I was three years old when my mother died. My father, an Irish poet of some renown, was forty five and forced to raise a little girl he knew nothing about. My mother had been one of his graduate students at University. I have a vague memory of her; tall, thin, long red hair. Pictures don’t seem to reinforce that memory, only confuse it.
My father spent the next two years gleefully playing the part of grieving widower/single parent. There was a succession of students in and out of his bed during those years. None of them stayed long, each growing disillusioned that the man was nothing like the artist. Only one is seared into my subconscious and even today, so many years later, she is the strongest memory of my childhood.
She was different from the others because, unlike them, she was a woman, fully formed in opinion, personality and talent. She was an American writer on sabbatical for the year at the University. My father was enthralled by her; he would speak in glowing terms to me about her. She was the same age as him, with long red hair like my mother’s, the only difference being that the woman’s was full and curly. My father began to spend more and more time away from home in the evening, leaving me in the care of a relative. After about eight weeks he announced that the three of us would be going on a picnic; this would be the chance for us to all become better friends, he said.
Saturday arrived and we set out for a quiet spot near a lake. I immediately saw what my father found so attractive about this woman; she was beautiful, kind and infinitely patient with me, helping me set out the lunch, running and playing with me in the park. Finally my father had me settle down for a nap under a large oak tree. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Moments later I was woken by a small cry. I was lying on my side, and still half asleep; I partially opened my eyes to see its source. We were in a small secluded spot away from any on lookers. I saw the woman on her back, her blouse opened, her breasts exposed, my father’s hand roughly grabbing her left one while his mouth devoured the right. Her skirt was hiked up, her legs bare, her knees wedged under my father’s shoulders. He was naked from the shoulders down, his pants wrapped around his ankles, his body crushing hers, her hands clawing at his back. I remained silent, not wanting to announce my awareness. I could hear my father speaking softly, whispering words like, Shhh, stop, it’s ok. At one point she turned her face towards me; her eyes were closed, her face wet with tears, her lips slightly parted, a low moan escaping her mouth. Suddenly her eyes opened and our eyes locked. I quickly closed mine again, trying to block out the sight, but I could still hear my father’s voice, alternately soothing and kind, than harsh and impatient. Moments later it grew painfully silent. I drifted off to sleep again. My father woke me up, saying it was time to go. The sky had darkened; a storm was on its way. I tried to see the woman’s face but she had it covered by her long thick hair. We gathered our belongings, got in the car, and drove home. My father left our house with the woman, returning the next morning, a smug smile of satisfaction on his lips.
“Dearest,” he said later that day, “I think I’ve found you a new mother."
The woman disappeared from our lives as suddenly as she had appeared. Her time abroad was cut short by an emergency back home, and she left several days later for safer shores. My father was alternately furious and heartbroken, crying to anyone who would listen about losing the love of his life twice in one lifetime. He kept this performance up for quite some time. I never spoke to anyone about what I had seen that day.
The memory of that day began to recede as I grew up, but sometimes it would flash like a bolt of lightning in my consciousness. What had I really seen, I would ask myself? As a child I had been confused and frightened by the scene, by my father’s strength and the woman’s helplessness. As I grew older and became more aware of life I became ill at my father’s brutality. Had they been making love, taking advantage of the solitude to indulge in some harmless role playing? Or was my father a rapist, forcing himself on a woman who was unable to defend herself? How could I reconcile his actions in the park with his attitude the next day, confident, happy, guilt free?
That was almost twenty years ago. Dementia has claimed my father, completely wiping out the man he was, memory fully absent from his mind. I saw the woman once, in New York, several years ago. She was at a book reading, and at the reception after wards I went up and introduced myself. She remembered me, asked about my life, than asked about my father. When I told her about him a cold triumphant look flashed in her eyes. I drew closer to her and whispered.
“Do you remember that day, in the park, when he . . .”
She grabbed my arm with her hand, cutting me off before I could finish. Our eyes locked once more.
“Some memories aren’t worth keeping."