A Smile, A Nod, A Reckoning
Photo by Hedgehog on Adobe Stock

He once smiled at me with small brown eyes that had a yellow gleam. He once sat by my child’s bed and read me fairy tales, “Wynken, Blynken and Nod,” “The Sugar Plum Tree,” and the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson. In summer he held my six-year-old hand and delighted in taking me with daddy-longlegs steps up the hill to the big lake where we sat on our haunches and watched tadpoles skitter in the shallow water at the edge of the shore. I was his treasured soul—the girl born almost ten years into my parents’ marriage when they had almost given up the hope of ever having a child. In a photo of the two of us when I was two years old, he holds me up above his shoulders as if I could touch the sky.

On summer afternoons, in the bungalow colony, when I was six or seven, he would push me on a swing high into the air as I pumped my legs to try to reach the clouds, and then as I came down to earth, he held the chains and the wooden seat to slow the ride down and stop me from falling. Those were the summers of my father’s love, early memories almost blotted out by his years of aging and illness.

I grew up. He grew older.

When he was in his sixties and seventies, his bitterness about not being an acclaimed poet chiseled away at his spirit. As a younger man, in the 1940s and 1950s, he published his poetry in many journals, and he dedicated himself to writing sonnets. Then as his life as a family man and educator took over. He had to leave his identity behind.

In his last years, sadness traveled with him—grief over my mother’s death, the loss of friends. He cocooned himself in a silence I couldn’t penetrate. After a stroke at ninety-seven, he stared at me in our dining room, unable to find words, nodding at me, clearly humiliated that a caregiver had to feed, dress, and bathe him. Always so fussy about his body, fastidious in his personal habits, he must have ached inside. That flare of recognition must have been anguish. After this time in our dining room, his senility progressively took him from me.

As he sunk into the final stages of dementia, I only saw my father as a frail old man. After he turned one hundred, he stopped talking, closed his eyes, reached for invisible specks of dust in the air. His mummified state was hard for me to bear, but I was a responsible daughter. When I visited him, I read him the Robert Frost poems that we once shared and even Ogden Nash limericks. I showed him paintings in art books, sat next to him, and stroked his forearm. But I was dutiful not empathetic. I was angry that he never opened his eyes, angry that he never acknowledged me during all those weekly visits, year after year after year. I couldn’t imagine what he thought or felt...what was occurring behind those closed lids. And I ground my teeth, bit my lip, and anxiously awaited the moment I could leave. I was ashamed of my impatience and anger towards him.

Then one day when I was visiting, when my father was 104, the caretaker nudged him, talking loudly into his non-deaf ear, “Harold, Harold, your eldest daughter is here to see you.” He turned toward me. The man who never uttered a word or opened his eyes, and, for a moment, one eternal moment, he nodded, blinked, and there was a warmth, a yellow gleam in his gaze. A smile. A nod. Then he sunk back into himself and closed his eyes. Did he recognize me, know me, know I was his eldest daughter? I wonder about all those times when I thought he was lost in a haze. Did he sense my presence? Did I neglect him by not being more comforting? By not imagining his inner world?

I remember a dream I had: the first time that my father appeared. He and my son, Reed, are in the kitchen of my old house on Rugby Road. But the kitchen is in shambles: the white metal cabinets are stained and ajar, the curtains at the windows are yellowed and frayed. I hear the clicking of the pilot light on the stove—the old familiar sound from our years of living in the house. It is clear that the house is abandoned. I ask my father and son what they are doing and remind them that the house was sold. My father, his lanky and somewhat bald, younger self, is laughing and scrambling eggs in a frying pan for my son. “I’m giving your son breakfast,” he says. He smiles at me, putting his arm around my son’s shoulder in a warm embrace; my son, who is now forty-two, who seems to be in his twenties with a curly red beard and curly hair, leans into his grandfather’s shoulder and smiles. “But the house is sold," I exclaim, "you have to leave. Come with me.” Then I jerk myself awake.

Am I recognizing anew his nurturing, his gifts to me, blotted out by those last years of illness? Am I forgiving myself for my failures as a daughter? Am I finally starting to leave behind that old house, that old narrative?

About the Author

Jan Zlotnik Schmidt

Presently I am a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Emerita at SUNY New Paltz where I taught creative writing, memoir, creative nonfiction courses as well as American Literature, Women’s Literature, the Literature of Witnessing, and Holocaust Literature. My poetry has been published in over one hundred journals including The Cream City Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Phoebe, The Chiron Review, Memoir(and), The Westchester Review, and Wind. A series of poems, “The Family Album,” based on old family photographs, was published in The Vassar Review. My work has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize Series. I had two volumes of poetry published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She had this memory, 2000). My chapbook, The Earth Was Still, was published by Finishing Line Press and another, Hieroglyphs of Father-Daughter Time, by Word Temple Press. My volume of poetry, Foraging for Light, was published by Finishing Line Press. And my chapbook about Bess Houdini, the wife of Harry Houdini, entitled Over the Moon Gone: The Vanishing Act of Bess Houdini, recently was published by Palooka Press.