A daughter learns to see her father more fully through the jokes he left behind

In death, my father, who had faded into twelve years of dementia, had been returned to a handsome man with a square jaw and neatly combed white hair. But the nose was wrong. Straight. Scolding. Sharp. His had been a friendly nose, symmetrical, slightly bobbed with a horizontal crease. My siblings and I pinched the end, pressed the septum, pushed a finger inside each nostril, but the mortician’s putty was unyielding.

Our amusement filled the otherwise empty viewing room. We imagined the mortician in the anteroom to be shaking his head at our lack of respect for the dead. We imagined my father looking down—and laughed even harder.

No one loved a good joke more than my father.

Like the time he and I went to Rollnick’s to buy Easter shoes when I was in sixth grade. I sat in a chair and waited for the salesman to retrieve boxes of white flats with pointed toes—all the rage in 1960—while my father wandered off. The salesman arrived juggling a tower of boxes before kneeling down to rustle in the tissue paper, remove a plug from the toe of each shoe, and slip a patent leather beauty onto my foot. My father returned. But rather than admiring the shoes, he leaned over and loudly whispered to the salesman that a dog had left a deposit inside the front door. The three of us, along with the manager, paraded to the glass entry. My father flashed his perfect teeth as we stared at the neat pile of turds on the linoleum. I instantly recognized his handiwork, complete with texture and wet shine.

Illustration by Anna Hall.

As a dentist, my father knew the art of slipping a tray of cold purple goo onto a mandible, pressing until the material set, pulling the tray from the patient’s mouth, and filling the impression with plaster. He could make a mold for anything.

And then there was the time, years later, when a friend and I joined my father for lunch at a local café. Nonchalantly tearing open packets of saltines and crumbling the crackers into his bowl of chili con carne, he dug into the thick stew while we chatted. “Good golly, Moses!” he cried, fishing a plump thumb from his bowl with his spoon. My friend and I regarded the dripping digit with horror as he motioned to the waitress. “You’d better check to see if someone in the kitchen has had an accident.”

After my father’s funeral, my mother, siblings, and I gathered in my parents’ bedroom. We opened the double doors of his closet and ferreted about the remnants of his life. One brother danced around the room in a black-and-white caftan and a Shriner fez, swiping at the air with my father’s saber, left over from his days as a naval officer. I reached for a shoebox on the shelf beneath his dress shirts and lifted the lid.

“What the hell!” I dropped the box on the bed and a jumble of full-size, erect plaster penises tumbled out.

“Jesus,” someone yelped.

I grabbed at the phalluses and laid them back in the box, as if we could unsee them, and carried them to the adjacent room that had once been my bedroom. I sank into my childhood bed. My father’s practical jokes had never been lewd. I thought of the loneliness of his long demise and imagined him in the privacy of his dental lab on those anxious and confused days when plaque and tangles had begun to wrap around his brain, his transistor radio droning in the background while he pulled himself to full stature and smeared the cold purple goo on his member. I wondered how he kept himself erect despite the shock of cold. I pictured him mixing wet plaster in a black rubber bowl, cutting it once, twice, three times with the side of a spatula—as he had taught me to do when I worked for him—then scraping the mixture into the purple mold. After an hour or two, peeling the mold to reveal each memento of his once vital self.

About the Author

Catherine Mauk

Catherine Mauk is an essayist/memoirist whose essays have appeared in publications such as the Briar Cliff ReviewTerrain .orgCrab Orchard ReviewbioStoriesAscentSolstice, and elsewhere, and have been selected as winner or runner-up in contests in the US and Australia.

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