We met north of the city. Outside, the church doors were locked and no wonder, it was a Monday. We both missed morning mass. It was the holidays, December, and this time of year seems to both rekindle and revoke my nostalgia for home. Dad rolled down his window to greet me with his Buffalo, New York mustache, burly and not unlike the actual animal, snowflakes collected on its fringes. With a stiff “get in,” I climbed into the truck, his big Dodge dually reeking of cologne, Brute or something like snake oil, and his rosaries, hundreds of them, hung from the rearview mirror in case someone asks for one. The rosaries swung back and forth like Marti Gras beads as he pulled out of the parking lot.
“You aren’t broke yet, huh?”
“Why not become a priest, Yai-yai? Seems like you don’t mind being broke?”
“Dad, I said I’m not broke.”
“Well, how’s your truck running? Can you even drive in all this snow?”
“It drives alright. I made it here, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, alright, smart ass. Hey, how’s your grandpa, Pop?”
“Oh, you know.”
“Well, I don’t know! Your mother doesn’t say a word to me… you got a rosary at home?”
We continued to chip away at small talk as he drove his diesel slow in the snow. Sheets of ice were hidden on the road and the snow covered everything in the city. It’s beautiful, the winters in New York, but there is something unsettling when a place as familiar as home is suddenly unrecognizable and encased in three feet of winter. That is, if you could even see the world pass the six-foot towering snow banks. Even the tall signs for Tim Horton’s or the village bars had a thick icing to them and were frosted by the powdery drift.
We drove in silence while road salt kicked up in a dust and caked onto the windshield. My dad hates the winters, hates New York, and hates the quiet, makes him think too much—of what? I don’t know, maybe of the winters, maybe of New York? He thinks of whatever it is that makes him reach for the radio. And he did, raising the volume over the clatter of rosary beads. Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks playing over his thoughts.
“You know these guys?”
“Yeah, I know of Trisha Yearwood. I’m not much for Garth Brooks though.”
“C’mon. You don’t know these guys,” adjusting the radio louder before the song finished out. “You know something, Yai-yai, Tennessee is the best goddamn place in the whole world. You don’t believe your old man, do ya? But I’ve seen it all. I don’t know what’s gotten into you because I don’t know what the hell you’re thinking by moving to New Mexico—it’s about family! Who the hell do you know in New Mexico?”
He continued, “I’ve been there for rodeos: nothing but dust—it’s too dry! I don’t know how you stand it. Is there snow like this out where you’re at?”
“Not like this. There’s snow, but it all melts pretty quick out there in a matter of hours.”
“Hmm. Well, that ain’t too bad. How much you get paid? Is this a real job you’re working?
“You know dad,” repositioning myself and the conversation. “One of our cousins, Laura, is out there in Colorado and Jeff Banks is in Santa Fe part of the year.”
“Yai-yai. You wanna know something? When I was you’re age I stayed home. I worked for my dad. You know why? Because I wasn’t a bum like you and because I loved him. Do your homework, kid: (Ephesians 3:14) and (Exodus 20:12). The Bible says ‘Thou shalt be obedient to thy father and to thy mother.’ Don’t you think you’re worrying your mother sick by being out there? Sheesh—New Mexico? I don’t know what the hell’s gotten in your head, kid. You should get your ass back to Tennessee. It’s the best place in the whole damn world—and I’ve seen it all.”
I tried to make a connection in his argument, but sometimes there is no reason why we end up the way we do. My dad rambled on for a while in his broken script: “the fake news,” “the liberals,” “the schools,” and “the phony priests.” Vietnam did that to him, or so I’m told. He’s got all those memories in him. That’s why he worries about me. That’s why he hates the quiet: he can’t hear himself think over his talking, over the static radio, over the crackling snow under the running diesel, and all the while to the rhythm of the rosaries beating the dashboard: left and right, left and right.
Meanwhile, I watched as the stoic landscapes around Buffalo disappeared as we drove: the metal bellies of airplanes sailing low over Genesee Street, the thick-skinned Buffalonians outside in shorts, and the rusted-out trucks with their shining new plows going up and down the roads, saving the day. How nice and quiet it looks out there, I thought to myself, almost in half-desperation. Dad turns the station to talk radio, something like Limbaugh. He needs something to be pissed at other than me or himself.
We were almost an hour out of Buffalo headed to breakfast when we unexpectedly pulled into a parking lot of a stone-laid church. “C’mon, let’s go. We missed church this morning—when was the last time you’ve been to church anyways?”
