Our father opens his cupped hands to share the hearts he has just found on the beach. He does not speak, but tenderness softens his eyes as he looks down at them and the slightest of smiles plays with the corners of his mouth, as if he has a secret. He seems quite pleased with himself, yet offers his find with what could be shyness, one much, much younger than his years.
For the past while he has been plodding slow, irregular circles around a daughter seated in a beach chair, never straying very far, shoulders curved, his chin close to his chest as he searched. From time to time he would push small driftwood or dried seaweed aside with his foot and stoop to pick up what he had uncovered, or not. Those he did he subjected to a slow inspection, turning this way and that, changing angles to sun and shadow and the squint of his eye. Most he flicked sideways back to the sand, but the few he recognized he placed onto his left palm, which he closed carefully, although they were not fragile.
This is new to us, his looking down at the ground, as if gravity bids him now. He had always been one to look skyward, or to the treetops.
As on a brilliant day in late June when he took two daughters for a hike along a bluff and came upon an open field. We leapt, back then, at the chance to join him on his walks, which might take us to woods, a cemetery, or just to a train station platform, where we would compete to be first to call out the locomotive’s headlight and hope a trainman returned our waves, best of all from the caboose. He worked days and often nights and usually Saturdays, so we never took time with our father for granted, and ranked it better than being allowed to sit in the front seat of the car.
He would explain what we saw on our walks, but also give us a glimpse into the world or, more aptly, the secret society of adults and their concerns, and talk about how Governor Rockefeller’s recent divorce might affect his political future, or what the state was doing to fight the lamprey invasion of the Great Lakes, topics that a decade or so later might elicit impatience, but at the time felt a compliment, as if we could be trusted with a bit of adulthood.
Time spent with him back then was most often without conflict. Those who remember the times might say that this was so because he saw less of us, while the day in, day out weight of raising six children fell largely to our mother. That may well be true; but it was also the case that while both parents held high expectations of us, his were more forgiving.
He took us toward the middle of the field, away from tree shadows, and tried to demonstrate how to tell time if we ever became lost without a watch. We might have preferred just to be given the watches we were considered too young to have, and which we saw as an indication of seriousness of purpose. He stood erect and made his right arm and hand rigid, his thumb pressed against the base of his index finger, not unlike the needle of a compass. He aimed up at the sun, then dropped his arm, pivoted a sharp quarter turn, and raised his arm up again to mark south, then west and north. When he returned to the sun, he turned his palm inward, kept his fingers together, and aligned his pinky with the horizon. He taught — or tried to — how to calculate remaining daylight by counting the fingers or stacked hand breadths it took to reach the sun.
When as adults we would remember this, we would laugh to picture ourselves small and alone, lost in some wilderness, with no idea how to find food or water or shelter, but at least knowing the time.
He had hoped to become a pilot during World War II, but so did too many others, and the Army kept him earthbound, assigning him to a “Skylighter” battalion that trained searchlights on German aircraft and guided Allied planes home. He had to identify aircraft quickly and unmistakably, as antiaircraft guns followed the beams of light.
Later in life — or perhaps from very early on, how would we know? — he watched birds, or more honestly, fell in love with them, and knew their colors by the season and calls by their intent; who built architectural marvels or afterthoughts of nests, and who braved the cold and who the long, dangerous passage south.
So whether it be the engine of a far-off plane or the sharp dive of a blurred something into the safety of a tree, he could not help but look up: from a reflex trained into him that he would have until he could no longer hear, and, in the case of the bird, simply because he was smitten.
The daughter admires his treasure and sends quiet thanks out to No One in Particular, as joy has become one of his rarer birds, an abrupt appearance seemingly from nowhere, some busyness on a twig, and a just as sudden departure.
No one would confuse these three stone hearts with the Valentine’s Day sort, their perfectly symmetrical halves smooth and uncomplicated, as delicate as the lace filigree around them. If love does indeed reside in the heart, it is a dreamy, unmarred thing, with never a strain placed upon it.
His are closer to anatomically correct, the elegant but not particularly attractive muscle that a heart is, more prose than poetry. The shape is sacklike rather than triangular, as if something is being held, or cradled, with the surface smooth in some places, but mostly raised as if covered in membrane, or woven through with striations and ridges that bring muscle fibers to mind.
It is a heart made to labor and endure, given us to use and, in time, spend.
He agrees that these are hearts to be saved, and he helps wrap them in a towel, taking care to tuck in the corners. He will bring the hearts home.
Mary Kate Eggert spent summers with her family in Maidstone Park when she was a child.