by Rick Beck
Arc of History
The last letter I read was was a love letter. My father loved a man before he married my mother. I was shocked by the idea of it.
I knew gay men but this was my father. He was a farmer, a man who went toe to toe with the land and mother nature for fifty years. It was difficult to associate him with being gay. Realizing how abhorrent stereotypes were, I wasn't capable of accepting what the letters from Sven told me.
What about my mother?
How could my father marry my mother after loving Sven? What was her role in my father's life? I didn't know much about my father. Now I thought I knew why. He was a man with secrets.
The original questions remained unanswered. Who was Sven? Where did he come from?
Maybe my Uncle Junior or Uncle Ralph could answer my questions. My mother wouldn't have lied to me. What did she know? This brought me back to anger and where my father was concerned, anger was never far away for me.
I held the letter as I went downstairs. I picked up the phone in the hallway. I hesitated to figure out the rotary dial out of my ancient past.
I dialed my Uncle Junior first. He was easier to talk to. I was sure that he had the answer.
"Uncle Junior, who am I named after?"
"Your father ," he said without hesitating. "Where are you?"
"I'm at the house. Who's Sven?"
"You need to ask your father. It's not for me to say."
"You knew him?" I asked.
"We all knew him. You need to talk to your father. Better yet, let go of it. Whatever you're after, Bobby, let it go."
The dead air on the phone left nothing else to say. I pushed down the button before dialing Uncle Ralph."Uncle Ralph? Bobby! Who's Sven?"
"What? Sven?" Uncle Ralph said, making a strange sound in his throat.
Then was a difficult silence.
"He was in the war. He was from here. Who was Sven?"
"It's not for me to tell you. Are you at the house?"
"Yes, sir, I've been here for a few hours. Dad is sleeping. I found letters from Sven when he was in the war. The letters are signed, ' All My Love, Sven .' Who was he? I've got his name."
"Oh my God! Does your Pa know you're in his things?"
"Uncle Ralph, Daddy is dying. I was looking for the farm's history he wrote while your daddy was dying. I came across these letters and I'd like to know who Sven is."
"He was a special man all of us loved. He loved us, Bobby. He stayed on the farm during hard times. He saved your grandfather's life and he helped save the farm. He was family to us and that's all you need to know.
"If it's your name you're worried about, if you're half the man Sven was, you're a better man than most. Now, I've told you who Sven was. Don't you ever ask me about him again as long as you live. Do you understand me, boy? I've given you all you're going to get."
"You best not bother your father with this. He's dying. Let him die in peace and let Sven die with him. It's ancient history."
I held the phone away from my ear when it was slammed down. He was madder than a hornet. Why did the mention of Sven set Uncle Ralph off? There had to be more.
He was Dad's lover. Uncle Ralph confirmed the pieces I'd put together. The reaction from Uncle Junior and Uncle Ralph told me the letters meant what they said.
How did my mother fit fit into this picture?
Only one person knew that story.
My mind went in circles.
I decided to take one more shot at the trunk. There had to be a way to satisfy my curiosity.
I set the letters with my mother's things. I didn't know why I wanted them. There were a few loose papers inside, but I reached past those to take the journal off the top of a pile of a dozen composition books.
Regular letters spilled back into the trunk. Among them were more wartime letters addressed to Grandma Sorenson from Ralph and Junior. Most were from Junior.
I left those in the trunk and to examine the journals. It had facts and figures written on each page in Grandma's handwriting. The farm's books.
Grandma Sorenson slipped the letters inside as they arrived.
I set that composition book on top of the letters. I took out the next journal in the pile, opening the cover.
There on the top of the first page in my mother's handwriting was written, The Farm Hand.
I read the title several times. The handwriting that filled the page under the title, and the rest of the composition book, was my father's.
I felt like I'd found what I was looking for. I leaned my back against the wall and began to read.
It was neatly written. I had no trouble reading the words in spite of its age.
I was immediately introduced to Sven. The story was written about the farm where I was born. I had no difficulty visualizing it. I never knew my grandfather but my grandmother was true to form.
Putting my father into the picture as the story teller created difficulty. It was straight forward. He had an economic style.
Once I got beyond my father writing it, I became captivated.
I hadn't gotten far when my anger rose.
Getting up from the floor, brushed off my pants, I went downstairs holding my finger in the journal.
