Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Plan

My father taught me how to polish shoes when I was about five. He taught me that you take shoes to the cobbler when the soles wear out instead of just buying a new pair. He owned few pieces of clothing, all in shades of brown so everything matched, plus one grey suit for when he needed a suit. In Honolulu, you don't need a suit very often. Still, he wouldn't go anywhere outside of the house in shorts, changing into brown slacks for a trip to the drugstore or the farmers' market. He said that growing up, he'd had only two sets of clothes--one to wear while the other was being washed. The first pieces of laundry I ever folded and ironed were his handkerchiefs, an easy shape to practice on. He ironed everything, down to those handkerchiefs and his underwear, and when my sister was tall enough to reach the ironing board she ironed everything of his when he didn't do it, and when she went to college on the mainland I did it.

Today he lives in Tampa with a woman who is more casual about appearances than my beautifully lipsticked and coiffed mother, and he wears shorts and T-shirts in the humid, hurricane-pregnant weather. I don't know if he polishes his shoes anymore or if he's found a cobbler there, but he has a tall, elaborate shoehorn that he's proud of.

I've thought my whole life I've rebelled against his care and thrift with clothes, spending my first college- and post-college job paychecks on piles of cheaply-made, trendy pieces that I'd wear a few times and then relegate to the backs of drawers and even now spending blithely on more secondhand couture pencil skirts and wrap sweaters than anyone could possibly need filched at sample-sale prices from flea markets. I think of myself as hard on my clothes, wearing them on my bicycle commute or to squat and pull weeds in the garden. I will not iron.

And yet: I know how to polish shoes, how to sew a button, how to find a tailor that will save the skirt I then won't have to throw away. I take my favorite shoes to a local cobbler for reconditioning and keep bringing them back, year after year, until the cobbler turns up his hands and tells me it's time for new shoes. I wash all my clothes on the delicate cycle, fishing one or another garment out before moving the laundry into the dryer because the tag warns me to hang dry, except for a few that I wash in the sink with Woolite because the tag warns me not to put it in a machine. I brush pills from cashmere and spend an hour working on a marinara stain.

And I avoid waste in other ways: I compost, I cook old vegetables into a mush for the dog, I give the cat the drained water from the tuna can, I rub watermelon and aloe rinds on my face for their skin-beautifying properties before composting those. I rescue ladybugs from the leaves of weeds destined for the yard waste bin and place them on the leaves of tomato plants that need defense against aphids. I try to find artists or imaginative gardeners to give the used-up pieces of yard debris--fencing, broken wheelbarrow, creepy cupid planter--that surface from time to time at our place and that would otherwise end up at the landfill. I eat leftovers for a few days after most people probably would.

In these ways I am like my father, careful with resources and respectful of them, and I see this despite a lifetime of trying to flaunt my differences. Both of us, in our own way, are aware that nothing can really be taken for granted.

And other similarities: Both of us take only the most carefully calculated risks, although he celebrates the "carefully calculated" part and I celebrate the "risk" part. What is careful about leaving a guaranteed, well-appointed government position in his hometown and traveling halfway around the work to build a life in a country where you are instantly penalized for your passport accent, where the intellect that built you a reputation as a scholar to reckon with in your country of origin is unreadable through your dark skin? And compared to that, what, really, is all that risky about moving to a town you'd never heard of before falling in love with one of its inhabitants but where you have a place to stay and a person who loves you? All I did--I, the risk-taker of the family--was take a flying leap into arms I knew would catch me. (Knowing, in all fairness, that I could be wrong about those arms because I had been wrong about arms before--but knowing also that I could always leap back, that New York City wasn't going anywhere.) What he did--he, the solid, unimpetuous rock of our family; he, the planner, the lister of pros and cons--was take a leap into unknown terms, knowing he might not actually be able to leap back, and knowing the only person that was going to catch him on the other side was himself.

Here is the path, laid out in front of me, the work I have now to do: I have a father to love, still. I have a father to forgive. I have myself to forgive, myself to love, and both of us to try to understand. I know this is an ancient storm that I am navigating, this yawning, seismic fissure between father and daughter, generation and generation, old country and new country. I have a father to lose, but not yet. I have moments in which to be present with him. I have time, still, to remember all we have in common, and to let our differences dim quietly while the love we share, the one real thing that will remain of either of us, shines.