Pater Familias: Way with Words
He waves from the sepia-toned dock,
the folds in his Army uniform crisp.
Forty-five years later, grandfather remains
a mystery to my father and me—who rifle
through photos—every edge worn.
We will make three trips to Florida,
to meet him and all his other children.
He and my father will look into
each other’s faces as they look
in a mirror’s harsh, bathroom light.
They will see the future and the past,
while I can only touch my face
and anticipate the ravines, the deep-set
lines that will come to run my skin.
For five Christmases we will accept
his Italian gifts—baskets filled with salami,
prosciutto, and aged Asiago, no card
attached. When we talk about him
we will mention the one thing we know:
he competes in Scrabble tournaments—
his score each game totaling over 300 points.
We spread ground peat moss around Rhododendrons.
We did this every year until I turned eight
and we moved away from the lake. I remember dirt caked under my nails—
gardener’s French tips, the smell of labor and fashion. I remember manure
below my nose, having wiped sweat from my upper lip. I forget my father’s
voice telling me how to push and pull the moss even. It’s when I wedge
terra cotta clay that I remember those instructions, but his voice: lost to me.
Peat moss—clay soil—aerates the earth beneath it. It soaks up twenty times
its weight in water. I think to the ants that loved it—crawled atop and through it—
carrying a hundred times their weight. Strong. Peat moss allows root growth.
Peat moss reduces leaching.
The distance between Rhododendrons and me: decades. The distance
between Kauai and Pennsylvania: four thousand eight hundred
and twenty two miles. I carry in my wallet a PO box
address and an imagination.
In the Hawaiian Islands, in the tropics, in rainforests, they have no need
to spread peat moss. The air hangs heavy with water and monsoons.
My father sits somewhere in that heaviness.
He writes songs in the heaviness. He always wrote songs and his lines
broke on heavy stresses. I learned to spread peat moss, how to break
a line, but I’ve forgotten the voice that sung them.
Our plants used to flower thick and waxy every year, despite droughts and frosts.
When I asked my father why they lined
up outside our fence (invisible to us) he said so other
people can see how strong they grow.
When I call my sister, once a year for Christmas, she asks me to speak to my father.
I tell her no. No,
my father told me not to talk to strangers; my father hid me behind a wall
of Rhododendrons; my father made them strong and tall—built to weather winter—
taught me to do the same. But still,
like one possessed,
I call his phone from blocked numbers in the middle of colder nights. I listen
and hear: the voice mailbox belonging to “Pete” is full and cannot accept
new messages at this time—
just one hard stress to remember.
about the author:
Kayla Rae Candrilli is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, and an associate editor for NANO Fiction and the Black Warrior Review. Candrilli was awarded first place in Vela Magazine’s non-fiction contest, and is published or forthcoming in Rattle, Puerto del Sol, CutBank, Vinyl, The Chattahoochee Review, and others. You can read more of their work here.