First Place: "Of Father" 

By Kim Eden

By Kim Eden

I suppose the earliest memory I have of him is a serene one, aesthetically, because it consists of a wonderful image that only a still night can bring; it is of myself as an infant, sleeping on top of his stomach throughout the night. Perhaps it may seem rather insignificant, as no complex conversation or action took place. Yet in all its ephemeral simplicity, I believe it's the closest my father and I ever came to making a real connection. I was so small in his massive arms—I could hear the sound of his breath while he slept and could feel the rise and fall of his belly, the sounds of his stomach, and the radiant heat of his large hands on my head as his heart composed its motif rhythmically beneath me. This is my earliest memory of him—my most valued, and my most secure— for we were without defined characteristics that one acquires in this world from circumstance. Hidden in some solemn womb of a midnight hour, we were father and daughter in the darkness, and we were at peace.

My father was a pipe-fitter in the late 1970s through 1980s when I was a child. During that period I moved 10 different times as each job called him to a different part of the country. Of all the places we lived, he clearly loved the mountains most of all, where he could fish and hunt and cook his famous "put-hair-on-yer-chest" venison stew. I can vividly recall sleeping out in the back of my father's washed-out red Ford pick-up truck in the Cascades. He went off fishing alone at night and sometimes took me along with him as a driving companion, or scooped me away when my mother had "just about enough" of me brazenly taking wing off the couch in my safety-pinned-supercape towel.

Thus it went. Father would tell me all about the birds hiding in the thrushes as he rolled out my Holly Hobby sleeping bag on the flatbed. He would happily tell me the tall-tale capers of the Pied Billed Grebes, Purple Finches, Savannah Sparrows, Black Capped Chickadees, Red-Naped Sapsuckers and Belted Kingfishers, as he sipped on his water canteen only meant for adults. He cautioned me not to get out of the truck because in the desert there were mutinous scorpions, spiders, snakes, etc., which might harm a curious little girl if she were to wander about in her dirty bare feet. Father would magically pull a quarter out of my ear and then extract his yellow hard hat from the front of the truck. Handing both objects to me he would say, "As long as you hold on to these, no harm will come to you." As I lay out under the dark desert sky clutching my unlikely talismans, I imagined I was alone on a lifeboat in a raging sea, surrounded by hungry 50-foot child-eating sharks—and then somewhere among my mind's adventures, bravely fought my way to sleep. Nonetheless, I knew my father was down in that deep valley somewhere, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and reeling in steelhead from that cool river; I knew I was safe.

I knew his routines. This meant that I saw him come home from work, put his hard hat on the foyer chair, sit down in front of the television set, and aim at the TV with a remote control that had all of the numbers rubbed off from overuse. I would come and unlace his work boots, use all my strength to pull them off, then rub his feet and neck at his request. Meanwhile, my mother would carry in his large green plastic cup through the shagged-carpet mobile home and quickly fill it with Tab. Then in came his dinner for the evening. He would bellow at us if we didn't serve him fast enough and tell us, after all he did for us, he asked so very little. Mother's few friends who would congregate in our kitchen on occasion secretly called him, "Attila the Hun." Mother never laughed, nor did she object.

I would sometimes scratch his back with a dry corn cob, and when I finished, he would lift me onto his lap and we would watch cartoons, silently. Well, I would watch them; he would just stare off in memory. Even so, I couldn't be near him for long as it seemed he had an inherent need to be alone. If I breached his need for space, I would promptly be booted out of his sight, very much like a puppy that had wet on a carpet. It was humiliating but I inevitably sidled up for more, even if a little bent out of shape. If Father did not come home directly after work, Mother often made me lie in bed with her and we would pretend to be asleep before he arrived. She said it was a game, but I knew better. I think she did too.

When I was 13 he threw me into the wall for playing chess with a black friend I had made while hanging out at the local Dunkin' Donuts. I had wanted to show off my newly learned, flashy, quick-win move of bishop's opening. My father took one look at my ill-timed, startled friend and pushed me across the room against the Emerson stereo, while my friend logically went running for the highlands. My father had a great bitterness towards everyone then, and it seemed to intensify as he aged, especially to those of color. But he treated me with just the same wrath, just as much, when it came down to it. And when I carelessly went to prom with a Vietnamese friend, Father hit me with his truck in the driveway and disowned me with clenched fists. I moved away from home and into a friend's attic, realizing it was my only chance to begin a normal life of some sort. I was a teenager, after all. The simple fact was, I was weary of hiding. I was hostile to the hatred that was expected of me. Thus, it was my only rational choice.

Much time has passed. I haven't seen my father since I was 16. It was then that my mother divorced him, bodyguards, restraining orders, safe houses, and all. He frightened us too much; there were things too horrific to ignore. Vietnam had broken him, and he drank until he was so angry that something had to be destroyed.

He sometimes had trouble distinguishing who he was. This meant that on occasion he still saw his best friend Frank who died by his side in the jungle. The 'damn thieving monkeys' in the trees would steal his cigarettes while he slept just because they liked the feel of rubbing nicotine between their fingers. Sometimes a little Vietnamese child begged him for his chocolate bars. Among the hours of his night terrors, sharp remembrances of his past left him thrashing at any shadow that moved within our trailer's simulated wood grain walls. I, too, became a soldier then. In the closet where I hid, vacuum bags became sandbags to hide behind in the secret POW camp of suburbia. The fear was unconquerable.

