My father spent his life outside, nestled between the Appalachian foothills and the Ohio River. I, on the other hand, was no Laura Ingalls Wilder. I much preferred to read about the great outdoors than see it myself.
Despite living on an acre of farmland, surrounded by soybean fields, dense forests, and llama farms, my sister and I spent as little time outside as physically possible in our early years. My mother has espoused the necessity of giving little boys freedom to roam, and had she ever birthed a little boy, I’m sure he would have been lively, healthy, and flushed. Instead, she made do with three anemic-looking daughters, all of whom far preferred to play with Barbies in the dining room and watch TV in bed.
My father seemed incomplete without a son, just as he seemed incomplete without a tie on weekdays, a handful of peanuts, or his trademark foghorn snore. But he did his best to honor his three girls, and if he pined for a son, he never said so directly. Instead, he forced us outside for half an hour a day in the summer, during which my sister and I would pluck grass and talk about movies before being allowed back inside.
Sometimes, he upped the ante and instructed us to corral the garbage that had blown out of our dumpster and had caught in tree branches and wormy soil. I inevitably retreated inside early from the chore, complaining of my allergies or eczema or fear of bugs.
If we were the replacement sons, we were terrible at our job.
After Christmas this year, my father took me to his hometown of Powhatan Point, a former coal-mining town tucked in the southeastern corner of Ohio. As we drove into town—a vast river on one side and sheer face of rock on the other—we passed Confederate flags and a number of totem poles (the town being named for, of course, Chief Powhatan of Pocahontas fame). There was a look of neglect no matter where you turned—abandoned steel mills, empty lots, boarded windows. “It’s seen better days,” my dad assured me, though even the town he described from his childhood didn’t boast much. He had spent his days hunting and trapping in the hills, weeding his grandmother’s garden, and, after he lost his father at age 13, cooking chicken fingers and pizza burgers at the restaurant his mom owned.
“That’s been around for ages,” he said, pointing at Hank’s which, according to the banner outside, served frog legs, burgers, alligators, and chicken wings. The Wigwam, my grandmother’s restaurant near the pool hall and city hall, was now empty. We drove by, taking a moment to stare up at the incredible crown molding on what used to be the clinic and was now a corner market. We stopped by the city hall; my dad had gone to youth group with the mayor. “Everyone knows everyone,” my dad told me, wrenching his boot out of the thick mud produced by rain and flooding.
To an outsider looking in, the town seemed treacherous. The aura of despair that affected my father as he grew up: the poor education, lack of jobs, low morale, and opioids, still seemed present as we walked around. And topographically, Powhatan Point was even more foreboding, not that my dad had ever let danger stop him from having what he then considered to be a good time. “This is where I bought beer at 15,” he said, jerking a thumb toward “Brubaker’s” corner store. A toothless lady who had gone to high school with my dad told us that Ida Brubaker, age 88, had just stepped out to get her hair done.
“Here’s where we drag raced with our headlights off,” he pointed. “Here’s where half the city flooded. … Here’s where we swam in the river every summer and came out covered in oil and sludge. … Here’s where I had a girlfriend, here’s where I cheated on that girlfriend, here’s where the ugly girls lived, here’s where the lookers lived.”
My father is a lover of whiskey and fraternity fight songs. A manly man with three daughters, he tried his best, to our collective chagrin, to get us invested in golf or football or motorcycles. He constantly tried to turn our sights on more traditionally masculine activities, advocating for fresh air and exercise and math, in what I had always considered to be his way of compensating for a lack of sons. But watching him point out landmark after landmark, I realized that those moments of boyish fun outdoors were the highlights of his childhood. When he played golf or shot hoops, he didn’t have to worry about his widowed mother or the failing coal mines.
I, in comparison, had grown up in material luxury and emotional stability. I never had to entertain myself outside when the water froze in the pipes or a storm knocked the power out of the entire town. There were no part-time jobs for us girls until high school, and even those were in the summer. Perhaps my father, having come of age in this dusty, deserted hill-town deep in Ohio, encouraged us to get outside, stretch our bodies, and clear our heads, not because that was boyish behavior but because that is how he had found calm, light, and fun in an otherwise trying childhood.
For a long time, I had tried relentlessly to be my father’s honorary son. I suffered through golf lessons, more interested in the funky hats than scoring a birdie, and attended Mission Impossible after Mission Impossible after Mission Impossible viewing at the local movie theater. (There are more Mission Impossible movies than oceans.) As I grew to understand my father and myself better, I realized that my dad took me to James Bond movie showings and Ohio State tailgates less to satisfy his unrealized wish for a son and more to spend time with the person I already was: his daughter.
I didn’t love the outdoors, but I still drove three hours south to see his hometown because I wanted to know more about the man I loved and respected. I didn’t need a shared love of golfing to prove I am my father’s daughter: My sense of decency, devotion to loved ones, and loud laugh at parties do that for me.
We arrived at our destination: the home of my dad’s Uncle Dale, the youngest brother of my grandma. It was at the top of a high point with an impressive view. My dad had spent the majority of his childhood just down the hill, around the blue log cabin, past the cattle farm, and out the crick a bit. He had helped his father, the county architect, frame the very house inside which I was about to eat sloppy joes and potato soup, a structure now over 40 years old.
My father’s footsteps were like a car backfiring, loudly crunching the icy gravel that led to the front door. “Dad,” I whispered, the sound carrying so far I wondered if the cows on the nearby farm had turned their heads to listen. “It’s so quiet here.” The silence was thin, delicious, and as cool as the January air. A stray bird chirped, a cricket shuffled. We could both see for miles, the dips and valleys stretching in front of us in patchwork browns and greens, the muted red of an old barn.
“Huh,” my dad said, looking out at the landscape. “I suppose it is. I’d never noticed.”
Enjoy leafing through our second issue!