The Unbearable Lightness of Being My Father

By  |  June 12, 2018
“Horse Swimming,” by Jenny Sathngam “Horse Swimming,” by Jenny Sathngam

Hawaii fragments


 

I have a photograph of him from a few years before I was born. The late seventies, Tennessee. A tan, compact man, not more than a hundred twenty pounds, he crouches forward on a speeding horse, he and the horse all muscle, jumping a hurdle of wood that looks like a section of fence. Horse and rider suspended high above the dirt track. Between the moment the shutter snapped open and closed again, and thus, for all time, they defy gravity. My father’s feet tight in the stirrups, legs clenched around the horse’s middle, he floats above the horse, just a feather on its back. 

My mother told me he was with another woman while she labored me into this world. Umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, I emerged blue, unable to breathe, with no father before me. The cord was cut. I found my breath. They split up, divorced, he left. I have no memories. He must have come around sometimes to see us, for I have another photograph of him holding me as a baby in front of the old farmhouse. I wear a peach bonnet, looking dumbstruck at the camera on that spring morning, he waving. Around his wrist is tied a bundle of strings, each one leading to a pastel balloon that floats above my head. 

A memory light as helium, a memory like mist in which I can see nothing. But I have these photographs, a word that means the writing of light. Like figures, we emerge from the fog of forgetting, our light captured, framed. I go to look at them again and again, pressed behind the glass.

And sometimes I fly through a hole in the sky, above the clouds, thousands of miles through the atmosphere, to an island, to see him, as I did last night. Knoxville to Denver to L.A. to Kona, Big Island. He lives here in Hawaii, has lived here since I was five; this is my ninth visit. In a rural northern part of the island, my father has built rudimentary living quarters into a barn, a steel structure open on all sides to the air and old with rust. I arrived late, in the dark, knew my way around without lights, my feet finding the familiar path around the banyan tree and to the outdoor bathroom, careful not to step on frogs. I settled into my bed in the back of the barn, gazed at the leaves of the banana tree silhouetted in moonlight, and slept as if home. 

This is my second visit in the past ten years. My father is sixty-seven. I am thirty-five. As greeting this morning, heating water for coffee on the propane camp stove, he complained that Social Security is trying to cut out a portion of his monthly check for never-paid child support, eighteen years’ worth. Then he rode away on his mower across the road to the macadamia-nut orchard where he works cutting grass in wide circles and arcs around the trees all day. As he rode off, I snapped a photo. 

I am here to gather what substance I can, the light and I writing him into photographs and onto the pages of my notebooks. I am here to claim what’s mine: if not a father, then my story of him, these fragments of memory. 

 

Fragments of history. As cowboy culture grew in the American West, it arrived in the Polynesian nation of Hawaii on a boat, in 1793, as a gift of five head of cattle from Captain George Vancouver to King Kamehameha. Vancouver had been with Captain Cook on his voyage fifteen years earlier when he was the first European to land there. In 1793, Vancouver was on a mission to continue Cook’s work, mapping and charting the Pacific, and giving it European place-names. He docked in Monterey, California—then part of Mexico—picked up some cattle, and headed back to the Pacific. He did this a few times, dropping off cattle in Hawaii as “gifts,” with the intention of establishing a breeding stock to supply other foreign ships. King Kamehameha set the cattle free to roam the slopes of Mauna Kea, an extinct volcano, and, at Vancouver’s urging, placed a kapu, or ban, on hunting them. 

As the cattle herd bred and proliferated into the thousands, colonizers, missionaries, and men of commerce brought Hawaii deeper into the American fold, unstitching it from the Pacific-Islander diaspora of which it was geographically and culturally a part. When the nineteen-year-old Massachusetts sailor John Palmer Parker landed in Hawaii two decades after Vancouver, he took note of the cattle and sailed back home to fetch his musket. When he came back, he married the king’s granddaughter, acquired several hundred acres on which he began to hunt the feral cattle, and established a thriving beef industry that replaced sandalwood as the island’s chief export. 

