by Michelle Lyons
Even the old folks never knew
Why they call it like they do
I was wondering since the age of two
Down on Copperline
A few years ago, my roommate asked why my brother Danny and I always cut cake and brownies into such small pieces and then eat a bunch of them. Why not just cut one large piece and eat bites out of it? We shrugged at each other, then shrugged at my roommate. We didn’t know. We just did.
Months later, I was back home in Massachusetts, cutting myself a bite-sized square of brownie. I moved aside for my little sister Melissa to carve out a piece, and hers was much larger. Moments later, my dad entered the kitchen, spotted the crumbs falling from Melissa’s brownie-laden hand, and proceeded to complain about how much he hated crumbs because they get squashed and then stick to the floor and harden and are just a huge pain to clean up. As he made Melissa wipe up the crumbs, I grinned and made a mental note to text Danny.
I’m not normally given to reflections on my habits or how I feel about things. We never really talked about such topics in my family when I was growing up, so that’s not a habit I developed naturally. It’s a skill I’ve had to consciously cultivate. Very often, the mental conversation is still along the lines of “How do I feel about this?” “I dunno.” “Oh, okay.” And then I move on.
However, when I do take that time to genuinely reflect, I’m frequently surprised by my realizations, by the connections between events and memories and habits that now are suddenly illuminated.
In a recent conversation with my aunt Joanna, she told me that meeting my dad made her nervous about marrying his brother, Jeff. My dad seemed so bossy and forthright and in charge that she was afraid that the normally mild-mannered Jeff would suddenly develop similar qualities. They still got married, but she said that for the longest time, she wouldn’t ever let Jeff tell her what to do.
It’s still strange to think that my father is a person outside of my perception of him. Dad has always been just “Dad” to me, so shouldn’t he appear the same to everyone else? Obviously not, but it took me most of my childhood and teenage years to understand that simple idea. But now all sorts of questions are raised. Who was he before I knew him? How many changes and iterations of himself did he go through before he became my father? Since then? Have I even paid attention?
Back when I was small and learning to dress myself, I would frequently put my shirt on backwards and not realize it. Whenever my dad caught sight of me though, he’d call me over. He would help me take my arms out of my sleeves and then hold my shirt and say “spin, spin, spin!” I’d spin around and around, the shirt’s collar rubbing my neck, and then suddenly my shirt would be facing the right way! My dad would then help me put my arms back into my sleeves and kiss my forehead.
I suppose from a very young age I’ve had a somewhat unreasonably intense desire to please my parents, my dad in particular. He’s always seemed so strong and wise and powerful in judgment that to make him proud of me feels like the highest possible achievement in life.
I have few memories from when I was very small, but there is a particular instance that stands out clearly. I had considerable health problems back then and had to take all sorts of awful tasting medications. Normally, my mom gave these to me, but one night she told me to wait in the kitchen for her while she took care of something quickly. I waited by the counter for her to come and distribute the nightly torture, and my dad came in from the family room. Probably deducing my purpose, he said he’d get me my meds and pulled a bottle out of the cabinet. I remember being suddenly unsure; Mom knew what to give me. Did Dad? Could I trust him? Mom had said to wait, so shouldn’t I wait for her? My dad gestured for me to follow him into the family room so he could give me the meds, but I stayed in the kitchen and held onto the counter until my mom appeared a few moments later. As she got my meds ready, my dad came back from the family room looking for me. He asked me why I hadn’t come, but I don’t remember saying anything. I do remember feeling bad that I had disappointed him, that I hadn’t let him help me.
– – –
Took a fall from a windy height
I only knew how to hold on tight
And pray for love enough to last all night
Down on Copperline
When I was six or seven, I swore using a word I’d heard at school. I was playing Rodent’s Revenge, a silly 90s computer game where you’re a mouse trying to capture cats and not die in the process. I kept dying over and over, and so I swore. It seemed a natural thing to do, but my dad gave me a seriously angry look and demanded that I never say the word again. I nodded agreeably, intent on obeying, and then turned back to my game. I promptly forgot, however, and sometime later swore again. This time, my dad was much less calm about it. He growled and told me that if I ever said it again, he’d wash my mouth out with soap, just like he’d done with Danny.
