One week ago, at age ninety, my father passed away. Several years ago, while pursuing a graduate degree, I flew out to see him. It was fall and fur-trapping season was in full swing. I left him a poem and when I returned to school, I wrote this piece.
MY DAD’S PLACE IN THE WOODS could pass for an 18th century fur trapper’s lodge. Pelts of coyote, fox, and coon hang like laundry above the wood stove. Against the paneled wall a few fleshing-boards lean, taut with the pale undersides of hides waiting for a final rubbing of salt. Rifles and shotguns and pistols are crammed in every nook and cranny of his single-wide. The only things out of character in this trailer deep in the heart of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are my red suitcase and me.
I’ve come to see my dad. It’s not a good time really, not with the crush of deadlines in my first year of grad school at USU. But when summer passed and I couldn’t visit, I promised I’d get here in the fall. Besides, he’s getting older. His buzz of white hair is familiar enough–he was in his mid-sixties when I left for college the first time–but now, a decade later, his leathery skin has changed to a transparent tissue.
He’s still tramping through the woods, though. Early last spring he fell through the ice, setting beaver traps. He clawed his way out, stripped down, and spent the afternoon buck naked before a fire of twigs and marsh grass waiting for his clothes to dry. He tells me this one evening when we’ve settled into easy chairs. “Pa,” I say, “one of these days you’re not going to be so lucky.”
In my mind I conjure the scene I’ve always imagined for his death: He’ll be deep in a cedar swamp tracking the faint smears of blood from a buck he’s shot, when he’ll stop mid-stride, clutch his chest, then slowly crumple to the ground. The shifting snow folds over him. Whenever my dad talks about dying, he says, You won’t find my bones till spring.
I look at him resting. He’s strong. Always will be, I assure myself. Doesn’t even catch colds like normal folk.
Lately, his death takes on an unsettling twist. As I imagine it, Dad’s hemorrhaging under an old white pine, praying one of his sons will find him in the pathless woods. My brothers, drawing on the woodsmanship they learned over the years from our father, rescue him. But when it’s on my shoulders, I’m not so lucky. I try to follow his steps, but I just can’t.
OF MY FATHER’S FOUR SONS, I’m the only one who didn’t become the hunter and trapper he’d raised us to be.
“Dad,” I said when I was 14, “I don’t want to get my buck permit.” He looked confused, as if I’d turned down a driver’s license. “And I don’t want to go trapping anymore, either.”
Even as the words left my mouth, I knew they had left like arrows. The rift had come. His face turned ash, and he said nothing for a long time.
That was that. I’d taken the one thing he consciously passed on to his sons, the one thing that embodied his values and heritage, the one way he knew to raise boys, and said thanks, but no thanks. If trapping and hunting were my birthright, I’d just spat and turned away.
At the time, I applauded my decision for its moral courage. By refusing to kill, I had defied the traditions of my father and chosen the lonely path of enlightenment. The idea resonated, but it wasn’t an honest assessment, as I look back. The truth is, my dad had become repugnant to me.
It was a new feeling. As a boy, my father’s mastery of the woods enchanted me. He could outwit coyotes and fox, track a wounded deer with nothing to go on but a streak of blood and a hoof-slot stamped into a patch of moss. My dad could read the woods the way a scholar deciphers ancient texts.
But my dad was no scholar. In fact, he scoffed at book smarts, and held a bitter contempt for college types. Educated idiots, he called them, with the same venom he reserved for liberals and bunny-huggers. As my own interest in books and erudition flowered, quite unaccountably, at about 12 or 13, I found myself wincing. I was becoming one of them.
I suppose I come out the hero if I put the classic spin on this . . . Boy Raised by Savage Teaches Himself to Read Greek, Goes to College! . . . but that’s not how I feel now, sitting next to my father in the sway of the evening.
Sitting next to him now, I sense how needlessly I’d breached that apprenticeship so many years ago. I let my pretensions repel me from a man who had mastered something. Blind to so much of what he knew, I only acknowledged his crude grammar, his utter lack of sophistication. My father lacked any of the Athenian grace I sought for myself. Beauty and truth? The man wiped his butt with ferns.
I DON’T REGRET my college degree, but I understand what little value it holds in my dad’s world. I think of the Indian chiefs declining an offer by the government to teach their sons. Those who’d returned from universities in the past, the chiefs noted, couldn’t build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy – they were totally good for nothing. The chiefs countered, Give us your sons, and we will make men of them. I don’t know what I’m good for yet, and I wonder what I could do if I’d given my dad a shot at raising me.
On my last night, I give my dad a poem I’d worked on in my graduate- level poetry class. I read it aloud. It’s about a fur-trapper, maybe more. I’m certain he won’t understand it. Every line is a kind of deception, a trap waiting to be stepped in. He shifts kind of awkwardly, then says, “That’s real nice, son. Real nice.” I tried to reach out somehow. This was all I had.
In the morning, as I’m leaving for the airport, I see the poem mounted on his wall. I guess he understood it well enough. We both understood well enough. I stop in my tracks and take a good long look before saying goodbye.
This piece originally appeared in Utah State Magazine, summer 2005.