When I was about 10 my father surprised me with a new bike. It was replacing my old trusty companion. A blue banana-seated partner who could tell many a tales about cold blooded games of chicken, races down the steep hill by Little Grandma and Grandpa’s house, and the many times I secretly went farther than the corner. I had ridden old blue into extinction and my long legs had certainly outgrown it.
I had forgotten about that that Saturday morning. Likely, the last time I really had a birthday gift from my father. He had found a used ten speed, fixed it up with new parts, and painted it a deep ruby red that had gold glints that shimmered in the sun. My father was a paint salesman and the paint he had chosen was car paint and it was perfect for my new bike.
I ran to the bike and threw my leg over, quickly balancing on my tiptoes, my hands resting on the handlebars. Electricity sparked my fingers and wrists and shot through my body, forever connecting me to every bike I would ever own. My secret rides would become much farther and the speed that I could catch would have me believe I was flying. I set out on my maiden voyage, bumping down the ridged part of the driveway, the seat much smaller and a little more invasive than my old banana seat. I turned once, my father’s face looked radiant. He seemed so proud. I didn’t realize that I had a memory of my father in a favorable light. For so long he has been mired in a murky cloud of hurt, pain, resentment, and loss. Yet, this morning, as I flew down the creek trail, a bit of wild in the middle of Modesto, I caught the shimmer of my red bike. The cobwebs blew away from the lock box of memories, all that is left of my brief childhood. There stood my father.
He was long legged, his hands in the pockets of his Levis, a pack of Marbolo Reds peeking out of the front pocket of his button up shirt. He wasn’t a broad man, he was lithe. His skin, tanned to rugged mahogany in the summer, darker than the olive skin tone of the rest of us. His sharp cheekbones were reminiscent of a Native American man. In fact, now that I think about it, his skin color was similar as well. I am married to a Mi-Wuk man and they share the same skin color. Though, part of my family is from Sicily, far from the Native American genes that make up my husband and children’s DNA. The most remarkable part of this clear picture of my father is that morning he looked proud. His face was filled with love and youth and joy. The kind smile that played on his supple lips is in stark contrast to the cold cruelty that I have come to associate with him.
He was a stranger to me then and still is now. There are flashes of riding on his shoulders when I was little, his laughter as I squealed, and my pig tails bounced. He was 16 when I was born, my mother 14. They were babies themselves. My father had aspirations to be a baseball player and he was very good if anecdotes and my memories are accurate. However, the birth of me crushed that dream and my sisters, one a year later, and another 3 years after that- put an end to anything other than bills and long work weeks.
My parents fought so loud and so long that there is no way to mark the beginning of any one fight and the end of their marriage. The sounds and fury of those fights wove a patchwork quilt of fear that has covered my whole existence. Their finale came when I was 5, after a particularly nasty fight involving a paycheck being flushed down the toilet and the smell of my Mother’s clothes burning in the fireplace. My forever memory of my mother will be of her back as she walked down the hot summer sidewalk and the fact that she never glanced back.
My sisters, my dad, and I moved in with my grandparents and my father became a shadow. There were impressions of where he had been and the imprint of him at night, his silhouette blotting out the hallway light. He was fleshed out by the words that grandma and grandma traded in the morning, their voices just loud enough to carry phrases over the big band music playing on the radio. New woman now. No bra. South Oakland. More money.
Grandma would say, “Wait till your father gets home. When he hears about this he is going to spank you.” And she would point to the belt that hung off the door leading into the kitchen, the one that resembled a whip because it had no buckle. That’s when Dad became color, his weariness breathing life into his existence as he dutifully grabbed the belt and spanked us for the myriad of things that we would get up to that invariably made Grandma’s life harder. His lips, a straight line and his eyes far away, he carried out his duty. And then he would leave again. And again. And again. Until one day, he left us far behind, and never came back.
But this morning as the cold air pushed through my under armor and left goosebumps on my skin, I remembered that he had given me a gift that has lasted a lifetime. Cavalcare e essere liberi. To ride is to be free. I rode everywhere. Miles and miles of riding. I rode along the bay, the smell of seaweed and salt spray playing with my long hair. I rode through the bad parts of town, and down to the shell sharp beaches of Alameda, and to rocky shore of the San Leandro Marina. I would rarely stay anywhere long, preferring the blur of the scenery, the way my thoughts skittered here and there, and far from the wreckage of my childhood.
This morning’s ride was no different. Well, my fitness level is very different. My breath coming hard and fast as I tried to attain the smooth flow that comes with hitting that sweet spot where my breath and pedaling jive. A stasis of becoming one-me, my bike, the sky, and the road.
That’s when the words come, the ideas, and the memories. It is also how I heal. The wind from my forward motion pushing the tears back into my hairline and then drying them until they are gone. This leaves space that I fill with the sight of birds in flight, the sway of tree branches, and the velvet color that green becomes on a tangle of verdant vegetation. The feel of the sun on my face, filling me up with its shine.
I stopped short of the trail end. My lack of consistent riding marked by my inability to complete the full length. I drank and the cold water gave me the shivers. Then I turned around. I was left with just enough reserve to make it back to my car. My return journey was against the wind. I was ready for it. I pushed back, digging deeper, and coasting when I needed the respite. The end of the trail is all uphill with a bridge at midpoint. I usually come up off my seat in a hallelujah to finish strong. But today, I stopped on the bridge to take a picture, and catch my breath. I thought of my Dad’s smile that birthday morning and for the first time in many, many years– I loved him.