With Father’s Day a few weeks ago, the following essay by Kassie Rubico came to our attention. A Writing Instructor at Northern Essex Community College, Kassie received a Master of Arts in Creative Writing and Literature at Rivier College in 2008 and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Pine Manor College in 2012. Her work has been published in Insight Academic Journal, Parnassus Literary Journal, the anthology River Muse: Tales of Lowell and the Merrimack Valley, and Toska Literary Magazine. She has been a guest columnist for the Lowell Sun and a freelance writer for Coolrunning.com. Her manuscript “Missing Subjects” is a collection of interconnected essays addressing themes of identity and newly focused consciousness through education. She lives in Chelmsford, Mass., with her husband and their three daughters.—PM
He Went to the Woods
by Kassie Rubico
His friends called him Chief because of his red face, large frame, and authoritative presence. Socially, my father was like Archie Bunker, from one of his favorite TV shows. He had conservative opinions that could not be swayed, and, if provoked, he had a left hook that could stop a charging bull—there were stories. Dad never attended one of my Girl Scout ceremonies or cheerleading banquets, and he would rather have been anywhere other than stuffed into a hot gymnasium watching young girls shoot hoops. He was not there for many of my track meets, but he’d drive my friends and me to all of our events and was always there waiting when it was time to go home. He was never late, not even after the junior-high dances when I would have appreciated a few extra minutes in the parking lot, anxiously waiting for what might happen next. Not that any boy would have had the courage to try anything. They were afraid of my Dad, and as soon as they saw his old Buick pulling into the school parking lot, they would scatter. I understood their fear. To most, my father was a tough guy, but in my eyes Dad was gentle. He didn’t yell or swear, not in front of me anyway.
Dad would cart us to the mall on Saturday afternoons. A Yankee magazine and a cup of coffee were enough to keep him happy as we emptied our pockets in the latest hotspots. When I was older, my father drove me to and from my first full-time job. I didn’t own a car back then because when I had finally saved enough money to buy one, Dad reminded me of all the reasons why I shouldn’t. “Gas is expensive, y’ know.” “Dangerous driving in the winter.” “Won’t be able to afford the insurance.” So every day for two years, Dad would sit quietly in the driver’s seat while I pressed buttons changing from disco to hard rock to alternative on the ride home. “You’re going to break those damn things,” he’d say, his thick fingers gripping the steering wheel. Donna Summer. Van Halen. REM. Not exactly his Frank Sinatra tunes.
The one thing my father liked more than driving was walking. Like the Concord transcendentalists who had lived close by, he was no stranger to the woods or its inhabitants. He spent many hours in a place he liked to call his “roots.” To compare Dad to Thoreau would be like comparing a golden eagle to a magpie … in some ways. No, he didn’t have an Ivy League education; he didn’t have a high-school degree–the seventh son from a family of nine didn’t have such luxuries in the 1940’s. His schooling came from combat. But Harold Wilmont Dickinson loved the natural world, and some of my best memories of my father involve our walks in the woods, where he felt most at home, where he would shed his stoic shell.
On Sundays, we’d take long drives, stopping on the side of the road to wander through the woods. Dad would hike one trail, while my friends and I traveled another. We’d meet up at some meandering stream, cupping handfuls of water. “Cleanest water you’ll ever drink,” my father would say, and then he would turn his attention to a singing cardinal on a branch. “She’s telling the male it’s okay to bring food,” he would explain. My friends and I were concerned with other things, like what we might wear to the next dance, or more importantly, who would be our dance partner to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” The wrong mate for eight minutes and three seconds was pure hell. Dad would walk ahead, pointing out various animal tracks along the way, listening and thinking. He never said much out there, but his actions guided me in uncertain terrain.
I grew up believing that a “good time” had to involve lots of people. Always surrounded by siblings, spouses and their offspring, I enjoyed my large family, even though I sometimes felt like an outsider looking in or an insider trying to get out. It took me years to realize that the small stone in my shoe was my own need for solitude—and where that came from.
—Kassie Rubico © 2013