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Sunday Journal

Snapshots that live in the memory

Published February 13, 2005

A friend recently returned from burying his mother. Hers was a sudden, unexpected departure. He consoled himself with the old black and white family pictures, which he inherited. In losing his mother, he gained a deeper appreciation for family - the grandparents, uncles and aunts whose eyes and smiles bore the secret to his identity.

I was envious.

I had made my ritual journey home to Montserrat to bury my father a year earlier. I brought back no old, faded family pictures. Just a short-sleeved shirt I plucked from my father's closet and a head full of unanswered questions.

Being an immigrant to America means that you must travel a great distance to bury your dead. You leave home young and hopeful with dreams and aspirations. You promise to return. But time and distance make promises fade. Life in America makes things back home seem slow, distant, irrelevant.

You revel in the memories of home. You still fly home for the holidays, whenever work allows. But eventually real life intervenes; family trips home become rarer.

Between visits, you live in fear of the telephone call at dawn or at midnight. It was a recurring dream during my college years: Your grandmother has died. But in 20 years that call never came.

Instead it was an e-mail. Sad news, it read. Dad has died. I knew it was my turn to take that ritual passage home.

Time stops or so it seems. Then you board the plane and events fast-forward. The finality of the news prompts introspection. In my mind, I revisit the final few months of my father's life. I exhume our relationship.

We'd talk on the telephone occasionally. I wrote at least twice a year but grew annoyed that he never replied. Finally a year before he died, he sent me a birthday card. It was written and addressed in a stylish, feminine script. I don't remember ever seeing my father's penmanship.

The news was sudden if not unexpected. I had spoken to him weeks earlier after my return from London. I wanted to tell him his presence was missed at my sister's wedding. I wanted to tell him he should have been there to see all his grandsons and granddaughters delight in the music and dance. I wanted to say that, despite his past failings, he would have relished the abundance of beauty and youth around him.

But he was too ill to attend. His favorite daughter would marry without him. Someone else, her eldest brother, would give her away. After I recounted the events of that Sunday afternoon in London, I wrote a letter repeating the same sentiments.

The letter in an addressed enveloped still sat in my personal planner when I received news that my father was taken to the hospital.

Going home to bury my father meant unearthing sights, sounds, places, long stored in the crypt of childhood memory. As I drove around, I passed the village where my father lived when I used to visit him as a little boy. The houses, streets, trees, ravines held their old majesty, refused to loose their hold.

I saw the houses of great-aunts, their empty front porches where once I sat entranced by family stories. I drove past the old sugar mill where our neighbors once housed their sheep and goats at night to protect them from marauding dogs.

My father's old house, the one he lost to a bank foreclosure, was not visible from the roadway. But time and geography could not blur the memory of the Saturday nights roasting breadfruit under the moonlight.

I drove down the rutted asphalt road where he first taught me to drive a stick shift in his creaking Austin. He was calm and unhurried as he taught me to listen to the sound of the engine as I released the clutch. After all, he had spent a half a lifetime teaching uncoordinated sons like me to drive.

My siblings had seen my dad the year before. Their images and recollections were as fresh as baked bread. Mine were covered in dust and cobwebs. I hadn't seen him since 1995. That year I went home for a week and stayed for two. We had our one and only man-to-man, father-to-son conversation. When I saw him he was visiting the woman for whom he had left his wife for seven years. My father had reunited with his wife but clearly the woman who stood 5 feet away from him was the apple of his eye. They had ended their formal relationship but couldn't stay away from each other. I told them to drop the pretense. They should do what felt right for the here and now.

Eight years later when I saw my father's former mistress, my earlier advice seemed shortsighted. She was among the many mourners at my dad's funeral. She remained on the edges, the respectful distance of an illicit love. I walked over and hugged her. I didn't take sides when it came to the women in my father's life.

My allegiance is to his memory. I promised myself to return to seek her out to ask her questions about my father. As an illegitimate son, I have large gaps in my paternal memory. I hope she can fill them. I have questions that may embarrass her to answer, but I must ask if I am ever to learn who my father really was.

As the funeral service was about to begin, I returned to my seat near the front row. From there, I spied another woman from my father's past. She is stolid and mature, years removed from the teenager who fell for my father when he drove into her village in his chicken van. He filled her head with his sweet talk and his dreams of winning a seat in the local legislature. Three decades later, their daughter sang a capella in her father's memory. My sister's voice, one of a trio, was music to mournful hearts. Hers was a tune of forgiveness and redemption, an apt refrain for an imperfect man. Her father and mine.

Andrew J. Skerritt is an assistant editor in the St. Petersburg Times' Hernando bureau.

[Last modified February 10, 2005, 12:27:03]

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