Sunday parties at the home of Murf and Ellen were a gleeful summer escape. In my memory, theirs was a nearly endless property with an orchard and woods, but everything seems so much larger when you’re small. We children of the party-goers could disappear for hours. Sweaty and dirty we played under the heavy mid-western canopy thick with cricket drone, liberated from the eyes of parents having too much fun to bother with us.
Between the orchard and the backyard was a volleyball court and picnic area where hotdogs and burgers hissed on a brick hearth, and in-season corn roasted in the coals with the husk on until it blackened. Occasionally we’d get hungry enough to stop and stuff our faces with meat filled buns and buttery, sooty corn, and those moments when I lingered at the picnic table are the only times I would notice what the grown ups were doing. I hold flashes in my mind of them hanging around drinking cheap beer and talking; chubby middle-aged Ellen sitting in a folding chair under the electric bug zapper, black haired Henry telling a joke and my step-father who listened, always with a cigarette between his fingers and a slight squint that served as a smoke shield. Others I remember out on the volleyball court and I can still see the way my mother’s poofy, kinky hair, not quite an afro, would bounce all as one piece when she ran up to the net. This picture of her assertiveness and joy on the sandy court contrasts with the idea I’ve always held of her as someone much more timid.
I don’t remember interacting with the adults much, only this one time that’s etched in my memory. Night had fallen with the party in full swing. Bugs flew frantic flight paths beneath the bright volleyball court lights, and the loud voices and gesturing of drinking grown-ups animated what should have been quiet darkness. I had to ask my step-father for something – a momentary interruption in our escape from each other – but instead of calling him by name as I had always done, I called him “Dad”. He paused and looked at me for a moment from behind his wire rimmed glasses. There was an awkwardness because that was not who we were – we didn’t share that kind of sentiment for each other. To this day, I’m not sure why I said it. It could be that part of me wanted to feel like the other kids; to feel normal, and those normal kids all had fathers. It could be that I had heard them say the word so much, it just slipped out, unbidden. It might have provoked something in him, but his only comment was that I just wanted to be like the other kids. It’s telling that he didn’t assume it was from any desire to be closer to him, which was correct. We walked away from each other that night without saying another word about it, and I never called him by anything other than his name again.
The first time I remember asking about my father, I was around twelve or thirteen. We had left our town in Ohio, a place where there were just as many black kids as white, where the air was heavy with moisture, and grass grew without the aid of sprinklers. We moved to a small farm town in Idaho, where the only black kid for miles was my friend Troy, the first boy I ever kissed. This place was arid, and the only thing that grew without aid was sagebrush. Maybe being uprooted from my home to this alien and sterile place provoked the need to know where I came from. I don’t know.
“Who is my father?” I asked my mother who was sitting next to me on my twin bed. Though her face is hazy in the memory, the feel of the green shag carpet under our feet is still vivid. Smelling of dust and decaying fibers, it was an eyesore and so out of place in my girly room. Scott was the name she gave, and that he was a musician from Tennessee. It was all she could tell me. She had saved a newspaper clipping of the band he was in when they met, and a photo, cut from a poster she took from the hotel where they played. I think maybe she told me he was a nice person but I don’t remember anything else, and I didn’t ask her about him again. For years, I just kept the idea of him tucked away somewhere.