My mother and I had been in and out of women's shelters since I could remember, trying to escape from the person we were trying to love. He hurt us physically with an ogre-like wrath, but that didn't hurt as much as the lack of his love for us. For some reason, it never does. I think that vulnerability is the core of love and love is what makes us human. But that is also why it hurts so much. Being human hurts.

It seems like it's been a hundred years since I last spoke with him. I phoned him once, 10 years later, and he replied with the same acidic terrorization that I had left him with. I hung up the phone, bawling and choking, asking the air why he didn't love me. And I knew I could never contact him again. When he seethed to me venomously, "You have no father," it was then that I yet again summoned up that tearing feeling of loss and grief. I most definitely did have a father. And though I should have been indignant with fury from the offense of his words, I crumbled as I have always done.

From time to time I still wonder about our relationship on this earth. I wonder where we fit in. I wonder what it was all for and what God was thinking when he put us in the same trench for those years that we fought side by side and still against each other. I wonder about my father, whether he is safe and well. I thought a lot about all of this and have come to only one truthful conclusion. I now know why I was made his daughter and not someone else's—because I can forgive him entirely, even through the years of impair, and I can love him still. I mourn his life. I dread his death. I have found a place of compassion, strength, and an understanding of grace despite all of the pain and bitterness handed down to me. If my father was well, I think he would have wanted me to embrace this design of grace and gain strength from it, just as I hope someday he is able to do.

A short while back, I found a postcard that I wrote to my father when I was 11-years-old in summer camp. It reads:

Dear Father,

Thanks for the fiver. I was so excited when you wrote me. It was the first thing that you've ever written me. I did not even recognize your handwriting. The last few days it's been cold but now it's hot. I'm fine. How are you? I saw a lot of bluebirds. There's this kid that's 12 and I met him at a dance. His name is Mark and he's got a 99.8 average and he skipped a grade last year. I remember when my teacher wanted me to skip a grade but I missed 64 days instead because we had to move so much and I had to repeat last year. I like him but I'm not sure he likes me.

Love, Kimberly

To this day I don't remember writing the postcard but I've found it in the bottom of his old closet, in a Buster Brown shoebox tied with an aged off-white shoelace from my first pair of shoes. It is inundated with old birthday cards I drew for him and teeth I left the tooth-fairy under the pillow. It even has a couple of beer-sticky pictures from past fishing trips. There is a picture of me sporting a flower-patterned pioneer bonnet on my head, with his large hand resting proudly on my shoulder. I paraded a toothless grin, holding up some silvery scaled fish he helped me reel in. I beamed.

I often recall these times, the more gentle times with him; perhaps because it truly is easier to forgive than to hate. For me, it is easier to care than to capitulate to that suffocating condition of indifference.

I am certain of one thing. No matter what we thought about each other in our given time, we still are father and daughter in that strange and still darkness of memory. We safely rest there, and sometimes dream.

About the Author

Kim Eden was born in New Haven, Conn., and grew up in New York and Washington state. At both Kings College and the University of New Haven she studied art and literature, but after college she spent several years playing guitar and singing in a punk band called KRACKHEADZ. "It was silly, and very tongue in cheek," she says of the group. "We were like the Spinal Tap of punk rock. Though the songs were really cool and straight, old school-style, our stage shows made sure everybody had fun." New York punk legend Sonny Vincent produced their album, That Wasn't Chicken. A poet and songwriter as well—her poem, "The Clown," also won honorable mention in the Scene's contest—Eden moved to Nashville two months ago hoping to find a publishing deal. Till that happens, she works by day at EcoSMART, a developer of nontoxic insecticides, and by night at Top O' the Barrel in Bellevue. "I'm just looking for a chance to do something uniquely creative," she says. "Or at least find a decent pint of beer and a really good friend to pat me on the back and say, 'Hey, punk.' "

About the Author

Comment from essay contest judge Brando Skyhorse, editor at Grove/Atlantic

It was a very close call deciding between this piece and "Our Story Begins" for first place. What ultimately convinced me "Of Father" was the winner, though, was the writer's ambition on the page. Writing is more than technical proficiency or cleverness; it's also about heart. And here we have a heartbreaking symphony of fearlessness and authorial precision that's trying to make sense of the writer's catastrophic relationship with her father. She's in search of answers, none of which are easy or comforting, and we become invested in the stakes of her journey. It's hard to write about family trauma without lapsing into bitter recrimination or maudlin sympathy, but this writer pulls it off. Don't believe me? Read the last line of this piece and tell me your eyes don't mist up. This writer's reaching for something ineffable in that last line, something all great writing aspires to and, boy, does she grab it.

It was a very close call deciding between this piece and "Our Story Begins" for first place. What ultimately convinced me "Of Father" was the winner, though, was the writer's ambition on the page. Writing is more than technical proficiency or cleverness; it's also about heart. And here we have a heartbreaking symphony of fearlessness and authorial precision that's trying to make sense of the writer's catastrophic relationship with her father. She's in search of answers, none of which are easy or comforting, and we become invested in the stakes of her journey. It's hard to write about family trauma without lapsing into bitter recrimination or maudlin sympathy, but this writer pulls it off. Don't believe me? Read the last line of this piece and tell me your eyes don't mist up. This writer's reaching for something ineffable in that last line, something all great writing aspires to and, boy, does she grab it.

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