This was kind of my dad’s MO when I was young. If you didn’t listen the first or second time, he would essentially scare you into being obedient. So, while I had not been there for Danny’s mouth-cleansing, I had heard enough about the traumatizing experience to tremble at this threat. In fear of forgetting again and having to face that punishment, I just stopped playing the game.
Now, I’m glad I don’t swear. My dad was likely right in reprimanding me and teaching me to not use profanity. But, to this day, it is still physically painful for me to even contemplate swearing or saying a banned phrase like “shut up.” I suppose in my mind somewhere is this still very frightening, looming image of my father waiting to drag me off to the bathroom and force soap into my mouth.
My dad when he’s angry seems to transform into a different person. You can hear it happening: the tension in his words changing into this growl in his throat. His face begins to redden, and you know if you don’t start helping or stop arguing quick—and maybe even if you do—things are going to get bad. At his worst, he roars. Not a yell or a shout. A lion’s roar, full and guttural and animal. The worst part is that it never seems to be intentional. It’s just something that escapes him, and you’re left to wonder what else must be in there for something so terrifying to slip out.
Once when I was twelve or so, my dad came home all tired from work. We lived in California then, but my dad worked in Mexico and had to cross the border twice every day. Getting in was no problem, but coming back could take hours, so he always missed dinner. This particular night, nothing in the kitchen had been cleaned up, so he asked us to help. When no one moved, the growl began. I hurriedly started to clear the table and help unload the dishwasher, but suddenly my dad roared my name and I was so startled and alarmed I fell to my knees and nearly broke the plate I was carrying. What had I done wrong? I’d been helping, hadn’t I?
A sudden silence. My dad turned to me, but I was too afraid to look at him. He murmured that he’d meant Danny, my brother, and then he tried to tell me he was sorry. I can only imagine how bad he felt then, but at the time, I was just glad he wasn’t mad at me.
My dad used to play all sorts of games and tricks with us when we were little. He had this trick where I’d ask him for more water or juice and he’d point his finger into my cup and go, “Swooooooosh,” and suddenly my cup would be full. I still don’t know how he did that, and he still hasn’t told me, though he has admitted that I was much less observant back then. Another favorite pastime of his—or perhaps, more correctly, ours—was being the Tickle Monster. He’d chase us all around the family room, giving teasing roars and tickling our sides and feet and necks. We would laugh and scream and run, and he would catch one or two of us and force the captives to submit to his all-powerful tickling rule. Then the rest of us would converge from behind him and try to knock him over and distract him long enough for his prisoners to escape. More often than not, he would just wind up capturing all of us. We have this picture of us kids—six at the time—lying in a row on the ground with terrified expressions and our dad kneeling over us, a grin-growl on his face and his hands pretending to claw at the camera. It’s one of my favorites.
I sometimes wonder what the difference is between the terror of being tickled and the terror of being yelled at. I mean, being chased around a room, the threat of being knocked over and tickled mercilessly until you give in, is scary in its own way. You don’t want to be caught and you fight not to be. It can also be fairly rough, all the running and tackling and minor scrapping. Being yelled at though? There isn’t really a physical component, so where is the fear coming from? Why did even the idea of my father’s anger hold so much sway?
Perhaps I felt I’d disappointed him.
As I grew older, I began to feel that he could be unreasonably angry about things. It would make me angry back; couldn’t he see I was trying? Or that these things didn’t need to happen this very second for the world to keep spinning (or dinner to be made)? I would always snap to it when the growl started, but the fear was tinged with obstinance then. I didn’t want to consider his point of view or how he might be feeling if he didn’t want to consider where I was coming from either. It made it hard for me to want to be close to him. I was never really one to talk back, but I would get a tightness in my throat and a desire to hiss.