In 1832, the monarchy invited a few Mexican vaqueros to come lasso cattle. In Hawaii, the Spanish-speaking vaqueros were known as paniolos, the word said to be a corruption of Español. The paniolos taught the Hawaiians to herd and lasso cattle, until paniolo came to refer to the Hawaiian cowboys themselves. Over time, Parker began to domesticate the animals and raise them in fenced pastures. His land would become the present-day Parker Ranch, now one of the oldest and largest in the nation, and the heart of paniolo country. 

In the United States, the government acquired the northern portions of Mexico—present-day Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California, and the western parts of Colorado and New Mexico—in 1848, after the Mexican-American War. The Gold Rush began, and the myth of the West became firmly ingrained in the American consciousness, with the cowboy as its emblem, an enactment of independence and individualism. 

In 1959, America opened its newest frontier. It was beyond the farthest west of the continent, west of the West and into the ocean, at the end of the rainbow. With statehood, Hawaii became the nation’s farthest western outpost, in the wilderness of the Pacific, and many individuals rode off into that eternal sunset to claim their fortunes or freedom. 

My father was born in East Tennessee, which had itself been a frontier, called the Southwest Territory, at the time Vancouver brought cattle to Hawaii. In the 1940s, my father’s mother’s first husband was shot down by the sheriff in the street during an argument. After she was made a widow, the Tennessee Valley Authority relocated my grandmother and her eight children when it built the Cherokee Dam that would flood their land on the Holston River. Later, she married my grandfather and then had two more children, making ten, my father the last of them. I have a photograph of him as a young boy, sitting on a pony, squinting into the sun’s glare. He would become a horse jockey and a farrier. When my mother met him, he’d come to shoe her horses. They married, had two children—my brother and, three years later, me—and then my father was out of the picture. 

In 1988, some two hundred years after Vancouver arrived by boat with his gift of cattle, my father arrived in Hawaii, where he would eventually end up working for Parker Ranch. 

 

He sent a photograph when he got to the island. He stands on a cliff with his shirt off, ocean behind him, wind blowing his hair. At his feet is a campfire, orange flames streaking across the image. At five, I wondered how the heat of the fire would feel, whipped by ocean’s winds, how the sea-spray smelled as it turned vaporous above the jagged rocks. I don’t remember thinking that my father was running. What I remember thinking is, My father is free

I sunk into the fatherless land: Boyd’s Creek, in the French Broad River Valley, the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. In that solemn, timeless country we lived—my mother, brother, and me. We grew our vegetables, harvested and canned them, rode our horses, watched the seasons turn in the fields as if an invisible painter were changing palettes of colors. 

All of life buzzed around me. Grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, katydids. The hayfields grew high through the summer. The cows lowed mournful at dusk, and the stars spun. And in winter the fields were brown, struck with sun and cold. The land was bigger then, more serious, hallowed. Little clouds of my breath and the horses’ were like a seen, not spoken, language: There is a hidden fire inside. We are alive. I breathed, in and out, watching the puffs. The horses’ soft animal noses were warm furnaces against my cheek. 

I sunk deeper and deeper in. Roots ruptured out through the soles of my feet and snaked down through the soil. They intertwined with the sycamores’, with the hickories’, pushed past the flint points of arrows, past potsherds and rusted implements, grazed bones. 

I stood on the earth, and it held me up: home of my father’s birth, his childhood. My mother’s home. My mother’s mother’s and her grandmother’s and her great-grandmother’s and her great-great-grandmother’s, and so on. My father’s father’s and his grandfather’s and his great-grandfather’s and his great-great-grandfather’s, and so on again. Many generations, in all directions, my roots went down into that soil. 

But one thread now stretched away, a root-tendril pulled loose, finest silk. Almost like a wisp of smoke, it led to the island. We heard from him once a year or so. 

