The Light Touch / Scents of my father
Published 1:02 am, Wednesday, June 16, 2010
What I remember most about those early summers before I left for camp, was the intense heat on Saturday afternoons when my father, his 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 he listened to the Giants announcer shout out the scores on the car 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. These shirts were so stiff that I would prop them up to see if they could stand on their 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. At day's end, other faint often indistinguishable odors reminiscent of peppermint and spice, lingered on. Later, when dad switched from cigarettes to a pipe, the rich, smoky tobacco replaced the stale odor of his Old Golds. I could map out my father's life from those shirts that carried with them his daily itinerary: Tomato sauce from lunch, a lipstick stain that had found its way from my mother's lips to his shirt collar. Occasionally, an ink stain from his Parker fountain pen dripped through the shirt pocket, leaving a navy-blue blotch that no amount of washing and scrubbing could obliterate. Fountain pens were the rage then, dipped in ink wells, the nib shaken and wiped with a soft cloth dad kept in his drawer for such purposes.
My father moved through his fast-paced life with an intensity that would be described by today's standards as Type A. Back then, it was simply called "being busy." Bound by a legal work schedule that brought him into courtrooms, he stood tall and imposing as he presented his cases in shirts that I called "serious white." On the mornings he went to trial, he dressed carefully, inserting collar stays and adjusting his tie perfectly. I loved watching him dress as he always looked as starched and stately as the shirts themselves.
His ritual completed, my job was to pour a few drops of after-shave cologne into his waiting palms, which he then rubbed together and slapped on to his face. I would stand there inhaling the aroma, giving myself a few dabs as well. In that way, I carried the scent of my father with me throughout the day until he returned home just as the sun was setting.
But, the moments I cherish most fondly were those Saturdays when the chaos died down, the world moved slower, and dad turned his attention to another pursuit: washing the car. For a while it was Buicks and Oldsmobiles that adorned our driveway. Later, moving up in his career, these gave way to Cadillacs, a car he held in high esteem and considered to be the perfect driving machine. He tended to this as he would a legal brief. Rather than send it through a commercial car wash, he preferred to lovingly care for it by giving it weekly washes -- a regular Saturday afternoon tradition.
It was those afternoons that bonded us, father and daughter. Often, I put other activities aside to act as his car wash assistant, handing him sponges and cloths, making sure the pail was filled with enough hot water to complete the task. While the radio blasted baseball scores, I stood by his side as he barked out orders:
"Sponge please," he said.
I handed him a sponge.
"More hot water."
And I, his personal scrub nurse, eagerly scampered off to refill the pail.
It was on those days when we washed the car that my father gave more attention to the baseball game than he did to his daughter. Yet, I never felt ignored knowing I was doing a job reserved solely for me. In that way, I was indispensable. When a player hit a home run, my father once kicked the pail so hard the soap suds flew as he picked me up in his sturdy arms, cheering. The Giants had scored a home run and merriment was in the air merging baseball mania with the clean smell of car wax. The sweat poured his body onto his shirt, which by now had lost all its stiffness, and had evolved into a limp work shirt.
Sometimes, my mother would whip up a pitcher of lemonade and a plate of freshly-baked ginger snaps. Dad would pause for moment, grab a cookie and swig down a glass of the tangy drink.
"So, how's it going, kid?" he asked.
By that he meant: How was life? What was new? How was the world treating me? And my answer was always the same: "Boring," I said.
For hundreds of Saturdays, dad and I worked on those cars, and every few years he traded one in for the latest model.
"This is the Rolls Royce of Cadillacs," he told me when he made a purchase of an Eldorado that had sharp, pointy fins reminding me of the hull of a large ship.
"Why don't you get a Rolls Royce instead?" I asked.
And my father, laughing so hard, turned beet red in the hot June sun.
One summer when I was 15, he was lathering up the car in his shirt sleeves. He called out my name, shouting: "Hey kid, we've got a job to do." But, I was nowhere to be seen.
"What happened to the kid? I'm ready to wash the car," it was later reported by my mom.
I had gone off with friends, first to the 5&10, the Madison luncheonette and on to the movies in search of boys on whom we had developed mad crushes.
My father stood by the car, his shirt covered in water, wiping perspiration off his forehead, shrugging his shoulders and looking glum 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 typical Saturday when I was home from college, he pulled out the old pail and soap, wax, and rags, dragging the hose across our lawn.
"Would you like to lend a hand?" he asked.
And I, reluctant to say no, rolled up the sleeves of my father's shirt that I wore over my jeans. Together, we gave the car the wash of its life. A while later, over the cacophonous roar of the baseball game, dad winked. "Hey kid, can't you see the pail's empty?"
Obediently, I rose to the occasion. I filled the water bucket to the top, standing wide-eyed and ready, time moving in slow motion as I pulled dad's shirt tightly around me and inhaled deeply.