The unknowable father

“It was a beautiful day, a day of such beauty that it remains stamped forever on my memory,” my father would say to me, telling me of the day his father boarded a boat that sailed to Scotland; it never reached its destination, and so this picture that began in sunshine ended in the black of cold water, and my father’s face, my father’s very being, was the canvas on which it was painted. I was a small girl, eight years old, when he first began to tell me about this important detail in his life, the same age he was when he learned he would never see his father again. I was not physically robust, my voice was weak, I was female, I spoke to him only in English, proper English. He sat in a chair made of a wood found in India, and the arms of this chair, too, ended in the form of the closed paw of an animal whose name I did not know, and so did its two front legs, and I sat across from him on a floor that had been polished the day before and held in a tight grip the skirt of the white poplin dress I was wearing, and the poplin itself was from somewhere far away from here, the room in which we sat was the room that served no particular purpose. His face, as he spoke of the last time he saw his father, became a series of geometric references, regular and irregular lines, sharp and soft angles, the shallow surfaces beneath his cheeks growing full and round; he looked like the boy he had been then, or certainly the boy he thought he had been then, and his voice became liquid and soft, golden, as if he were speaking of someone else, not himself, and had loved deeply, still not himself. His father sailed on a ship called the John Hawkins, but the name of that infamous criminal was not what caused my father’s face to darken, soiled, criminal, that was not what made the light go out in his small boy’s eyes.

Did my father ever say to himself, “Who am I, who am I?” not as a cry coming from the dark hole of despair but as a sign that from time to time he was inflicted with the innocent curiosity of the foolish? I do not know; I cannot know. Did he know himself? If the answer is yes, or if the answer is yes but not completely, or if the answer is yes but in an extremely narrow way, he would have had secret pleasures equal to the measure in which he knew himself; but I do not know, I do not know the answer. I did not know him, he was my father but I did not know him; everything I say about him is only my observation, only my opinion, and this must be a point of shame for all children—it was for me—that this person who was one of the two sources of my own existence was unknown to me, not a mystery, just not known to me.                         Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, p197

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