Remembering My Father, His Gifts, and His Glass Eye
"Encapsulating Him in Plain Language Feels Impossible"
I’ve written hundreds of pages about my dad: poems, essays, short stories, a novel, several versions of a memoir—all titled The Glass Eye.
Here on my writing desk is an anatomical model of the human eye. Lifting off its upper hemisphere reveals painted veins that look like blue and pink branches. The white body inside the eye is mostly transparent, mostly scratched. According to the gold label on the pinewood stand, the eye was crafted by a Chicago company that also manufactured maps and globes. It makes sense; my dad’s eye is my world.
But why does his eye matter?
Only after he died did it obsess me. Describing my dad through the metaphor of his eye comes easy; encapsulating him in plain language feels impossible.
My dad’s eye was plastic, but sometimes I call it glass. Glass implies the ability to be broken.
What if I write a book about the history of artificial eyes?
What if I write a book that avoids even mentioning the eye?
What if I write the book I want to write, the one about my love for my dad?
What other book is there?
I need to pan out, not focus so much on his eye. I haven’t even described the town where we lived. My dad loved Sandusky.
If you spread out a map of Sandusky, Ohio, you can see that at many intersections you can turn left or slightly left, continue straight, or turn slightly right or right. Twenty-five thousand people live there, but every summer more than three million visit for Cedar Point, the local amusement park. When passing car accidents in town, I often looked at the license plates; they almost always belonged to cars registered elsewhere. A former city manager once told me that some of the streets form the Masonic symbol. I noticed MASON printed on several limestone and sandstone buildings after that. My dad, when he was young, drove a taxi in New York, yet when he first moved into the house where my mom has lived much of her adult life, he often would get lost in town.
“This one morning,” she tells me on the phone, “maybe the same week he moved in, he left the house to pick up milk and came home five hours later. He couldn’t remember our address or our phone number.”
The house had belonged to her and her first husband, who she married at 18.
“Did it bother Dad,” I ask her, “that you’d lived here with someone else?”
“No, but originally we’d planned to move to Arizona, or someplace warm like that, after we married. But then you were born, and he immediately started putting away money for you. It made sense to stay. And he loved this house.”
“What did he love about it?”
“He liked that it was in a quiet neighborhood. Rarely did a car go by. The double garage gave him plenty of room to build things. The yard had enough room for a nice garden, your playhouse, your swing set. If you remember, we’d play badminton in the backyard, the three of us, behind the garage. He loved sitting on the back porch, drinking a glass of scotch, and looking out at all the flowers and shrubs. He wanted to be buried in the backyard.”
Whenever my friends called our house tiny, I tried to ignore them. They lived in sparsely furnished houses with pale furniture and tall ceilings and pet gates. No one wore shoes past the front door. Their living rooms were off-limits. Their family rooms looked like their living rooms—only friendlier. Their coffee tables absolutely required coasters. Our coasters sat underneath one side of our furniture. Sometimes we used blocks of wood.
“We have them because our house is crooked,” my mom explained when I asked why no one else kept their coasters there.
We never could hang a picture straight. So as a kid, when I drew landscapes, I started with a crooked horizon.
“You know there’s a 216 West Boalt?” visitors to our garage sales often told us.
We lived at 216 East Boalt Street. West Boalt and East Boalt never meet, and the sign for West Boalt says only Boalt Street.
“New York has the grid,” I once overheard my dad explain, and I was briefly reminded that he’d lived there; he rarely mentioned it.
“Do you miss it?” I once asked him.
“Not at all,” he answered. “Sandusky is heaven.”
“Across from the baseball field and IAB,” we often included in our garage sale listings in the Sandusky Register. After the newspaper raised its ad rates, charging by the letter, we shortened our directions to “near IAB.” Most people in town knew that IAB stood for Italian American Beneficial Club.
“Little Italy my ass,” I heard my mom mumble the night she tore the green Welcome to Little Italy sign out of the ground. I was seven and couldn’t understand why the sign made her so angry. I liked it. The city had placed it right by our driveway, next to the stop sign on the corner where we lived. I ran inside and told my dad what she was doing.
“Go tell her the cops are going to come for her,” he said. “That’s city property.”