I slid the parlor doors open. It was empty.
"I just made a pot of coffee. You may as well come in the kitchen and sit a spell. You'll never get back tonight, Bobby."
Looking outside I could see it was dark. I looked at my wrist again to confirm I didn't know what the hell time it was.
"Shit! What time is it?"
"No planes out this time of night. Can't say for sure. I'd guess it's after seven. The clouds set back in and it makes it difficult to read this time of night."
"Why in hell don't you have clock," I fussed as if it was his fault my easy in easy out plan didn't work.
"You know, there for an hour or two, you were actually good company. You came in here like you were the front edge of a thunderstorm and you intended to rain on me. After a few pleasant hours together, we're back to the rain.
"Seems foolish to waste what time we have left. You can get out in the morning. Portland will still be there and I doubt they'll replaced you in two days. Come sit down at the table and we'll have some coffee, Robert."
"Yes, sir," I said, back to being the scolded little boy.
"To tell you the truth, I do have a watch somewhere. Haven't wound it in a spell. Since I got nowhere to go, I stopped hurrying, son, and my time is about to run out."
"Did you get any sleep?" I asked, regretting my attitude.
"Yeah, I slept sound until you stirred your uncles up. Hard to sleep through a tornado. I figured then you'd gotten your teeth into something you weren't going to let go of."
"What is this?" I asked, as he stirred cream into my coffee like I was still a kid.
"Sit down, Bobby. I need a minute. I hadn't expected to talk to you about Sven. Make it easier on both of us. Take those things home with you. I hadn't seen those things since before your mama died. They tell the whole story."
"What is this?" I said.
"Sit down, Robert," he said in his I'm-your-father voice.
"I can't. I need to make a call. I'll need to stay the night," I said apologetically.
"M ake your call. I promise not to kick off before we talk. It might be easier on both of us if I did. You still don't listen, Bobby."
"I want to know about this," I said, waving the journal.
"Make your call. We'll have the talk you're dying to have."
"Hey, it's me. Don't meet my plane in the morning. I'm still here. I'll call you before I leave here tomorrow."
As I got back to the kitchen I held the journal up for my father to sees. He shook his head.
"What time is it?" he asked, knowing I asked.
"Four forty-five. Six forty five-here."
He laughed deep inside and he smiled at me.
"Sit down, Robert. This is more than a one cup of coffee story. You sure this is the last memory you want to have of your dear old dad?"
"I need to know what this is all about, Dad. Who is Sven?"
"I'll give you what you want but I can't keep looking up at you. It hurts my neck. Now sit down," he ordered.
I sat and drank from the cup he sat in front of me.
"I figured that's what this was about when your uncles were so short with you. I thought that journal and those letters were lost. I should have checked the trunk before you came home. I simply wasn't up to it. Seeing your mama's things. That journal. The letters she must have saved. You've got more pain there than should be allowed in one lifetime, son. You want to hear the story, I'll tell it to you. One editorial comment from the peanut gallery and you can go find a motel. Those are my terms."
"Yes, sir," I said, needing to know now.
"You know your mother put those things away for you to find after I was gone?"
"Why would she do that?"
"It's part of me. She's part of me. You're part of us. It's how your mother thought. I should have burned it, but I didn't. You ask your questions. I'll answer them. The one thing you don't get to do, judge me," he said, giving me a hard stare.
My father was more alive than he'd been since I got home.
"M y mother know about this? Did she know who she was marrying? How could you do that to her?"
"Son, I don't give a damn what you think about me. You gave up your right to judge me a long time ago. I've been polite. I've let you have it your way. Don't you ever disrespect your mother's memory in front of me again. She was the kindest, most gentle woman I ever knew. For some reason she loved me more than I had any right to be loved. I loved her. That's what you get to know."
"Did she know that you loved a man?" I demanded to know.
"Your left your journalistic skills in Oregon? Where'd you find that, boy?" He said in a powerfully impatient voice.
"In the bottom of the trunk you sent me to look into."
"Use your noodle, boy. That's where your mama kept her private things. What I wrote in there was all about who I was before your mother and I took up with each other.
"We met at church. Your grandma introduced us. I wasn't a big church goer, but I went along. Once I knew she liked me, and before we decided to get married, I gave the journal to her. You can see she wrote the title on it."
"I don't understand what it means."
He laughed and shook his head.
