People described my father as a navy man, distilling his entire life into two words: NAVY. MAN. But I never heard him say those words. To be fair, he didn’t say much at all. My father loaded artillery during the war and it did a number on his eardrums, so he took to whispering as he got older. My sisters and I couldn’t understand him half the time, but no one dared ask him to repeat himself. And so, most of his later years were silent ones. For those of us who endured his middle years, that was fine.
After the war, my father returned to welding, doing it for thirty-some-odd years before retiring to the same four-room farmhouse where he was raised, where my sisters and I were raised too. For some reason, when he retired, I felt I should get him something. He’d mentioned once taking photos during the war, so on a whim I gave him a Polaroid camera. He turned it over and nodded, before putting it in the closet. I never saw it again. Not until he died.
My sisters had moved away, started families, careers. I was the only one still nearby, so I was tasked with cleaning out the house. I found the photos scattered in a drawer. There was a snapshot of a stick, another of a nail, several of insects, and others I couldn’t make out at all. They seemed to be random, meaningless, and yet, under each photo, written in black, was a word.
Under a rusted tractor was the word: LOST.
A daffodil: HOME.
A broken piece of siding: BROTHER.
Some gravel: REGRET.
A butterfly: MOM.
The mailbox: FOREVER.
There were dozens, maybe a hundred. I continued cleaning but kept returning to the drawer to look at one. Under a blurry photo of a backyard tree was the word: SON. I looked at it off and on all day. I lied in bed at night thinking about that photo, that tree, trying to make sense of it. I couldn’t remember reading under the tree, as I did others. The limbs were too high to climb. I never carved my name in the side.
On afternoons, instead of cleaning, I found myself outside, studying the tree, running my hand along the bark, searching for what made my father write that word. Every evening, before returning home, I sat under the tree, closed my eyes, and listened to the wind, to the whippoorwills, to the silence, waiting for an answer to a question I never asked.
Eventually, everything was gone. Some stuff went to my sisters. Some I donated. I watched the rest get thrown in the trash. Then, in my father’s otherwise empty house, I spread the photos on the living room floor and snapped one last image. I watched as it silently emerged from the darkness of the film. Then, in block letters, on the photo of my father’s photos, I wrote: DAD. And I left it all behind.