 

A singular memory comes to me now. In the field along the creek, my mother and I ride a strawberry roan. I sit in the front, she behind me, a wool blanket and saddle beneath us. The horse is bitted and reined, and I hold the reins. We rest in the field, letting the horse graze, feel the late-summer sun warm us. I tie the reins together and lie back against my mother. The reins drop, the horse grazes, her muscles rippling at the touch of flies, tail swishing the air. Then the horse steps through the reins and is caught in them, leather strap looped around her leg. She bucks and rears up, and we slide backward, losing our grip while the horse bucks higher. A man then steps from the edge of the field, pulls a gutting knife from his boot and folds it open. He approaches in fast strides, not running, and cuts loose the reins. The leather slackens from the horse’s leg, and she stops bucking, sets down her hooves and shudders under us. And the man recedes again to the edge of the field, beyond. 

Who was the man? I remember men like this, stepping out from the vignette edges and receding again into the shadows. A man in that fatherless land, I remember him, if not for his face or figure, then for his keeping me from harm, taking care of me, as a father might do. Just his being there. 

Then there was a man who lived in the hollow down the road, in a cabin with a dog named Bear. He played the banjo, the jaw harp, and the “gittar,” and he carved faces into wood. I adored him. He built us a log house in a clearing on the hill that rose into the woods at the far end of our property. We moved out of our farmhouse, he moved out of his cabin, and we all lived together on the hill, with the hackberries and beeches and oaks gathered around us, and he was my father then. We tilled and turned the soil and planted and harvested. 

He had a ferocious temper, though, that father. Spankings after supper became a ritual, his anger’s sacrament. He took me into the bedroom, closed the door, took the homemade paddle with the holes bored into it down from the peg, made me hold my ankles. After, he pushed my face into the mirror, told me to look how ugly I was when I cried. 

He now denies everything; there must be holes in his memory. He wanted me out of the house, that father, and so my mother sent me away in the fifth grade, when I was ten years old, to live on the island with my real father. The night she told me, I wept into the walls of my bedroom, and it seeped through the cracks and into the woods, where the owls perched wide-eyed on branches, looking into the dark. 

Two weeks later, I flew alone to the island. 

 

It was my first airplane trip. My face glued to the window, I saw the whole country for the first time, its mountains rising and plains stretching, the land unscrolling below—an island, too, but a behemoth one—until it finally dropped into the ocean. Then the plane was hours over the black sea. Hours of crossing the featureless dark with the hum of the engines and the cold air seeping in at the panes. 

Then, the islands: they appeared as specks of a new earth rising out of the blue. It seemed unlikely that they held life—trees, vines, flowers, spiders, frogs, birds, cats, dogs, cows, pigs, goats, horses—and people, one of them my father. He came to fetch me at the airport with a lei of fragrant blossoms he hung around my neck, and his girlfriend and her son, with whom we’d be living. Mary and my father would be getting married in only a few months, and would I be her flower girl? she asked me, as we drove from the airport that was surrounded by sharp lava and down the highway toward the green northern tip of the island, where they lived. In the backseat, my soon-to-be stepbrother Jesse, a Japanese-Hawaiian boy, teased me with endless questions. What is Tennessee like? Are you poor? 

That night my father went out and I stayed up late with Mary, waiting on him to return. I watched Mary grow worried, glancing periodically at the clock above the door, until, finally, she sent me to bed. It was a futon-mattress on the floor in an empty room down the hallway, and I must have slept, because I woke confused at the sound of voices—my father’s voice in the house, coming through the walls, waking me from dreams for the first time in my memory, it must have been strange and familiar at once. I was frightened, hearing his footsteps, Mary’s voice rising, and then the slamming of the door, the firing of the truck engine and the low rattle of the walls as he pulled away, and then the little bungalow was left in quiet. 