– – –
One time I saw my daddy dance
Watched him moving like a man in a trance
He bought it back from the war in France
Down onto Copperline
For me, Saturday mornings are the domain of James Taylor and Billy Joel and dancing while gently cleaning up. My dad used to wake us all up by playing “Your Smiling Face” or “How Sweet It Is” or “Uptown Girl” throughout the whole house and dance with the first girls to make it downstairs to him. He’d spin us in circles and dance with two, sometimes three, of us at a time, swaying and swirling and smiling.
My dad is an excellent leader when it comes to dancing. You don’t need to know how to do the waltz or the west coast swing for him to guide you through the steps by the sheer firmness and strength of his movements. And besides, when you’re small, it doesn’t really matter to you if your steps aren’t on the beats. It wasn’t until I was older and could really appreciate the grace and smoothness my parents showed whenever they danced together that I wished I was better.
When I dance with my dad, I do worry a bit about the steps and if he thinks I’m following well. But mostly I like the feeling of closeness, even though we don’t talk and it’s just us moving around a half-cleaned family room.
I’m not certain when it dawned on me that my dad had feelings. Not that he didn’t express emotion when I was younger, but I know I didn’t always understand that he had likes and dislikes and things that made him happy or sad. Or that he had sensitivities that could be hurt. Dad just was; he existed outside and above such mundane, knowable things as preferences and feelings.
When I was sixteen, my parents took us camping near the coast. We were still in the woods, but the air was so fresh and damp and full. Most of my siblings complained, having been forced to come, and then there was a storm and everything got soaked and David—age five at the time—got sick, so my mom decided to take him and most of the family and camping gear home. I stayed with my dad though. I felt so bad; he’d taken days off work to do this with us and nobody wanted to actually be there with him. Can’t you see he’s trying? That he’s trying to share something he enjoys with us? I wanted to ask them.
We helped everyone pack up, and once they were on their way, my dad asked me if I wanted to go on a bike ride. I had, and still have, terrible stamina, and I’m a horrible cyclist, but he was so excited about this trail that led out to a lighthouse on the cape that I wanted to do it anyway. It was drizzling and threatening to rain harder, but the summer air was warm and we were wet anyway.
We took it fairly easily, probably for my sake. There were lots of hills and falls and curves, but the houses were beautiful, quaint and well-kept and loved. At one point I needed a break, so we stopped, and my dad asked me what music I’d been listening to lately. I mentioned Jack Johnson, and he asked me to sing one of his songs. Inspired by the rain, I sang “Banana Pancakes,” and then we went on our way again. We made it to the lighthouse, but it was closed, so we circled it, took another break, and then headed back. Ten miles round-trip, the longest bike ride of my life then. But my dad still tells me how much he loves that song because I sang it for him and rode that trail despite the rain.
– – –
I tried to go back, as if I could
All spec house and plywood
Tore up and tore up good
Down on Copperline
I was somewhat surprised to realize that I could talk to my dad about my problems. Not just about life choices and what classes to take and how to fix my résumé, but about slightly less practical concerns. I was eighteen, back from my first year at BYU, and in the midst of emotional whiplash from once again being on and off again with my former on-and-off not-boyfriend. It had always seemed to me that my dad tried to steer clear of such things, but for whatever reason, one afternoon I came back from church in great distress over some dumb thing that had happened with the guy, and my dad saw me and asked me to talk to him about it. I was tentative at first—could he really stand to listen to what must obviously seem like teenage foolishness? It felt to me that being upset about a person, something so illogical and impractical and cliché, was a kind of failure.
And besides, he and my older sister had used to argue—sometimes loudly and passionately late at night—about the guys she would date or not date, and I was afraid that he would think less of me for my similar behavior. But eventually I started telling him about it. It was strange; it seemed like we so often just relied on unspoken, implied communications and affections. But when I started crying, my dad pulled me into his arms and told me he loved me. And, perhaps most significant to me, he never once gave the impression of judging me.
