My father grabbed his backpack, kissed my mother goodbye and rushed out the door, he didn’t want to be late for his first day at his new job. In his excitement he forgot to say goodbye to me. I had just turned five years old. Christmas was around the corner. I still remember his damp hair, jet black and straight – silk under the fluorescent light. His back was straight then, he maintained the physical build of his early twenties even though he would be 36 next month. The door closed behind him and my mother saw me standing in the threshold between the living room and kitchen/laundry room.
She realized I had been missed in the moment and said, “It’s your dad’s first day. It’s important he gets there early, this is a good job.” By now she was facing the sink. I was five but I knew what that meant: job security, health insurance, and most importantly – the possibility of moving out of the roach-infested rat hole my parents rented in a multi-family house near downtown Paterson. I had been present during too many conversations my mother had with her friends or relatives.
Last night, the paper mill where my dad had worked for 25 years and one month, Marcal, burned to the ground. Every time I saw the neon red sign from Interstate 80 I was reminded of how much time I missed with my dad, as a child and as an adult. I wondered what he did in there for all those hours. On the days he worked 12-16 hour days, did he think about me? My sister? My brothers? I barely knew him for the majority of those 25 years.
When I became a parent, the red MARCAL sign I saw countless times morphed into a nefarious idol. It was a physical representation of what kept me from having a normal and healthy relationship with my father. We sent him to that factory in a neutral mood most mornings and it usually spit him out full of rage. I remember the first silver streaks in his hair. His smooth skin hid his worry until it was exacerbated, years of steady income and the promise of overtime pay came to a halt almost overnight. I stood in the background, behind the veiled anguish, waiting for his need to know me – an afterthought. I hated that his emotional absence made it so easy for me to leave at 17.