He Was My Dad
Santa Fe Writers Project, Issue 17 / Spring 2019.
For a long time, I believed my father was the coolest of dads. He sat cross-legged on the living room rug, bongos tucked between his knees, accompanying Morton Gould and His Orchestra on the stereo (the album was Jungle Drums). No, my dad was not a beatnik; he was Turkish and an American citizen. He drank scotch and sodas, had beautiful blue eyes and almost no hair. In addition to playing the drums and the piano (by ear), his talents also extended to food, sculpting plates of spaghetti into red heart shapes to the delight of my sister and me. He doused snow with vanilla extract and sugar and called it ice cream.
My friends were both perplexed and amazed. He went to work in a dark green uniform just like all the other dads in West Point, but he was decidedly different. For one, he was very slight of build, almost effeminate, though the uniform filled him out and made him look taller. He had an important walk, one befitting a surgeon who saved people’s lives. He talked funny, pronouncing all his V’s as W’s and vice versa (stove was stowe, and week was veek). He rarely used the definite article. He was “going to store,” not going to “the” store. Even his name, Ekrem Suleyman Turan, was foreign and exotic, though, today this is more the norm than the exception.
Where did he get his ideas? Instead of the usual Halloween candy, he built a fire in an outdoor grill and handed out toasted marshmallows. I can’t imagine they had such a treat in Turkey, his place of birth. For another Halloween my mother, an amazing seamstress, made me a Wicked Witch of the West costume, complete with a black hat that was nearly as tall as I was. To complete the costume, my father made a plaster of Paris nose and painted my face green. For a six-year-old, my job was pretty easy. All I had to do for the annual West Point Halloween Parade was cackle and say, “I’ll get you, my pretty!” I won first prize, but I often wondered, why a witch? Why not a beautiful princess? Or Snow White, like all the other girls? I guess my parents knew early on I was different, too.
During the time we lived in West Point, from 1957 to 1960, my grandfather and step-grandmother came to visit. My parents explained that they had traveled all the way across the ocean from Turkey. Many years later, my dear cousin Gulin told me a story, related to her by my grandfather, that when they arrived, bringing lots of luggage, I cried inconsolably for hours. It appears I was under the impression they were going to take me back with them. I wish I could go back to my child’s mind to know what I was thinking and why I was so afraid. The only picture I have of them shows me sitting between them, smiling and happy.
After West Point, my dad was assigned to Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. We had moved three times before, but this one I was old enough to remember. It was the first time I felt the pain of leaving a place I loved, a pain that followed me for the next fifteen years from one Army post to the next. Unlike West Point, with the blue Hudson River and rusty cliffs, green lawns and tulip-covered gardens, Texas was big open fields of scrub grass and craggy oaks dripping with moss. In these fields I learned to fly kites. My father built them out of balsa wood and colored tissue paper; he made long tails of ribbons and knotted rags. Not too long ago, I learned about the Middle Eastern tradition of kite flying after reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Now, as with so many other parts of my father’s childhood and past, I have to glean from letters, photos, or conversations with my cousins in Turkey if kite flying had been part of his life, too. Seeing the childish delight in his eyes when the kite soared above the tall trees and power lines, I like to imagine it did.
Being an Army brat made me a part of a collective of kids with military fathers. There was comfort in the shared experience of living overseas: the challenges of moving from post to post every four years; feeling out of place, and worse, having to accept that we could not attach ourselves to people or places. Our fathers were greatly absent, away on maneuvers or working, leaving our mothers to do the heavy lifting. My dad spent most of his time at the hospital, where he was the commanding officer. I remember the sharp click of his black shoes on the shiny linoleum hallways, the curt and brief salute he was given by soldiers, and the forced smiles by operating room nurses. I know this because friends in high school, whose mothers worked with my dad, told me about his cursing and bad temper. They didn’t have to tell me. I had seen this other side of him already. He was no longer cool, but cruel.
We were living in Vicenza, Italy, at the time; I was ten or eleven. He was going to pick me up at a friend’s house. I went to another friend’s house and left word for him to pick me up there instead. What I thought might have been a mere inconvenience turned into first a slap across my face in the car and, when we got home, a stick from the garden beaten across my bottom. Though he only beat me that one time, it could have been a hundred for how I felt: betrayed and confused, like he had bruised my heart, not my behind.
In Amy Tan’s Where the Past Begins, she recalls how her half-sister confirmed the truth about their mother’s first husband. He was a very bad man, she explained, “But my father was my father.” Daughters, particularly those of foreign-born fathers, seem to carry a gene of unconditional acceptance. Did my father buy me most anything I wanted? Yes. Drive me to ski club meetings in a storm so I could “fit in” with the cool kids in Patch Barracks? Yes. After the birth of my two sons, did he accompany me to the hospital to terminate an unwanted pregnancy without recrimination or criticism? Yes. Did he hit me on the head with a newspaper and call me a “dodo” head? Yes, Did he rarely compliment me on my academic achievements? Yes, again. Did I love him anyway? Of course. In my world accepting the good meant accepting the bad: My father was my father.
He died eight years ago; his ashes rest at the bottom of deep waters off the coast of Maine, where I live. There he remains, wordless, a man who never said much of anything; even his fury was unleashed silently with a stone-cold countenance. He frightened me into silence as well, setting an invisible barrier that I could not cross. I never spoke up or demanded to know why he did not feel the need to defend or explain his treatment of me. If I could guess his answer, he would say he was just doing his job. When he threatened to disown me if I got pregnant in high school, telling me I would no longer be his daughter, I wanted to shout and scream, “How is that possible? Where is the kindness and compassion? Don’t you love me?” But my imaginary questions were just that, like dark and heavy things thrown into the bottom of the lake: You can’t see them, but you know they’re there.
So, I’m diving in to see what I can find, as much as it hurts at times. In photos and postcards, I look for clues and answers. I pick up my pen, and my heart does the rest.