I had been trying to run away from home for almost as long as I had lived in one.
When I was 6, while we were summering in Florida, yes, summer in Florida (It was cheaper, said my mother), I collected all the pears that had fallen from a tree outside our little bungalow to fund my escape. I dragged my pillowcase down to the highway to sell the fruit. A few concerned citizens pulled over and bought all the pears, which not only were half-rotten but also had been dragged 15 blocks by a 6-year-old.
“What are you raising money for?” an elderly lady asked in a deep Southern accent. “I’s running away from home!” I answered, mimicking her accent.
I walked back to my family with an empty pillowcase, proud that I was $5 closer to striking out on my own.
Then there was the raft.
I have a vague recollection of my dad as a fun-loving guy in a faded white T-shirt wrestling my sister, brother and me on the living room floor in Bradley Beach, New Jersey.
It was a game he invented called “Get ‘em boys,” and I loved it. Long after my sister and brother hobbled away (Dad played rough; I guess the Navy had neglected to teach him the fine art of taking it easy on children.), I stayed in the game.
I would let Dad think he won, and then dive in for one more wrestling move. I always lost. Hey, I was 6, but I’d like to think I gave him a rough go of it.
As a budding tomboy, my GI Joe dad with his hammers and saws and Ford pick-up suited my tastes. I didn’t want to play with dolls; I wanted to dig in the dirt. But by the time I turned 7, something had changed, a seismic shift it took me decades to understand.
I suppose I started to look, despite my best efforts, like a girl. Dad pulled away. “Get ‘em boys!” was replaced by a harsh set of rules about what boys should do and what girls should do. The double standard left a cavernous divide in our house, my dad and brother on one side and my sister, mother and me on the other. The problem was that my little brother, the youngest of us, wanted in on Mom’s side, and well, as I said, I wanted to dig in the dirt. My sister, with her growing doll collection and aspirations to be the next Miss America was just fine where she was.
My brother was bought a catcher’s mitt and baseball bat. He was sent out for Little League and any other game he was willing to play. Dad would encourage him to look under the hood of the truck and do manly things like top off the oil. Mendel was about as interested in these macho pursuits as I was in paper dolls.
The only way I was able to get my folks to buy me a GI Joe was by telling them my sister’s Barbie needed a boyfriend. Sweet, fey Ken would not have produced grandchildren.
One afternoon after school, I went into the backyard to play with our mangy mutt of a dog, a sweet fluffy half-sheepdog, half-beagle named Scout. In the far end of the yard, I found a large pile of newly cut lumber. A gift from God, I thought! I began to hatch my plan.
Every day, after school I ran home and, with Dad’s hammer and hundreds of nails, constructed my masterpiece. I’d seen it on TV: Huckleberry Finn had built a great raft that he had adventures on, hadn’t he? They built rafts to escape deserted islands, didn’t they? Our home was six blocks from the ocean. Surely I could create a raft and sail away from my family!
I laid the lumber out and nailed it together using pieces going across to hold the wood in place and other pieces to make borders along the perimeter, something to hang on to if the wind picked up. Oh, it all made perfect sense to me. I would drag the hundred pounds or so of wood out of the yard, across busy Main Street, down six blocks, across another busy street, up the stairs to the beach, down the stairs onto the beach, into the ocean, and sail off to a distant land that would not care whether I was a boy or a girl.
One afternoon after spending two weeks hammering away at my creation, I was upstairs plotting how to steal enough food for my voyage. I was trying to be practical ... peanut butter and fish sticks, I thought.
I heard the screaming.
I don’t recall what the new lumber was meant for – replacing the back porch, fixing the shed – but I do know what it was not meant for, a giant tangle of wood that may have looked like a raft to me, but to Dad probably resembled something Picasso might have done in his cubist period.
I’d never heard the sounds that came out of my dad as he tore apart the wood, and yet the sound was familiar. As I struggled to place them, I realized. … Godzilla movies!
“AAAAAAHHHHHHHHH” came the cry and the breaking of wood.
“Aaaaaaah” came the screams of the Japanese people.
I ran out to the yard to find my beautiful raft in pieces.
I don’t recall what my punishment was, and it doesn’t really matter. The smacks on the tushy paled in comparison with the horror of seeing my creation destroyed.
Right here is where Dad and I froze in time: he the dictator and I the rebel leader.
Over the years, Dad softened. I suppose I softened, too. Arthritis gave him a bit of a limp, and I traded in my Sex Pistols T-shirts for a chef jacket.
Six years ago, when I was visiting Dad, a strange thing happened. Over broiled salmon and french fries, he asked for my help.
He dumped a pile of bills on the table. “I’m getting a little overwhelmed. Would you help your old dad out?”
“Of course, Dad! You know your rotten daughter is always here for you.”
“I wish you’d stop saying that. There’s nothing rotten about you.”
“No, but I have an image to uphold.”
From that moment, I handled his taxes and his bills. Each year as he gradually declined, I was there for whatever his new needs were, armed with his favorites: kosher hot dogs with sauerkraut and mustard, cut into small pieces so he wouldn’t choke, and vegetable egg rolls.
“There’s my beautiful daughter who never forgets me!” he would cheer every time I walked in.
This April, a few days before he died and just a few months before what would have been his 90th birthday and Father’s Day, I sat by his side petting his head.
He rarely opened his eyes or spoke anymore, but when he heard my voice, he opened his eyes and turned to me.
“Hiya,” he managed to say in a gravely voice, then closed his eyes again.
As I sat there watching him sleep, I thought of the two of us years back, my tough World War II vet dad, and his 7-year-old tomboy daughter. I imagined the two of us building that raft. He did the hammering. I held the nails. I saw us wading into the ocean in Bradley Beach with our beautiful raft and letting it go. Then sitting back on the beach with our feet in the water and watching it sail away.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddio, wherever you are. Your rotten daughter misses you.