I was conceived in a hotel room in Marietta, Ohio. My mother told me this late one night when I was sixteen. She was drunk. She began drinking heavily after my father’s death three years earlier. And for some reason she felt an urgency to provide me with a glimpse into my origins. She and my father were in their forties when I was conceived. It wasn’t supposed to happen, she explained, because she had been told by a doctor long before that she had a tilted womb, which made it unlikely that she would ever become pregnant. But on that night something unusual happened. I was an accident. The product, as she put it, of unusual positioning.
* * *
I first learned about the life cycle of the mayfly when I was in middle school in Mr. Waters’ seventh-grade Bioscience 100 class. I was carried away by the passion my teacher expressed for this humble insect that is born, lives, and dies in little more than a day. I was caught up by the sweep of his delicate hands as he gestured during the lecture, the lyrical quality of his boyish voice. My father had died during the summer before seventh grade, I was thirteen, and Mr. Waters’ hair fell in lovely deep golden waves the color of the beer in the bottles my mother started storing in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator soon after the funeral and drank, bottle after bottle, late at night. Miller High Life.
* * *
From the time I was born until his death when I was thirteen, my father and I exchanged probably no more than a few hundred words. Not because he was absent from my early life as may be the case in many children’s lives, their fathers gone due to divorce or abandonment. He was a reliable presence in my childhood, part of our intensely nuclear family—father, mother, and only child—in a household forcibly close-knit by the limited space of our modest house in a small community where families retreated to their respective homes every evening before dark.
My father was the garage door’s familiar grinding at 5:15 p.m. every weekday, the low hum of his station wagon pulling in, the figure ascending the basement stairs into the kitchen carrying in on his black overcoat the aromas of downtown, cooking grease, fuel exhaust, and lime-tinged cologne.
Mother served dinner at 5:30 every evening. The meal was a quiet affair, Mother asking her few routine questions, my father responding in a minimum of words.
“Was it busy downtown today?”
“Oh, not so much.”
“Much traffic coming home?”
My father was the tired restaurant manager who trod down the hall to bed precisely at 10 ‘o clock every night, sometimes humming a tune or crooning, The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be, or some other song, barely audible, that served as his farewell to us until morning. He was the man who reappeared precisely at 5:00 every morning heading out for work in white shirt, striped tie, gray jacket, meticulously polished black shoes. He was the one who kept the lawn free of weeds and the roses blooming. He was sounds and aromas and dependability, a figure moving across the periphery of my childhood, but he and I rarely exchanged words. We never told each other the stories of our days, what happened at work or school, never made plans to play catch after dinner or laughed together at a TV show, never said to each other, I love you. I knew him only as a presence that was always a presence, until he was suddenly gone.
* * *
“A mayfly rises out of the water in which it was spawned,” Mr. Waters explained with a sudden upturn of his graceful arms. “It grows wings in a heartbeat, breeds, and then its life is over.”
Mr. Waters, who had devoted himself to teaching the rudiments of life science to class after class of puberty-blitzed, distracted middle school students, could have been a poet. I liked to imagine him leading an English class to an appreciation of “The Road Not Taken,” pointing each of us toward the roads of our own independent choosing, inspiring each of us to love the exchange of well-crafted words. Instead he had chosen science, and during that particular class he endowed the mayfly with profound significance.
I stayed after class that day. When all of the other students had drifted out into the hall and Mr. Waters and I were alone in the classroom, I walked up the aisle between the rows of desks to the blackboard where he stood. I reached up and touched his face with my hand. I kissed his cheek, which was smooth as a boy’s and smelled faintly of the chemicals in the lab supply room. I felt the cool of his cheek on my lips. He seemed neither surprised nor alarmed. He did not touch me. He did not reprimand me, either. He had probably heard that I was the kid whose father had died over the summer. He was silent as he looked into my eyes. Then he turned back to the board and began erasing the diagram of the mayfly’s thorax that he had sketched there for us that period.