In the morning we went to see him at the barn where he’d slept, just down the road, the barn he lives in now, twenty-five years later. It had been used during the height of the sugar-industry era to process cane for the mill. It has a concrete floor and three large bays, a corrugated tin roof coming to an apex at the center, some thirty feet high—more like an airplane hangar than a barn. Then, my father kept his horses there, a team of Belgians that he’d somehow acquired (he’d worked on the harvests in the macadamia-nut orchards in his first years there: something I know now but did not know or wonder about then). He pastured the horses in the field that stretched behind the barn. He and Mary had started a business in which they took tourists on old-time horse-and-carriage rides down to the coast, for a picnic or to get married. On the cliffs, the palis, that tower above the ocean, he would let the horses amble in the soft undulating grasses as the waves crashed into the rocks far below. 

I watched that morning as he filled troughs with water from a garden hose, fed the horses, washed and brushed them. He may have been readying them to pull the carriage. As he worked, he may have said he was sorry about the night before, sorry if I’d been frightened, sorry he wasn’t there. He may have said anything, but it’s all lost to me. What I remember is the smell of horses, of hay. I remember my father’s blue jeans and boots, finely woven into my subconscious, and that I felt suddenly, arising out of the past, though I hadn’t seen him in so many years, the impression that my father existed, was a person, textural. 

He is there in these thin yet visible brush strokes, and then he is not there, blurry. The truth is I cannot remember much of my father during the time I lived on the island with him. For the months I was there, I kept a cheap 20-mm plastic camera around my wrist and snapped an album of badly framed photographs. In it there are shots of ocean waves; the sky; my schoolmates and me smiling, hair billowing, in front of the King Kamehameha statue in town; strangers, adults, from a low angle, dancing at my father and Mary’s wedding; a far-away one of my father and Mary on the dance floor, not looking into the camera, not noticing I was taking their photograph. There’s one of Jesse and me riding a horse through our neighborhood—out of focus, slanted, it was taken by a friend my age. I am barefoot and laughing. 

I remember walking with my friends along the road from school, several miles, past the Japanese cemetery with its kanji on the gravestones and vines hanging and looping around the edges, and going to the store for snacks and candy. I remember being dropped off at the movie theater on Friday nights to join a pack of children. We threw popcorn and spilled our sodas in the old Mission-style one-screen theater house, with no parents accompanying us. 

After I’d danced hula in the May Day celebration, been the flower girl in the wedding, and graduated fifth grade at Kohala Elementary, I was called to return home. My stepfather would give me another chance, I was told. When I flew away, the airplane lifted into the sky and I looked down on the island from above, watched the sheer contours of each valley and mountain grow distinct with the height—feeling at first the tug of gravity, and then weightlessness, as the contours grew softer and the island began to fade, becoming very small, a dot. It was contained within itself, surrounded by blankness. And then it was invisible, the ocean swallowing it. 

 

I was eleven then, when I left the island. I would go home to Tennessee and live the rest of my childhood, which had suddenly slipped away and was not childhood anymore but adolescence, and would soon become my teenage years, which I spent drinking, riding in fast cars, and kissing in backseats. I wouldn’t hear from my father much, and I don’t remember thinking of him. It was all nothing to me, really. I told my stepfather I hated him as he pinned me against the door before I left the house one day, telling me I looked like a slut in the clothes I wore. He and my mother divorced. Mom got a job at the Kroger deli. 

At the homecoming football game, the other girls’ fathers escorted them across the field for their homecoming-princess promenade. I asked my boyfriend’s father to escort me. I took his arm lightly, barely knowing him, and I felt he was embarrassed, as if taking on a charitable duty. I floated across the bright field next to him but alone in that football stadium of fathers and daughters, the lines of the field like a box that I was confined in but could not fit into. 

I would graduate salutatorian and give a speech, quoting from Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata,” which I had hung on my bedroom wall. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. . . . With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. 

 

When I returned to Hawaii at nineteen, the summer after my freshman year of college, my father and Mary had divorced and he was living at the barn, into which he’d built his living quarters. Through the spreading banyan—a tree that sends its ropy limbs down to become roots over time—he had constructed stairs that led up to a wooden platform where he slept, which was screened in on all sides, with geckos clinging to the screens. There was a screened-in kitchen below it, where he cooked meat or vegetables in a skillet on a propane camp stove; a fire pit in the front, for chilly nights; and a bathroom to the side with two toilets set into the concrete floor and a shower that came out of the wall. 

He was fifty then, and had settled, not into a family or a lucrative career, but into this lightness. He preached to me the virtues of having little, living simply, of being free of the ties that bind, and I never thought, free of a daughter. He told me that he was happy this way. 

He always emphasized this, in the six consecutive summers that I visited during college and after, to get to know him: how he regretted nothing, how he had the life he wanted. He never asked if I was happy. It wasn’t that I wasn’t, but he never asked. We drank beers together with his buddies, smoked joints. I was in college; my father was fun. My father lived in Hawaii. I was lucky. 

I did and did not notice my own curious burden, as I drifted and explored the island, that island that was some kind of home to me and in which I was an outsider, searching for I-didn’t-know-what. I knelt down on the sands, slept on a beach of rounded stones, and heard everywhere the wind blowing through the valleys. I went to see the volcano erupting out in thick rivers of magma that poured red into the sea. Nights, I slept at my father’s barn in a bed with a curtain, listened to the rains that the trade winds carried over the mountains. I dropped into heavy dreams. 

Mornings, in the faint light, with roosters crowing through the trees and the garbled talk of doves, I would lie awake and listen as he got out of bed (the floor creaking), got dressed (jeans, flannel shirt, vest), and descended the stairs, his boots striking each one, down to the kitchen where he boiled his water for coffee, and left for work. 

By then he worked on Parker Ranch, in Waimea, across the mountain, where Kamehameha set the cattle to roaming all those years ago, and where the first paniolos were made. Higher in elevation, the land is perpetually shrouded in mists. There my father drove a wagon with his horses, out across the lush upland pastures of the ranch, giving tours to island visitors who signed up to ride along. A few times a day they would step up into the wagon—sometimes very few of them, sometimes a larger group of travelers—my father sitting on the seat in front in a cowboy hat, holding the reins. 

Sometimes I went to take the tour, alongside other tourists. It was a wooden wagon he had built from an old truck bed, with two long benches on either side and a pointed roof, like Noah’s Ark, to shield from the light rains that fell on and off as the wagon undulated across the rolling fields, entered pockets of heavier clouds, and emerged from them, the whole landscape dreamlike.

Pulled by the pale, stout horses, we listened as he told us the history of the paniolo culture in Hawaii. I sat on the wagon’s bench behind my father as he talked. I sat and listened as if cocooned in that place, that time, enveloped in those clouds of mist that we drifted into and out of, wrapped in one of the wool blankets that my father provided to the tour’s guests. When prompted with questions from the visitors, my father told about himself, his history as a jockey in Tennessee, and how he ended up in Hawaii to work with horses—the first time I learned those things about him. I wasn’t in his story. I tried to work myself into it, but I couldn’t. You are a child of the universe. 

 

At the end of each summer, I went back to my life in Tennessee. As the airplane took off, I watched the valleys open, the coast slip by, the plane rounding the tip of the island, lifting higher and higher, until the island went out of focus, disappeared finally, and the ocean spread out into a surface of shimmering mirrors. For another year my father faded into the space in me that he had begun to occupy, an island in the fabric of my regular existence. There was a phone call once a year or so, and always the photographs that I took and pasted into albums. 

And then when summer arrived, I followed again the thread back to a place that continued to gain substance, detail. New earth was always being made; I went to see the volcano seeping and oozing out as magma, then hardening into rock. I learned that the current eruption of Kīlauea began the year I was born. I sat and studied naupaka shrubs, milo trees, plumeria blossoms, kiawe, sketched them into my journals. I tried to fill the blank pages with ink. 

