“Look at her posture,” my father said.
Four words formed in his larynx and uttered in quiet waves in the living room. 1964, I think, staring into the black and white television, rabbit ear antennae with aluminum foil sitting on top. Sunday night for sure, because we were watching Bonanza, which came on after The Ed Sullivan Show, which came on after Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
So, Bonanza the Western show: a scene set at a fort and a bunch of extras cast as townspeople and ranch people and Native American people walking across the screen to show what a busy hub this fort is and a woman in buckskins walks across the open square of the fort and my father says, “Look at her posture.”
For weeks after that I walked with my shoulders thrown back, the best, most ramrod-straight posture you have ever seen, but my father never said a word.
I had grown up hearing “stop picking your nose” because it is important for children to learn tidy habits, and if they are going to pick their noses, which possibly I might still do, they at least need to learn to pick them privately so they don’t get whacked by the back of their father’s hand. The fact that I do not ever remember seeing either of my parents pick their noses says something, although I am not quite certain what. Perhaps their noses did not produce the aggravating accumulations that troubled mine, or perhaps they were more experienced at being discreet, or perhaps I was not very observant.
In addition to “stop picking your nose,” which I might hear in almost any setting, I also heard “eat with your chin over your trough,” but only at the dining table. Here, my father explained, he was referring to the necessity of keeping one’s eating apparatus in closer proximity to the plate instead of leaning back and having whole forkfuls of food land in one’s lap. I was far less offended to the references to my plate as a porcine feeding trough than I might have been; secretly, I was tickled by the phrase; I got the joke.
My father’s tone changed with the phrase: “Eat with your chin over your trough” was a reminder, patiently applied. “Don’t pick your nose” was more embarrassing to a parent, and therefore was delivered with aggravation and impatience. When my father got after my brother and me to “straighten up and fly right,” though, his voice increased in volume and it carried an edge, a raspy gruff warning that we were treading on very thin ice, indeed. The very idea that we were knuckleheads enough to need such a reminder was patently obvious; we had been taught better than that and we were to cease and desist immediately.
But when I heard him say “look at her posture,” it was different; he spoke in tones of awe and reverence, and I very much wanted my father to say something like that, in a similar tone, about me. I sat up straight in the third grade when I learned to play the French horn. I stood straight and stayed in step when I carried the Sousaphone in the marching band. At meetings of the Rainbow Girls I glided gracefully—with a straight back—to the front of the room, to the door at the back of the room, giving the secret knock signal, speaking the flawlessly memorized phrases, wearing my floor-length dress, standing with my shoulder blades over my hips over my knees over my ankles, perfectly straight. Such posture, such grace.
My father was not particularly demonstrative. He loved my brother and me, and we were expected to have enough sense to know that without him having to verbally remind us on a daily basis. He showed his love by respecting us, not so much as children, but as people, people who were quite capable of learning and doing hard things. We lived in a quiet neighborhood in a small town; when I was three I rode my tricycle in the driveway without supervision; by the time I was five I crossed the street alone to go play with the neighbor children. When we were nine and ten my brother and I walked the beach a mile and a half to swimming lessons at the high school pool and home again; when we were ten and eleven we regularly navigated a little row boat a quarter mile across the harbor to play on the sandy peninsula on the other side of the bay.
It’s funny that four words can still vibrate across the living room fifty years later. Why that young woman in the buckskin dress provoked that particular comment from my father, I do not know. When he said, “look at her posture,” I looked and caught just a glance of her, her collar bones set back right sharp, her hair swinging behind her. Was his comment a euphemism of appreciation for the actress’s comely shape? A premonition of my mother’s eventual hunching over? A completely random meaningless spewing of four small words to cover some awkward moment I did not understand as a child? Was good posture something he even cared or thought about? Out of all the things he said, why do I so clearly remember those four words?
Dad died three years ago, a good death, clean and painless. He was sharp right up until the last couple of hours. He sat up straight in his living room chair and gave me orders, made me write things down that he wanted done that last morning he was alive. He was not unkind; these were simply things that needed to be done in certain ways, and he knew he didn’t have much time left, so he made sure I knew his expectations. He snacked that afternoon on his favorite “nibbles”—a piece of cheese and salami, only two or three bites, which turned out to be his last meal before he died that night in his bed.
But that last afternoon, a lot of things suddenly got hard for him. Hard to breathe, hard to walk to the bathroom, hard to speak. My parents lived in a cramped single-wide trailer; even though we had a wheelchair for him, it was too wide for the hallway to the bathroom and the bedroom. Dad and I were in the kitchen. He was sitting in the wheelchair. I was standing behind him, wheeling him toward the hall where my husband would help Dad to the bathroom. My father reached up for my hand, and I paused the chair and moved my hand from the wheelchair to his hand. My dad leaned his head toward my hand held in his, and he leaned his cheek on my hand. I could have bent over to hug him, could have kissed him, could have told him I loved him. We were paused there only a moment, barely longer than a glance. He rubbed his grizzled cheek on my hand and I squeezed his hand from where I stood, standing there, just standing, standing in the kitchen behind the wheelchair, standing straight with good posture behind my father.