Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Barack Obama - Dreams from My Father 6

“Barry? Barry, is this you?”
“Yes…. Who’s this?”
“Yes, Barry…this is your Aunt Jane. In Nairobi. Can you hear me?”
“I’m sorry-who did you say you were?”
“Aunt Jane. Listen, Barry, your father is dead. He is killed in a car accident. Hello? Can you hear me? I
say, your father is dead. Barry, please call your uncle in Boston and tell him. I can’t talk now, okay, Barry. I
will try to call you again….”
That was all. The line cut off, and I sat down on the couch, smelling eggs burn in the kitchen, staring at
cracks in the plaster, trying to measure my loss.

At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man. He had left
Hawaii back in 1963, when I was only two years old, so that as a child I knew him only through the stories
that my mother and grandparents told. They all had their favorites, each one seamless, burnished smooth
from repeated use. I can still picture Gramps leaning back in his old stuffed chair after dinner, sipping
whiskey and cleaning his teeth with the cellophane from his cigarette pack, recounting the time that my
father almost threw a man off the Pali Lookout because of a pipe….
“See, your mom and dad decided to take this friend of his sightseeing around the island. So they drove
up to the Lookout, and Barack was probably on the wrong side of the road the whole way over there-”
“Your father was a terrible driver,” my mother explains to me. “He’d end up on the left-hand side, the
way the British drive, and if you said something he’d just huff about silly American rules-”
“Well, this particular time they arrived in one piece, and they got out and stood at the railing to admire
the view. And Barack, he was puffing away on this pipe that I’d given him for his birthday, pointing out all the
sights with the stem, like a sea captain-”
“Your father was really proud of this pipe,” my mother interrupts again. “He’d smoke it all night while he
studied, and sometimes-”
“Look, Ann, do you want to tell the story or are you going to let me finish?”
“Sorry, Dad. Go ahead.”
“Anyway, this poor fella-he was another African student, wasn’t he? Fresh off the boat. This poor kid
must’ve been impressed with the way Barack was holding forth with this pipe, ’cause he asked if he could
give it a try. Your dad thought about it for a minute, and finally agreed, and as soon as the fella took his first
puff, he started coughing up a fit. Coughed so hard that the pipe slipped out of his hand and dropped over
the railing, a hundred feet down the face of the cliff.”
Gramps stops to take another nip from his flask before continuing. “Well, now, your dad was gracious
enough to wait until his friend stopped coughing before he told him to climb over the railing and bring the
pipe back. The man took one peek down this ninety-degree incline and told Barack that he’d buy him a
“Quite sensibly,” Toot says from the kitchen. (We call my grandmother Tutu, Toot for short; it means
“grandparent” in Hawaiian, for she decided on the day I was born that she was still too young to be called
Granny.) Gramps scowls but decides to ignore her.
“-but Barack was adamant about getting his pipe back, because it was a gift and couldn’t be replaced.
So the fella took another look, and shook his head again, and that’s when your dad picked him clear off the
ground and started dangling him over the railing!”
Gramps lets out a hoot and gives his knee a jovial slap. As he laughs, I imagine myself looking up at
my father, dark against the brilliant sun, the transgressor’s arms flailing about as he’s held aloft. A fearsome
vision of justice.
“He wasn’t really holding him over the railing, Dad,” my mother says, looking to me with concern, but
Gramps takes another sip of whiskey and plows forward.
“At this point, other people were starting to stare, and your mother was begging Barack to stop. I guess
Barack’s friend was just holding his breath and saying his prayers. Anyway, after a couple of minutes, your
dad set the man back down on his feet, patted him on the back, and suggested, calm as you please, that
they all go find themselves a beer. And don’t you know, that’s how your dad acted for the rest of the tour-
like nothing happened. Of course, your mother was still pretty upset when they got home. In fact, she was
barely talking to your dad. Barack wasn’t helping matters any, either, ’cause when your mother tried to tell
us what had happened he just shook his head and started to laugh. ‘Relax, Anna,’ he said to her-your dad
had this deep baritone, see, and this British accent.” My grandfather tucks his chin into his neck at this

No comments:

Post a Comment