else will be swimming like the minnows. We will watch them from above.
When I was a child, I wished my father was a mail man or an ice cream man. He’d play the Entertainer to let the kids know he was there. And they’d climb out of the silver sea and give him quarters and dimes for two ball screw balls. I was always interested in occupations where you only have to be good at one thing. At mail or at ice cream.
When winter comes and the silver’s slushed, we take the old canoe out and push through. When they hibernate, the frogs are completely frozen. Mid-conversation, their bubbles are held where they left them, never lifting their feet into the air like mine. Somehow they know to thaw back to life when spring comes. I’ve never understood how that’s possible. I begin discoloring in summertime when the peepers are still out. There is no chance I could last through winter.
I hope my father gets to play his piano in his house on a hill while everyone else is swimming, hoping to freeze and then thaw again once everything is okay. Laying their eggs underwater and calling for mates in spring. My father will be my father when everyone else is a frog. Because he does things well: sturdy, steady. A pancake is cornmeal, flour, egg and some milk. A child can swim like a cormorant can fly. A house should be built well.
When he was building our house, he let me draw on the walls. He’d tie my hair into pigtails the size of baby carrots and set me up with colored pencils in front of a sheetrock wall, inside what would become our kitchen. And I’d crouch there for hours, my pants falling down, my hair falling out, and I’d draw our silver sea and the minnows inside it. I drew minnows across our whole kitchen, from three feet down. The minnows looked like goldfish crackers. A minnow is an oval and a triangle, my father taught me.
When the walls went up and were painted cream, I cried and my father gave me a candy cane from a December three years prior. He put me into a t-shirt that went to my knees and carried me on his back to the silver sea. So I could see the real minnows. Ovals and triangles. They were still there.
The North American blizzard of 2006 made a channel from the tadpole pond to the sea and filled it with starfish. I don’t know if starfish thaw back to life but I hoped so. Because we used to snorkel together. I’d lay with my face in the water, scanning the ripples in the sand for treasure. My father would hold my hand and tow my small body as he swam on, so that the seafloor passed by quickly and unsentimentally like highways out the window of a car. And when at last we hovered above the starfish, gripped to rocks, lit well beneath the sun, he’d dive down and I’d watch him from the surface. I’d breathe unevenly and always faster as he descended away from me.
My father taught me that things can often be a lot more simple than they seem. When asked what makes his recipe for granola so good, he doesn’t say special cardamom from the health food store, or love or patience. He says it’s just cinnamon. Some things are just cinnamon.
I remember watching him swim, light rippling his skin. Reaching out his index finger to touch one of the starfish’s legs. Some things are just beautiful, just good.