Authors: Novella Carpenter
My young ears heard a chair scrape across the tile floor. Dad coughed once, and then a deep bass of a guitar chord resonated through the half-empty house. The music was haunting and slow. Dad stopped playing and did some
tuning, then resumed. I crept out of my bed onto the rough plywood floor, and peered through a jagged cut-out in the drywall that was one day going to be a heater vent. Down in the living room, Dad was seated in a beam of sunlight. He was perched near the picture windows filled with the scrubby golden hills of northern Idaho. He was cradling his guitar in his arms. A cup of coffee sat beside his foot, a curl of smoke rising from it. His eyes closed as he started playing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” I went back to my bed to read but I heard him occasionally stop to replay notes, back up, and start over again. Then the guitar stopped, the front door opened and closed, and he was gone, out to work in the woods cruising timber.
• • •
So many years had passed—could it really be over thirty?—and there I was, standing in my Idaho Falls apartment, my toes in the orange shag carpet, listening to him again. I unwound the stove-top espresso maker, packed it with coffee, and turned on the flame. When it was ready, I brought some coffee down to the car.
“My studio,” he said as I handed him the mug, and grinned. After breakfast, we headed out to the river.
It wasn’t a good year for fishing. The drought had dried up all but the biggest rivers, but we wanted to try anyway, and the outdoors reporter at the newspaper told us of a spot.
“You get a reel and I’ll get a pole,” Dad sang on the way to the river, “and we’ll head on down to the fishing hole . . .” He was like a little bird, chirping and whistling, not talking about anything important, just being.
The spot was called Ririe. There was an impressive stand of cottonwood trees along the river that cast a refreshing
shade. The river was wide but shallow, rippling across flat river rocks. I was no fly-fishing expert, but it looked pretty perfect to me. We parked in a gravel parking lot and carried our gear down a steep path to the river. It was hot, and grasshoppers dodged our feet. A slow canal ran along the path. There was another fisherman there, throwing his line in, when we arrived. Dad barely looked at him and started setting up nearby.
“This’ll be tender as an old maid’s first kiss,” he said, choosing a fly from his tackle box, then tying it to the end of the line. He is a master of the colorful metaphor. A few of his best sayings: It was raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock, or It’s as cold as an Eskimo fart.
The fly in his hand was a commercial fly called a Rooster Tail. I was a little disappointed that he didn’t tie his own like Paul in
A River Runs Through It
. He showed me how to attach the fly to the line, and the hidden hook that would get lodged in the trout’s mouth. I didn’t know about fishing etiquette, so I wasn’t sure we should be so close to another fisherman, but my dad seemed unfazed and showed me how to cast. The rod had a cork handle.
“It’s not your wrist,” he instructed. “You use your whole arm, so it’s an extension.” He cast to show me. The line swirled in the air, once, twice, and then softly landed, like a real insect might, in the middle of the shallow river. He started reeling in, pulling gently so the fly danced across the top of the water. I liked the motion of fly-fishing, and the idea that we were trying to fool a fish. Dad was wearing a white sweater and a baseball cap; he looked nothing like the man next to us, with his official-seeming fly-fishing khakis and multi-pocketed vest.
We were fishing for trout—rainbows, cutthroat, or browns.
Dad showed me how to cast a few times, whistling and casting, then pulling the line in slowly. He watched the current of the river and aimed for the quiet spots. He was relaxed and spry, utterly in his element. The uneasy feeling I had from the night before disappeared. The man next to us stopped fishing and watched Dad. His athletic casting was a thing of beauty. My heart swelled with pride—he was like Paul in
Runs Through It
We had only one pole, so after half an hour of instruction, I had my chance to cast. He had made it look easy—but my first cast sent the line into the reeds along the river. Startled, I pulled too hard, and the line snapped. The fly was lost. I felt horrible.
“It’s OK, babes,” he said when he saw my stricken expression. Looking for a better spot, we picked our way to the edge of the canal. He tied on another fly. He pointed out ripples on the surface of the water and I cast. And cast again. And cast again. I was getting the hang of it but I sensed Dad was bored with my amateur attempts. So I handed him the rod, sat on the grass, and admired Dad in his element.