On Saturday nights my father had the old men of the neighborhood over to drink and “talk story” under the banyan tree. Other fathers at home on the range. From his stereo he pumped country and western music into the darkness. Late in the night, after the men had gone home, a soft breeze blowing through the papery leaves of the banana tree, a winsome tune wavering from the speakers—Do not hasten to bid me adieu / Just remember the Red River Valley and the cowboy who loved you so true—both of us drunk, in light-headed contentment, my father would tell me he was proud of me, that he was happy I was there, his daughter, and I felt for those brief dizzy moments a drop of the honeyed feeling that I imagine one has when one has a father, and then he stumbled off to bed.

 

Fragments of memory. I am thirty-five now, well beyond my college years. My father is sixty-seven. The thread that leads me here: I have tried to trace it. Memory accumulates by increments and gathers dust in the interims. My brother has had his own relationship with our father, made his own way to him, us visiting separately. I haven’t spoken to my brother in a decade, for other reasons, and that is a different story. Slowly, I have had to put these fragments together on my own.

My father’s life keeps going, passes, as does mine; we get older, witness one another’s aging in these flashes of visits. In the years since I last saw him, he has grown his hair to his shoulders. I have become a writer—a piecer of things together, a reader of the writing of light. But my father doesn’t read much. I bring him some of my stories and later find them unopened, getting wet in the rain. At the grocery store, for a bag of potato chips, he counts out change from a glass jar, digging down into it with his half of an index finger (the other half lost to a staph infection), and I watch the cashier watching him, others in line behind us. Eight quarters, fourteen dimes, three pennies. 

Later in the afternoon, I run out to the coast as hard and fast as I can, out to where the ocean crashes, and I heave rocks off the cliffs, watch them plummet and then break noiselessly onto the rough beach below. Crying, because I know now that my father’s lightness is my weight. That I cannot be happy and free the way he has been. 

Tonight, he has gone to drink beer with a buddy of his, and he won’t return until late. So I wander the bays of the barn, his home, surveying his life. He sold off his horses years ago, since I last visited. The place is dusty and quiet, like an abandoned museum. I walk through, examining its relics. 

There are saddles, bridles, ropes hanging from the walls. A rusted pile of horseshoes with nails in them; a molded painting of Indians on horseback; a faded sign hanging from one of the rafters that says KOHALA CARRIAGES; empty bottles of Guinness Stout in six-packs, scraps of wood, a bucket of cleaned-out sardine cans; soured car batteries, propane tanks, chainsaws, a leaf blower, a weed trimmer, a gas can, deer antlers, leather gloves, cowboy boots, a pitchfork, a shovel, saddlebags, an array of baseball caps collecting dust; the Mailpouch Tobacco Indian on the door to his bedroom; a poster of Leon Russell with 1979 tour dates; a painted sign hanging in front, his motto: THE ROAD GOES ON FOREVER...AND THE PARTY NEVER ENDS; a yellow CARRIAGE XING sign with a black silhouette of a wagon and horses; an old wagon wheel and water troughs; a rotting picnic table, batteries, lighters, camo duct tape, a solar reading light, a mosquito zapper.

These are his things, the many-years’ accumulations of my father’s life. The weight and substance of it. These things are all he will leave me, if these things. 

Socks, an Easter basket, laceless ice skates beginning to dry rot. Seeing them, I have a memory: Before he moved away, he took my brother and me ice-skating in Gatlinburg, in the Smoky Mountains. My father skated across the ice, poised the blade of his right skate, leapt into the air, spun a circle, and sent his leg behind him in an arc, gliding away. I tried to follow in my skates, held on to the rail, shaky on my legs, not trusting the thin blade to hold me steady. Not seeing me, my father skated around the large rink, crystalline in the skylight-window winter sun, his skates shaving ice off in a spray of tiny glittering crystals. He sailed past me, I thought, but no, he swooped me into his arm, circled in front of me and took both my hands, held them as he faced me, skating backwards. He pulled me, smiling, never looking behind him.


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Holly Haworth received the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism. She was a Jackson Fellow at Hollins University, where she earned an MFA. Her work also appears in Orion, the On Being radio program blog, and Virginia Quarterly Review.