Triptych Excerpt I: Fathers

How do we make sense of God through human relationship?
How do the layers of experience and theology interleave?
How do the persons of the trinity show up in the formative altars of our lives?

Triptych grapples with the complications of the faith of incarnation and how their dimensions shift as we grow. Probing the implications of trinity, the memoir unfolds in three sections: Fathers, Sons, Holy Ghosts. “Fathers” wrestles through faith in childhood, trying to make sense of the lines of love and duty and how fathers represent a Father God. We begin there for a first taste of Triptych.

Bon appetit, my fellow pilgrims. I hope these words can whet your appetite for what’s to come.

Surrounded for miles by cornfields and woodlands, the farm was a worn spot in a pair of old jeans. Dusty and threadbare in the center—where gravel showed through like the knee-skin of the earth—the house, barn, and garden were stitched around the grass fringes under the crisp and stacked Minnesota sky. The mile-long driveway spooled from the square seam of the county roads to the house: a piece of worn 70s embroidery, the best efforts of a 23-year-old farm wife to craft style from hand-me-downs and a little colored thread. The barn, corrugated steel with button ventilation chimneys, sat outside the homemade curtains and past the yard and its rusting and prized swing set. The garden, a calico quilt square, laid in leafy stitches on the bottom side of the gravel scuff, a never-ending sampler.

Corn and soybeans in the fields, foxtails and wild grapevines in the ditches, the wind making everything wave just a little, the sun and the sky making smells: this place is the first home I remember.

The farm was tired, but the little family in it, mine, marched to the blooming of tomato plants and the drying of the tasseled corn. The fields were our calendar, marking days and seasons as they checkered the land, and the farm itself our timepiece, the round face of hours circling barn, garden, home. And as much as it’s been said before, it was true. This place was my first world: the canvas and the blank staff, the open book, the unrecited chant. It was, as Eliot says, the place we start from.

My father, slim and brown, his loose hair wavy and faded like his jeans, roamed the hazy light of the barn in the early mornings. In his spattered Red Wing work boots and Pioneer cap, he moved though the rows of sow stalls under the low ceiling, hot when the afternoons were hot and stoic when it was cold. A red paisley handkerchief hung out his back pocket for wiping his hands and glasses, the square brunette plastic of the 70s, and a pair of work gloves flopped from his right jacket pocket. If you caught him in the late afternoon in the dusty air of the barn, standing in the corridor of hay and rust-colored gates, it was hard to find him, to pick him out. Not because, like some men, his work suited him so well, but because he blended in with the light. Maybe it was simply he was as dusty as the air around him, but looking for him I always had to start down low, let my eyes run across the straw-scattered floor, and find his shoes: brown, scuffed, solid. Then, there he’d be, looking back at me, some kind of far-off question in his eyes.

I always had to search to find my father. In the barn in my elastic-waisted jeans or at church in a cotton floral dress and patent leather shoes, it wasn’t hard for me to see him, but it was always the seeing of watching. Watching him stand in a brown suit by the carpeted stairs of the sanctuary and nod in conversation with a few of the men, the deacons, his brows furrowed over marble-blue eyes. Or watching him jog over to help Mrs. Mattson carry a great dish of foil-covered casserole across the leafy parking lot.

My mother, I didn’t watch; her presence more like a smell than an image, an aroma to live in, she was the given, burlap warp to my weaving, shuttling weft. We’ve always looked so much alike—small-framed, large-eyed, with slender Welsh noses and small busy hands—people recognize me instantly as ‘one of Diane’s girls.’ My mother and I look and sound the same, but I am a daughter with her father’s substance. Even from the time I was young, barely to his knees, Dad and I have swung out from my mother’s quiet cord looking at each other past her fibers, our shared complement.

It may sound demeaning, giving my mother the substance of essence, only the weight of an anchor. But in it she’s blessed. Because she’s never been a symbol. Her chestnut hair and light coffee alto have always only stood for her: Mom, Diane. My father and I have had the great struggle of being to each other symbols. And so it is, we’ve watched. I watched because it suited me and because it answered me; they said in church God was like a father, so I had every reason for watching mine.

I watched especially at the beginnings and ends of days, the spaces where he had to cross boundaries, the moments between roles. From the wobbly dining room table, behind plastic cups and slick paintbrush, I would stop swinging my legs and try to see the slice between provider, father—what he was when he wasn’t supposed to be anything. This, I thought, the moment between gears, was the place to find the tenor of identity. A difference or a habit, when none was required, would show me the motor behind action, the vision that framed decision. From before I was old enough to think it, I believed this was the place to test where father linked to Father.

At the end of each day on the farm, when afternoon errands and chores were finished, my parents would meet each other in the kitchen, each empty-handed. Mom would raise her heels off the scuffed linoleum, and I would watch my father lean his neck down and their thin lips would touch. They always kissed with their eyes open: hers quiet but wide like they’d met too many flashes in the dark, his squinting like he’d spent his life examining the sun. I’ve always known my eyes, older, would be split between them: externally, large and round like Mom’s, internally, ground and sharpened by hard light.

My parents never lingered or rushed, but ended their kisses with the snap of their lips separating, a click like a latch rejoining. Then she would go back to stirring a bubbling skillet and he would walk into the house to clean up, both of us watching him go, while I puzzled out which pieces of life were which father’s choice. Even in my small mind, marking out the territories of love and duty.