Hereditary Memories This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

December 19, 2011
The box sits on top of his bureau, emitting a mysterious magnetism. Its thick wooden sides are covered with carved scenes from Vietnam, and its dirty clasp is creaky. While I was never told not to look inside, the box seemed to hold the exact weight of secrecy needed to intrigue an 11-year-old girl. My father owns this box, and once I realized he wouldn't know whether or not I had pawed through it, I dove in with greedy hands.

My father had never appeared to be an anomaly to me before I opened it, never a person with a “way back when” of any consequence. He has gnarled, crimson hands that swap newspapers with my pale ones every Sunday morning. He has wiry gray hair that I never got to see in its original black. He has thick bifocals which he squints through at a Howard Zinn piece, and a thick goatee that quivers when he tries to convince me that my Doris Kearns Goodwin is no match for it.

Layer one in the box is a collection of Father's Day cards, yellowed with age and each scrawled on with crayons. Despite the occasional melee over our differing politics, the cards suggest hero worship. “You always know wen I'm sad and make me better. Love, Em,” one reads.

Layer two is a thick bundle of family pictures. One shot of eight siblings crammed into a single frame stands out; they are freckled and laughing with crimped and feathered dark hair. One brother I never met; his dog tags lie at the very bottom of the box, next to my father's. The people in the pictures look like muddled variations of the small army of cousins we see at Christmas. My dad presides over them with quiet attention, just as he does in more recent family photos.

Layer three is alien to me. Crumpled photos of unknown men lie undisturbed within their white borders. They all wear opaque black shades and are squinting at the beating sun. They sport loose camouflage pants and utility vests, their chests bare but for glowing dog tags. None of them looks particularly concerned with having his picture taken. And one, already with a small patch of gray in his black hair and a cigarette between his teeth, has a rifle slung across his back as naturally as though it were an extra appendage. The ease with which he holds the weapon shocked the 11-year-old, saddened the 14-year-old, and drove the 17-year-old to finally ask her father what the jungle war was like.

“Wet and stupid. He died the next day,” Dad said, pointing to a sunburnt boy next to him.

A more recent addition to this layer in the box was a rectangle of white paper with a name unknown to me smeared across it in charcoal. I had seen my mother search for this name on a black slab in Washington, D.C., and I had seen my father wipe silent tears from his eyes upon its delivery back home.

My dad knows how to play Barbie and lay a brick foundation. He can curse like a sailor and imitate Julia Child. He wears paint-stained clothes out to dinner but tips generously. He can tell you the population of Tajikistan but can't tell you why his daughter wants to study international relations.

While my dad shouts, I have a calm speaking voice. Where he plans to be ten minutes early, I tend to improvise. He's hammered nails for years so that I will never have to.

My addiction to current events, fiddling fingers, and quietly simmering temper are inherited from him. The man I once considered an enigma is now the driving force behind my education. The pain inside my father's wooden box, rather than shutting away his years in the Army, has planted a seed in my mind: to go beyond the brute force of the Army and into the intricate world of diplomacy. There, I can exert a kind of strength that a 19-year-old boy with an M79 grenade launcher cannot. It is time I took the lead from my dad and became his champion instead.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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