There was an older man outside the church getting out of a tired-looking pickup with New Mexico plates. I mention it to Dad, but he didn’t hear me over the hissing winds. He handed me a rosary when we got into the sanctuary—told me, “Here, go pray.” We sat in the back and I ran my fingers along the wooden beads, as if pacing. I don’t know who my dad knows here or if it was even a Catholic church. “Does it matter?” He hushed. “God is God—could be Baptist for all I care.” The early mass matinee was half-filled and attended by a crowd of eighty-year-olds—God love them—infusing the scent of incense with their decaying organs.
The priest took my attention as he stood to speak his homily. His voice sputtered like something Southern. Northern Alabaman? No, not enough syllables. Was he from the Carolinas? The mountains? The foothills? Dad turned to nudge me, “Hey, he sounds like he could be from Tennessee. You better pay attention, Yai-yai. That is a goddam sign.” I couldn’t agree more. Somethings, like an old home or an old ghost, are impossible to escape.
. . .
Everyone has a story about New Mexico. It’s not difficult retelling mine. It’s just long and weird: The Greyhound, the haunted hogan, hitch-hiking, and the visions. There’s rarely room for a story like that during a meal, like breakfast, which me and Dad got with his friends after church. We sat around like war veterans at a VFW, cracking jokes and taking stock of small town politics. One of the guys, Tony, an ex-cop, spoke up under his sagging eyes. He asked me where I’ve been living in Buffalo. That’s when my dad interrupted, “No, you know what? This punk decided to do whatever the hell he wants and move to New Mexico!” Dad gave me a snarky smirk and leaned back in his chair: satisfied. But his friends all turned to face me, “Oh, Mexico! Must be nice! You speak Spanish, though?”
New Mexico, I corrected them. And they all ask about my time out there, mostly out of a jealousy-driven curiosity of living somewhere with less snow. “You’s means to tells me that the snow actually goes away?” One of them coughed out in a South Buffalo accent, chuckling. For proof, I showed them all the photos I’ve collected of friends, the farm, and sunsets. All the photos were staged with an ever-sunny and ever-dry background. This made my dad’s friends drool. A part of me is disappointed that I can’t tell the larger narrative about the Southwest. It wouldn’t matter anyway. I look to see my dad absent in our conversation, arms folded and staring off at the diner’s television.
Dad paid the tab and drove me back to my truck. My feet crunched through newly fallen snow and I crawled in the cab of my truck, kicking off the slushy mess from my boots. The ignition starts and I my dad a nod through the fogged-up window. Despite his stubborn, impatient nature, there is something I can appreciate about my father: his willingness to wait until my engine turns, starts, and I can be on my way. This is how I know he loves me. He shared something that was almost like a smile, waved before driving off.
Every time my dad smiles I’m reminded to never stop believing in hope. It is the one thing that I tell him to assure I still go to church or believe in church. Of course, I don’t. But I’ll say things to appease him. I don’t feel guilty about it. Besides, there is enough guilt and doubt out there, anywhere, of course, but especially here in Western New York. I felt it as I went past the airport, as I caught the Skyway, as I turned off onto the 599 to cheat the south toll, and as I ran the circuits of villages down to the Southtowns of Buffalo. I could feel it in the cold air, crisp and visceral as home. That’s when I noticed that my nostalgia was erroneous for the familiarity and affinity to an old depression. Was that why I cared so much about the handyman too tired to fix his own dilapidated house, the quiet couple sitting in diners for hours just to get out of the cold, usually without saying much, or the Christmas decorations up year-round desperately attempting to ring in a little cheer?
Fortunately, the roads were different in Hamburg, clear of snow. The village had a new attitude since I was home in New York last, but nothing seemed to have changed as I arrived at my grandfather’s farm. It was two o’clock and everyone in the house was asleep for a nap, exhausted from doing nothing all day. The snow started falling again and in two hours the sun would set. I milled about the house discovering fur piles from the dog that passed away, the basement in the same shape that I had left it a year ago, the television on mute showing a CSI rerun.
Upstairs, one of the bedroom doors was open to a small twin-size bed. I crawled in, remembering the rope-suspended, horsehair-packed mattress from my childhood. It had been around all this time and still offered a hard sleep. At least it was warm under the sheets. For some time, I laid there quiet, relishing the solitary, soft sound of snow on the window sill. But the quiet left me open and thoughts about my dad crept in my head, as did the thoughts of what he said about New Mexico, about New York, and about Tennessee. And I thought about what he said about family and the choice of it all. Between the three places, I thought about how sometimes we must leave home to know we were home: go back before going forward and go too far before finally arriving at where it is we are in need of being. It was one of those thoughts before falling asleep, one of those profound lessons that could change my life. Would I remember this thought, I wondered, right before I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep?