I sit down to write about my father. Even though I am on a park bench looking out at Lake Champlain with the Adirondack mountains in sight, there is a stronger image I see superimposed over all that is before me. It is a tarot card, major arcana. It is the Fool.
It is hard to know if this image is my brain showing me how to explain Steve, or if it is Steve’s presence delivering a message to me. The second option, to some, may sound a bit like delusion. I am no stranger to delusion and I will state that now. I have believed tremendously erroneous things and I am sure I will, again. However, I like to wager that what I am talking about here is not one of them. After all, it has occurred before.
Here is the strongest memory I have of my father: I am twenty-one, in my college apartment in Toad Hall at Syracuse University. I was sleeping soundly beside my boyfriend, but I’ve awakened. There is a breeze. It is too much. It’s 3:15 in the morning. Only, this is a basement apartment. Only, there is no window, no breeze coming in. There is only movement and its inexplicable source. Would you believe me if I told you this not-breeze breeze had a color? Would you believe me if I told you that it was indigo, iridescent at its core but increasingly opaque as it expanded outwards?
Well, I’m telling you.
I pull the covers over my eyes and breathe shallowly, upper chest-dwelling breaths, overcome by the desire to remain unseen by this indigo. Morning comes with a call from my mother. Like all our morning conversations, this one begins with our dreams. My mother goes first. I was up at 3:20, Mom says. Steve told me he tried to talk to you and you ignored him. He said you wouldn’t listen.
The question of source.
The Fool: It could very well be Steve. Listen to how it fits: The Fool arrives to meet his future in-laws, carrying a watermelon in his hands. When the family cuts into the watermelon, it is runny, dribbly, and delicious. The future father-in-law asks the Fool where he got it, and the Fool tells him he grew it himself. The Fool, of course, does not have a garden. The market sticker must be on somebody’s slice. But the family gives grace for a lie like that—a foolish one.
The Fool, too, could be me. Listen to how well it fits: The Fool steps out of the lecture hall to take a call from her mother. The Fool hears how her mother went to hospice and visited her ex-husband, the Fool’s father. The Fool is given options. She can leave campus, go home. Or her mother will share his phone number for a call. A text. The Fool chooses to do nothing. The Fool tells her mother that, when she returns to hospice, she can say there are no hard feelings, no ill will. The Fool returns to the lecture. When it is over, she meets her friends at the bar and then at the fraternity costume party and tells no one that her father will be dead by morning.
My grandmother bought an antique Italian Tarot deck on her last trip to Venice. The Fool, in this deck, is referred to as Il Motto, the Beggar. Il Motto looks not unlike the sort of man one would pass on the street and wonder if he was not unwell. Il Motto looks like a vagabond, and this is precisely how the Italians saw him: the beggar, the madman, the vagabond. Does Il Motto rouse feelings of compassion or charity? No, he does not. Il Motto exists as a warning, a cautionary tale. One looks at Il Motto and shakes one’s head: He just couldn’t help himself, could he? What a pity. What a fool.
Il Motto brings the watermelon to the party. Il Motto tells the family he grew it himself. Nobody believes him, and why would they? Il Motto, with a garden? How could he? Il Motto is a madman, a fool.
When I look at Il Motto, I see my father but I do not see myself. I am not Italy’s Fool.
But what about Aleister Crowley? What about Rider-Waite? Not a beggar, vagabond, nor madman, but jester setting out on life’s path. The obscene hat atop his head – can he see the mockery it makes of him? Does he know that, as he travels, he will be everyone’s joke?
I lift my hand above my head. I can feel the form of my jester’s hat. When I take a step, the dangling jingle bells smack me in the face.
The Jester says, no hard feelings. The Jester says, no ill will. The Jester leaves the lecture hall for the bar, and the bar for the costume party. The Jester does not say to anyone, my father will be dead by morning. The Jester does not have the language for this. The Jester has language only for Look! Look! Watch me get up on this bar top! Watch me dance.
Something strange happened the other day. I was at a women’s entrepreneurship luncheon, seated next to an impeccably-dressed financial advisor. Her specialty was navigating divorce. This was not the strange thing. The strange thing was that, when she picked up her phone, her phone case bore the Fool’s image, embossed in gold. She says, when I pay mind to her phone case, I just love the Fool. How does one just love the Fool? I wonder about this for a string of days before I decide to open up a book.
Brigit Esselmont, the author of Everyday Tarot, does not present the Fool as a madman, beggar, vagabond, or jester. According to Esselmont, the Fool is innocent. The Fool is one’s inner child. In Esselmont’s text, the Fool is not mocked or disdained. She writes, “The white rose in his left hand represents his purity and innocence. And at his feet is a small white dog, representing loyalty and protection, that encourages him to charge forward and learn the lessons he came to learn. The mountains behind The Fool symbolize the challenges yet to come. They are forever present, but The Fool doesn’t care about them right now; he’s more focused on starting his expedition.” When I read this, I think of the woman from the luncheon, encouraging divorced women to charge forward on their expeditions. The Fool as a student, as an explorer. Student. Explorer. This must be how one comes to love the Fool.
Is a thing ever so easy to resolve? No, not for me. There is something here still, asking me to knead it like dough, and it is this: the little white dog, urging the Fool forward. The lessons he came here to learn. Is there more than one way to arrive at the same lesson? Are we saying determinism only of the destination, or are we saying the route to get there, too? This is what I fixate on as I sit on the park bench. Was there a swifter path I could have taken to get to forgiveness—or even love—for my father? Say, when he was living? Did I stumble onto the Fool’s path when I walked from lecture to the bar to the costume party to the bar top in the fraternity or was there simply no chance of straying from it? Does it matter?
Then, my father. Not Il Motto, not the Fool, but the man.
I do not have an inkling of the lessons he came here to learn. I know only of an indigo breeze and that he wants to show me something. Yet I have this image of him, arms bearing the impossible, impossible watermelon. Arms bearing the fruit he wanted to grow but didn’t. The gift he wanted to be from him but could not be. The desire to be more than he was. But what more? More generous? More capable? More like the Hierophant or Hermit or King of Pentacles, more like the sort of man who could steward a harvest? In this image I have of him Il Motto does not fit. When I summon this image of him I am incapable of being the Jester, dancing away from intensity.
So I guess I am the Fool’s daughter. The Student’s daughter. The Explorer’s daughter. The daughter of an innocence that drives a person to make promises too grand to be kept. The innocence that says, I am placing in your hands a watermelon, a watermelon I grew in my garden and picked just for you.
Natalli Amato is a poet and journalist who explores how we relate to ourselves, others, and the natural world through her writing.
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