The basement had many rooms. Some were filled with spiders and dead bugs, snake skins and mice. I avoided them. The main room had a pool table and that’s where many gatherings of friends in high school took place. On the other side of the brick wall facing the front of the house was my father’s woodworking shop. We were encouraged to leave it alone and not to bother Dad while he was creating. It was that forbidden zone, that world of noise from machinery, where the seed of curiosity for making things took root.
While knocking the horizontal pyramid rack of colored balls with the white ball, hoping one stripe or solid would land in a pocket, a three-quarter time with the hammer to the nail from the secret world my father inhabited would merge with it. It was a kind of pool-room, off-limits-room percussion lick. I pretended not to care that I was not included in his world and was too scared to ask to be. His time. He needed his time. But when alone in the house, I would go there and look at the frame molding he had stacked, the miter saw he had clamped to the table, the tools he had hanging from the white board, the shape of each traced in black sharpie, the table saw with its sharp blade and light brown powder coating the lower horizontal tubing, and the cut-off milk jugs filled with every nail and bolt and screw ever needed. Who taught him all this? Did his father? He was a lumber man after all, cutting the oldest trees in these mountains, a man who forever changed the landscape to feed his eight children. Houses were built from his wood, including my mother’s parents—the Major General and his wife Grace’s house that I now own, next door to my childhood home, built with the wood from my Grandfather Warner’s warehouse.
In a corner of the red concrete basement floor of my father’s workshop, I see a table in the making. Drawers are being constructed. I study the dovetail joining he’s used. It looks complicated. I study the carving tools he’s using for the drawer handles. The wood is so smooth, perfectly carved. I imagine him in this space with his tongue on one side, getting gnawed by his teeth. That was always the sign that he was in the zone, far away from us, translating his brilliant ideas into tangible pieces that filled our house. Cherry Lane was his museum, and all who came to visit remarked on the unique trappings they had never seen anywhere else.
It’s 1986 and all of my father’s tools and machinery have been gathering dust and spider webs since 1979 when he left us, thirty days of waiting and searching, searching and waiting, until coon hunters found his body in the mighty French Broad River. I haven’t wanted to enter this room, dead wood skin piled in a pyramid, half done frames and partially done tables as reminders of all the areas of his life unfinished. I haven’t been strong enough to take it all in. One more day and he could’ve completed a few projects. One more day and he could’ve changed his mind from pulling the trigger. One more day and he could’ve instead been pulling the blade of his saw across an ornate length of frame.
I look around, take it all in, and know he is aware that I am here, sneaking into this dark forbidden zone. I open small plastic drawers where crisp translucent beetle remains mingle with nuts and washers. I find a scribbled note that makes no sense, and a drawing of a woman adorned in Picasso’s flair for asymmetry. It makes me want to look further, for any clue as to why he left me. In another drawer is a drawing of something he never made, and a collection of brass screws that look ancient. I flip through the pages of woodworking books and nothing falls out. Is this how he learned his craft? He read all these books? I lift the heavy bibles knowing I will never read these, never follow a map for frame building from these pages. I will learn from someone. I will involve a person, a class. I will not go it alone. But Dad? He always went it alone.
I take the contents of his room to Chapel Hill. The forbidden fruit is now in my shed. I have no clue how to use these items. They are heavy. They are old. I don’t see the same sanders at any hardware store. Were they his father’s? I will never know. I take a woodworking class. I make simple tables. I turn on the table saw and wonder how many have lost fingers to that blade. My mitered cuts need wood filler. Not an exact cut. His always were. Where am I going wrong? What am I not doing? There goes another piece of wood to the burning pile. Another fuck up. Determined, I make frames. I buy a biscuit cutter and a bag of biscuits. I learn to frame tiles. He did. But how did he paint that antique look on them? What kind of paint did he use? Why didn’t he notice my curious face?