* * *
When I was in my twenties, I met a man who said he had been my father’s childhood friend and that he had known him later when they both worked as restaurant managers for the G. C. Murphy Company dime store chain. This man was much like my father had been—thinning hair, an expanding belly, black rimmed glasses—but far more talkative. He told me that my father had another child before me, a son.
“Your daddy had a wife before your mother,” he revealed, imparting this secret as casually as he might tell what he’d had for lunch that day. “She was a girl from the high school, a pretty girl—but wild.” He laughed at this and shook his head. “He married her and they had a boy shortly before he left for the war.” The man could not remember the son’s name, but he recalled that when my father returned home from Germany after serving his term in the Army, he found that his wife had taken up with another man. My father divorced her and left town and never saw his son again.
I have never tried to find this son, my half-brother. Mother forbade me. She said that my father never told her about any child, so either the story wasn’t true or he did not want anyone to know about it. I should leave it alone. She was my family, I didn’t need anyone else. Mother herself had been married twice before meeting my father, but she never talked about her former husbands. I heard about them from her sisters, who enjoyed telling me tales about Mother’s past. Don’t go nosing into people’s lives, Mother warned, they will reject you. If I did find this brother and tried to contact him, she said, he would probably think that I was after something from him, like money. He would tell me to mind my own business. Besides, she said, some things you are better off not knowing.
The man who so casually revealed to me that I had a half-brother also told me that during World War II my father had been in the thick of the German surprise assault on U.S. lines in the Ardennes, and he had witnessed the Battle of the Bulge. He corroborated what my paternal grandmother and aunts had often said, that my father returned from the war a different person—reticent, sullen, given to nervous agitation. Not the young prankster with the ready smile they had known as a boy. Not the boy who ran the bases all summer, the wind skidding through his black hair, his barrel chest ramming the humid summer air. Not the young man who sashayed into his father’s grocery store to snatch Fudgesicles from the freezer case.
But this was the father that I had experienced, to the extent that I had experienced him at all—quiet, distant, always seeming just on the edge of anger. Someone a little girl would never approach with a storybook to ask to be read to, or a game meant to be played by two, or with a childish question. A parent around whom a little girl should be careful and quiet lest she invade his silence and spark his wrath. A father who spoke to his daughter only in short, sharp bursts like machine gun fire. “Be quiet!” “Stop that!” And when she was crying, “Dry up!”
By the time my father met and married Mother, the war was long over and the two of them were approaching their forties. Mother never knew the man that he had been before the war; she only heard stories from his mother and sisters about how he had returned home a different person from the one they had known before. When they got married, they bought a modest suburban home and settled into a comfortable middle-aged existence. My father spent much of the time when he was not at work at home in the garage where he had a workshop, a place my mother was warned to avoid.
A few times when they were newly married, she recalled to me once, she went to the garage in the evening after she had finished washing the dishes to chat with him or to watch him work.
“What are you building?” she had asked one time when she found him bent over his saw horse, cutting a board into pieces. Anytime someone is working with their hands, whether they are painting or writing or working at carpentry, one of Mother’s quirks is to ask, “What are you building?” I imagine her sitting down on the stool by his workbench and, with her hands still warm and damp from the dishwater suds, smoothing her hair away from her temples and tidying her French twist. She looked at the back of this man she had married as he worked, this man that was still so much a stranger to her.
“Ah, no,” he had responded in warning, “get on back in the house. Go on, now.” He stopped sawing long enough to wave her toward the door.
“But I just wanted to spend some time with you. Just to talk.” Mother, who had been home alone all day, was hoping for some conversation.
“Get on out of here, before you get your feelings hurt,” he had said as he turned his back on her and went back to his work.
Mother had learned early in their marriage to honor the invisible boundaries around this man. Their marriage from then on was built upon a routine that made their lives predictable and easy. My father worked. My mother kept house. Their home was perpetually quiet. At their age and because of my mother’s inability to become pregnant during her prior two marriages, they gave no thought to having children.
