My father Perry was a very good-looking stuttering man. His stutter was so profound that it would sometimes take a whole minute to get a word out. “Let’s go to the b…b…b…b…b…b, long pause, stuttering of breath…b…b…b…silence (count about 10 seconds) beach!” That stutter didn’t hold him back, though. Women loved him. Even my childhood friends had crushes on him.
Perry was a man of the 50s, a breadwinner, a guy handy with tools, a golfer, a drinker, a skier, a smoker. A very handsome man. And charming, despite the stutter, maybe because of it.
But for all his personal charisma, there was a disconnected quality about him in his relationships. He wasn’t one for physical shows of affection, except for my mother, and that, I later suspected was, for him, like many men (forgive my jaded attitude), probably motivated by sex. Our dog, Taffy? Nothing. He hated cats. I actually saw him kick his mother’s cat once. And kids, back in those days were, I think, looked on somewhat as little animals to be trained. No hugs there.
That no hugs, sort of self-centered aspect of Perry is a detail about him that comes to mind in the midst of a story I have told over and over, for years, since that summer of my 12th year. The image is in the story, but I never speak of it because it seems unrelated. It is like a dangling thread, but lately, while writing, a side door opened to reveal why that detail, that image persistently comes to mind, and why I suppress the telling of it.
The story I keep telling:
The featherless baby sparrow, fallen from the nest of the old Fir tree in our yard, and we kids, the rescuers.
How we keep it alive in a shoe box filled with cotton and feed it milk from a Murine eyedropper and pieces of bread with tweezers.
Name it Sparrow,
Then one day release him into the neighborhood, feeling gallant, returning him to nature.
Then, while sitting on our porch, feeling glum, Sparrow lands on the neighbor’s shoulder as he mows his lawn.
Jubilantly, we retrieve our bird. After all, we say, he drinks milk and doesn’t know about bugs and seeds and drinking water from leaves and puddles.
From that day on, all summer we release Sparrow and call him in before sunset by placing the eyedropper on the porch. He comes flying down, every time, from the giant fir trees, blocks away. We take him camping to the Olympic Forest and he flies around the campground, always keeping us within sight so he can see the eyedropper when it’s dinnertime and can come to sleep in his little plastic portable cage. If we miss bird curfew (sunset) we wander the campground calling “Sparrow! Sparrow!” Campers are amazed when we locate him by the sound of his sleepy “Chirp.” My little brother Nicky climbs the tree with a fishing pole to force Sparrow awake so he can come home to our campsite. More disbelief from the campers, who are, by now gathered to watch these crazy kids and this sleepy reluctant little sparrow come floppily fluttering down and into his little cage.
This amazing, unusual pet story I tell repeatedly over my lifetime, but there is that image that I leave out. The image is of Perry, my father.
Perry sitting in his red fake leather chair, with a cigarette burning in the ashtray and a bourbon highball in one hand, and Sparrow cupped and asleep in his other hand.
Then, the day that Sparrow meets his sad fate, pecking crumps from the toaster on the kitchen counter, the pickle jar atop the old fashioned, round-cornered Frigidaire. The door slamming shut. The pickle jar, in slow motion sliding off. Sparrow gone.
My father in tears.
And I, for loss of the weight of his hand on my head, bewildered.
Elisa Peterson is currently writing and illustrating short essay memoir pieces about her life growing up in Tacoma. This essay shows how sometimes the heart of the story lies buried, untold, until the writing of it. Peterson grew up in Fircrest in the 40s and 50s, graduating from Wilson High in 1961. Her careers have been varied and adventures numerous, so she has lots of stories to tell. Currently, she is a vintage reseller and a recycle artist with two Etsy Shops. She is the founder of The Tacoma Arts and Crafts Meetup Group, a thriving group of women who support each other in arts and crafts.