I try to like the table saw. I try not to feel the fear. It’s a lion, not a cat. Every time I pull a board through it my heart races. A board gets stuck, pulls back, flies out and I am done for the day. This is not my muse. So I sell the table saw. I move instead to pottery. He loved pottery. I have plates he made, mugs he threw. The bottom of each has a drawing of a ram. Why a ram? He did graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill but he never watched sports. He wasn’t a Tarheel fan. I decide to copy his signature onto my pieces. I draw the ram. It makes me feel like he’s centering the clay with me, experimenting with glazes with me, opening the kiln after it’s cooled with me, and either celebrating or condemning the outcome.
Then in 1993 I decide to learn to weld. I had spent quite a bit of time on area farms and all the thrown-away, rusted tools piled high and choked from kudzu intrigued me. Instead of the fear I had using the table saw, I was drawn to the fire from the torch, enamored with the metal chop saw, all right with the grinder spewing gold sparklers into the air. I took to it. It became my career. And all through the years of doing commission work, from restaurant signs to sculpture for museums and private individuals, my father has been there with me. When at 2:00 a.m., trying to complete a commission on a deadline, I would be needing a certain kind of hinge or screw, and after exhausting my supply, I would go to the lined-up milk jugs still filled with Dad’s purchases and find the exact piece of hardware I needed. Those moments helped me appreciate the value of my father and were always a comfort. I knew, though I couldn’t see him, couldn’t touch him, couldn’t feel his arms hugging me, that he was right beside me protecting me as I executed often dangerous tasks alone.
They didn’t believe in paying money for wrapping paper, so little on a roll and hard to burn, waxy film polluting the air. Instead, they used a four-foot roll of white paper from the company where he worked and adorned each wrapping with magic markers or water colors or poems, he always adding some oversized face with exaggerated features—double chin, hairy warts, large teeth, wild hairs. Or a glamour girl, with long lashes, large lips, and jewels elaborately painted. Christmas Eve he hardly slept. So many presents to wrap. So many toys to assemble. They found gifts at thrift stores. They solicited garbage men to collect thrown-away stuffed animals for them to wrap. He made us a doll house. He made the miniature furniture. He sewed the curtains and stuffed the small sofa. He drew small faces and framed them for the walls.
We spend our Sundays at an old house atop a hill, the wraparound porch creating a dark interior. The yard is large with an abundance of ancient shrubs. For hours we play hide and seek, while he, perched on a wicker chair, studies the Chinese scrolls whoever living in the old house owns, and with small brush in hand, copies them onto the thin scrap wood he picked up somewhere.
Done in watercolor, Empress Dowager Cixi’s face shows her parched lips, her aged high cheekbones, and her cat eyes. As Xuantong Emperor’s concubine, she took over his reign after his death and remained in power for forty-seven years, about the length of time these portraits have hung on my wall. There are crystals and doves and beads and an ornate headpiece with jewels hanging from the sides down to her breasts. Her red robe is filled with gold dragons and serpents.
The male figure is unknown. Not of similar rank, he has a simple dark blue robe with a white dove at his chest. The intricate lines in his face and hers, done in watercolor, is an astonishing artistic accomplishment. And as he painted them, his four kids ran around the yard in wild abandon, screaming when we were caught.
It is January, 1979 and I am back in LA after being home for Christmas. I tried to talk to Dad while home, but he was too absorbed at work and in the armor exhibit he’d created at the Asheville Art Museum. By the end of the day his conversations slurred into jabber. I was hurt and offended by his drinking, and I was very worried about him. I left Asheville an empty vessel; the opposite of what I’d hoped would happen while home. I write him a quick letter explaining how upset I was that we didn’t have any time together and how I hoped he would quit drinking. Much easier for truth 2300 miles away.
A week later, a bulging envelope arrives. I unfold what is a three-foot length of the four-foot roll of white paper. On one side, he writes all about what is happening at work, what his health is showing, how he is planning to stop drinking and go on the Scarsdale Diet with Mom, and how much he hopes I’ll come home for the summer so we can make up for the time lost at Christmas. The back side is a drawing of a snake that weaves around the entire sheet, curling in large circles on the paper, just like the serpents in Cixi’s robe. The body of the snake has scribbles and drawn eyes every twelve inches, eyes within eyes in a noose-shaped snake.
