That’s me and my dad. The date stamped on the back of this photo reads October 1976, six months before he drowned.
We’re in the backyard of the house where he and my mother lived until their divorce. If the date is correct, they were already divorced when this picture was taken, or at least, when it was developed. (Remember when photos had to be developed?)
From the stories I was told, he found the swing set frame, put new chains on it with wooden swing seats and painted it fire engine red for me.
I love this photo. When I look at it, I see my dad looking at me. I’ve never felt much like a daddy’s girl type of girl, but this picture makes me out to be one. I can’t help but notice the hair all the way up the back of his hands and peaking out the ends of his sleeves. In my tiny, blurred face, I see the same expression my five-year old son often makes, a little boy who now carries the weight of his grandfather’s full name.
Right now, I’m reading the memoir After Visiting Friends by GQ editor Michael Hainey. Hainey’s father died when he was six, and up until a few years ago, he knew very little about what had happened. No one talked about his father’s death, and the obits he found had differing details. On the surface, the book revolves around his investigation into his father’s death, but at the core, I think it’s about the exploration of the author’s history, the things known and unknown that impacted his life.
Hainey has a great paragraph in the first few pages. He writes:
Each of us has a creation tale–how we came into the world. And I’ll ad this: Each of us has an uncreation tale–how our lives come apart. That which undoes us. Sooner or later, it will claim you. Mark you. More than your creation.
A few years back, I went to our local library’s history room to see if anything had been reported about my dad’s drowning. I found two newspaper articles on his death from the microfiche files, along with his obituary. One report said his body had been recovered by two “civilian divers” before police arrived.
I tried to find information on how warm or cold the water may have been so early in the year. He drowned on May 14, 1977 in Buffalo Trace Lake, not too far from where I live now. Again, from the stories I was told, there was no autopsy. My father was a strong swimmer and in good shape. When I began digging into whatever details I could find, I thought maybe the water had been too cold, possibly resulting in hypothermia. I never found anything to back up my theory.
When I tried to get records or any reports from the coroner’s office, I was told a number of files – including his – had been destroyed when the room where they were kept had flooded years ago.
Eventually, I stopped trying to figure out how a 26, almost 27-year old – who from all accounts appeared to be in perfect health – drowned on an unusually warm day in May. I’ll never know what happened.
I do know he was my dad. I know I look like him, and that we had the same 6th grade teacher. I know he wrote goofy, short love poems to my mom when they were in college. I know he loved to gamble, and play poker. I know his best friend’s name was Bill.
I know sometime during the year I turned three, he built me a swing set. And one afternoon, when I was in nothing but a t-shirt and my underwear, and he was wearing a long sleeved denim button-up with shorts, we sat side by side on the swing set he had built while he watched me swing.