Today is Father's Day. This means a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, it means spending part of my day reading letters. A giant tub of my father's letters.
Without fail, my father wrote me a letter every day from when I was age thirteen to the time he died when I was twenty. If I break that down month by month, day by day, it comes out to somewhere close to 3,500 pieces of mail. Most of which are gone now. All but 67 pounds.
I realize the concept of a parent writing to their child every day, even while that child is in the same room, might be odd to some people (which it is), while others might think it was an endearing habit that made it easier for a single father to communicate with his teenage daughter (which it was). But here is the thing you have to understand: it wasn’t just me. He wrote everyone. When he died, some people took it upon themselves to send his letters back to me so I could read what he had written to them years earlier. As if I had never seen his words before. They had no clue their letter, so lovingly tucked away all those years, was barely a drop in the bucket.
A while back, one of my mother’s sisters gave me a saran wrapped pile of letters he had sent to my maternal Grandfather in the mid 1980’s. This is what I found:
Clink (yes, I had a grandfather with a badass nickname like Clink)Tomorrow? Seriously, Dad, what more did you have to say?
Friday we went to visit my mother. She is doing fine. Her grand-nephew and wife and 3 year-old son are in from Florida. They are annoying and their child is poorly behaved. It makes The Potato (that’s me) look like an angel by comparison, for which I am very thankful. She is old enough now to recognize that nobody likes a screamer. This goes on for four pages describing a children’s birthday party in a thunderstorm and the logistics of transporting someone’s triplet toddlers in car seats and something about buying a briefcase in an airport.
Will write more tomorrow.
Apparently, a lot...
Brown ink was one of his favorite things. I do not recall ever seeing him without a fountain pen clipped to the front of his shirt, ready to jot something down on a legal pad. Sometimes he would fall asleep with it is still clipped to the front of his shirt. This meant all of our sheets and furniture were peppered with ink stains. It drove my mother nuts.
|My father and his traveling stack of writing papers, taking a break with Belly Dancer in 1971. |
Note the fountain pen clipped to his shirt front.
Letters. Letters. Letters....
To my mother. To his mother. To my mother’s father and his children. To anyone with whom he loved or cared about or had a bone to pick with, letters were his way of communicating what was left unspoken.
To his clients, sending them brief, friendly notes attached to little newspaper clippings:
I know you like the Colts. Thought this might be of interest. I’ll call next week about that thing we talked about last time.
To his old frat buddies, passing their latest sports quips and dirty jokes via fax machine:
Here, I got one for you: How do you know if a fax came from a blonde? Answer: There is a stamp on it.
What did the earthworm say when he saw his own ass? A: Hey! Are you my brother?
To the IRS agent who conducted his audit, accompanied by a check made out to “Uncle Sam”, (which from the looks of the copy, appears to have been cashed anyway):
Thanks for being so nice about it. Next time I need a foot up my butt, I’ll know just who to call.
To the grocery store, furiously informing them that they sold him 3 pounds of dangerously old hamburger meat:
I’ll still shop there because you employ that kid with the flipper arms so I know you are good people.
Letter writing was a habit he picked up in the army.
Apparently there is, or was, some superstition about soldiers writing home –those who did not write their wives and girlfriends were always the first selected for combat, or worse –the soldiers who did not write their mothers were always the first to get killed in action. That sounds like a ridiculous superstition, but I tell you, on the few occasions I have mentioned it to folks in service their reactions have indicated there might be some spooky truth to it. There are some traditions I do not question.
My father, who was pathologically superstitious, credited this notion for saving his life as it was his constant and unflappable letter writing that landed him a "kooshy desk job" (his words, not mine) writing letters to the families of dead and missing soldiers in Vietnam. His duty was to consolidate fractured, chaotic, sometimes gruesome field notes and blend them into an informative document that would tell the story of each man’s death or disappearance. The end result was to be a factual account of their final moments, but, as he described it, "wholesome enough you could post on a church bulletin board."
He said that like it was something to be proud of. Like it was the best thing he could offer. And maybe it was, but I could tell by just by looking at him, talking about those letters rattled him. I think those letters scared him. I think he tried to bury those letters with all the other letters to everyone else, including the 3,500 letters he sent to me.
I don't think it worked.
It started following an all-night marathon of The Twilight Zone. I forced myself to stay up to watch so I would sleep in the car on the long drive to summer camp – something I had been dreading for months. My camping experience already included a three-day excursion in a cabin with my fifth grade classmates; but this was different. This was several weeks living with strangers. And not only was not a regular camping experience, this was a “Healthy Lifestyle Summer Experience.”
Read: fat camp.*
OK, so I was a chubby kid. I am a chubby adult (or as I prefer to think, fluffy). And while I have never been skinny, I can tell you, I never felt as fat as the day I arrived at that camp, ten years old, stripped nearly naked, and stood on a scale in front of three grown men and was asked, When was the last time you had a bowel movement?
