Letter to America, by Lawrence Lenhart

Letter to Milo

By Lawrence Lenhart

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Dear Milo,

It is possible to be too much in love with something. For example: the other day, I tossed you in the air (despite mom’s prohibition), hoping to elicit a smile big enough to reveal the pegs of deciduous tooth emerging from your gums. Even though I was bound to catch you (I always will), I forgot the ceiling fan was on and nearly decapitated you. Love can be dangerous like that. I am not sorry, but could have been. Ever since, I’ve been holding you in the basket of my arms, staring at your neck, imagining it severed. I decide the fan blades are too blunt to amputate even a foam finger. Still, I trace the creases over your trachea, wondering. Sometimes you smile for no reason at all. The tooth eruption has only just begun, and it’s likely you’ll be gummy for another year. I give you my pinky to gnaw on, and for the moment, you’re mollified.

I add “decapitation” to the long list of concepts I don’t yet know how to explain to you. Our “sex talk” will be easy due to an overabundance of resources on the matter. But where’s the pamphlet on How to Talk to Your Kid About… alternative facts, border walls, travel bans, white nationalist rallies, national anthems, collusion, Gaza, and seeing other kids in cages? And how to introduce the idea of extinction when you’ve barely mastered object permanence?

Another thing I love—and you probably know this by now since you hear me speaking its name all hours of the day: the black-footed ferret. It was the first animal (stuffed) to share a crib with you. Ferret was the reason I almost missed your birth; at 38 weeks, I volunteered on a remote ranch without a cell signal, drawing blood from small mammals possibly infected with plague. Ferret is the thing I try to pick out by itself, only to “find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” to quote John Muir. The “universe,” Milo. I’m not even sure how to explain the “neighborhood” to you yet—let alone “Arizona,” “America,” the “biome.”

The real reason I’m writing: please don’t get me one of those ancestry DNA kits for Father’s Day. Not this year, not ever. Our extended family has superficially rectified any mystery worth the yarning. They’ve tattooed national flags on their torsos, struck up correspondences with long-lost relatives, and even bought purebred dogs that hail from the county of their country of origin. There are factions who would have you believe we’re so Irish we shouldn’t leave the house without a shillelagh. But I refuse to believe that ancestry is some self-fulfilling prophecy you can purchase with a credit card and a loogie. It isn’t meant to retroactively inform your consumer behaviors, explain your freckles despite your olive complexion, or stoke tourism to some muddled motherland. I have this sneaking suspicion that the genealogy boom (the local news tells me the kits are the top-trending gift this Father’s Day) is a temporary evil that has something to do with the rise of white nationalism and the suppression of cultural globalization. By discovering where we do come from, we are able to clarify: We do NOT come from that other place. But I could be wrong. I’ve always been a miserabilist, son. I apologize now and forever. I know you’re my descendent—in fact, you were named after the punk front man of The Descendents—and that’s enough, genetically speaking, for me. Let’s skip the tongue swabs and just spend Father’s Day hiking the open spaces in this forest of a city: Flagstaff.

I am no father to a ferret, Milo, but it’s important to think I could be. After all, there are thousands of men who abandon their biological children daily; how can we expect them to care for the next generation of wildness when they can’t be bothered with their own domestic brood? For example, the other day, we were killing a couple hours in San Jose. I called six cemeteries in the area, hoping to find a “Nick Leonard.” He was “definitely not” in the directory for cemeteries #1, 3, and 5; unlikely to have been buried in the Jewish cemetery (#2); and I just had a hunch, without ever meeting the guy, that #4 was not his style. We went to the sixth cemetery, your mother and I stalking alternate rows, scanning the mausoleums for his name. I carried you for a while, whispering: “We are trying to find your father’s father’s father’s father.” You laughed—maybe at the sonic repetition or the way we kept converging upon mom. Or perhaps you know better than me: he’s unfindable.

For most of his life, that was true. When Nick left the family during the Great Depression—goodbye wife, goodbye son, goodbye daughter—he found work in New York, Indiana, and Illinois before choosing a new name, family, and coast. That’s how Lenhart spontaneously became Leonard. In the 1980s, Nick’s second wife called to tell us how impressive his gravesite was. “It’s a one-person mausoleum,” she said. “Don’t you want to come see it?”

At the time, my dad (your Pap), said, “Not really.” But now. Now that I was doing the legwork, he called in a favor. “Piss on his grave for me, will you?” I won’t be able to teach you about “desecration” or “grudges” or “intergenerational trauma” until after I teach you how to pee at a specific target. These things take time, Milo.

Most of the names in that Catholic cemetery were Italian, which seemed to mean we were in the right place. Nick’s original name was something like Lenbratto, but he changed it to improve his employability in a racist (even then) Western Pennsylvania. The more I had to pee, the closer I thought I might have been getting to the grave. Ironically, you were taken from my arms when you wet your diaper, leaving me to continue the charade, now with more velocity. It was the first time I ever craved one of those small drones with the aerial cam. (The drone is the second most popular gift this year; don’t get me one of those either!) How quickly I could have whipped through the cemetery, verifying Nick’s interment—or not. I think not, after all.

