In the entrance to my parents’ home, tall decorative glass panels line each side of a black painted door. On both pieces of the beveled glass, the semi-opaque floral designs have large symmetrical leaves that look like eyes, round transparent points scattered throughout the pattern. On the panel to the left of the door, there is a cluster of leaves at a point about six feet high that looks a little bit like a pair of binoculars, with two connected oval eyes in the center. My father often stands at the door and stares through that spot in the glass—at neighbors, or at cars passing by.
When standing on the other side of the door, however, it’s obvious that he is doing this. My mother and I tell him not to hover like that, but any inhibitions he experiences about being seen staring are outdone by his curiosity. Each time I visit my parents, I pull into their driveway, sit in my car for a moment, and look into the doorway to see if he’s watching for my arrival.
My father is tall, with a serious face and a stark, bald head. He does not say much to strangers, and he tends to stare at them for just a moment too long. He says things like, “If I told you what I did at work, I’d have to kill you three times,” and then he laughs his strange basso laugh. I promise this is just a well-meaning joke regarding his security clearance.
I used to imagine my father was a spy because he has always been so secretive about his job. The truth is not as intriguing: my father works for a government contractor, developing technology that’s then sold to the military. In my parents’ basement, my dad has a framed poster of an enormous fighter jet that he developed in some way with a team of fellow engineers. The poster is covered in their illegible signatures.
When I was around twelve, I watched this television show with my mom called Alias. It featured Jennifer Garner as a sexy international spy and, hilariously, a graduate student in English literature (which doesn’t come up too often in the plot). In the pilot episode, she discovers that her father is also a spy and does not, as she had been led to believe growing up, sell airplane parts. This sounded suspiciously similar to my father’s cover story: selling airplane parts. While he is a brilliant man, I cannot picture my father knowing ten languages, or fifteen ways to kill someone with his bare hands. He isn’t exactly a sneaky man, either. I think of him indiscreetly passing off a card and pen to me and my younger brother every Mother’s Day, asking us to sign it while my mother remains barely out of earshot.
Shortly after he graduated from college, my father moved from his home on a tobacco farm in North Carolina to Maryland for his first engineering job. On lunch breaks, he sat in his car and ate Chinese takeout. He wrote letters to my mother, a first-grade teacher and the pianist at his parents’ Methodist church. After three years of letters and visits, they got married, and my mother moved to Maryland. In their mutual Southern-ness, they found a home with each other.
There’s a certain amount of respectability in being a quiet or reserved person, and that’s what my mother is: quiet, poised. But my father’s brand of quiet is more active, more intense, fading into the distance, breaking silences with unexpected statements.
When my brother and I were very young, we lived across the street from my elementary school. At night, my father, younger and less obligated at work, played on the playground with us. We played out there for hours until the sun went down, my father chasing us around in the wood chips to tire us out before bed. We seemed to wear out a lot more quickly than he did. Later in the evenings, I remember waiting behind the wood-and-wire baby gate set up for my toddling brother to keep him out of the kitchen, listening to my father complain to my mother about his boss while eating seconds heated up from dinner earlier. It’s odd to think of my parents then; they weren’t much older than I am now.
When I was in fifth grade, he sat me down next to him in front of his computer to review my report card. He pointed to the 99 I had in Language Arts and the 86 I had in Earth Science.
“What you should try to do,” he said, “is try to take a little bit of the effort and brainpower that you put into this 99, and put it into your science instead. That way, you’ll have two As.”
I tried to explain to him that this would be difficult, because it took no effort at all to get the 99, but a lot of effort to get the 86.
“That’s a good point,” he said, and I don’t remember what he told me to do next.
I wonder now if that’s how my dad’s brain works: if he has a million pebbles in his mind he can throw some into whichever pond he chooses, transferring his intelligence however he needs to.
Sometimes I tell my father something and, about halfway through, I become convinced he’s not actually listening. It’s always been this way. As we talk in my parents’ kitchen, he becomes fixated on some potatoes baking in the oven, or he stares at a commercial on the television in the next room. I’ve learned that if I wait silently for about two minutes after I finish talking, there’s a good chance he’ll come out with a response—particularly if I call out to him and invite one, if I ask, “Dad?”
It’s possible he is just tired. My father spends about ten hours a week commuting to work, and has done so for as long as I’ve been alive. He spends most of his time at a job he is not really allowed to talk about. His background is investigated regularly: my mother, my parents’ neighbors and close friends receive phone calls inquiring about my father’s lifestyle, disposition, and behavior. At home, he stands in the front yard with a rake, staring down any passersby he’s never seen before, usually people who are just walking their dogs. It embarrasses my mother, who worries he is frightening our neighbors.
My father says vague things like, “You don’t want to know what’s happening out there in the world.” Sometimes I ask him what, exactly, he means, hoping it’s something he’s allowed to tell me.
