Finding Traces Of Father In Other Faces

ALICE STEINBACH

June 21, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Occasionally, when I'm walking down the street, I'll spot a man and think: He looks like my father.

I'm never quite sure what it is in these men that reminds me of my father. A tilt of the head, perhaps. Or a slightly amused expression around the eyes. Someone, perhaps, who telegraphs sense of pleasure about the state of being alive.

One reason for my uncertainty about identifying the similarities between such men and my father is that I don't have a clear memory of what my father looked like.

Even now, when I study old photographs of him, I can't always connect my father with the young man captured so long ago through the lens of someone's camera. In China, the man in the picture sits in a rickshaw. In India, he's patting an elephant's trunk. In Rio de Janeiro, he's standing near the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Still, there is one constant element present in all the men who remind me of my father: They're young. Or at least younger than I am. Somewhere in their mid-to-late 30s. The age my father was when he died just before my 9th birthday.

He was an adventurer, the man I knew as my father. Although he had a couple of college degrees and had taught at a university before my brother and I were born, it was not the life he wanted. His love of the sea and of the places it could take him drove him to maritime school. And then to a life at sea.

His family and friends -- some of them, anyway -- didn't understand the life he chose. His brothers -- my uncles -- never stopped trying to talk him into joining them in the family business. My father always listened politely -- before politely declining the offer.

I guess if I counted up the actual number of days I spent with my father it would amount to the equivalent of a year and a half. He'd be gone for three or four months, then home for two or three weeks, then gone again. It was actually kind of exciting. When he was gone, there was always the anticipation -- and the preparation -- that revolved around his return.

To a child whose knowledge of future time was limited to getting up in the morning and thinking only about the day directly ahead, my father's appearances were like wonderful surprises. He'd just show up. Or so it seemed to me.

But what I remember most about his appearances at home is the sense of presence he brought with him. Of being fully there, engaged in every minute of the time we spent together as a family. And, of course, it was always like a holiday when my father was home. Real life was banished.

Sometimes he'd take my brother and me on a tour of his ship. In fact, one of the most vivid memories I have revolves around finding a typewriter in my father's cabin.

I knew my father typed because the weekly letters he sent us were always neatly typewritten. What I didn't know, until that day, was that he also used it to type out the short stories he wrote. They were adventure stories, he told me. Stories set in the West in places with exotic names: Durango, Bitter Creek, Silver Bow, Laramie.

It was exciting to me, discovering -- along with the typewriter -- this new facet of my father. Sometimes when I wonder in what ways he influenced my life, I think of that day: my father's excitement about writing and my dazzled receptiveness to his excitement.

I wish I could remember the last time I saw my father. The last time I said goodbye. The last time he held me. The last Father's Day we spent together. But I can't.

After all, why would I note such things? I expected them to go on forever.

Instead, on a hot June day word came that he was dead. Somewhere off the coast of South America, he had drowned. His body was never recovered; it went with his spirit.

I have a theory that women like me -- which is to say, women who had fathers for only a short time -- never really give up the search to have back what was lost.

We search the faces of our sons, our brothers, our lovers and husbands, and even the occasional man on the street, looking for something, some trace of the lost father: a tilt of the head, perhaps. Or a certain expression around the eyes.

And sometimes we stop and wonder -- although not often because it's too dangerous: If my father were alive, what would he think of me? Would he like me? Would he respect me? Would we be close?

I remember once on a bitterly cold day in the seventh year of my life, my father suddenly showed up at my school. Although there was an hour to go before school was out, he talked my teacher into letting me leave early.

Outside it was so cold that the frozen ground hurt right through my shoes. But I didn't care: What I felt was happiness. I like to think he felt it too.

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