The day had gotten hot, so he had taken off his sweater and stood there in a gray T-shirt. He didn’t have a belly like most older men: His stomach was flat, his arms were tanned, and when he pulled the fishing rod back, his biceps bulged. He was wearing Levi’s, and like mine they sagged in the butt. Apparently having no ass is hereditary. His dark eyes were narrowed in concentration, scanning the water for the perfect spot. Every once in a while he would stroke his nose, which had flaring, Napoleonic nostrils. He paced along the river bank with the bandy stance of a cowboy, making cast after cast.
Dad told me that he had learned to fish in Hillsboro,
Oregon, when he was a young boy. When he was three years old, his father, Fred, had packed the family station wagon, drove south, and never came back. Word came that Fred had started a new family in California. Then, a few months later, he died in a fiery car accident. Dad’s mom, my grandmother Jeanne, never quite recovered. She tried to get work as a realtor, but mostly took up drinking and smoking. She foisted her sons—Dad and his older brother—onto her dad, a man everyone called Big George.
Big George was a drinker himself, and a stern taskmaster. He made the boys sleep on stiff cots to build character. It was a kindly neighbor who took my dad and his older brother, Fred Jr., under his wing and showed them how to fish. Seeking escape from their strict grandpa and the ache of their absent parents, the boys would spend whole weekends in the forest near their house exploring, building forts, and pulling crawdads and fish out of a stream that ran through the woods. Years later, Dad’s brother went to work for NASA, but died of a heart attack when he was only forty. Dad blamed it on stress, on the rat race.
I watched Dad fish for an hour. His every action had a boyish air, a spryness. It was like I had watched him transform from a craggy mountain hermit into a young man. He didn’t catch a trout that day at Ririe but we were happy to have been out in the water, and had built up an appetite.
That night we made dinner at my apartment. We practiced speaking Spanish, which I was learning from a local kid in town. After dinner, I persuaded Dad to play some guitar into my digital recorder. “For Riana, for the new baby,” I explained. My sister was pregnant back then with Amaya, due in February.
He went down to his car and fished out his guitar, then
carefully set up a chair in the middle of the room while I fiddled with the digital recorder. I hadn’t used it very many times, so I was worried it wouldn’t record. He began without warning. It was Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” the piece I had remembered him practicing when I was a kid. While he played, I noticed his hands were gnarled from his hard life and age, but the music sounded hauntingly beautiful. I kept checking the red light of the recorder, to make sure it was working—that it was capturing the sounds of my past, of my missing father. I recorded a little over three minutes of him playing. I felt triumphant, as if I had bottled a ghost.
He left the next day, leaving me his fishing rod and line, a couple Rooster Tails, and fifty bucks. We had spent almost forty-eight hours together, the biggest chunk of time since I was a little girl. As he drove away, pangs of loneliness welled up in my stomach. Abandoned again.
• • •
I had used the rod only one other time. On my last weekend in Idaho Falls I had gone back, alone, to Ririe, where Dad and I had gone fishing. I waded into the cool, shallow water and got a few hard nibbles that were electrifying. That night, I camped out by myself on the rocks high above Ririe. I could see the town’s lights twinkling far away. I felt proud of my Idaho summer. I had gone foraging, camping, and tried fly-fishing. I promised myself I would start going on regular fishing trips, that I would finally catch a trout. And I would keep in touch with Dad, build on what we had experienced together. But when I returned to Oakland, back to Bill, back to our farm, I threw the rod in the back room. Eventually, it got covered with garden stuff—floating row cover and old burlap bags—until I could only see the tip of the pole. That brief
connection I had with Dad shriveled up and settled into a forgotten corner of my life too.
Now he had reappeared, and it felt like a reminder, a tap on the shoulder. In times past, I probably would have shrugged my shoulders about Dad’s close call and his dwindling number of second chances. But this time felt different.
I knew that our chance to have a relationship where he was a caregiver, a nurturer, was long gone. I wondered if there was still an opportunity for something. Maybe friendship. I didn’t want to wait until it was too late to reach out to him again. It was time to reckon with the past. Especially now that I was thinking of having a child of my own.
I walked upstairs, sat down at my computer, and crafted an e-mail to my dad, knowing that it might be our last chance.
This whole missing person thing made me realize how much I would regret it if we don’t have some meaningful time together. I would love to stay with you and learn some mountain man skills, or just go fly-fishing. I love you dad and love your spirit, I know it flows in
Mom holding Novella; Dad with Riana. Bernard, the steer and chickens in the background, 1974. Dad calls this era the Good Years.
om never responded to the e-mail I forwarded from Dad. Whether she was relieved or disappointed that Dad had turned up alive after the missing person scare, she never told me. My parents had a complicated relationship that ended with outright hostility.
