Between the lines

By Durin Chappe

At my daughter’s most recent birthday party — outdoors and more exclusive than any in Hollywood Hills — a new friend and I were speaking of our fathers. My own father had put in a brief appearance and in his wake, my new friend observed that he seems like a good guy. I did not dispute this, but I must have showed less feeling than I’d intended because he gave me a kind of scolding look. This made more sense after I learned that he’d only just lost his own father in the previous month. He offered that it was as if the steadying hand on his back was now gone.

The salty chits of wisdom we receive in life are rarely so immediately redeemable yet here was a quiet measure-taking of a father’s influence — from a much younger person — as unbidden and stimulating as any passage from Robert Frost. Rough matter of life spun out as poetry.

For wise people to know what they’ve lost, they also need to know what they’ve had. When my lobstering neighbor tells me how in times past, he used to be able to literally “smell” the saltiness of the Downeast littoral, it’s easy to see through his eyes, the abundance of flora and fauna that once gave our shores that salty tang — and which is no more.

When we are able to truly perceive wisdom, it will appear as salty as the littoral of our childhood.

I continued to listen to this kind, measured man, easily 15 years my junior, with greater attentiveness, saying little. I took in that his parents had long been separated from one another. He had a sister living not far away, but with two autistic children to care for, the burden of it had effectively created a greater distance. Both he and his wife were self-employed and struggling for everything they had — paying for a house and willing things to get better.

If there was a yoke, he wore it lightly. The cares in his life were never so dire that a shrug of his rugged shoulders could not slough them off. We shifted topics or rather, he did. He looked up at my improvised swingset and let on that he’d wanted to build a treehouse for his daughters. When I mentioned wanting to do the same for my daughter, we agreed that, come the spring we were all looking forward to, we might help one another.

The rapport was immediate and cemented further by his habit of addressing my wife with his charming Downeast endearments. “Pizza’s delicious, dear” had the hypnotic effect of lifting me fully out of my pandemic funk, to a time of ice skating and sledding parties, Grange hall dances and barn raisings — times belonging both to my own past and to a more distant one.

Years ago, when my father developed some blockage of the arteries, I told a childhood friend that in the panic that followed, I’d begun to compose his obituary. He kindly offered to help me write it when the time came.

In a very different way, my new friend has the heft of my older friend and his visit and his unwitting gift to me — for which this note is written, in gratitude — has had the same bracing effect of my other friend’s offer. He has reminded me of the note-taking that we ought to be doing while our loves live and breathe, to let the poetry speak at will, to let it wick out of us.

One can see in nearly any homemade obituary the attempts at glossing over, tidying up, at reparations. They are breathlessly delivered, hats in hand. Winged sentences are clipped to make word limits. The weave is necessarily coarse but more than compensated for by the sheer variety of color. The loom fills and spills at our feet, inadequate to the task of holding the fabric, the uneven impressions of a life. Yet we must let it spill.

It is unlikely that any of the clarity I feel now will make it into the final draft but with practice, there may come some fluency with my parents’ lives, even as it’s clear that no amount of clever wordsmithing can adequately limn the hand that is no longer there. When the moment arrives, maybe that will be the place to drop the punctuation altogether, close my eyes and let the loom do the work.

Durin Chappe is a carpenter and essayist who lives with his wife and daughter in the shadow of Schoodic Mountain in Downeast Maine.

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