This short piece was recently published in Weave Literary Magazine and I thought it only appropriate that I share my essay on Father’s Day — a complex day for me that brings forth a raw poignancy; a deep sadness; and a fierce connection to a man whose mere presence in my life made me feel strong, capable, and unquestionably loved.
THE BIGGEST ROOM
Just when I think I’ve finally stopped being the girl who brings her dead father into every room with her, I enter Costco.
Costco is not only the largest room I’ve ever been in, but it is an awfully big room to bring a dead man. He’s bound to get lost. And so am I. A living room is cozy, my loss cradling my feet like a cat; a kitchen is well-lit and warm, my grief burning like the oven’s heat; even a Bartell’s, with its nice short aisles can hold my absence as I search for the perfect pen. But a Costco disperses people with all that space and then compresses them with all that stuff, and in the end a girl who is trying not to bring her dead father with her everywhere she goes is suddenly confronted with the fact that not only is she bringing her father into that gargantuan warehouse, but that he is already here.
My father loved Costco, so entering that shiny concrete-floored, fluorescently-lit building is like entering my father’s not-so-secret, but somewhat sacred room. My father loved deals and he loved gadgets and Costco rarely disappointed him. The way I remember cereal as a kid was in its giant form – 32 ounces of Grape Nuts and three-pack Chex cereal. I think Costco made him feel he could provide for his family: no one ever ran out of cereal in our house (and many of us ate cereal two to three times a day). He bought large canisters of vitamins, 48-packs of toilet paper, polo shirts in every color, six-packs of boxer shorts, three-way flashlights, leaf blowers, and golf-swing training equipment.
After my father died of kidney cancer in August of 2008, my mother transferred my dad’s Costco card to me. I’m sure she had to provide a death certificate as she has had to do with almost every change she’s made in her affairs. Yes, Ed Putnam is dead. He will no longer be shopping at Costco.
My partner Walter and I arrive at the Costco on 205th on a Friday afternoon to make the exchange—to transfer the shopping rights from the dead to the living. I show my I.D., explain that I am my mother’s daughter, and they take my picture for my new “Executive Member” card. In my nervousness, I decide to give a double-thumbs-up to the camera and my picture is printed in black-and-white pointillism awkwardness. I look like I am missing an eye and several teeth. I also look like I’m about twelve.
With my new card in hand, I decide it is only fitting that I make my first Costco purchase – to honor my dad in some way by choosing something fitting, sensible, something I really need. Show dad that I am practical, responsible. Instead, I go searching for trampolines.
When shopping with my father at Costco as a kid (and even as an adult), I always remarked how much I wanted a trampoline. A big, round, blue-rimmed trampoline used to hang from this Costco’s ceiling. “Dad,” I’d say, “We really need that trampoline. It would fit perfectly in the front yard and maybe we could even use it to clean the gutters.” I knew the gutters part would make him think just a little – and he did pause – but he rolled his eyes, patted me gently on the shoulder and said, “not today.”
My dad was a man of few words. Sometimes there were no words, I just imagined them. At times I thought we were telepathic, but I think I was just very good at reading him. And deep down, I knew that “not today” often meant “not ever,” but my dad was too kind to be so definitive. He lived in the present moment and clearly, the trampoline would not fit in the car, and it was summer – no gutters to clean.
For some reason Costco no longer has hanging trampolines. Actually no trampolines at all. I find myself searching through aisles of sheets and pillows while Walter checks out the vacuum cleaners. When I turn the corner I see the men’s polo shirts. There he is. My father and his polo shirts – the shirts he loved to buy in bulk and the shirts my mother often disdained. I approach them cautiously, like they might disappear if I move too quickly, and then I begin to cry. The absence cannot be contained in this place; it just rises and then falls again like rain.
I am surrounded by all the things he used mull over, rifle through, touch. And I know he hasn’t touched this exact six-pack of Champion athletic socks, but I touch them anyway, and wonder if this should be my virginal Costco purchase. But then I can’t see so well, what with the absence raining down on me, coating my eyes, and I end up stuck between racks of DVDs and boxes of wine. I look up and I’m standing right under an eight-foot wide Halloween bat, its wings spread, eyes glowing red. My dad would have loved this bat, as he loved all holiday decorations.
I call Walter on my cell phone: “I’m lost,” I say, “I’m stuck.”
“Where are you?” he asks.
“I’m by the wine and under a big bat!” I yell into the phone because I can’t hear myself over the clanging shopping carts and screaming children.
“You’re by the vats of wine?” he asks.
“No,” I say, crying more, “I’m standing under a bat. B-A-T. I’m sad and I’m stuck and my dad’s polo shirts are here and I don’t know what to buy!”
“I’ll find you,” he says,” and then repeats for clarity, “And you’re standing under a bat, as in screech! screech!?”
“Like screech!” I confirm and collapse the phone.
By the time Walter reaches me I’ve reached maximum overwhelm. “My dad is everywhere, but he is not here,” I say as Walter holds me in the women’s underwear section. He holds me long and tight until I feel myself calm a bit, gain more focus.
I feel the pressure of my purchase building. What would Ed buy? Nuts, I think, my dad always bought nuts for his blood sugar, so Walter escorts me to the canisters and I choose almonds. And soap, my dad would buy soap. These things don’t feel particularly profound, though they feel practical and useful and things my dad would have bought on any given Sunday afternoon at Costco.
With my 40 ounces of almonds and clear soap two-pack, I stand in a long line, watching people hauling their boxes and cans, jars and jugs onto the conveyer belt. When it’s my turn I hand the cashier my new card, half-expecting her to say, Ah, you’re Ed Putnam’s daughter. Welcome to Costco, but instead she barely glances at my picture for verification. I spend my first $17.65 on soap and nuts as Ed Putnam’s daughter, always his daughter, in the biggest room where the dead and living will ever meet.
c. 2010, Courtney Putnam
For more information about Weave Magazine, or to purchase the latest issue from which this essay comes (Issue #4), you can do so here.