Birds & Bees, by Kate Berwanger
It’s my father’s fault. And I suppose it’s childish for one to blame their father for their upbringing. But the first memory he ever gave me was a lie. I recall it quite clearly. Like the vision was preserved in a bottle. And every time I look at my reflection the evidence of his fib is just as clear.
I have no recollection of my curious, developing mind. Only the stories my mom would tell me later in life. My inquires of God. Of heaven and hell. Of right and wrong. There’s photo evidence of me, three years old, throwing a fit at my parent’s wedding. Of playing in the turtle sandbox with Clint. Of riding a camel at the zoo with my older brother. These snap shots didn’t make the memory bank. This day, however, I remember quite vividly.
Flower leggings. Pink and purple lilacs. Jean jumper. White shirt adorned with gently embroidered sunflowers. Neon green headband. My parents let me dress myself, so I always emerged looking like one of those mismatched dolls at the thrift shop. With unruly hair to match.
The sticky hot sweat of an Ohioan summer. The smell of his Vantage cigarettes. Beams of sunlight piercing oaks leaves. Dirt trails leading nowhere. We would get lost in the woods together. I’d swing from vines, get my fingernails dirty, wrinkle my lilacs. He’d gaze through his binoculars, proudly naming the birds perched in trees. I’d jump from tree stumps to dry-rotted logs, get tangled in brambles. He’d stare off into the distance. It was how we spent our days while Mom was at work.
We sat together on a fallen tree. I ripped away chunks of thick bark, watching potato bugs scatter. You would imagine every parent anticipates the question. It’s sure to come up some day. Kids get wise to Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. They question things. And, as a parent, you’re expected to have an answer. But kids are casual. They can surprise you at any moment. Catch you off guard. And mid-drag of his cigarette, I don’t think my father was prepared to answer a question about the birds and the bees. Without looking up, I asked freely,
“Where did I come from?”
His blue eyes looked cold. But they seldom gave any glimmer or sparkle, so I wasn’t troubled by their muted color. He exhaled. The smoke from his cigarette wafted in my direction, which didn’t upset me either. His eyes were fixated on something in the distance. Without turning to me, he said he’d planted a seed in my mom. And that was the end of our conversation. Because my young mind had already started to process his answer. And I remember being bothered. The question didn’t leave my mouth, but instead meddled in my thoughts.
Perhaps he was disappointed in my lack of prying. I had a reputation of asking the five ‘W’s, sending him into a verbal labyrinth for hours. He always came out alive. Somehow he always found the answers. And I think he was shocked I hadn’t demanded an explanation. Was put-off by my acceptance. And as if to defend himself, he said,
“Because I loved your mother.”
He tried to catch my eye, but I pretended to be fascinated by the roly-poly army. I recall feeling slightly envious of their armor-like shell. When disturbed, they could curl into a ball. My only defense mechanism at this point was a cold shoulder. I wanted to ask him what love had to do with planting a seed. Instead I flicked the armored bug off the log. But I was still bothered. He had planted a seed? If I had come from a seed, this was a grave concern to me.
He was never a good farmer. Everything he’d planted had withered and wilted. Had left everyone disappointed. Let everyone down again. The compost pile would bear more pumpkins and squash than his pathetic garden. The pile of rubbish sprouted sunflowers and melon. Potatoes and corn. He always blamed his poor harvest on ”the goddamn rabbits.” But boasted about the pumpkins we carved. And the corn we roasted over midnight fires. Claiming nature’s work as his own.
And love? What does love have to do with anything? You can love something and watch it rot. Love something at the start and resent it at the finish. I loved the lightning bugs I smashed under rocks. The grasshoppers I fed to our iguana, Louie, whom I loved dearly. I loved our kitten and loved our dog, who snapped our kitten’s neck with one swift shake. I loved the memories of my childhood, handfuls of which have been forgotten. Love doesn’t keep things alive. Love doesn’t make a good farmer, nor father.
I’m reminded of that summer day, that white-hot lie, each time I face myself in the mirror. When I look at my wilting visage. The eyes without a glimmer or sparkle. The crows feet surrounding them. These tramlines on my forehead, this permanently furrowed brow. This barren plain. The seed which showed so much hope, growing and blooming over the years, now deteriorating right before my eyes. One day closer to rotting in the dirt.
I only wonder why he planted a seed he had no intention of caring for.
Kate Berwanger struggles to write biographies in third person, but adores writing broody fiction and fostering dogs (particularly boxers). She is painfully near-sighted and currently lives in Seattle, Washington. Visit her at KateBerwanger.com
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Tags: childhood, family, Kate Berwanger, relationships