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The Light Touch / The scents of my father

Updated 1:25 pm, Tuesday, June 11, 2013
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What I remember most about those summers was the intense heat, when on Saturday afternoons, my father, shirt-sleeves rolled up to the elbows, washed his car. A cigarette dangled precariously off his lip as though it was pasted in place, while the news commentator shouted out baseball scores on the portable radio. On other days, my father was dressed in a suit and tie, his shirt so heavily starched it almost cracked when he put it on. On occasion, I would prop one up to see if it could stand on its own.

It was the smell of those shirts that resonates still -- that fresh laundry scent mingling with the starch that had been ironed into the fabric. After a day of being worn, other faint odors lingered, reminiscent of car wax and soap, peppermint, spice and sweat. Later, when dad switched from his short stint of cigarettes to a pipe -- a rich, smoky tobacco scent replaced the stale odor of his Marlboros. I could map out my father's life from those shirts that carried with them his daily itinerary: Tomato sauce from lunch at Mario's, a lipstick stain that had found its way from my mother's lips to his shirt collar. Occasionally, an ink stain from his Parker pen dripped through the shirt pocket, leaving an indelible navy-blue smudge that neither time nor vigorous scrubbing could eradicate.

My father, an attorney, moved through his fast-paced life with an intensity that would be described by today's standards as Type A. Back then, it was called "being busy." Bound by a work schedule that brought him into courtrooms, he stood dignified and formidable as he presented his cases in shirts befitting the occasion. His "serious shirts," I called them equipped with collar stays and cufflinks.

My morning job was to pour a few drops of after-shave cologne into his waiting palms, which he then rubbed together and slapped on his face. I would stand there inhaling the aroma, giving myself a few dabs as well. I carried the scent of my father with me throughout the day until he returned home just as the sun was setting.

My dad and I were never closer than on those Saturday afternoons when he tended to his weekly ritual as carefully as he would a legal brief. Rather than utilize a commercial car wash, he preferred to do the job himself. Often, I dropped other activities to act as his assistant, handing him sponges and rags, and making sure the pail was filled with enough hot, sudsy water to complete the task. While the radio blasted, I stood by his side as he barked out orders:

"Sponge please," he said. I handed him a sponge. "Another rag. More hot water." And I, his personal `scrub nurse,' eagerly scampered off to refill the pail.

It was those Saturdays that my father gave more attention to the baseball game than he did to me. Yet, I never felt neglected because I knew I was indispensable. When a player scored, we cheered. If a home run, was made, dad tossed the sponge in the air, soapsuds flying, and threw me up in his sturdy arms merging the pungent odor of car wax with the smell of his shirt, which by now had lost its stiffness, and was drenched in sweat from the heat of the afternoon.

Occasionally, my mother would whip up a pitcher of lemonade and a plate of freshly-baked ginger snaps. Dad and I would pause for moment, grab a cookie, and swig down a glass of the tangy drink.

"So, how's it going, kid?" he turned to me, wiping perspiration from his forehead.

By that he meant: How was life? How was school? How was the world treating me? And my answer was always the same: "Boring," I said.

One summer when I was 15, before I left for camp, dad was lathering up the car. As I later learned from my mother, he had shouted out: "Hey kid, we've got a job to do." But, I was nowhere to be found.

"What happened to the kid?" he had asked her. "I'm ready to wash the car."

I had gone off with friends, first to Woolworth's 5 & 10, the Madison luncheonette, and on to the movies in search of boys on whom we had developed passing crushes.

I imagine him now, standing by his car covered in soap and water, shrugging his shoulders, and looking bewildered that I had abandoned my post. After that, he started going to the local car wash because, he said: "It's just a lot easier."

Years later, on a particular Saturday afternoon when I was home on a college vacation, my father decided to wash the car. He pulled out the old pail and soap, wax, and rags, and dragged the hose across the lawn while I languished on a nearby deck chair, reading.

"Want to lend a hand?" he asked me.

And I, feeling either too guilty or too afraid to say no, and eager to rekindle a memory, slipped one of dad's old shirts over my jeans and T-shirt. Together, we gave the car the wash of its life. A while later, over the cacophonous roar of the baseball game, he winked. "Hey, kid, can't you see the pail's empty?" he said.

Judith Marks-White shares her humorous views every other Wednesday. She can be reached at joodth@snet.net or at www.judithmarks-white.com.