I remember my father atop a splintered picnic bench. Tattered overalls, stained in sweat and dirt, and his skin, an apple red from the oppressive sun. I sat, splashing about in a play pool, wearing my favorite swimsuit – it was violet, the neckline trimmed with flowing ruffles.
“We nearly have two pennies to rub together, Helen,” he had said to my mother. My father was a laborer, picking up odd jobs here and there, yet there hadn’t been an odd job there for the picking in a while.
“It’ll be fine Charlie, we’ll get by,” my mother assured. But she, too, had become weary; her hopeful spirit, heavy in the thick air.
My mother was a baker, by hobby not trade. She was talented and resourceful; I’m not sure which came first: the cupboards were often better used for hiding spots than for storage, but somehow there was always the right amount of something for her to do her magic. It was what kept her smiling, moving forward. Even then, I could sense the purpose she felt with each knead of dough. Folks would pop by, knocking about on the back door, “Hey there, your mama got anymore of those tasty Helen’s helpings?” She’d sell them for what she could. People seemed to like them. And what she didn’t sell, we ate before they spoiled. My mother wasn’t a waster.
I watched my father that summer day, as he sat, staring, unresponsive to my playful quips. He’d break his fixation only to wipe the sweat from his brow – just before it’d reach his eyes – like a wound toy, moving mechanically, slowly returning to its original pose. And then he broke, rubbing his eyes, and for a moment I thought he had begun to cry; I had never seen a grown man cry. But he stood, staring blankly on, and let out a heavy sigh, kicking up the dirt drive as he exited. My mother quickly followed after. I sat there for some time, cautiously so, fearful to make a disturbance, my fingertips slowly turning wrinkly beneath the water's surface.
As the afternoon turned ripe, my mother came to retrieve me. I tagged along beside her, as she delivered packages of tarts and biscuits in the ease of the dusk breeze -- she with her task, I with mine. My eyes swept the ground, back and forth, as we moved from house to house. “Sadie, watch where you’re going sweetie, you’re sure to run into something if you don’t start paying attention,” my mother had warned. But I didn't, and by the time my mother had wrapped up her rounds, I had found what I was looking for.
The wind picked up that evening: a distant rain shower’s fair warning. Father moved slowly about the house, bringing the windows to a close. I had slipped quietly down the staircase, breaking away from my obedient, nightly routine. He looked up as the floor creaked, “Hey kiddo, you should be in bed.”
I walked straight up to my father’s sturdy base, outstretching my arm, like flora slowly reaching toward the sun. My clenched hand, holding two pennies, made its way to the inside of his tough palm. I remember rubbing them between my thumb and pointer finger after finding them that afternoon: my child’s mind, pure and literal, at work.
I could see in the perplexity of my father’s face, his mind pulling the pieces together. And then he wiped his eyes with the back of one hand, the two pennies nearly drowning in the other. My mother had stood, motionless, trying to shield her presence within the frame of the doorway. I turned and exited, thinking nothing of it, swinging my arms proudly and carefree, returning to bed, a child, untarnished.