"Your mama knew I'd never be able to open that trunk. The logical conclusion is she thought you'd open it one day."
"She knew and she married you anyway?' I said in a question which had no answer.
"The man in the book you're waving around was my one great love. I wouldn't expect you to understand. Your mother understood love. She accepted there are different kinds of love. She accepted the love I felt for Sven.
"She read his letters and the story I wrote about him, and she decided to marry me. Your mother was a good woman."
"This is about him coming to the farm?" I asked, taking a sip of coffee and resting my hand on the journal.
"I sat down to write about Sven soon after I found out he was killed. I wanted to remember everything about him. It was just before spring in 1944. I was afraid I'd forget him, but he wasn't in what I wrote. He was the fields and in the memory of things we did together. Sven lived in my heart. So, I didn't need to read what I wrote to feel close to him."
I began to understand how my father became like he was.
"While you were with my mother?" I asked coolly.
"You're a journalist. You've got your story right there. Read it. If you have questions, I'll be right here for a while."
"I'll read it. First, if this man was your great love, how could you marry my mother?"
"When I met your mother, I was going through the motions of being alive. I worked the farm. That's all I had. There was nowhere to go. No future and a short past. Your mama put a smile on my face and laughter in my heart, and so I married her. Sven died. I didn't. She made me want to be alive."
"Did you love my mother?" I asked to know.
"Son, I'll forgive you that remark, because you are my son, but you gave up the right to ask questions like that.
"When your mama died, I wasn't fit to be of comfort to you. I asked your grandma to come to take care of you. I live with the guilt over not being a stronger man, a better father to you. I took solace in the fields. Same as after Sven died."
"I was a farmer's son. All the farmers' sons worked their fathers' farms, except for me. I was the oddball."
"And y ou know where those farmer's sons are? Struggling to bring in the corn before the rains come, and those sons have never been farther than Omaha or Davenport, like their fathers. Like me," he said. "I dreamed of getting off this land, Bobby. I never did. I made certain you did."
"When I was a boy, I watched you walk the fields. I never understood what it was you were looking for. Now, you tell me you didn't even want to be here. Come on, Dad, I find that hard to believe. You love this farm."
"Yes, I do. I lived my entire life here. You got off because I wasn't going to do to you what my father did to me. I wasn't too clever about it, but I had a farm to run and diplomacy wasn't my business. Once your mama died, you made it clear you weren't happy here. I believe it went, ''I hate this farm and I hate you.'
"I wasn't fond of my father either. He was a hard man. To him the farm was everything. There were rules about who took over the farm. He was the first son and he got the farm. I was his first son, and I was to get the farm."
"Even if you didn't want the farm?"
"I didn't have anything to say about it. When he saw I didn't intend to take the farm, he made my life miserable. I was trapped between a world I wanted to escape and my duty as a Sorenson. He was crippled. Tag, I was it. Didn't matter what I wanted. I'd never let the farm go under.
"I was devastated by your mama's death. If I wanted to live, I had to keep my mind off the pain. I got plenty of practice with that after Sven died. I didn't hold your words against you. I knew you needed to blame someone. I did use them to keep you from changing your mind."
"As far as my being your father, I made sure you ate well and had a roof over your head so you could get a good education. Once your grandma came, she picked up where your mama left off, preparing you for a future.
"Don't get the wrong idea. The happiest years of my life were spent right here. When Sven came, the farm was all I knew. He loved the land. He taught me to love it. We shared our lives together here. It's where I was with your mother."
"So, you want me to believe you loved my mother but you loved a man before you loved her?"
"Robert, I don't want you to believe anything. I'm not in the believing business. I'm telling you what my life was about, because you insist on knowing. I won't lie about it. Sven was the love of my life. Make of it what you may, but I loved your mother in a different way than I loved Sven. You believe as you like. You want to accept what I'm telling you, that's fine. If you don't believe it, that's fine too."
We both drank coffee as I considered his words.
"You made a good life for yourself and you didn't need to come home. That's fine. It was your life. I'm fixin' to die now. I asked you to come home for your mama's things. I didn't want them thrown out."
"You could have sent the trunk, Dad. You wanted me to come home. Why? It's not as cut and dried as you say."
"If I'd thought of it sooner, that's true. My worry was that I'd die before I got it sent. It was easier to call you home. You were a boy the last time I saw you. I did want to see what kind of man you turned out to be."
