The Last Lesson
A Father's Day Story by Nicholas Gordon

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My father died in a mining accident when I was eight, leaving a blank space in my heart. Although it happened over eighty years ago, I can't say I ever recovered.

He was a small man, though very muscular, and he loved animals and birds. Miners back in 1928 didn't have much free time, but he liked to spend what little of it he had either at home with his birds or out in the woods with his dogs.

He enjoyed training animals and had a way with them. A single command would quiet a barking dog and lay him prostrate, staring up sadly as though begging for forgiveness. Pigeons would turn silent and pensive in his hands. He knew how to teach parakeets to talk and canaries to sing properly (yes, they do have to be taught), and baby rabbits not to mess in the house.

My mother said I used to follow him like a caboose. Often he took me into the woods that climbed the steep ridge behind our little mining town. He showed me what this bird's nest and that bird's nest looked like. I still have an egg collection that I started under his tutelage and then finished on my own -- one of each kind of bird that nested in our woods.

He also showed me how to pick mushrooms -- to find the edible ones and avoid the poisonous ones -- and to find herbs for medicinal teas, leaves and flowers for salad, and all kinds of edible nuts and berries.

My father was a natural teacher. He knew a lot, though he could barely read, and loved to pass it on. Since I was the oldest and his only son, he loved most to pass it on to me.

To tell you the truth, I don't know whether I'm describing a person or a myth. But all fathers are myths before they are people, and perhaps mine never lived long enough to become a person, at least in my eyes. In my memory I see him as vividly as if he were waiting for me to come home. And, of course, I dream of him often.

After he died my mother got a job in a candle factory that she lost when the Depression hit. I made as much money as I could shining shoes, cutting lawns, raking leaves, shoveling walks. At the end of sixth grade I dropped out of school.

I think we would have starved if it hadn't been for the gathering skills I learned from my father, and, when Roosevelt finally pushed it through, for welfare. When I was seventeen I joined the army so that I could send most of my paycheck home. After four years, just as I was about to be discharged, the war started and I was in for the duration.

The war got our little town humming again and my mother and sisters back on their feet. Soon after I got back from the army I was able to get married and start a family. We bought a house in a suburb of New York, and I got a job doing what I was trained to do in the army, which was electronics. We had a son and daughter and what I would say was a pretty good run for most of our lives.

My mother died twenty-five years ago; my wife, five years ago; my last sister, two years ago. My daughter is a nurse across the continent in Seattle. My son teaches English in a school in Germany. Either one would move me near them, but neither place feels to me like home.

On Father's Day I get calls and cards. Once or twice a year I get visits. I really can't travel anymore. I get out of breath just going from my bed to my armchair, and every joint feels continuously like someone just bent it backwards to near the breaking point.

Most of the time I sit in my armchair in my studio apartment in the senior citizen's housing of my town and get lost in the past.

How beautiful it is! I am walking up the heavily wooded ridge with my father and Jason and Jamboree, our two spotted mutts. Below us is a ribbon of U-shaped river lined with our little town, sunk deep in between steep, curving ridges. From the top of either ridge you can see mountains cloaked in green, with green country rolling towards them pocked with the shadows of clouds.

My father turns to me and grins. He grips my hair gently and shakes my head with his hand.

"Ah, Steven!" he says, as usual using my full name, and his happiness becomes a legacy he is passing on.

Suddenly I'm crying, and he leans over and picks me up. As he hugs me I feel the hard muscles in his chest, the grizzle of his cheek.

"Ah, there, there," he croons. "There, there, my little man. You won't be alone and in pain much longer. Believe me. Just a little longer."

I try to stop crying, but it's useless, so I just let myself go.

"It's happiness, isn't it," he says as he puts me down.

I nod, unable to speak.

"Good, good!" he says. "Come."

We follow a narrow trail along the top of the ridge, I walking right behind him, Jason and Jamboree running parallel off on both sides of the trail, sniffing and snorting, catching up and racing ahead. The trail ascends to a little knob from which the country spreads out like a dark green sea, mountains on all sides like distant islands. Our little town -- our whole world -- is lost at the bottom of a barely discernible crack in the forest floor.

My father picks me up, his powerful arms folded beneath my buttocks, his thick brown curly hair beneath my chin.

"Look, look!" he says, lifting me up a little higher. "Steven, just look!"

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