This is what’s happening, or at least, one of the things: Every morning, as early as four or five, my father goes to the 24-hour gym half a mile from my parents’ home, and when I say he goes there, I mean he runs there as a warm-up, wearing the reflective gear my mother has begged him to wear whenever he runs before sunrise. My father says, when he runs that early, he sees strange planes in the sky flying low. I’m not sure what it means to him, or why it seems so ominous.
Once, when I was in junior high, as I walked upstairs in our home, my dad came running up the steps behind me, wielding a steak knife. I remember thinking, in a moment of confusion, that he was going to murder me. Instead, he barreled past like he didn’t even see me, knife in hand, and ran into the guest room, where he started using the knife to fiddle with the computer’s hard drive tower.
Later that night, I relayed what happened to my mother, who only said, “He gets like that sometimes.”
“I have an engineer’s personality,” my father says, in explanation. “We’re all like this.”
My dad’s disposition creates trouble for him at work—his reports and superiors both mock his measured speech, his Southern accent, and his way of fading out of conversations. But anyone who regards my father as vacant or unintelligent, based on his demeanor, would be mistaken.
It’s true my father doesn’t always understand the appropriate time or place. When I was a teenager, nothing mortified me more than my father’s tendency to talk about what I considered my secrets or embarrassing stories, even though he was capable of keeping confidential information under lock and key. He’d tell everyone we knew about my brother’s athlete’s foot, or the phase in which I refused to show teeth while smiling. I guess that to learn these details, he didn’t need to swipe one of his six security clearance badges—each with a large picture of his face on it, each face a little younger than the one before it, strung together on a lanyard left on the breakfast bar next to his empty lunchbox at the end of each day. In his mind, it was information safe to share.
“Do you think I’m autistic?” he asked me once. When I asked him why, he said it was what people at work said about him.
“I don’t know,” I told him. With less assurance, I added, “I don’t think so.”
What I really wondered was, does it matter? If, even with a potential social handicap such as an autistic disorder, my father can spend most of his life building a successful career, stay married for three decades, raise two children, and find time to read, volunteer, and exercise, then I don’t really see the problem. He seems to have coped just fine. In fact, I’d probably call him ridiculously successful. But I think of all the times I sniped at him in my impatience, the way I treated him when I didn’t know how to listen to him, and I know I have been terribly unfair.
When my father was a young man, I think before he even met my mother, he had an experience at church one Sunday morning, which he considers his moment of conversion. During this service, a man on a guitar played the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul”:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
This is what moved him to faith. I think of my reasoning father, swayed by guitars and verse. I think of the many times I sat next to him in church as a child, when we sang that song and I wondered at his quiet sobbing, heavy and hollow. “It Is Well with My Soul” is a song that, to my family, speaks not just to faith but remembrance. The song was played at my grandfather’s funeral, then my grandmother’s. One day, I imagine my father will want it played at his funeral. And then I’ll want it played at mine.
After they got married, my parents spent years looking for a church. My Methodist father was sprinkled with water as a child, and my mother, who was raised a Pentecostal/Free Will Baptist hybrid, was wholly dunked. Because of their differences, finding a church to attend together called for compromise.
“Your momma,” my father once told me, “was raised in a church that was all about hellfire and brimstone and sin. It’s been hard for her to see the other side of things.”
“Your dad,” my mother once told me, “was raised Methodist, where they’re all about grace and love and la-di-dah, and it never went very deep.”
As I grew up, my family walked into one new church, then another and another, doing our own version of recon. Some weeks we didn’t know what church we would attend that Sunday until my parents decided the Saturday evening before. On each set of church steps, in each foyer and lobby, my pulse stuttered as I counted the seconds it would take to walk, eyes down, from the doors of the church to one of the back pews. I watched the unfamiliar people bubble together, observing the way they all seemed to know each other well. There was comfort in the thought that, even though the awkwardness we felt in this new place was stifling, we might never have to come back. Every time my parents told us that they’d decided against joining a church, I felt relieved.
I was sixteen when my father dropped my brother and me off, in the rain, in front of the run-down garage across the street from our new church. This garage was where the Meadow Christian Church youth group met on Sunday mornings. Rather than sit on the mildewed couches where an unfamiliar group of students were gathered, I sat stiffly in a metal folding chair behind the circle, and so from the outside, I peered in at all of them.
I had recently acquired a learner’s permit, and I needed someone to teach me how to drive. My mother had more spare time to drive with me but was too nervous and jumpy for either of us to tolerate practicing together. My dad, even-keeled and detached, proved a much better driving instructor, first patiently guiding me around the parking lot of my high school, then sending me down the winding, narrowing road that we had recently started taking to our new church every Sunday. “If you can drive a road like this, you can drive anywhere,” he explained.
On Sunday mornings, my father had me drive our family to and from church to squeeze in a little extra driving practice. My mother suffered in the backseat with my brother, grabbing onto the door handle at every changing stoplight and bend in the road. I gleefully drove anyway, my father navigating beside me.