"The kind who wants to know about Sven. You named me after him. Mama lied. She said Sven was my uncle."
"You are going to push until I throw you out of here, aren't you? When you were in her belly, she asked me what I wanted to name my son. I asked, how do you know it's a boy. She could tell by the way you kicked. She said, 'I want to name him Robert, after his father. I said, 'I don't know. That's my father's name.' She said, 'I want his name to be Robert Sven Sorenson so he'll grow up like you two, good and heroic.'
"I asked how we'd explain the name to you? She said, 'You loved Sven with as great a love as a man could have for his brother. That qualifies his as Robert Jr.'s uncle.'
"Nothing nefarious in her thinking. She did not lie to you. She believed what she told me and I loved the idea. Junior and Ralph were both pleased with your name. We owed Sven more than we could repay and this gave him a place in our family."
"It was Mama's idea?" I said, thrown off balance.
"That's the kind of woman she was. She loved me enough to try to see things as I might see them. Naming you after me seemed awkward , but your mama was wise in ways most men aren't. You for instance. By giving you his name we'd keep Sven alive in you."
"I don't understand," I said. "Mama said those things?"
"You're doing it again," he said without a smile. " I wouldn't expect you to understand, Bobby. Actually, you don't need to understand. We understood and it made sense to us. You were given the name of the best man I ever knew."
"I used to stand at the fence, while Grandma was in her garden. I'd watch you walk the fields after the corn was in. I never understood that either, Dad. Was he the reason you spent so much time out there alone?"
My father thought about this. His anger with me subsided. When he got back to our conversation, he'd seen something that would furnish the best answer to my question.
"You were looking for him? Is that it? I need to know, Dad. That's the image of you I have after all these years."
"I was with him," he said softly. "I could feel him with me when I was out there, where we worked together. I was never alone when I was in the fields."
He made no effort to remove the oddness from his words.
"You were what? He was dead? What does that mean?"
"Read it, Bobby. It tells the story. Make of it what you will. I did the best I could for you and you turned out pretty damn good. The complications of my life are mine. You don't get to judge me. For better or worse, I'm the father. You're the son. If you're fortunate enough to have a child, you'll understand what's right for that time. Your child may not understand your actions in his time."
"If you wanted to get off here so bad, why'd you stay? When you met Mama, you knew being out here wasn't good for her. Why didn't you sell the farm?"
"It wasn't mine to sell. It became mine to work. In my father's time, it's all he knew. When the farm passed to him, horses pulled the plows. I learned there was a world out there in school. I wanted to see it."
"You don't give a damn what happens to it now," I argued.
"It's a different time," he said. "No one depends on the corn now."
"You stayed b ecause this is where you were with him?"
"My heart was here. Yes, this is where Sven and I were together, but I didn't have anywhere to go. My father and mother depended on the farm to stay alive. I couldn't leave."
"If I could have gone with him and died with him, I'd have done it. Had I done that, it would have put you in a pickle. There's no way to know your mother wouldn't have died even if she hadn't married me and lived on the farm.
"She was here because she wanted to be here, Bobby. Life unfolds. We get to see today. We wait to see tomorrow. It's easier to know what to do when you look behind you."
"That makes sense."
"I lived my life here. I'll die here. If there's a hereafter, we may find our way back to each other in a better place. I'm not holding my breath, but I don't oppose the idea."
"Not find your way back to Mama?"
"You do ask hard questions, son," my father said, his eyes penetrating me.
"I'd like an honest answer," I answered.
He laughed and shook his head as if he couldn't believe his ears. He was considering whether to answer me or not.
"You don't listen when I do answer you, and what I said was, if there is a hereafter, we may find our way back to each other. I was thinking of the big we. Your mother, my mother and father, and Ralph and Junior and you, when your time comes, but if you insist on pinning me down and you want me to tell you the one person I'd want to spend all of eternity with, that would be Sven."
While the answer was shocking, when he said it, it didn't surprise me. I felt a sudden sadness. It wasn't over his answer. For the first time I felt sad that my father had lost Sven, and I could see my mother accepting the love they shared and not trying to destroy it.
Sons weren't as easy. My father was making an effort to give me what I needed. I was beginning to see he was a good man, who didn't do what I wanted him to do. He certainly didn't say what I'd rather hear him say.