Such sensitivity was unexpected. It makes me wonder if I had tried to talk to him earlier or more, tried to connect in some way, we might have been closer before.
That same summer, I got back late from work one night to find my dad half inside our new dishwasher. He’d gotten it for my mom for her birthday the week before, since our old dishwasher made dirty dishes moderately clean and clean dishes moderately dirty. Apparently, the installation man hadn’t installed it right or something, so my dad was trying to work out the issue himself. We were both sad and frustrated, for different reasons, but he was trying to do something kind, and so I tried to do the same by staying up with him. He hit his head on the counter at one point, and his face grew red and a faint growl escaped. In an effort to help, I put on a James Taylor album. The air eased, and soon we were both singing along.
When “Fire and Rain” started playing, my dad asked if I knew the story behind it. I confessed my ignorance, so he explained. Apparently James Taylor had had a severe drug addiction and other issues and so he went to rehab for a while. He met a young girl there, Suzanne, and they helped each other through a lot of the rough patches. But then she died, and the loss struck him hard. The song refers to her in its lines “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain / I’ve seen sunny days I thought would never end / I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend / But I always thought I’d see you again.”
Though “Fire and Rain” is one of my dad’s favorite James Taylor songs, “Copperline” is my favorite. When I was little, its lyrics were a complete mystery to me. All those lines about copper and Copperline and the other random words like moonshine and creosote—completely nonsensical. I think I loved it for that reason. Growing older, I came to view it differently. James Taylor was singing about home and childhood and memories, and how when he went back later in life it was all different, but in a way it was still home.
In looking up the song, I’ve found a lot of different interpretations. Some say it’s really about making moonshine or dealing with a drinking problem or such ideas, but that’s not what it means to me. Whatever the song’s intended message, I’ve chosen to think what I want about it.
Several days after this last Christmas, I watched a conversation between Amanda and my dad. It’s strange, I still think of her as being seven or eight because of how little she has changed in nearly every respect. She’s eleven now, but she’s still as small and obstinate as ever. Trying to talk to her is like trying to talk to a river—it just keeps going and going and rushing past you and it doesn’t even matter what you said because the little bit that she might have heard has been lost in the torrent. But my dad was trying to reason with her, trying to explain why she should help him take down the Christmas decorations or just help out at all in some way.
Amanda gave retorts and rebuttals at various intervals, though one stuck out a bit. She said that even though he and Mom had just gotten her gifts and done so much for her, they had done plenty of upsetting things and regularly forced her to take her insulin shots and do other cleaning tasks and were just awful, so it wasn’t at all necessary or fair for her to have to help.
I wanted to chime in and point out that if she was tallying, Dad had done more ultimate good than ultimate bad for her, but something about that premise tripped me up. Is love or fairness a scale? I mean, I guess I could say that I have this number of positive memories with a person and this number of negative memories; the positive number outweighs the negative number, therefore I should feel positively about that person. But there are times when I’ve had one bad experience with an individual and that colors my entire perspective, no matter how many other marvelous, wonderful, sweet times I’ve had with them. So really, it’s just the memories I choose to reflect on that I let determine my view.
While I mused, my dad was extremely patient with Amanda. He listened to her detail how terrible she thought he was and why she owed him nothing and how she couldn’t wait till she could leave and how she thought living in the woods alone would be better than being at home. Through his gentle responses to her, I suddenly realized, I think for the first time, how hard my dad has worked to change, how much he hated ever seeming a monster to us. Years ago, he would have growled and roared by this time, and I’d be either helping or crying in a corner somewhere. With Amanda, he was trying so hard to be loving, encouraging, reasonable. And I could see how badly he wanted her to care at all for him, to just listen without him having to scare her. But she was just being so rude, so callous, and so unfeeling that I wanted to be angry for him.