The face at the top right corner is of a woman. She has on a Braque-shaped black large hat, and she has long curved lashes. Covering her nose and mouth are seven thick fingers that grow out of the body of the snake. Every other finger has an elaborate ring and the nails are long, black and pointed up towards the eyes. Her hair is eleven long wild Medusa-style strands with eyes drawn throughout. Her neck and shoulders are fish scales. The tail of the snake comes to a curled point with an eye in the curl. Beside the pointed end of the eye he writes, “SyeClone,” and out of the corner of the eye he has a line to the word “Sigh Clops.” Sye is the primary language spoken on the island of Erromangan in the Tafea region of the Vanuatu Islands. Looking at this drawing, I feel about as far away as that island and as clueless about its meaning as I am about their language. Out of this cyclonic snake, he has birthed a cyclone in me.
At twenty, I find this letter frightening. Floundering in my own life, studying drama in a theatre school made up mostly of beautiful thin blondes, I am overweight with bad skin and self-doubt. I’d flown home at Christmas hoping my depression would diminish in the company of my family. Instead, I felt further removed. Dad’s letter spirals me into fear. He felt safe giving me this intimate disclosure, which he’d never before done. I am handed a baby I didn’t birth and am expected to raise it, understand it, and fix its defects. I am the chosen one, but drowning in my own deficiencies, the letter holds me hostage. When I learn that no one else in the family received the letter, which in itself was odd since Round Robins are our method of communicating in the family, I convince myself that the only choice I have is to come home for the summer and be Dad’s Florence Nightingale. Until my return home, I study the letter, wondering what inner tumult, what tropical storms and depressions my father is facing daily in his life and internally in his psyche that would produce this extravagant a letter and drawing. Who is the snake in his life? Who represents the savage one-eyed mythical giant?
His words are justifications, confessions for his behavior. “Alarming high blood pressure, mixed with the onset of the Russian Flu.” These various health issues are explained as things he doesn’t understand. They are new and unwelcome experiences.
“I shut out whatever might have been another chip in my marble,” he writes, “and gave you and no one a chance to penetrate. I don’t know that I’ve gone far enough to remove all armor but at least my physical and emotional needs now pose less demand on the arms-length distance that had until recently been my armor. You are right. This summer there will be plenty a mountain to climb, and we’ll do in the weight loss from Scarsdale with our rounds of working over the hot stove. There is nothing Mom and I would like more.”
It is the fall of 2011 and I have completed a stint as sous chef at Le Chateau Du Pin in the Loire Region of France. Several years after my mother died, I found in the bottom of one of her many boxes, mostly of Hallmark cards thanking her for a great party, a nineteen-page story my father wrote about his time in France during WWII. I never thought he fought in the Great War. He never spoke about it.
With his story in hand, I take a train from Angers to Strasbourg and rent a car. My French is minimal. I buy detailed maps and head south to Barr, Dambach, and all the small villages he mentions fighting in during the worst winter France had had on record. My goal is to visit every place he writes about all through the Alsace and Vognes Mountains, where his division of falling dominos was up against a monstrous force. Battle of the Bulge. Battle of the psyche. And then, after the earth turned green and flowers bloomed, he helped free the concentration camps of barely moving bones and protruding eyes, so little life left for gratitude.
I’m in a sundress as I drive, the sky a deep autumn blue, clouds of vertebrae matching the survivors’ backsides as he lifted them towards the sun. Rays of light fall on the flat expansive fields in front of me to the wall of steep mountains where Barr lies. I stop to read from Dad’s nineteen pages:
“By nightfall the column had advanced several miles and was still going ahead, much to the discomfort of the men who were shivering so violently in the cold rain that they were no longer concerned with the enemy as much as in getting warm and donning dry clothes. The infantry shivered uncontrollably.”