* * *
“A mayfly’s lifespan is only a day or two,” Mr. Waters explained. “He does not eat or cry or sing, and he flies only for an instant. The purpose of his life: to mate and to die.
“When they reach maturity, mayflies rise out of the water into the air toward sunlight. The male clasps a female in his grip, and they mate as they ride the brief arc between beginnings and ends.”
Mr. Waters looked into the eyes of his students, each of us, with the intensity of a sage who imparts to his disciples deep truths, whose melodious words contain within themselves the mystifying secrets of life itself. In the mayfly’s brief existence he found the essence of individual experience, the gradual rise to maturity, the climax of progeny, the slow surrender into decline.
* * *
My conception took place on the night before my Uncle Paul’s funeral. Mother’s sister, my Aunt Sue, was widowed suddenly when her husband died after a heart attack at age forty. The whole family, Aunt Sue’s five sisters, their husbands and some of their children, traveled to Marietta for the burial. They took up an entire floor of the Lafayette Hotel, which Mother described as old and creaky with leaky faucets, noisy pipes, and the musty odors of age, but a decent place to stay. The family ate together in the hotel’s dining room before attending the viewing at the funeral home down the street. When they returned to their room and settled in for the evening, Mother told me, she was perplexed by the fact that my father was so insistent upon sex that night. How could anyone be in the mood when a relative had just died, and so unexpectedly, and so young?
Perhaps my father viewed the trip as more a vacation than a family duty; perhaps he regarded Uncle Paul’s death as more a curiosity—an anomalous blip on the reliable radar of life—than a tragedy. He was particularly amorous and playful that night, she recalled, even insisting that they have sex in a position that they rarely indulged in at home. She was in no mood, with her sister’s grief and the details of the next day’s funeral on her mind, but she acquiesced.
* * *
When I was an adult and pregnant with my first child, my obstetrician was a fertility specialist. During my monthly appointments with him, I was placed in an exam room with such homey features as cozy knitted coverings on the exam table stirrups and gently heated specula. A poster was taped to the ceiling above the exam table with a photo of a kitten hanging by its front legs from a tree limb. The caption read, “I feel so alone.” Presumably women lying on the table would feel a kinship with the poor kitten as their feet were placed into the padded stirrups and their legs gently spread before the doctor’s inquisitive stare.
On the wall behind the doctor was a drawing of a naked woman on her elbows and knees, head down, a towel sketched strategically over her bottom. As I looked past the doctor’s head during my examinations, I could not help but stare at the drawing. At some point, its purpose dawned on me. The woman in the drawing assumed a position that made conception more likely than others a woman might take during sexual intercourse. The downward tilt of the vaginal canal toward the upturned cervix would allow gravity and a straight shot at the target to aid an infertile couple in conceiving. Rather than going through the possibly embarrassing process of explaining the position to a patient, the doctor could simply turn, point to the drawing, and say something to the effect of, “Try this.” The woman could look at the drawing and get the picture. Then she could run home to her waiting husband to follow her doctor’s orders and finally, perhaps, become pregnant.
My arrival in the world was the result of the untimely death of a relatively young man combined with the necessity that my parents leave their home and their routine lovemaking and venture to a hotel where my father apparently felt adventurous, freed up, caught up in the novelty of the circumstances. I see them—my father clasping my mother’s waist in his two hands, my mother on knees and elbows with her back arched, their bodies forming a writhing arc in the dark of that hotel room. Maybe the sounds of the old hotel, its muted creaks and the sighing of its pipes, receded for a time and there were only two bodies in motion and a cool sweat from skin on skin. Perhaps the two felt as if they rose for a few moments above the sameness of their world, elevated by my father’s ecstatic celebration of life in the midst of death.
* * *
When I was five years old, my father saved my life. At least that is the story I tell myself, because that is the way it seemed at the time. He, Mother, and I were on our yearly trip to the beach on our summer vacation. This year we went to Panama City, Florida. The sands along the Gulf of Mexico’s shores were fine and dusty and almost as white as flour where they met the tides along the stretches of beach. The water was such a clean blue that the ocean looked like a roiling expanse of sky.