The real reason we were in San Jose, though, was to meet your mother’s uncle. Orphaned in rural Vietnam where he was a stable-sleeping cow herder who ate only rice and bananas, Henry (his American name) was discovered by missionaries who transferred him to Manila and then Oakland. Wearing his only outfit, he moved to America, and lived just a two-hour drive from his half-sister (your grandmother). Only he didn’t know it until his Amerasian friends encouraged him to sign up for Ancestry last year. “Hello, my sister,” he wrote to your grandmother who had mostly been using the service to fine-tune the plot of her perfect Mayflower story. “Excuse me?” she asked. And just like that, Henry went from being a bastard of the Vietnam War to a Son of the American Revolution.

Before we went into Henry’s house, I asked your mother if she was planning on calling him “uncle.” She wasn’t sure. But Henry was the one to set the tone; speaking in English but with Vietnamese grammar, particularly using kinship pronouns, he began nearly all of his sentences with the word “uncle” (rather than “I”). It’s like when I say to you, “Daddy is tired, Milo. Daddy is really, really tired.” The beauty of the kinship pronoun is that the speaker does all of the work for the listener. It seems odd to me that I won’t speak to you like this forever. Because it begins to sound patronizing in American English, eventually parents abandon the kinship grammar and begin using the first-person “I.”

Your father’s father’s father’s father. Your mother’s mother’s father’s son. Your father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father. Say it enough times, and you’ll exceed the DNA kit’s capacity to convey an ancestry that can be viably enjoyed. One product promises: “Held within our DNA code is the history of humanity.” In reality, our genome reveals much more: the history of all life on Earth.

Come to think of it, Milo. What I would like for Father’s Day: a frame for my “Certificate of Adoption” for the black-footed ferret. It’s the only gift I’ve ever accepted from a student, and I’m entirely proud of it. I guess you could say this makes you a brother. More symbol than sibling, this “adopted” ferret from the World Wildlife Fund will continue snoozing in a burrow rather than your bunk.

It’s been a few months since I’ve seen a live ferret. Do you remember when I drove to Seligman on Good Friday with some friends? We arrived at that hour the Bible says Jesus died. There’s a famous quote in that book in which Jesus interrogates God. “Why have you abandoned me?” he asks. I remember having enough pluck to ask a priest in Catholic school if this meant Jesus was a bastard. His answer, which leaned heavily on the “virgin birth” paradigm, was inconclusive.

After sunset, we got to driving through the ranchlands, flashing lights over the tufted steppe, looking for the eye shine of black-footed ferrets.

When I teach you about “death,” Milo… When I teach you about “extinction”… How to explain that sometimes beings are resurrected? This might be my one concession to “faith,” so lend me your brand-new ears.

Dead center in white light, we all saw it. And it saw us.

We sprinted jaggedly toward the ferret, just one-tenth of a mile away. Hardwired in those strides and my beating heart: that’s where I keep my biophilia, my urge, as Edward O. Wilson puts it, “to affiliate with other forms of life.” It was in our recovery hunch, our lungs wheezing like bellows, that we got a good glimpse. The ferret lingered as if it was an act of diplomacy. We had our little tête-à-tête at 35˚27’54.1”N 113˚01’25.3”W, and then we set the trap.

I wondered if it was born in vitro at the zoo (of virgin birth) or if it was wild-born, a product of conservation well done? It never emerged for us, not even on Easter Sunday, so we all went home with our near-resurrection experience. I slipped into bed at 6 a.m., just as you were stirring. “Good morning,” I said to your mom. “Goodnight,” she said back. I am often failing to get the best of both worlds.

I toss you in the air, Milo. I toss you again. Don’t worry: the fan is off this time. The blades are resting. I say to you: “Father’s father’s father’s father.” And you begin to repeat, your bottom lip flinging off your top teeth. It sounds something like “fa-fa-fa-fa.”

If you say it enough times, father and father and father and father, it begins to sound like farther and farther, occasionally forever, like you’re tracing a distant line. “Fa-fa-fa-fa,” you say. “Fa-fa-fa-fa.” I toss you up just as you’ve reached the dawning of the Cenozoic. “Fa-fa-fa-fa.” You’re nearly face-to-face with the ancestor of all placental mammals, humans and ferrets alike. “Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa.” There is something urgent in your babbling. There is the semblance of an urge. “Fa-fa-fa-fa.” That’s how you get your furry sibling after all.

Always your father,



Lawrence Lenhart and MiloLawrence Lenhart holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His essay collection, The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage, was published in 2016 (Outpost19). His prose appears in Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor of fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, and climate science writing at Northern Arizona University and a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.
Read Lawrence Lenhart’s essay “Of No Ground: Late Days in the Country of Eighteen Tides,” winner of the Terrain.org 6th Annual Nonfiction Contest, as well as his recommended reads, “Small Island / Big Ocean.”

Header photo by PublicDomainImages, courtesy Pixabay.



Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.