he only French my father ever knew ever will know is: Salut Marie plein de grace. More than most people learn in a lifetime – less than some but more than most.
At the Mane Event hair salon, my sister Ann sat in a smooth red chair toward the back, a good distance from the door. Her regular hairdresser had a bad cold. My sister's hair had been wrapped around tubes of plastic. Cotton plugged her ears. She found it difficult to hear anything, only muffled voices.
He had sent Mother shopping. She stood in produce, discussing lettuce and cauliflower, and asking when, if ever, the artichokes were going to be in season. He preferred asparagus but once there had bcen seven children eating at the table; once asparagus had been impractical; now, she glanced away out of habit, out of care.
My father had turned fifty-nine four months earlier.
I was not there. I was on the beach with the children, my children. I showed them how coconuts float. They learned. We laughed. Debbie found a crippled crab. He had lost a leg. "He'll grow another, " I told her. Then I thought of Father, eight hundred miles away, who couldn't grow back what he had lost.
Every year butterflies migrate from the East Coast to Mexico. They flutter over the South Carolina beaches, thick as snowflakes, on fragile wings. Robert watched Debbie bounce a coconut in the waves. From where I stood it resembled a severed head. Above me butterflies flew into one another clumsy and fearless.
And Father, in his chair, died. Nobody but the dog was home. On the television, the '76 Olympic Games went on without him. Even in death he did not slouch. Ann stopped by around seven and found him. She put her mouth against his and breathed air into him. It came back to her. His lungs could not accept the gift. Later she said she missed saving him by seconds. But later each of us said many things – clumsy and fearless things.
We knew it would never happen.
When Ann called she said, "Are you sitting down?" as if it would make a difference. Father had been sitting down. Sitting down will not get you to Mexico; sitting down will not teach you about floating coconuts; you sit down and someone fixes your hair; someone does your shopping.
On the plane I thought of all the wonderful words my father had taught me during our long walks through Coconut Grove. Words like anthropomorphological, benevolent, magnanimous, mnemonic. For each word he had paid me one penny. Father's pennies were always new, because new pennies lasted longer than old ones. I ordered a vodka tonic from the flight attendant and swore I could feel my father's large, calloused hand squeezing my tiny fingers.
We drove to the wake in white limousines. Everyone came, fluttering from brother to sister to me to Mother. Father was widely loved. Salut Marie plein de grace. Food cluttered Mother's antique tables. They had not been antiques when Mother and Father bought them—they had been new.
I did not eat.
Planes roared overhead, marines from Father's squadron. A Lieutenant handed my mother a flag. Her eyes looked up. What am I supposed to do with this? I knew what she thought, as strongly as I knew my father's heart. I smelled flowers. I found it difficult to hear what the Lieutenant said.
While standing before the casket, looking at Father, thinking what am I going to do with this, my brother Edward gripped my shoulder. In his fingers lived my father's strength.
Nine days later Mother began hemorrhaging in Father's chair. Ann rushed her to Mercy Hospital near the bay. For sixteen hours she talked about her childhood, before Father. Shortly before she died she asked Edward to pick her up at the airport. The doctor told me it was delirium.
We sat together in the lobby, Ann, Edward and myself. No one spoke. The walls seemed unusually bright, like beach sand at high noon. The hands on the clock did not move. Orderlies plodded by us; their shoes slapped the linoleum. I heard wings.
I decided to tell the children, but couldn't find the number.
Edward had to fly back to Chicago, so Ann and I were left to clean out the house. I took the upstairs. In Father's den, wrapped in a hand-embroidered handkerchief that Mother had given him, I found an unopened roll of pennies. I broke the roll open. Each shiny penny had been minted fifteen years earlier.
I took one penny and held it tightly in my hand. Downstairs I heard Ann talking on the phone.
"Yes, this is the residence. I'm sorry, nobody's home."
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