My Dad used to brush my hair after I took a bath. He’d take the blue brush, the one that matched his eyes, and he’d look just above my gaze as he smoothed my straight hair, my bangs, up and over my widow’s peak, back behind my ears, and down to my shoulders. Slow, calculated, he’d make sure each stick-straight strand was in place. Then he’d grab my shoulders and turn me toward the mirror and tell me I looked beautiful.
I never thought I was – not like that with my hair combed back like a boy. I’d mess it up right after – telling him I was ugly like that. He’d let me, but brush it the same way again the next time, just in case I’d change my mind.
My Dad worked in an office. I sometimes wonder if he was truly happy in that suit. He even had the rubber things that’d fit over his dress shoes so he could trudge through the slush of Boston sidewalks in the winter when he took the bus to work every day. In the fall he’d bring my brother and me chestnuts from the trees in the Public Garden. Smooth with a deep reddish brown held in the pockets of his long gray coat.
On weekends we seemed to always be in the car. I could see his reflection in the rearview mirror. Sometimes during certain songs or just at random, his hand with the freckle in the middle would reach back and stretch out until I took it in mine. He’d squeeze it a few times and then let go. The car rides were my comfort. He liked to drive just for the hell of it – “poking,” he called it, as we wound through the neighborhoods of our town; looking for nothing, but still having a pretty good time doing it.
In New Hampshire, he taught me how to ski. As the rest of my cousins were carted off to lessons, my Dad would strap me into my bindings and we’d play follow the leader down the bunny slope. He’d tell stories on the way up the T-bar and then the chairlift – about my grandfather teaching him to ski on that same mountain, about how when he was little, he hiked up in the summer and camped out under the stars with his cousins. Nostalgia always seemed high on his list of emotions. Always smiling, laugh lines graced his face as if permanent – a birthmark of happiness on pale, Irish skin.
Like most Bostonians, he taught me to love the local sports teams at a young age. In Boston, most sports fans are a little too diehard to be “normal” but, normal for New England. When you’re surrounded by crazy people you don’t feel that crazy anymore, right? He kept a poster of Bobby Orr in the garage. The soundtrack to my Sundays in the fall was the commentary of the Patriots games with intermittent clapping from his big, rough hands. CLAP…CLAP…CLAP. Strong, sturdy, focused. Three times, always. He’d use the same rhythm at my soccer games from the sidelines. He was there for all of them.
My parents hid a lot of “real life” from me; living in a close-knit condo development surrounded by woods and cornfields, enrolling me in Catholic school for twelve years. They molded a perfect environment within a not-so-perfect world. I wonder if that’s why reality sometimes crushes me in a vice grip. Maybe that is why sometimes nostalgia throws thorns into my heart instead of warming it.
My Dad was the perfect father to a little girl, but I didn’t stay little. The problem is, I don’t think he thought about what would happen next. The problem is, I think even today, he’d still try to sweep the hair off my face if I’d let him – brush it all away from my forehead, and tell me I looked beautiful, even though I never felt it.