Carving Names

Melissa Pfaff

One summer my dad became obsessed with graffiti. He searched every place in the continental US known for the names and messages left behind by people who had visited there who knows how long ago. He didn’t like me calling it graffiti. I didn’t really understand the appeal. In rock caves people chose to deface the rock with their initials and the year. Something, I thought, took away from the natural beauty of the place. On the sides of bridges people scrolled messages to Katie and Jenny and Sarah and Ruth to profess their deep abounding love as if a magic incantation over a heart with J+K inside made J and K soulmates for life. I didn’t really understand why my dad marveled at these sights. When I asked mom I could see the wrinkles around her eyes when she half heartedly smiled at the question, shrugging, laughing lightly, her eyes looking away at the silly desperation of my father.

It seemed to really get out of hand when the road trip planning began. Instead of a nice normal family vacation, my dad planned a road trip for the entire month of April. I thought this was rather odd as it meant I missed the last month of 8th grade and my parents advocated for this absence. I was perfectly okay with missing the theatrics of our “promotion” into high school, but typically my mom required a 101 fever before staying home for a single day was permitted.

He planned down thick red lines on paper highways. A map of the entire lower forty eight showed us passing through and shimmery gold stickers marked each attraction to hit along the way. Out west there were numerous old trading posts and historical sites where outlaws, pioneers, military men, sheriffs, and tourists had scratched their names into fence posts, brick walls, stone forts, and stumps. There were many colleges plotted on the map where long standing traditions attracted my dad. He threw a pair of old converse tied together by their laces over a low bow of a tree, so you could see his initials on the sole of the right shoe, where hundreds of people had done the same. He touched John Harvard’s foot in Boston, and Sharpie-d his initials on the underside of a bookcase in too many libraries. National parks and monuments drew him in too, the Grand Staircase, countless stops in D.C., the St. Louis arch, Mount Rushmore, the welcome center at Niagara Falls, the list goes on. What I became baffled by was the risk my quiet rule-following mother became okay with. Many of my dad’s victims were not things and places you were supposed to sign or carve your name into. In fact, it was at least frowned upon in the majority of places marked by the gold star. But here we were, my mom and I glancing to see if security was near so my dad could make his mark.

During our numerous hours in the car, my dad told lots of stories about his life, played songs he wanted me to hear, and recalled how he met my mom at least two dozen times. My mom would often shrink down in her seat with sunglasses on and sit with a box of tissues as she insisted that the traveling must cause her allergies to act up. My mom also brought along a camera that she used to record all of our stops and good times in the old hatchback.

The end of the trip became even more peculiar. Our last week of stops was to all our family members homes where mom would candidly record our meal with them or our after dinner activities. We made a stop at the high school my dad graduated from in ‘83 and his initials just somehow ended up on the wooden bleachers that afternoon. We stopped at the first house my parents had owned together and the new owners, a sweet young couple, were happy to let my dad sign the framing of the kitchen before their new drywall went up next week. We were so close to home. The trip was over.

Less than 6 months later, his cancer won.

It wasn’t until then that I understood our trip was not a vacation and I understood why people carve their names in the places they have been. Our last stop that late April day was the bridge that crossed over a canal 3 minutes from our house. My dad took out his last can of white spray paint.

“We are Here
Spring 2k17”

Every 5 years, my mom, my husband, our daughter, and I take out an old yellowed paper with red veins across it and a galaxy of stars, and we set out on the road. And we see dad again.