Of course it didn’t start like that.
My parents met in Mexico in the spring of 1969, in the gorgeous town of San Miguel de Allende. Dad had hitchhiked there in search of a guitar maestro, bringing with him only a small leather backpack and his guitar. He set up in a little room in the Quinto Loreto, a cheap crash pad that offered three meals a day and had a tree-lined courtyard where he could play guitar.
After high school, itching to leave Oregon—and his bossy grandfather, who wanted him to work at the family grocery store—my dad joined the army. When he finished his service
in 1959 he went to France to learn how to speak French. He was a hungry, disciplined student with an interest in philosophy, especially Sartre. After France, in 1961, he moved to Oakland and enrolled at UC Berkeley. Between classes, he hiked into the Berkeley hills and read books about Native American life. He had a girlfriend who had a guitar hanging on the wall of her living room. One night, he took it down, strummed it—and became enchanted. There was a group of classical and Spanish guitar players in Berkeley at the time, and he gravitated toward them. He learned to play with a devotion that my mom would later call obsessive. Like any good philosophy major, he dropped out of college. He ended up in Central Oregon where he learned how to log and hunt, periodically taking trips like the one to San Miguel de Allende where he met my mom.
Mom graduated from Cal in 1965 with a degree in political science. She had grown up in southern California, in the conservative, wealthy beach town of Corona del Mar. Upon hitting Berkeley, her insular world cracked open. Her professors were activists and were outspoken about the Free Speech Movement on campus. It was a heady time: She went to Vietnam War protests and talked late into the night about the politics of power with her friends. After graduating she stuck around Berkeley to work and continue her political activism. She also traveled: going to Europe, then hitchhiking solo through North Africa. By 1968, after three years of hippie agitating and wanderlust, Mom’s spirits were low. Her heroes, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., were both killed that year. The whole scene was being co-opted too, with tour buses driving through San Francisco’s Haight district so tourists could get a look at a real, live hippie. Junkies and
freeloaders had shown up, looking for a little bit of free love without the good vibes. So in early 1969, when Mom’s friend Dixie invited her to drive to Mexico, Mom didn’t hesitate. She jumped into Dixie’s VW and they headed south.
Dixie and Mom spent a few weeks driving down the coast before heading inland to the hippie oasis of San Miguel de Allende. Mom fell in love with the colonial town, with its cobblestone streets and bougainvillea growing everywhere. Leather-sandaled hippies strolled through the town’s streets, and the smell of patchouli comingled with the smell of frying tortillas and open sewers.
After inquiring about lodging at various posadas around town, Mom and Dixie settled in at the Quinto Loreto. Every evening in the Quinto’s courtyard, a dark-haired man practiced his guitar. Though he looked like a hippie—long-haired, bearded—he wasn’t one. He was older, thirty-three, and he didn’t like two signature hippie activities: listening to rock ’n’ roll or doing drugs. He preferred classical music and weight lifting. They didn’t have barbells in Mexico, so most mornings he could be found bench-pressing large rocks in the courtyard. His body was lean and muscular, and he liked feeling strong. His name was George Carpenter. Dad.
One night, fleeing the heat of his room, his shirt off, Dad sat in the courtyard of the Quinto playing a new Spanish song he was trying to master: “Estudious.” He held the guitar high and proud; his boot-clad feet tapped out the tempo. As he played, his eyes grew a little teary. Dixie and Mom, wearing peasant skirts and no bras, listened to him play while they smoked cigarettes. When he finished, my mom, long-limbed and blond; and Dixie, dark-haired and worldly, crept closer to him.
The ladies lit up another round. Dad didn’t smoke. They talked about their travels. They were headed farther south, probably to the Yucatan. They were letting fate guide them. Mom was waiting for word from various graduate schools. She was almost twenty-seven years old and was feeling the siren call of adventure.
That night in the courtyard Dad told them terrific stories about his travels in France and his new passion: working in the forest. When Dad stood up to tell a story about some Gypsies he met in Europe, he strutted around like a Shakespearean actor, his face animated and flushed. Mom felt herself becoming enchanted. She had never met a man like him before. He could speak French and was well traveled. And he could fell a tree. Her previous boyfriends had been intellectuals with not much life experience. And then there was the music. His love, splayed out for the guitar: that was sexy as hell.
It is a romantic story, and when my mom tells it, she casts the night as a competition between her and Dixie: who would get to claim this handsome guitar player? Knowing that I wouldn’t exist if Dad favored Dixie, I always find myself cheering for my mom and her feminine wiles. As it turned out, Dixie gave up first, yawning, and walked back up the stone steps to the room. Dad and Mom’s fate—and mine—was sealed. They spent the night together. Soon they were a couple, waving good-bye to Dixie and her VW bus.
• • •
The adventures continued: After hitchhiking through Mexico, they returned to the USA and ended up in Crescent, Oregon, where my father had worked for the Forest Service.
There, they lived on the cheap. They rented an A-frame with no plumbing, and my dad returned to his old post, saving up money so they could travel to Europe. In early 1970 they boarded a freighter ship with their newly acquired dog, Zachary, bound for Spain. Mom had been accepted to a graduate program in educational psychology at San Francisco State University, but she opted to travel with Dad instead.
Docking in Alicante, they bought a van and set off to live like Gypsies. They stayed on the island of Formentera and became inspired by the small farms they saw there. After six months of island life, they drove to the South of France, traveling from vineyard to vineyard, picking grapes. Mom was a slow picker, but Dad made up for it—he was tremendously strong, able to pick up crates of grapes without effort. The foremen loved him, this mustachioed American with excellent French. As pickers, they were paid daily with a small sum of money, a loaf of crusty bread, and two bottles of wine. Dad was happy to be back in France, and wanted to stay as long as possible.
But then Mom got word that her mom was dying of bone cancer. She felt horrible, pausing to retch into the vines as she picked. She was pregnant. She flew to Southern California to take care of her mom, while Dad stayed behind to sell the van in Spain before flying back. My grandmother, Mary Virginia, met Riana only as a bump in Mom’s belly.
• • •
With my mom’s inheritance, they began scoping out land to buy. They wanted a big ranch where they could have a farm with cattle. My dad wanted to be far away from town and other neighbors. Headquartered again at the A-frame in
Crescent, they looked at properties in Oregon and Idaho before they stumbled across the town of Orofino. The location was ideal, on a big river, and the rolling hills reminded them of Spain. They camped out along the Clearwater, my mom enormously pregnant, until they found the ranch: one hundred and eighty acres for $30,000. The locals thought this was a ludicrously high amount. “Damn city kids,” they snorted at the Ponderosa Café when they heard the price. The ranch came with a tattered trailer that Mom set up as their temporary home. They planned to stay there for only a year. By then, they would move into the big house they were going to build from scratch. They earmarked copies of
magazine for inspiration. The house was going to be epic.
Inspired by books they had read while traveling, like Helen and Scott Nearing’s
The Good Life
, my parents set up a chicken coop, a large garden, rabbit hutches. They got married at the Orofino City Hall. My parents believed they would be like Ma and Pa Kettle, sitting on their rocking chairs on the front porch, growing old together.
At first it was all that they had hoped. The ranch was breathtaking with its gently sloping hills and excellent fields for running cattle. The trailer that came along with the acreage was funky, but was actually a step up from how they had been living in Europe. It had a washer and dryer, and an armchair. Mom, nine months pregnant, was thrilled at these luxuries.
In 1971, just as the Woods’ roses were in bloom, my sister, Riana, was born. Dad was happy as a lark living off the land, scraping by, playing guitar, and going fishing and duck hunting. Mom was game too, even with a newborn baby. She religiously read
Mother Earth News
while breastfeeding. Her vegetable garden flourished. They bought a milk cow and
Mom churned butter and made cheese while baby Riana napped.
That winter the pump to the water cistern froze while Dad was gone on one of his elk hunting trips with his Crescent, Oregon, buddy John Garrick. Mom was snowed in, without a car, and six-month-old Riana had dreadful diarrhea. It scared Mom. She melted snow, made do. But on that winter day she realized that the simple life, the one she had so idealized before having children, might actually kind of suck.
But Mom was an optimist, and winter passed. When Dad ordered a bunch of ginseng plants that he planned to deposit in the forest, then later dig up and sell for $300 per pound, she smiled and nodded her head. “Cool.” While the ginseng grew, in the meantime, in order to buy materials to build their house, Dad took timber thinning jobs. Mom worried when he went out into the forest. She had heard of the dangers of logging, of branches called widow makers, that could fall and crush a man.
In April 1972 Mom discovered she was pregnant again. At first Mom was excited—lots of children were part of their plan. But by summer the washing machine broke and she had to clean Riana’s diapers in the bathtub. Her hormones were raging. Dad discovered Mom weeping against the side of the trailer, muttering, “No. No. No,” and crying. He urged her to go see her aunt in California. “With what money?” she demanded. “In what car?” He shrugged. They used to be proud to call themselves the voluntary poor. But they needed money to finish building their dream house, to pay for seed, and for vet bills if one of the cattle my dad had insisted on buying got sick.
Mom rallied. She continued farming through her pregnancy. With Riana strapped to her back, she rototilled the vegetable garden and chopped firewood. She even took to
strapping a hubcap to her pregnant belly before milking the cow, who was a kicker.
In December I was born, named after Novella Calligaris, an Italian who swam in the 1972 Summer Olympics, winning three medals, including a silver in the women’s four-hundred-meter freestyle. Dad began planting Scotch pines. “Christmas trees!” he explained to Mom when she asked where their little savings had gone. He had bought saplings that would become the perfect Yuletide trees. My mom just nodded her head and tightened her lips.
• • •
In 1974, on the other side of the Clearwater River from my parents, a commune appeared. It was called Farm Out. Founded by a couple from the east coast, Lowell and Marcia, their goal was self-sufficiency. But unlike Mom and Dad, they weren’t on their own. They had friends from Cornell living there, and there were stragglers who showed up and stayed for years. Everyone worked together, and they knew how to party. My mom met them first at the farmer’s market in downtown Orofino, where they were selling vegetables, goat cheese, and honey. Lowell was blond and bearded, Marcia had an easy, gap-toothed smile. They were young and cool, and idealistic. Mom was intrigued, and remembered with longing her Berkeley days. Dad scoffed when Mom told him the cheese reminded her of Formentera; he wasn’t looking for friends, he preferred to be alone.
• • •
It wasn’t long before Mom started taking me and Riana up to Farm Out on her own. It was at Farm Out that Mom caught
wind of a new-fangled idea: Women’s Lib. At Farm Out, men baked bread and mopped floors—and they helped out with child rearing. Try as she might, though, Mom couldn’t get my Hemingway-loving father to share in childcare or household chores. Their dream house was not finished. It lumbered off in the distance, just a skeleton next to a stand of old-growth trees. By then they had started calling it the Rough House. Two years on the land, and we still lived in that damn trailer.
Mom began to spend more time at Farm Out, and Dad grew increasingly resentful.
By 1975, we finally moved into the Rough House. It was definitely unfinished and rough, but there was a roof. Then, one day, Dad was gone. I do remember the fight that ended everything. Dad came into the kitchen, tall and raging, and threw a glass of lemonade at my mom’s face. She fought him off, and Riana and I defended Mom. Riana grabbed a butter knife and I jumped on my dad’s leg. I was so little I only reached up to his cowboy-boot-clad shin. “Leave Mommy alone,” we yelled. “We’ll kill you if you hurt her,” my sister raved. Dad sobbed, kicked us off his legs, and ran out of the house.
He ended up moving to a shack by the Clearwater River. By 1976 the divorce was finalized. Mom finished the Rough House with her old friend Dixie, who had moved to Orofino, and a new boyfriend named Duward who happened to be a carpenter. They ran electricity, nailed sheets of dry wall across the skeleton of wood framing, and hung doors. She salvaged wood from a defunct gymnasium in Orofino and paneled the wall behind the old-fashioned cookstove. Riana and I saw Dad for birthday parties and Christmas. But mostly he was
gone, and an uneasiness evaporated. There was no custody battle.
With Dad gone, Farm Out became a bigger part of our lives. We loved Lowell, who reminded us of a bear, and who always gave us honey to eat. We also loved the goats, who looked at us with their weird eyes, flicking their tongues. We became fixtures on the land and at the legendary summer solstice parties. The whole town would show up for these annual parties, toting six-packs of beer, bottles of wine. I remember sitting around the bonfire until it got so hot that everyone, men and women alike, took their shirts off. Joints were passed.