I begged my mom to leave the sign alone.
“The police!” I yelled.
“Go back inside or they’ll take you too,” she said.
The next evening, at our kitchen table, I asked my parents why they were so quiet.
“I’m angry at your father,” she said.
“When people are angry,” he explained to me, “they say things they’ll come to regret.”
Shortly after they married, they made a pact that if either of them was angry at the other, they’d say nothing until their anger had cooled. Usually, if my mom was angry, she’d reorganize kitchen drawers and cabinets, and my dad and I knew better than to ask where the forks had gone. If she felt stressed, she’d rearrange our furniture. This time, though, she hadn’t moved the couch or the silverware. This time she’d yanked a heavy metal sign—pole and all—out of the ground.
“What are you angry about?” I asked.
My dad and I looked at her for an answer.
“Do you know?” she asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Well, I don’t remember,” she said.
They laughed, and I laughed, and our uneven house became idyllic again.
Late summer nights when I was a child, my parents sat on the rusted aluminum glider on our back porch and told stories about their lives. My mom as a girl once put her little “tattletale” sister on a slow-moving train.
“She was sucking her thumb and waving from a train car when a neighbor saw and went running to my mother,” she said, “and did I ever get beat.”
My dad learned how to cut hair when he was a boy by practicing on homeless men—“bums,” he called them, with a fondness in his voice.
“Okay. Time for bed,” they’d say and I’d pretend to go upstairs.
Then I’d sneak back down, hide with my mutt, Gigi, in the pantry, press my ear against the screen door, and listen. That was when they told the good stories: my mom chased her abusive first husband from the house with a butcher knife; my dad was arrested for gambling with his mafia friends when he was 17, and his father refused to bail him out of jail. Later, when my dad was out of earshot, I’d ask my mom about his stories.
“Dad told it to me,” I’d lie. “Can you remind me how it goes?”
She said that when he was in junior high, he started sweeping hair at his father’s barbershop. His father told him, “Never open the door to the back room.” So one day my dad pretended he was sweeping hair by the door, and cracked it open—just enough to see in. A man was roped to a chair with his mouth gagged. His hand was in a vise that another man slowly turned. A third man sat in the corner, eating a sandwich. My dad closed the door and returned to sweeping hair.
“What’s a vise?” I asked my mom.
“You know, sort of like the thing your dad has on his workbench, that he uses to hold down wood while he cuts it,” my mom explained. “Only this was something a little different. They ground up the guy’s hand in it.”
Another story I overheard and that my mom later confirmed: after my dad caught his first wife in bed with her cousin’s husband, his friends offered to throw her off a roof. “We’ll frame it as a suicide,” they told him. My dad refused: “I can’t. That’s the mother of my children.” I remember thinking: My dad is an upstanding man. I didn’t think: Of course you shouldn’t throw your adulterous spouse off a roof.
Just as I did when I was a child, I ask my mom for more stories about my dad.
“He painted warships in Brooklyn during World War II,” she reminds me, “and developed throat cancer from the asbestos the navy used.”
Before I was born, doctors removed his left vocal cord to prevent the cancer from spreading. I wish I had a recording of his voice. I remember standing in a hard hat and tool belt, watching my dad sand a piece of wood. He said something to me, and his voice disappeared into the sound of sandpaper.
“He knew how scratchy his voice sounded,” my mom says. “He was careful not to raise his voice, especially around you—he was afraid of scaring you. Then he was afraid of the eye falling out and scaring you. Poor guy.”
This reminds her of a story.
“One evening we were eating spaghetti at the kitchen table and his eye fell out and rolled across the table. ‘Dad, your eye popped out,’ you told him and kept on eating,” my mom says. “You were just a kid. It didn’t faze you.”
“I don’t really remember that,” I say.
“I do. He felt so awful about it. I told him, ‘She loves you. She doesn’t care.’”
At Cedar Point, my dad went on the rides with me—even the one where we raced in separate potato sacks down a giant sloping slide. Sometimes people pointed and laughed. “Look at that old man,” they’d say. For the fast rides and the tall ones, my mom usually waited at the bottom. After the Blue Streak, the park’s oldest roller coaster, he was covering his left eye with his hand.
