Sunday, January 19, 2014

Bridging the Distance

I'm just going to warn you that while this is a true story, I will admit to having a fertile imagination and a patchy memory.  If any blanks were filled in wrongly, it is going to be called "author's license" for the purposes of this blog post.  ~Jess

Bridging the Distance

            We always travelled at night.
            He’d go 24 or 36 hours without sleep, just so he could eke out a few more hours to visit with us.  He was gone from our day-to-day, but when he came to fetch my sister and I once, maybe twice, a year from our mother’s house, it was the launch of an odyssey. It was in transit that I grew to know the very best of my father.
            I was eleven years old on this night’s bumpy trip down old 51 South, a collapsing vein running from the heart to the foot of Illinois.  My sister was already asleep, crammed like crumpled paper in a sixth graders locker in the virtually non-existent backseat of the Porsche.  Such is the tragedy of being the lone early-riser in a car full of night owls.  He’d only bought sports cars since the divorce – meant for speed and pleasure in driving, a necessity for the man who travelled hundreds of miles each week. No matter, the Porsche would take us swiftly to Grandma’s house, speeding encapsulated in this suspended time between.  It devoured the miles, and the tires kissing the road produced a comforting susurration like a cat’s purr.
            The first hour of our isolation was spent in awkward silence as I gazed out the window in the cool March rain-damp night.  We were like two strangers captured in a coffee-scented cage and forced to act as though we knew one another.  He’d been gone for three years, and the occasional phone calls and long-distance daddy-ing hadn’t made up for the stomach-clenching agony of watching him drive away from our home, from us, for good.  The wall between us had been built by false hugs and missed phone calls and one too many explanations from my mom about why he had to miss his visit with us…again.  It was built so high I couldn’t see over it, and he couldn’t understand why it was there.
            His wide hands handled the wheel capably, confidently, through a rainstorm.  Changing lanes brought with it the bump of the tall metal thermos of coffee that kept his travel cup perpetually filled rolling near my feet.  He slipped a cassette tape into the player and old episodes of The Prairie Home Companion began to play with their old-timey music, bluegrass bands, and radio stories all shepherded by the mellifluous deep baritone of Garrison Keillor.  As he began The News From Lake Wobegon, I snuggled into the bucket seat and listened not just to his words but also to the rise and fall of his voice, vibrating in the center of my chest like a French horn.  By the time side A was over I had finally relaxed. Dad turned the tape over in the player and used the sudden return to chilly silence to send another ladder up the invisible wall.
            “You know who was a great storyteller?” he asked.
            “Your grandma.  And your great-grandmother Burnam, too.  She could tell a story that would make your hair stand on end one minute, then have you peeing your pants with laughter the next.”
            “Oh, yeah? Huh.”  Just because he wanted to reconnect didn’t mean I was opening the door from my side. 
            “Yeah.  She used to keep us all in stitches when we were kids, telling us tales about her family and the old place in West Frankfort.”
            “Uh-huh.”  He was losing me, seeking blindly through the dark for a cord that would pull me back to be his daughter again.
            “She used to tell this one story about your great-great grandmother Lillian Horrell and the big ole bull, Too-Tall.  Did I ever tell you that story?”
            “No.”  I hesitated, but dangit, he had me hooked now.  “What bull?”
            It was in the telling of that story that I heard in my father’s voice the rise and fall, ebb and flow of words that invited me to laugh and gasp alongside the adventures of tiny, fiery farmwife, Lillian Horrell.  She belonged to my dad, and he was gifting her story to me.  Now, she belonged to me, too.  We shared her legacy, this red-haired, sharp-witted sprite of a woman who beat down an angry bull to rescue her husband and could play three instruments but couldn’t hold a tune while she sang if you put it in a bucket for her.  His obvious pride in her warmed me.  Maybe I could live a life that interesting, too.  Maybe I could be the one he told stories about someday.
            After Lillian, he moved onto stories about her younger brothers.  In the midst of a story about a ne’er-do-well great-great Uncle Ellis who got so drunk before he pitched a minor league baseball game that he nearly killed a man with his wild pitches, we hit a pothole.  That wasn’t unusual on old 51, but this was enough to make my usually sure-handed dad swerve out of his lane and curse under his breath at the uselessness of Illinois road construction projects. 
            “They don’t even know how to put a road together!  I’ll bet you know more about making a road than they do!”
            “Probably.” I replied, wanting to get back to the stories.
            “Oh, you do, do you?” he challenged slyly.  So, I proceeded to tell him exactly how roads were built, step by step.  He was dumbfounded.
            “Where did you learn that?”  I silently struggled with how to answer.  “At school?”
            I took a deep breath.
            “Nowhere.  I just made it up.”  I admitted a little proudly.  He wasn’t the only one who could tell a story.  He burst into a belly laugh that broke down the last of that invisible wall that night.
            The next bathroom stop, he would dig into his briefcase to gift me with my very first yellow legal pad and special pen, intended just for writing down stories.
            “You need to start writing these stories you hear down so you don’t forget them.”
            With those words, he invited me not just to enjoy his stories, but to become a member of the storytelling brotherhood with him.  It made me feel important.  It empowered me to become as adventurous and memorable as Lillian Horrell and Too-Tall the Bull.   It gave me reason to believe he was proud and that we weren’t so far apart after all.


  1. I love the telling of this story. Reminds me my great aunt Eleanor and great uncle Dean. They are the best tellers of stories. I have a tape of uncle Dean telling me what it was lime to grow up during The Great Depression. Man, I gotta find that tape.