Following the signs to the town center, I park and walk through an open door to a courtyard to discover my first clue of his journey:
“Aux Soldats Americains De La VII Armee Du General Patch Qui Ont Libere La Cite Le 28 Novembre 1944 La Ville De Barr Reconnaissante”
From Barr I travel to Scherwiller, Kaysersberg, Le Hohwald, and all through the deep windy roads of the Vosges Mountains, mimicking the Blue Ridge Parkway near my home in Asheville, until I come across the remains of the prison camp of Schirmeck-Vorbruck that Hitler opened in 1941. It overlooks the beautiful Bruche Valley and, over the course of three years, 52,000 prisoners mined pink granite out of the quarry. Experiments were done there. Many thousands died at the hands of men with eyes impervious to the breathtaking beauty of the valley below. Or perhaps they felt the beauty and were moved by the majestic wonder, while they were torturing their victims. Perhaps they even had Chopin playing through the loudspeaker system as they pitch-forked the dead remains into holes dug by the starved alive. And then, I land in Haguenau, where nothing quaint exists. The war bombed the best, later replaced with concrete institutional buildings. I see an old cathedral and drive straight to it. The History Museum. I walk through elaborate iron gates and ask for anything from WWII. The man behind the desk speaks English. He points me upstairs, saying no need to pay since there isn’t much to see. I view the helmets and guns behind glass, look at the photos to see if Dad is in them, and return downstairs, ready to leave this war-torn town. The man stops me.
“I’m never at this desk. I am usually installing exhibits around the world from our collection. The person manning this desk is sick so I took his place. Come back at six and I will show you something only I know is here.”
I wander the streets, listen to an old man’s horn band, watch kids run around and old couples dance in the town square, and photograph the few old buildings I see, thinking my father had seen those same buildings, perhaps hid out in them, slept in them.
At six, I return to the museum. The man locks the large heavy doors from inside. We are alone. No one knows I’m here. I study his eyes, study the books he laid out on the table after I left, of photos during the war in Haguenau. I notice buildings in the photos that match the photos I have taken. I share the pictures I have just shot and we laugh that they are in the ones he’s found, only his are black and white, with rubble and dead bodies in front of the buildings. Mine are in color, with blooming flowers in pots at entranceways. He asks me what I’m writing about. I show him the nineteen-page story. I share how my father never spoke of the war. He shares that he too fought in wars. He shares that he too can’t speak about it. I share my father’s suicide. He shares his wife’s many attempts. He shares his own struggles with depression. His eyes are kind. I know I am safe.
I follow him up a spiral staircase, through a locked security door, past offices, through another padlocked door, through a large room filled with donated art, everything from large turtle shells to armor. We pass through another door and wind our way up a spiral wooden staircase filled with dead birds and spiders and feces until we reach a door at the top of the stairs. I am hoping my intuition is correct. I am hoping I can trust this stranger. He opens the wooden door to a large brick-walled room with high ceilings and few windows. In the center of the room is the mechanism for the clock hanging on the outside steeple. The mechanism has a large white sheet covering it. A long narrow window jutting out has walls of brick on either side. He crosses over to it and motions me to join him. And there, along the left brick wall, are hand drawn faces done in pencil. They cover the wall. They are familiar. One has a triple chin. Another has elaborate jewels. Long lashes. Exaggerated mouth. He points to the drawings on the opposite brick wall.
“This is where the American soldiers stayed during the war,” he says. “I’m the only one who knows about these drawings. And here’s a man’s initials carved in the brick.”
I look down and see, ANW, and know those initials. They are his. He held the knife that chipped away at that ancient brick. I see the face he drew on a gift to me in ’64. I see another similar to the one accompanying the poem he wrote for my sixteenth birthday. I stare a long time, wanting to stay all night, with dead birds strewn about and bats hanging in corners. I want to wrap myself up in the cloth covering the clock mechanism. I want to lean against the brick wall, and be in the space he was in at twenty-one. Me in my sundress listening to music and children laughing below. He listening to bombs land all around him shaking the walls and floor, and shivering from the relentless cold that winter brought.
Drawing for sanity? Chipping for the future, knowing one day, if he lived, his offspring would find his many faces? I weep next to a stranger. The messenger. I study another drawing that resembles the monkey he drew for my twelfth birthday card. I was his monkey, he always said.