The Stars of Our Ancestors

"For Dad" by Austin Eichelberger

In March, I visited my parents in Virginia from my home in New Mexico: twenty-four full hours of driving over three days and across six states, from desert mesas to grassy flatlands to the wooded Appalachian Mountains where I grew up. I stepped through the kitchen door just as dim night settled over the nearby barn where my mother was feeding horses. My dad, whose name I share, walked toward me smiling but breathing hard, an effect of the lung disease he had been diagnosed with months before. It had already restricted his existence, keeping him from the veterinary work he loved and the active, exuberant lifestyle he had always enjoyed. Watching it happen from over halfway across the country – like snippets of a harrowing home movie, with distance creating a gnawing hunger – was feeding a mix of anxiety and relief within me: anxiety that I'd be too far away to make it home if something happened, relief that I was far enough away to deny the disease’s effects on him.

Dad, thinner now, huffed as he hugged me. “I had your sister drop off the old pictures we found in the basement so I could show them to you.” He stepped back but kept his large hand on my shoulder. My older sister, already interested in genealogy and scrapbooking, had gotten the photos because of how mold affected Dad's lungs.

As I opened a beer and sat down at the kitchen table, Dad pulled out an old shirt box that smelled faintly of aged paper and mildew. In it, atop the pile of faded pictures with neat handwriting on the back of each – handwriting with strange similarities to my own – were once-colored shots of Dad as a baby, his eyes now faded to white-blue but still showing jubilation. Deeper down below those photos, before my father's time, his mother Mabel at nineteen years – her skin smooth and hazel eyes sharp, the edges of the photos soft and wrinkled the way her skin was in my few memories of her. Alongside Mabel, sepia snapshots of a woman with porcelain skin and black curly hair tucked low behind her head, eyes as dark as mine – “My Aunt Gladys,” Dad said – her parents' German-Jewish origins more evident than in her sister Mabel. 

“She was an English teacher, like you,” Dad said, smiling, as I plucked a portrait from the box – the waxy feel of a worn glossy photo made my touch light, my fingertips sensitive. In the picture, Gladys sat at a desk with a book open before her, her strong nose and jaw delicately shadowed. 

“Gladys was one of my favorite people as a kid. She taught me to read after school. The other woman there is Miss Ida. They loved to travel.” 

I looked down at Gladys standing beside a woman with a plain but sweet face, each of them in a simple black dress in every photo: standing beside a giant redwood far from their Pennsylvania home, before moonlit palms on a stretch of sand in Florida, laughing and holding fast to their hats on a mountaintop out West. “Ida was Aunt Gladys’s constant companion.”

Moving across the kitchen – always my dad’s favorite room, a place where he expressed the passion he would've pursued had medicine not been an option – he pulled out ingredients for dinner, which my little brother would help cook when he got home from work. 

“I know now they were lesbians, of course.” Dad paused and sighed heavily, held up a single finger as his chest slowly heaved, his full weight leaned against the counter.

I feigned intense interest in tiny details of the photo in my hand, and thought back to when I came out as gay over a decade ago: Mom's uncontrolled tears, Dad's wavering voice and steady eyes, his strong fingers gripping my knee. I looked to the pile of photos spilled on the table before me, at Gladys, her face like something long hidden somewhere deep in my memory.

 “Anyway,” Dad sighed, “she would've liked you.” He took a final halted breath and came back over to sit beside me. “I wish you could've met.” He eased back in the chair, his eyes almost closing as his breathing relaxed and he cleared his throat. In a photo before me, Gladys reclined in a wicker chair as a toddler, her head of raven curls resting on her hand. “I remember when you were that—,” he paused, trying to clear his throat. “Were that a—” 

Dad’s voice faded into a raspy cough. Ice coated my stomach as I watched him turn red, a fist held in front of his mouth.

 “Do you need anything?” I asked.

 He swallowed, leaned back. “I'm okay.” His eyes were weary but still glinting. “Oh, I got the results back from that genome project that tells you where your ancestors migrated. Tracks the whole thing and tells you about significant genetic markers.” He smiled, breathing still heavy, as I looked toward the darkened window and imagined all the night skies our family genome had witnessed, how far we had travelled for Dad and me to get here, now. “You have to see it,” he said as he hopped up faster than he should've, stopping to lean on the back of his chair. 

I stood. “Let me get it, Dad.” I put a hand on his shoulder and looked into his lowered eyes. “In the family room?”

“Yeah.” A heavy breath. “In a manila packet.”

My feet moved quickly to the adjacent room, to the next thing that could help me stretch out those few minutes and fall into the past with my father, closer to our ancestors and farther from his diagnosis and the inevitable end of his disease, from the distractions of my work, from the politics and passions that came between the two of us. Behind me, Dad coughed and my heart shuddered, our smoldering denial of what was really happening like sparks of a dying fire against our ancestors' night skies.

 

 

Austin Eichelberger is a native Virginian who completed his MA in 2009 and now teaches as much English and writing as he can manage in sunny, sprawling New Mexico, where he also serves as Director of The Santa Fe Writer’s Workshop. His creative work has been published by or is forthcoming from over forty journals and anthologies including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Extract(s), Eclectic Flash, First Stop Fiction, and others. More of his writing lives at austineichelberger.wordpress.com.

Photo credit: Open Lanes byNicholas A. Tonelli via Flickr CCL.

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