When my parents decided to leave their current church for this new one, an elder at the former church told my father he hoped he would become more involved at the next church we attended, that he would volunteer his time and gifts, that even when he is unhappy with the condition of his church, it is important to strive to make it better rather than give up on it and leave. He was talking about the church as a place to serve and give rather than a place to receive blessings and walk away. My father took this advice in earnest and found the time to volunteer, becoming a deacon and then an elder at our new church. He attended meetings and made spreadsheets and presentations about problems he saw in our church he didn’t understand or know how to solve, attempting to quantify them with cells and matrices.
Occasionally, my father had to get up in front of the congregation during our church service and lead a prayer. Since my father spoke in a halting way, and sometimes froze up while speaking publicly, I felt enormously anxious for him on these Sundays. I remember one of them, when the cute guys in the youth group sat in the pew in front of mine and quietly shook with laughter as my father walked up behind the pulpit and began to speak in his thick accent. I felt myself blushing in embarrassment, but I did not feel ashamed of him.
My father oversees parking at the church, where there are only a limited number of spaces. He counts the cars in the parking lot and compares the total to the weekly attendance numbers to calculate how many people are coming in each car. The resulting numbers, something like one-point-five persons per vehicle, seem useless to me.
I brought my first boyfriend over for Christmas dinner, and my father explained the church parking lot situation to him. We hovered in the kitchen as my mother cooked.
“On Christmas, there are more people riding in the same car,” he said.
“Families celebrating together,” I said.
“Yes, a different algorithm,” my father said, trailing off.
At dinner, my dad stumbled during the big prayer before we ate and said something odd. Specifically, I think he said, “You were just a baby Jesus.” I let out a giggle, and my boyfriend caught it, trying to suppress his laughter. My eyes opened and I saw my mother’s mortified face.
Giggling about something unintentionally funny during a prayer wasn’t rare in my house growing up; we’ve all said silly things to God by accident. But something about the presence of my boyfriend—my first love, and an atheist—and my laughing with him, felt like a betrayal.
What my father has that I don’t necessarily share is a great hope in the potential of the church—for true community there, for good. He’s put a lot of care into making our church better, though sometimes I’m not sure what they are all working for, or if they are really working. I’ve seen the inner circles of small churches open and close. I’ve seen my family welcomed and excluded, or excluded then welcomed, sometimes by the same people. It’s not clear to me how it really works—what we do or don’t do as a family, a unit, to endear ourselves to a church community or alienate ourselves from it.
I was hyper-involved, too. I never missed a youth event, and I even taught Sunday school. Yet, when I visited after I stopped attending regularly, I felt exactly as lost and alone as I had that first time in the garage. I felt excluded; my doubts and transgressions marked me as not quite in the evangelical way, and I fear that my parents felt let down.
Belief, as I knew it, was so individualistic and experiential that it left little room for a conception of an inherited faith, but surely our understanding of the world and any accompanying beliefs come to us, in part, from our parents. Sometimes I try to talk about God with my mother, but I don’t know how to formulate my sentences, how to articulate my own belief or void of it. But with my father, it’s an easier silence on this front, one that makes me feel like I still have time to think about these things before I provide my answers. And as my father does so often in conversation, I will take that time for myself, time to think before I respond to these questions of belief.
I’m not sure which of my parents I really take after. People tell me I look like my mother. But when I see photos of my father and me together, our smiles similarly nervous in the presence of the camera, in moments when I know I have stared just a little too long, I feel sure I have taken after him.
I feel grateful that my father doesn’t seem to mind that I think differently. He tells me I am like his mother: competent, stubborn, with the compassionate liberal-qualities of hers that bewildered him. Though I didn’t know my grandmother well, she had a reputation for being confident and outspoken. She singlehandedly orchestrated my parents’ relationship: inviting my mother, the church pianist, over for lunch after church every weekend my father came home to visit from Maryland until they thought it was their idea to date. My grandmother wrote memoirs, which read like a collection of short sermons about the Christian life. I have the typed copy. Glancing over the title of each essay, I feel a sense of dread at the thought of reading each one, but I’m not sure why.
What I wonder is how my grandmother, a matriarch of her church, and her tobacco-farming husband who wasn’t as interested in God, produced a pragmatic engineer moved to weep at the promise of “peace like a river.” I wonder about a Methodist falling in love with a Baptist, about how my parents could walk in faith together, sometimes agreeing to disagree, but sometimes changing each other.
I worry I think about this too much, but I’m not sure who I will walk with one day, and how they might change me. I am afraid to change, but I’m worried this is the only way to grow. How did my parents figure this out? I want to know how my father found a way to make a life, when it is so unclear to me how to begin. I wonder if my father also feels like he is watching the world carefully without always seeing an entry point, like merging onto the freeway, something my father taught me how to do, something I had trouble with long after earning my driver’s license. Even as I drive today, a decade later, my heart is struck with that same fear: I will never merge into this traffic. I will never get in with those other cars. I will circle aimlessly, entering and exiting alone, yielding until some other driver finds the compassion to let me in.