*My thoughts on those weeks could fill a book, but as this is a father’s day post I will digress. Sufficient to say, if you are considering sending your child to fat camp, you should be taking notes from here on in, as you, my friend, will have some making up to do.
So, where was I? Yes... I stayed up all night watching the Twilight Zone so I would sleep in the car on the way up. Before we left, as I sat on a stool in the kitchen yawning and chomping my way through a low-calorie carnation breakfast bar, my dad reached around from behind and slipped an envelope in my front shirt pocket. The outside read Open Upon Arrival.
Four hours later I opened it to find a $10 bill and note reminding me to brush my teeth, take lots of pictures, and, Be nice to the other girls. I MEAN IT.
That was the first letter. That was the beginning.
If you have ever gone to an overnight summer camp you probably remember what a highlight it was to receive mail. Maybe they passed it out at your bunk every night or called up each camper one-by-one in front of the cafeteria, as it was in my case. The first lunchtime mail call ushered the arrival of 13 letters scattered among 200 campers. Eleven of them were for me. Eleven. All of them from my dad. Most of them mailed a week before I left. None of the other kids got a letter every day, and he knew it would give me something to gloat about. At some point I sent one back in return – a postcard made from a painting of a purple mountain I made in the arts and crafts cabin. That postcard was propped up on his desk for years and eventually migrated to his wallet for the rest of his life. Had I known, I would have spent more time on it.
In addition to his own letters, he asked other people to write me as well –family members, friends, even my teacher back at school. One time he got a former business partner on vacation in Hawaii to send me a postcard. I don’t remember what it said, but I do remember the front had a picture of girl in a bikini. I can’t tell you how insensitive it is to send pictures of skinny girls in bikinis to a ten-year old in a fat camp, but I can tell you, that if your spazzoid bunk mate sees it, she is likely to freak out and tell the cabin counselor you are hiding pornography. I speak from experience on this front.
Two years later the local high school lost its college accreditation and we started looking at other schools. Private schools. Prep schools. Alternative schools. The idea of selling the house and moving to a better school district was discussed, but when Jenny –a former playmate who once bit the hand off my cabbage patch doll– became pregnant at age twelve, the leisurely search for a local private school ended and the urgent search for a boarding school began. As luck would have it, my cousins who had just moved to Saudi Arabia had already selected a viable option. With great sadness and a couple rounds of hysterics, I left for school.He said it would be just like camp, only longer. Your cousins will be there and I will write you every day.
But I’ll miss my pets.
I’ll send pictures.
But I’ll hate the food.
I’ll send you packages with snacks and all that crap you eat.
What about my clothes?
Calm down. You have too many clothes already. If you need something in particular, I can stuff it in an envelope.
Can you put the cats in envelopes?
Keep your grades up and we’ll talk about it.
Boarding school was a lot like camp, only fancier and the adult figures didn’t ditch the kids to smoke pot behind the cafeteria after dinner. The mail was delivered through a series of slots on our lockers each day at 11am, so that when you went to put your books away for lunch, the moment the locker door was opened, the letter would fall to the ground. It wasn’t as ceremonial as having your name called aloud before the cafeteria but it was still a big deal. A silent competition. There were girls who would avoid opening their (likely-to-be-empty) lockers in front of other people for fear they would look unpopular, while others would peep through the delivery slot to check for mail, and if it was there, purposely delay opening the locker door until others were within eyesight to witness the envelope falling on the floor. I let mine pile up and then read it when I got bored.
Well, I bet you are planning your itinerary for your brief visit home. I am sure that on the way from the airport you will want to stop for dinner at El Torito...
Typical letters included subtitled mini essays such as What Was for Dinner Tuesday and Mrs. Miller’s New Driveway and Guess Who I saw at The Post Office Yesterday, Your Third Grade Teacher With The Lisp Whose Name I Cannot Recall , each with a lengthy description of the encounter and how it would be different if I was there to experience it in person.
When that got old, he started writing letters on behalf of our pets. Our cocker spaniel Fitzgerald wrote regularly about how much the cats hated him and how he wished I would come home to keep them away. Of course, Fitzgerald wrote in an Irish brogue with very distinctive handwriting.
Not to be outdone, our two indoor cats, Sam and Harriet, sent cards and letters as well, complaining about how the food was not mashed up enough since my leaving, and, When you come back, can you please bring us some tuna fish?
There was also a slew of feral cats whom I had taken to feeding, most of them traveling vagabonds, and all of them named after my favorite early eighties television stars. He couldn’t come up with their names and personalities in my absence, but made sure to make their presence known via postcards from across the country. After all, they were traveling souls. One time a postcard came with one side featuring a photo of the iconic Flamingo casino in Las Vegas, the other side read: You should see the litter box! –Meredith Baxter.
We could go months without speaking, but letters were different. There were always letters. And cards. And postcards. And brown paper parcels. Thick padded envelopes stuffed with individually wrapped snacks were a frequent occurrence. Sometimes they were nothing more than an envelope stuffed with a comic strip clipping, or a page from the Sears catalog with pictures of pants scribbled with, Tell me again, which one do I need to order?...but every day, without fail, he would send me something. Even over summer vacation he would continue to write and save up the envelopes in a paper bag to be deposited in a mailbox one week before my departure so I would arrive at school to a mountain of mail.
