With a cup of dairy-free yogurt and a mug of coffee, I settle in front of the computer and think about my week. I’m a little nauseous from reading the news. I’ve got a lot to say when I write my political blog later today, but right now I’m just fighting that icky feeling you get from knowing too much about the lamentable state of the world. Our national outlook carries nothing encouraging: Cloudy with a chance of return to the dark period of unenlightenment, when intelligence and compassion gather dust and ugliness reigns. It’s too much to contemplate before breakfast.
I find myself thinking about my father.
One Sunday years ago, a lady at church asked my five-year-old self what my father did. I answered, He drinks. I’m sure I didn’t know what it meant. I had probably heard my mother use it as an excuse for her bruises. A decade later, cynical at fifteen, I answered the same question with this gem: “He’s an Irish Catholic alcoholic.” I didn’t add, who beats his wife and children into submission, but I considered it.
Now at sixty-one, I strain to remember something redemptive about my father. See? He wasn’t so bad! He made stuff for his grandchildren, wooden toys and puzzles. He played with them. Grandpa Sport, my brother’s son Nick called him.
See? He gave me his Shell gas card once, as I gathered my bags to drive back to Arkansas in a petulant rage, that Christmas when I visited and couldn’t get a word in edgewise at a sibling dinner party. You don’t have to leave tonight, he urged. Yes, I did. I couldn’t bear staying in St. Louis with the stark reminder of my irrelevance to my brothers and sisters. So Dad pulled out his wallet, slipped me forty bucks and the credit card, and told me to call him when I got to Jasper.
My last sight of him: Near-bald head shaking, standing in the cold on the front porch in his shirt sleeves, one hand lifted in a salute to his baby daughter.
1980, was it? Or 1981? when my brother Frank got married in Minnesota. A gaggle of Corleys stood in the center of his new wife’s parents’ back yard, strangers all of us, knowing no one, our only common ground being their new son-in-law. We huddled in a circle, telling inside jokes. Once in a while, my mother ventured over to our host and hostess to say something friendly.
I wandered into the house, tired, struggling on high heels which I had no business wearing. Paper-thin and nervous, I left my boyfriend talking with some old lady dressed in a polka-dot dress and sat down on a love-seat in a room that could have been a turn-of-the-century parlor.
A few minutes later, my father found me there. We both had glasses of wine. I spared a moment to fear that my dad’s ugly nature would emerge as he drained his glass. He sat down next to me. Neither of us spoke at first. I sipped my wine.
Then my father said, Do you want me to show you how to hold a wine glass?
I suppressed the desire to remind him that I was nearly thirty — well, twenty-five, and had been drinking since high school. Sure, Pops, I replied instead. And for the next five minutes, he did just that. He lifted his own hand, curled the tips of his fingers around the stem, and extended his pinky finger into the air. I copied him and we raised our glasses in unison, just as the hired photographer came around the corner, lifted his camera and captured the moment.
Somewhere in the basement, in a moldy box, I have a copy of that picture. Me in my size zero black flower-print dress, with blue eye shadow and black patent stiletto heels. My dad in a grey suit, with a carnation in his lapel, florid skin, a small nick from a too-close shave just below his chin.
My father said, How’s law school treating you? We talked for a few minutes about my part-time job on campus. Early days, I remarked. He nodded. What kind of law do you think you’ll practice, he asked. I replied that I had no idea. Bleeding-heart liberal, probably, I conceded. He turned slightly to study my face. You should do criminal law, that’s where the money is, he advised. We sat in silence. The afternoon ebbed and flowed around us. We finished our wine, and after a while, we rose, to go outside and join the rest of our family on the patio. But before we exited that funny little room, I hugged my Dad, and thanked him for teaching me how to drink wine from a long-stemmed glass.
Something every girl needs to know.