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SANDY BANKS

Dad's Traits Live On in His Daughters

November 15, 1998|SANDY BANKS

It is a cool night, but I can feel the warmth of her body as I pull back the quilt and bend over the child sleeping in my bed.

And when I reach down and draw my daughter near, to carry her from my bed to her own, I catch a whiff of a scent so dear, so painfully familiar, that it almost buckles my knees.

It is the smell of my husband, her father, now five years dead.

I bury my nose against her skin, breathe deeply and drink it in. And just as quickly as it came, the scent evaporates in the room's cool air.

I tell my daughter later, when she awakens, that I smelled Daddy last night coming from her skin. She looks at me as if I've lost my senses. His smell means nothing at all to her.

I realize that my daughters' loss of their father is not muted by memories such as these . . . that this tangible connection to him, that they provide, offers comfort to no one but me.

*

It's funny how the signature traits of those you love can mark your life so enduringly, and emerge unbidden in the strangest ways.

My husband once confessed to me that his soft spot was the sight of my shoes; the way they looked--facing opposite directions, toes pointing up--when I stepped out of them at the end of the day. They evoked for him the cant of my stride that first night we met, when he tried to flirt and I walked away.

For me, it was always the scent of his skin--no matter whether he had just finished taking a shower or playing basketball. It wasn't sweat, and it wasn't soap; it was something intrinsic, more in the nature of him being him.

I can still recall the first night I smelled it, how I pressed my face to his shoulder to breathe it in, wondering how a grown man could smell so sweet. And just as it's said that a newborn infant can choose, by smell, his mother's breast from all others, I believe I could have picked, blindfolded, my husband from a group by the scent of his skin.

For years, that fragrance scented our sheets . . . too subtle for a stranger to detect, but so strong that it seemed to rouse my senses each morning, when it wafted up from the covers as he'd pull them back to get ready for work.

The morning after the night he died, I remember waking to that smell on his pillow and wondering in my stupor, for just a moment, if maybe he were still here, if his death had just been a dream.

*

It left me nonplused at my mother's death when her friends offered comfort with this homily:

"She's not really gone, you know, because she lives on through your sisters and you."

To my mind then, she was dead, gone, missing from my life in every way. I had known her only as a child knows its mother: She was larger than life, and there was little of her I could see in me.

So I could never understand how her family and friends could be moved to tears by the hard edge of my voice when I was angry, or the dazzling flash of my sister's smile ("So much like Ruth," they'd say), choking up at their memories.

Only now can I look at my baby sister, now almost 40, and see her freckles, fair skin and glossy black hair, and recognize the glimmer of Mommy that my father had always seen.

My husband has been dead for so long now that our daughters barely can remember the little things that marked him: the way his short fingers seemed out of place on his strong, stout hands; the stutter in his voice when he was nervous or excited; the way he yelled at the TV during football games and mimicked Santana on guitar while his CDs played.

The girls will have pictures and video tapes and memories that I pass along. But they are doomed to live without the essence of the man, oblivious to the missing pieces that I can look at them and see.

*

I realize now that though he's dead, I will never really lose him . . . that he'll visit unexpectedly, through his children.

Through the flashes in the little one's eyes when she is angry. Through the look on her face when her thick brows knit in thought.

Our middle girl runs like the wind--like her daddy. Her curly eyelashes, her muscular legs, the way she cries without making a sound . . . all were bequeathed by a father she barely knew.

Her big sister has daddy's broad, perfect smile and his gorgeous, soft, square-toed feet that (he would be glad to know) point straight.

They cannot find these things in pictures of their dad. And I realize how complete their loss must seem, without these generational links. For them, memories of him fade as years go by. But for me, they get stronger: As our daughters grow, his traits blossom. I marvel at the yield from his seeds.

And that knowledge feels like both knife through the heart and salve for the pain. I am blessed, I know, by the memories my girls provoke but stung by the knowledge of all they'll never know of the father who loved--and marked--them so.

*

Sandy Banks' column is published Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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