The Bath

By the time I was born, my father was already lost to his demons, bound by choices that would seldom include me. He was a man who lived in our house who liked fried eggs, bacon and peanut butter toast for breakfast and made great sandwiches. He laughed too little and drank too much. He was my father, yet when he died, more than his passing, I mourned the fact that I couldn’t point to a place in my life where he had ever been.




… each year on Fathers’ Day I tried to remember something about him that made me smile.


In deference to our biological link, each year on Fathers’ Day I tried to remember something about him that made me smile. I gave it a good try for the first few years, but I was never able to come up with anything that didn’t make me angry, and so I stopped trying and stayed angry. Angry that I could never be pretty enough, smart enough, responsible enough, funny enough for him to choose me instead of vodka shots with his barroom buddies. Angry that I grew into a woman whose goal in life was to make men love her, forgiving them anything in order to keep them close, running from conflict and fearing rejection. Angry that every major event of my life had been spoiled by his being at some stage of the binge process. Holidays, birthdays, piano recitals and graduations, he managed to pretty much ruin them all. Worst was the night before my wedding, when following his absence at the rehearsal, I had to search him out and sober him up so that he could walk me down the aisle without weaving. I was angry that he lived and died without our touching on any level. Who wouldn’t be angry? Anger was my just due and I held onto it until it owned me as surely and completely as my father’s demons had owned him.

But there was a warm summer evening when, while coaxing my reluctant one-year-old granddaughter out of her bath, I remembered a line from a song and sang it to her as I held up a towel to wrap her in.

Stand up and sing for your grandmother, an old time tune.”

I sang the refrain over and over, until, laughing her contented, waterlogged, clean baby laugh, she stood up, and we got on with our bedtime ritual.

Later, while she slept, the melody lingered, but this time it caught my attention. Where did it come from? Had I sung it to my own children when they were small? Had I made it up? With my eyes still shut and in that special place we go before giving in to sleep, I remembered the ’40s bathroom with its petal pink bathtub and sink, grey plastic wall tiles, and black and white octagonal ceramics on the floor. I could see myself as a child being bathed by my father, his face young and smiling, his voice singing to me while he held out a lime green towel trimmed with silver threads to wrap me in.

“Stand up and sing for your father, an old time tune!”

I opened my eyes. I was wide awake. And smiling.

Since then, I have recalled another song,

Dance with the dolly with the hole in her stockin’ and her knees keep a rockin’ and her knees keep a rockin’ Dance with the dolly with the hole in her stockin’ and her knees keep a rockin’ all night long”…

I can see how his hands looked; smell his bathroom fragrance of mint, Wildroot and Old Spice on those mornings when his head was clear and his eyes bright; feel him standing close while he patiently taught me to bounce an orange off my forearm and catch it with the same hand; and I hear his voice saying “I love you” once on a flight home from Minneapolis.

I wish there were more things to remember. I long for albums of smiling pictures of the two of us together on Christmas, or on my birthday, or on family vacations making castles in the sand.  But what we are given needs to be enough. Even if it shows up unexpectedly with me on the edge of a bathtub with a towel in my hands, singing to my granddaughter.

Ann Fiegen is a joyously retired mother and grandmother, who at long last has the luxury of time to devote to writing and the soul satisfying creative outlet that it provides. 
Photograph is a screen scan of the sheet music for “Stand Up and Sing for Father an Old Time Tune” recorded by Billy Murray, June 1921. For a listen, click here.