Bundled up in scarves, gloves, and an oversized coat, I carefully made my way down the icy steps of my grandmother’s row house. The air smelled of everything winter—the freshly falling snow and aroma of pumpkin pie drifting from the open doorway, mixed with smoke from the fireplace. I was nine or ten and thrilled to see a white Christmas. We rarely had snow in North Carolina, so it was a treat to spend Christmas in Ohio with my father’s relatives.
Bellaire was a small steel and coal-mining town with steep hills that sloped down to the Ohio River. Across the river was Wheeling, West Virginia, and at night the factories lit up the sky, illuminating the tangled banks of the river and its dark, languid waters.
Everything in Bellaire had a gray dullness to it from the ever-present soot billowing from heaters and stoves. We usually kept our shoes on in the house because if we didn’t, our socks would be ruined. When I took a bath before going to bed, the water looked like a dirty puddle, and the bubbles had a dusky shade to them.
My grandmother’s house didn’t have a shower, just a large clawfoot tub with rust stains around the drain. The bathroom was dark, long, and narrow, with cold tile floors and a high ceiling. The house didn’t have central heat, and the bathroom was freezing. The only source of heat was a cast-iron gas stove that lit up in a line of tiny blue flames that fascinated me. I used to get up out of the tub, dripping wet, and nestle as close as I could to the stove without getting burned, letting the hot flames dry my naked body.
As the snow sparkled and swirled in the silver light of the lamppost, my parents, my brother, and I waved to my grandmother as she stood on the porch, promising to have steaming city chicken for us when we got back from our stroll. City chicken is a misnomer. It doesn’t actually have chicken in it. It was created when chicken was too expensive, and all folks could buy was veal or pork. Resourceful people took pieces of pork and veal and wrapped it around a stick in the form of a drumstick and called it city chicken. I loved it, and I would eat it until my skinny belly was stuffed. I only had it when I went to Ohio, and, for me, it became synonymous with everything blue-collar and Northern.
Of Fathers and Grandfathers
I waved one last time to my grandmother as she stepped into the yellow glow of the house—the house where my father grew up as an only child, and where, when he was just six years old, he watched his father slowly die. For a year, my grandfather was confined to a bed with tuberculosis of the spine, unable to move. My dad took care of him, massaging his muscles when they tightened, listening to his stories and poetry he’d written. Evidently, my grandfather was an extraordinarily kind man, an artist at heart and a tender soul. My dad watched him die in the living room where they kept the bed, surrounded by remaining relatives who did not share my grandfather’s gentle nature.
I wondered what that must have been like, to experience such a loss at so young an age, and as I glanced over at my father walking hand-in-hand with my mother, I realized there was so much I didn’t know about him, what he thought about, what he felt.
My dad and I weren’t very close when I was very young, although that improved over the years, mostly with bonding over sports. He was gone a lot when I was growing up, stationed overseas with the Marines, and then there was Vietnam. When he came home, it felt like a foreign invasion of our peaceful home. Quick-tempered and irritable, my dad seemed to be impatient with everything and everyone around him, particularly his scrawny, pale-eyed daughter who was often lost in daydreams and would step unknowingly on invisible tripwires that surrounded him. The backlash was immediate and painful, and I learned quickly to avoid him.
My Father Lashes Out
But that wasn’t always possible. One day, I went roller skating in our neighborhood. It was a bright blue summer day, and a boy I had a silly crush on lived near the highway at the entrance to the neighborhood. I decided to go up there and visit. On the way, I discovered that our dog had followed me. He was a little black terrier, full of life and spirit. I told him to go home, but he continued to follow. I thought about turning around and taking him back, but I wanted to see the boy up the road. So I just kept going, and my dog did, too.
When I reached the house, several kids were already there playing in the driveway. I joined them, not paying attention to where my dog was. I hadn’t been there long when I turned to find my bright-eyed dog standing in the middle of the road, panting happily. Terrified, I whistled for him to come. But he just stood there, staring at me. A truck was coming, and cars were already passing in the far lane. Horns blared. I wanted to run get him, but I couldn’t; it was too dangerous with my roller skates on, so I got as close to the road as I could. “Come on, boy,” I pleaded, clapping and whistling. “Come to me. Please, come!”
But it was too late. A truck barreled by, wind gusting over me, tires screeching, kids yelling, my dog’s body lying on the road in a pool of blood. I heard myself scream, and I sunk to the ground, my knees slamming into the pavement. I don’t know how long I stayed there, but someone had called my parents. The boy I had a crush on pulled me up and told me my dad was there.
With tears streaming down my face, I half stumbled, half skated to the car, where my dad stepped from the driver’s side, his face full of fury. Everything was a blur of fear and grief and tears. I hurried to him, holding out my arms for comfort. The next thing I knew, my head snapped back and pain shot through my cheek. He yelled for me to get in the car as he went and picked up my dog from the road.
The ride home was silent as I forced myself not to cry. I didn’t want to make him even angrier. My chest burned from the effort. When we got home, my dad put my dog’s body in a green military duffle bag and carried it to the back yard. I followed with my mom, but he told her to take me inside. He didn’t want me there. He would bury the dog alone.
I watched my dad dig a hole from the living room window. After he was done, he came inside and went straight to the shower. He was in there a long time, and I could hear him, faintly, through the door, sobbing. I sunk to the floor outside the bathroom and listened to my father cry for the first time in my life. I wanted to comfort him, to tell him how sorry I was, to make it all right. But I knew I couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t make the pain go away, not any of it, but I wanted to—desperately—for his sake and mine.
Even as my cheek still burned from the back of his hand, I loved him. His tears betrayed his anger; it wasn’t badness or cruelty that caused him to react the way he did, but pain and fear. I was young, just a child, but the mystifying complexities of life and of the human heart washed over me that day, infusing me with their deep realities, exposing me to the vulnerabilities of compassion, and leaving me both confused and consoled.
A White Christmas Covers the Grime
That Christmas Eve, as snow crunched beneath our feet along the river and memories of that day had faded into a dull ache, my dad shared stories of what it was like to grow up in a coal-mining town. How he and his friends sledded down the ice-covered streets, dodging traffic, until he crashed into a snow bank, nearly breaking an arm. How, in the summer, he swam in the river and even saved a friend from drowning. How he was expected to work at the steel mill, living the same life everyone else had lived, but after graduation he joined the Marines instead. I listened, spellbound, as my father’s world—for a moment—became mine.
The evening deepened and the wind off the water was turning icy. My stomach grumbled for city chicken. My face was frozen, and the gloves I was wearing were wet from snow. We turned back to head home, walking down a dimly lit street lined with old homes. The snow hid the usual dinginess of the town, with its rusting sheds, peeling paint, crumbling bricks, and cracked walkways. That night, everything was white—for just a little while before the soot turned the world gray once more. The air smelled clean and new. Christmas lights glittered on the snow as if rubies, emeralds, and sapphires had been spilled onto the street. A church bell sounded in the distance, filling the night like angels’ voices.
It was getting colder, and I began to shiver. My dad looked down at me and pulled off my wet gloves. He held my frozen hands in his, rubbing them warm. Then he gave me his gloves and dusted snowflakes from my freckled nose. “Do you want me to carry you the rest of the way?” he asked. I nodded.
He picked me up, and as fresh snow fell that Christmas Eve on the rundown homes that overlooked the river, on the uneven sidewalks and rusting fences, on the town with all its brokenness and imperfections, and on the imperfect man who held me in his arms, I tasted a moment of perfect peace—a moment I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
This post originally ran at Ricochet.