In my pink polka dot swimsuit, I walked hand-in-hand with Mother along the beach where the tides lapped in ankle deep. The wet sand, dense and silky, sunk under my feet, recording their shape time after time as we stepped along, tickling my heels as it moved grain by grain with the water’s retreat. My father stood at a distance from us, his back deeply tanned and freckled, looking far out across the water to where the sky and ocean seemed to merge. Mother and I moved through the water toward him, watching for jelly fish as the waves moved in and out.
An unusually high wave formed out in the deeper water ahead of us. It rose up and curved like a python as it coursed toward where mother and I were standing. It was well over my head when it crashed around us and plunged toward the shore. The force of it knocked me under the water onto my back. I lay there with the water tugging at me, frightened and amazed all at once, peering up through the murky green, watching schools of bubbles and strands like long, slimy blades of grass floating past. For a few seconds I felt that my life would be this moment forever. Me, a small child under the water, alone, staring up through a thrashing darkness toward sunlight. Before I could think to struggle, to try to fight my way up through the rushing water and get my head above its surface, I felt big hands surround my waist. I was hauled upward as the weight of a wave against my face thrust my neck backward, the water forcing itself into my mouth and up my nostrils. My father drew me in an arc out of the waves and straight up over his head as I coughed and snorted and struggled to get my breath. The salt water set my throat and the lining of my nostrils on fire so that every breath seemed more painful than it was worth. He held me there for a few seconds suspended between ocean and sky, exposed in the midday sunlight that seemed to train its heat on me. Then I was standing again in water up to my waist, wiping the burning salt from my eyes. I looked up into the blaring light at my father’s face, steady and expressionless after lifting me out of the waves back into life.
* * *
In the science room at Washington Middle School over the scuffling of his restless students’ feet and the buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead, Mr. Waters explained to us that entomologists divide the mayfly’s life cycle into four stages, two aquatic and two terrestrial. Its life begins as a fertilized egg that matures into a nymph, shedding its exoskeleton several times as it grows. The nymph eventually lifts itself out of the water and flies. At this time it enters the first of its terrestrial stages as a dun, shedding its exoskeleton only one more time to become a spinner, a fully mature insect. After this final molting, the mature mayflies gather above the water to mate. When this process is complete, the male drops back into the water and dies. Females retreat to streamside vegetation to allow their fertilized eggs to ripen before returning to the water to deposit them there. Then they, too, die. The following spring, new nymphs rise out of the water. The cycle replays itself, year after year.
* * *
I have never seen a mayfly. I have never been at a stream at just the right time in the spring to witness their rise out of the water into full adulthood, never watched as they gather in the air to mate en masse, nor witnessed afterward as the male mayflies drop to the water and die. I know mayflies only from the stories I have heard about them from others. I know them from descriptions by Mr. Waters, a golden-haired young teacher who described the creature’s life in such romantic terms that I was led to view the mayfly as a symbol for the tragic brevity of human lives. I know them from the people who have described them swarming over the water, those who have experienced mayflies at such close range that they have had to wave them away from their faces as they might shoo away mosquitoes and other insects. Mayflies, seemingly by the millions, their infinitesimal bodies and papery wings clouding the sun-flooded air. The creature that Mr. Waters celebrated with his elegiac grace is spawned one among so many that together they might be regarded as inconsequential pests to those who are accosted by their momentary presence. An individual mayfly is no more than a spot of white on a warmish breeze—a trifle. No more than an almost inaudible hum on the air.
And so a man may be. One among so many that his own single life is insignificant. One soldier among thousands who return from war tragically different than when they departed; who live as best they can decades later with the after-effects of combat; who work and marry and help to support households. A father exists amidst a multitude of fathers like himself. A father such as mine, moving unobtrusively across the terrain of his family’s existence, tending what needs to be tended, occupying a place within the family, offering few words. My father was that reliably present stranger. And then he was gone.