That didn't mean my mother's death didn't once again reach inside of me to twist my heart. Seeing my father's pain while we talked about my mother, told me he loved her too.
I wasn't a kid any longer and it was time I faced the truth.
My cup was empty and my father stood next to my chair pouring me more. As he filled his cup, I noticed the air in the kitchen was cooler. It was lighter. Easier to breathe.
Once the pot was back on the stove, my father sat down, stirring cream in his coffee, he began to speak.
"You've beaten a path around the barn. It's time to open the door, Bobby. I can answer the same question any number of ways, but you have the story in front of you. Read it. I'll answer questions the journal doesn't answer."
"Yes, sir," I said, not wanting to leave the kitchen or the coffee.
"Do you want me to read aloud? If you haven't seen it for so long, If I read it out loud, you'd get comfort from it?"
"That would be nice of you. My eyes tire so fast I'd never get to the end on my own, but I'd love to hear it as I wrote it. I never read it after I wrote it. It was meant to be a record, because I wanted someone to know about our love. Having that die with us seemed sinful. To me anyway.
"As I said, I had hopes of leaving the farm up until the day Sven walked up our driveway. From that day forward, I spent most of my time thinking about him."
"Sven." I said, reading the first word on the first page. "A year out of high school, I expected to be far from my family's farm. The circumstances of the time denied me my dream of seeing the world. The dream wasn't dead, only postponed," I said, feeling my father's yearning.
"You wanted to be a writer? I'm still afraid to call myself a writer. Most of what I do is writing but I worried about jinxing myself if I call myself a writer," I explained.
"I was young and had no such fears. It was quite clear to me. I saw no reason why I couldn't do it."
"It's funny how seeing it in writing makes it real. I think of you back then, way younger than I am now. My father? A writer? You were a writer, Daddy! Many writers write novels about their lives. I write scripts."
The idea my father wrote a novel excited me. I read through my father meeting Sven and how they got off on the wrong foot. It was a good story that took on a new meaning to me.
"You wrote in school? This is well written, Dad."
"That's all I got to show for it. I did write in school, but I had that one story to tell. The Farm's history isn't what I wrote. It's what your grandpa told me. What his father told him."
"I t's not just that you wrote it down. The way you speak as the narrator, the pictures you paint with words are easy to visualize. You definitely are writing with passion," I said.
"Y eah, well, you were going to read that as I recall," he said. "Maybe read and ask questions later?"
"Oh! Yeah! Read!" I said, unable to quiet my mind.
It was a a whirl with questions. I wanted more information. I had no difficulty picturing it in my head.
I positioned the journal so I could read on.
"… But time moved agonizingly slow back then, and farm work was a drudgery I no longer had a taste for." I let the journal tilt away from my face. "This description is nothing I'd recognize as coming from you. You were always working. You knew what to do and you did it. Hard to believe how you really felt about the work," I said.
"Read," he said, looking up out of his coffee.
"Yes, sir. As I was saying, I was working on the new fence Mama had been promised for two years, when Sven walked up the driveway and into our lives," I hesitated, looking to see what I'd describe as my father's trance.
I went back to the words he'd written about his life.
"He was big by any standards and he walked in powerful strides, looking like he knew where he was going. He paid me no mind as he passed. I stopped digging and watched him stop at the bottom of the three stairs that led to the back porch and the backdoor. He paused as if to gather his thoughts before he'd ask for work," I said, pondering the scene in my own mind.
He just walked up?
"How did you know he'd ask for work, Daddy?"
"Read the damn story," he snapped without looking up.
"He paused as if to gather his thoughts before he'd ask for work. It wasn't unusual to see hands walk up our driveway in a search for work. Times were tough," I let the book tilt away from my eyes again. "I see. You answered my question in the very next sentence. It's like you knew the question will be in the reader's mind," I observed about his writing style.
My father looked up at me with fire in his eyes. I kept stopping when he wanted to hear the story as he'd written it. I knew I shouldn't anger him with my endless questions about things I'd never considered before.
"Give me the damn book," he growled, wrestling it out of my hands and into his own.
Clearing his voice he began to read,
"The latest arrival interested me far more than the dull job Pa had assigned me. By this time everyone was of interest to me. I wondered where he had been and what he knew that I might find interesting.
"It turned out with Sven there were no simple answers," my father said, and I wasn't sure if he was reading or not.
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