My father's smell and my mother's touch, the only two things that I know my memory can be counted on for.
I remember the color of her hands as she reached out for me -- red, scalded hands that were never warm. Long, thin fingers, beautiful really, but abused too. The dishwater and the evening baths left their mark like domestic battle scars. She would sneak those hands down the back of my shirt and I would leap and twist away in shock. Sometimes she would lay those hands on my fevered brow and I would sink deeper into my pillow in ecstasy. I watched them chopping up carrots into little bits for stew and wondered how any woman could ever be so strong.
My father smelled like home to me. He still does. His was the perfume of life; he never bothered with cologne or after-shave. Instead my father splashed on a touch of beer, a dab of tobacco and a hint of wood chips, creating what I could only gather was the smell of every man. He sweat this rich, man's smell in every room of the house and I drank it in lovingly, knowing that he may not be home again before the scent dissipated.
What I failed to understand was the way that my father's smell affected my mother. Late, past supper time, he would open the door and in would blow the smells he carried with him. The beer and the smoke from the bar would settle into our kitchen like enemy gas and my mother would turn away from it with something like disgust. She would say nothing, but light her cigarette with a shaking hand and then violently pull it away from her mouth like she had been burnt. Her sharp inhalation and hard expulsion of the smoke were words from her heart but my father wasn't looking to talk. Even if the only conversation they ever had was in the language of the body.
Late at night she would break a dish and he would slap her and then the door would slam in chorus with her wails.
And I watched her hands on those nights when he didn't call, when he didn't come home. She wielded her knives like weapons and smashed our potatoes with both hands, bearing down like a ditch digger. She would crush one cigarette out, flattening it in the already full ashtray and then look about suspiciously for her pack. Her right hand would wipe the giant, old table while her left hand waited impatiently to catch the crumbs. She cooked and fed us every night but I never remember my mother eating a single thing. I think she was too full to eat.
We haven't lived together in twenty years but I have only to glance at my mother's hands to know that her suffering was real and my memories are true. Her gestures are timid and her hands are tired but they are at peace and for this I am grateful. They are still cold but then, so are mine, so I appreciate the companionship.
My father still smells like man to me. I'm not sure that the
men in my life would care to know that. There is a staleness about
him that can only be sadness and regret but I still long for it like
© 2003 Stephanie Howarth, all rights reserved
appears here by permission