Father-Daughter Dance: nonfiction

Sue Fagalde Lick

The place my 90-year-old father feels most comfortable is a place that no longer exists, but I take him there as often as I can. Not with a car, but with a question.

“Dad, how many horses did you have on the ranch?” I ask during my weekly telephone call from the Oregon coast to San Jose, California.

“Oh, I think we had ten or twelve at one time.” He tells me again how the horses would be waiting for him when he’d get off the school bus and walk down Leigh Avenue to Dry Creek Road. They knew he would feed them. Most days, his mother left a bucket of peelings—apples and such—on the porch and they loved it. “It was like candy to them.”

“I’ll bet they’d rather have the apple pie than the peelings.”

He laughs. “Yeah, I suppose they would. With a little ice cream on top.”

They used horses for both work and transportation in the early years on the prune and cherry ranch where Grandpa was foreman, running the place for a wealthy family named Dorrance. I never saw my father or my grandfather riding a horse. In my imagination, they’re just like the cowboys on TV, but they didn’t herd cattle, they raised fruit, and this was in the 1930s and ‘40s, not the 1800s. As they started using more trucks and tractors, they didn’t need the horses as much and didn’t replace them when they died.

I’m taking notes as he talks, feeling a little disloyal as I flip into interview mode but wanting to capture these stories both as a writer and as a girl who wants to go back to that sun-soaked era she barely glimpsed before it disappeared.

Grandpa still lived on the ranch until I was nine years old. When our parents took us to visit, my little brother and I sat politely while the grownups talked. We rarely went beyond the house, but I remember the barn and a lath-covered picnic area where the shadows fell in stripes. On Father’s Day, barbecuing steak and corn on the cob scented the air. The air filled with shouts and the clangs of clashing iron as the men of the family played horseshoes while the women gossiped in the kitchen. I remember a fenced front yard, a tiny fish pond, flowers, a dog, chickens in a wire pen. I remember going out to where the prunes dried in the dehydrator and being overwhelmed by the hot, sweet smell. I think I can see an old green pickup truck.

I wish I could see Grandma Clara, my father’s mother, but she died of heart disease when I was two. She was younger than I am now. Black-and-white photographs show that I have her smile and her nearsighted eyes. When I asked my blue-eyed father what color his mother’s eyes were, he got confused and thought I was talking about my own mother whose eyes were brown like mine.

That conversation frightened me. By my age, most people’s parents have died or need care and supervision, reversing the parent-child roles. If they’re still alive and independent, illness and death loom. Every time they forget something, we fear it’s the beginning of dementia. Every time they don’t answer the telephone, we’re sure they’re lying dead on the floor. Every time we say goodbye, we wonder if this is the last time.

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