(Read at Tell-All, January 2019)
Men like my father are a dime a dozen. You pass by them many times in a week, but they may as well be invisible.
If you stopped to observe, you’d see them cruising the morning-damp streets before dawn pinks the sky. You’d see them mount behemoth machines and hear the groan of metal on earth, a sound at once modern and ancient. You’d see clouds of dust in summer and clouds from their breath in winter, and cracked hands and reddened eyes that tell of heat and cold all year long. You’d see the machines turn into fossils at the end of the day and the men emerge from them lame and bug-eyed, like astronauts returning to earth. You’d see hardhats and earmuffs and gloves, and the thumping of dust-coated pants and the mussing of sweat-stiffened hair. You’d see them stop for a moment to survey the crater they dug and the earth they moved, before they drive slowly away.
If you wave, you might get a wave back—actually, a half-wave that seems to say, thanks for noticing, and nothing more.
Men like my father are used to being invisible, as am I. Long ago, I made the mistake of believing that being unseen meant being insignificant. In time, I learned I was wrong, because another trait I share with my father is the penchant for digging, though his is of earth and mine is for truth. For twenty years I have excavated layers of history, unearthing family secrets that I might find his long-buried past. In that process, I have come to see my father as a maker of place and identity, a modern-day pyramid-builder possessed of the agency to leave a mark and to render—as nearly as human beings can—something of permanence. I would find that the work fit the man and that a life that had seemed ordinary was in fact extraordinary in the ways that most count.
I would find as well a woman who was, in more ways than not, like the father she had grown up to regard with both longing and fear.
On the brightest afternoons of spring, summer, and fall, my father arrived home from work as dirty and worn out as if he had just emerged from a mine. In winter he arrived dirty and also wet, his blue eyes bluer in a red-cheeked face and water dripping from the end of his nose. Work did not end when he got home. He trimmed hedges, mowed the lawn, shoveled, and cleaned snow off bowed branches to prevent them from breaking. When the frozen ground was too hard to dig, he plowed snow, often at night. Each evening he retreated to the basement to type out billing invoices on a 1915 typewriter and call contractors who owed him money or union buddies who might have a lead on a job. Whatever he earned from March to December had to last through the winter months without a regular paycheck.
In the 1960s and 70s, my father worked on every major Boston landmark: Government Center, the Prudential tower, the Hancock tower, and the Central Artery. He operated backhoes and front-end loaders and excavators as tall as a house. But I saw only a man sacked out in his scratchy green armchair after dinner, the television’s glow flickering over the open cavern of his mouth until my mother roused him, and, grumbling and disoriented, he shuffled up to bed.
When I was fourteen, my parents moved us from the little house in which we had grown up to a five-bedroom Georgian colonial on a wide tree-lined street. The house had its original 1930s-kitchen, crumbling hair-plaster walls, and Depression-era plumbing. For more than two years my father spent evenings, weekends, and winter days ripping out pipes, sanding floors, painting, wallpapering, and laying floor tiles. His hands were perennially ghost-white with paint or caulk or grout, his bald head speckled from the drops that fell, and his mouth set with concentration. The house became a place of classic beauty with warm oak floors and a country-French kitchen, and a yard dotted with young cherry trees and bordered by artfully shaped hedges.
My father’s daily homecoming was House Beautiful meets the Big Dig. The truck would rumble into the driveway and idle for a moment, then stop; the back door squeaked and slammed. Into the pristine Delft-blue kitchen stepped a man in construction boots, his clothing bearing an odor of machine-oil both familiar and disconcerting. He was often tired, irritable, and ready to do battle over the hose that hadn’t been wound, the bicycle blocking the driveway, or the empty garbage barrels that hadn’t been dragged in.
He would stand in the kitchen and holler, “Melanie, get your ass down here!”, his chronic anger the apparent price for that beautiful house with all its beautiful things.
I hated high school, skipping it as often as I could. It took two buses and a subway train to get to Harvard Square where I could hunt for art posters and records, or novels and poetry. But I felt out of place in the Coop, the bookstore for chino-clad Ivy Leaguers who seemed always to have perfect hair and shoes, a stark contrast to my loud clogs and ill-fitting dungarees. The head-shop around the corner was more my speed. With patchouli oil, trade beads, and cheap madras imports, it was a favorite haunt of Hari Krishnas, protestors, druggies, and truants like me.
One such afternoon I turned a corner onto Brattle Street: Bam! Straight ahead was a gaping ditch bounded by a chain-link fence. Behind it, a rusty red backhoe chomped the earth, and two dump trucks idled bumper to bumper, their empty beds waiting to be fed the orange dirt.
Before I could think what else to do, my feet carried me forward.
“Dad, Dad!” I yelled, my arms moving like windmills.
I perched at the chain-link fence, hopping and waving until the yellow hard-hat turned. My father’s expression was stern as he slowly pulled a lever and the machine coughed to a halt. That’s when I remembered that I was supposed to be in school.
He jumped from the cab and jogged over.
“I wanted to say hello,” I stammered.
“How’d ya know it was me?”
“’Cause of the red,” I said, knowing that was what he wanted to hear.
“Yeah?” He surprised me with a bright smile. “You don’t see many red backhoes, do ya?” He asked what I was doing and how I was getting home. But there was no question like, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” and I wondered if the surprise encounter had made him forget.
But our spare superficial exchange could not conceal the unmistakable message that I received like a human antenna. My father was humming with pride. There was a powerful and competent air about him, his voice, his face, and his demeanor all seeming to announce, Look at me—look what I can do!
I had come upon my father in Harvard Square, the gathering place for Boston’s A-list. Yet the work of one rusty backhoe and a nobody from Nova Scotia had shut down that intersection and driven those loafer-wearers to other walkways.
I felt a warm rush of euphoria. I wanted to yell, “That’s my father, you fuckers!” but I didn’t.
I wanted to hug him, but between us was a chain link fence.
We stood momentarily frozen.
“I gotta get back to the job,” he said finally, jerking a thumb at the pit. “93 North’ll be a parking lot. Tell Mum I’ll be late for supper.”
He waved me off and trotted away.