“Is it still there?” he asked my mom.
“It’s there,” she said, and they both laughed.
But more than the amusement park, the Erie County Landfill was my favorite place when I was a kid.
“The dump, the dump, the dump,” I’d say as I buckled myself into the car.
Because my parents’ friends knew how much I loved the landfill, and even though each resident was allotted only so many free trips there, they gave us some of their free tickets. I loved seeing what people threw away. I remember wondering if the trash looked as beautiful to my dad as it did to me.
“Well she’s not too hard to please,” he told my mom.
And I loved seeing my dad unwrap the presents I gave him. One Christmas, I made him a wooden plaque out of scrap wood I found in the garage. I wrote in marker: “Best Dad,” or something like that. I put it inside an old power-tool box and wrapped it. After unwrapping it and seeing the power-tool box, he said, “You shouldn’t have.”
I worried he’d be disappointed when he found the wooden plaque instead of a power tool. I shyly told him to look inside the box. He did, and he started to cry.
“Now this is amazing,” he said.
When he died, the plaque was still hanging above his workstation in the garage. I can’t look at what I made him. At some point, it may end up in the garbage, at the landfill—where he and I shook our heads at what people threw away.
Our garage was my dad’s magician’s hat. My mom helped him carry out new, amazing objects: bookshelves taller than them, rose arches, birdhouses with as many as eight different entrances, dollhouses shaped like our house. Too enormous to fit through our back door, my favorite dollhouse required him to remove the door from its hinges. In summer months, the dollhouse stayed outside. One day he mounted it on wheels.
A “mobile home,” he called it.
The roof, made of real asphalt like ours, lifted off to reveal an attic. He added screens and shutters to all the windows. He wallpapered each room. He used free samples of linoleum and carpet from a local flooring store; the saleswoman assumed we were redecorating our house. He even made a staircase and cut a hole in the second floor.
“I don’t want to make your dolls have to fly from floor to floor,” he said.
Before our garage sales, I parked the dollhouse out of view, usually on our back porch. At one sale, however, a woman noticed the dollhouse from our driveway. I was walking around with my sticker gun, lowering prices, when I saw her playing with the blue shutters. I ran over.
“This for sale?” she asked.
“No,” I told her. “My dad made it.”
She removed a pen and checkbook from her purse and offered me $1,000.
“It’s not for sale,” I said.
“Where’s your dad?”
I pointed at him.
“That old man in the eye patch?”
“He made it,” I said, “and with only one eye.”
She stooped and patted me on the shoulder.
“You’re very lucky,” she said and walked away.
My dad came over and asked what she had wanted. I told him.
“Go get her! I’ll make you a new one.”
But she’d already left.
He built a one-room house for me in the backyard; he fenced in a private yard behind it and taught me how to manage my own garden. I had my own mailbox where my dad regularly delivered letters that he and my mom had written. He made a cement walkway leading to our back porch and before the cement dried we wrote “Dad and Jeannie,” drew a heart. We left our handprints.
He made our red picket fence out of scrap wood from a lumberyard where on its opening day I rode a pony and won a goldfish.
Passersby slowed down their cars and pointed at our yard. Finches always seemed to be splashing in our birdbaths, and strange colorful flowers appeared unexpectedly.
“Did you plant that?” my parents asked one another.
The answer was often no.
One afternoon, I was in the driveway, practicing how to ride a bike.
“Don’t go too close to the street,” my dad told me.
I was bad at braking, and he’d run and catch up with me. Mostly, though, my dad kept pace, but when he spotted a sports car speeding toward our corner with no clear intention of obeying the stop sign, he shouted and ran toward the car. The driver slammed his brakes. I was in the middle of the driveway. I jumped off my bike, chased after my dad, and watched as he reached one hand through the driver’s open window and said, “You’d be worth going to prison for.” He pointed at me, and then at the stop sign. That evening, he began building a long lattice fence to stretch across our driveway. A few days later, he mounted the fence on wheels. He demonstrated how it worked. My mom and I clapped.
Now, when I think of the fence, I think of Jeanne.
From The Glass Eye: A Memoir. Used with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2017 by Jeannie Vanasco.