Timing was important.
In late August, five weeks before my birthday, he purchased a book of Happy Birthday postcards. Without my knowledge, he stamped them and sealed the cards in envelopes addressed to family friends across the country with a note asking them each to write something and drop them in a mailbox on a particular date, that way they would arrive on my birthday.
I cannot be there in person this year so please help to make her feel special in my absence.Sure enough when my birthday came, that locker rained birthday cards for a week.
College is when things got weird. His business had failed and his health was not good. My mother was long dead and there was no one around to keep him steady. The letters stopped coming from the family pets and started coming from my childhood imaginary friend, Ralph, who wrote detailed accounts of attending Shaggiest Dog competitions on the beach with Fitzgerald, which sounded sort of like a Girls Gone Wild wet T-shirt contest in Fort Lauderdale, but with ugly dogs instead of drunken sorority girls.
Look, I said it got weird.
When I was 19 he was diagnosed with cancer. What he thought was an infected tooth was actually a rampant abscess caused by squamous cell carcinoma. Within two weeks of diagnosis, they surgically removed most of this throat and part of his jaw and tongue. When he lost the ability to eat or speak his notes became his only mode of communication. I had already moved in so there wasn’t anywhere to mail the envelopes, but just the same, he refused to stop writing. Simple comments or requests for assistance became lengthy essays on household goods.
Can you fetch my extra strong reading glasses? In the kitchen...turned into...
When you get older and need reading glasses don’t start out with the strongest prescription, start with a low number or you will get dependent too quick and you will have to use them when you want to read a simple recipe....and then he'd grab a notebook and bury his head for twenty minutes scribbling the recipe for tuna casserole, which only has three ingredients but took eight pages to accommodate a diatribe on oil-packed tuna and a love song to egg noodles.
Don’t forget to add some crushed pretzels as the top. It’s the little things that matter most!
In late August, five weeks before my twenty first birthday, I sat on the end of his bed frantically rifling through his possessions. The time had come and gone. The hospital chaplain, who was now sitting in an armchair in the corner, passing gas with little fanfare or apology, informed me that, The nurses will box up everything and send it to the house. No need to worry. Just go home and take care of yourself. Just go home. Be at peace.
I remember those words specifically because they were so poorly chosen. Clearly, I was anything but peaceful. I was frantic. Not upset, not crying —just frantic. Searching...
What are you looking for? He asked.
A Letter. There should be a letter. He was fine when I checked in this morning. He didn’t die until 2:30. Mail gets picked up at 4. There should be at least one letter. WHERE IS THE LETTER...
The chaplain sheepishly admitted he had seen a stack on the nightstand. I didn't want the cleaning crew to toss them aside so I put my own stamps on them and dropped them in the mailbox just before you arrived. I'm so sorry, I had no idea they were important.
Five weeks later, on my 21st birthday, I received not one, but 76 letters, cards and notes. Not from my father, but nearly everyone in his address book.
From his fraternity brother Rich, who I had not seen since I was five, and who I had not thought to call to tell him his old friend was dead, wrote inside a unicorn Hallmark card, Your Dad tells me you could use an extra round of wishes this year. Happy Birthday Kiddo!
From his second cousin, I received a note from your dad half an hour after Little Alice called to tell me the news. I'm sorry this birthday will be bittersweet, but I want you to know I am thinking of you.
On and on...76 times over. Enough to fill a shoebox.
The notes inside are all about my birthday, but the only time I let myself look at them is on Fathers Day when I look at the other 67 pounds of letters I have left. I’m ashamed to admit how many thousands of his letters I never saved, but I don’t think he ever intended me to treasure his words as I do today. Because that is what Dads do — they don’t expect much in return. They don’t focus on the sentimental. They don’t like being the center of attention. The whole concept of Father’s Day made my father uncomfortable. Why should you buy me something I don’t need? Why give me a card when you can tell me in person? Calm down. Read a book. Eat some ice cream. Watch television. Be happy. That’s the best thing you could ever give me.
|It is fitting that this card might have been the first letter I ever wrote. Happy Father's Day. I love you Daddy.|
Update 16 hours after posting: I wrote this post in a hurry yesterday (Father’s Day) after looking through the box – an emotional undertaking, as you can imagine. I needed to vent, and, honestly, I didn’t think many people would click past the “read on” after the first few paragraphs, and I certainly did not expect it to resonate with some folks the way it did (per your comments: I’m so sorry if this made you cry. Talk about a bummer way to start a Monday! Yeesh.)All I was hoping to say is that sometimes a lifetime of small actions add up to something much bigger than any one-time gesture. Parents (moms AND dads) don’t get thanked often enough for all the everyday mundane responsibilities they take on when kids come in the picture. Since I couldn’t pick up the phone and tell my Dad how much I appreciated “the little things”, it made me feel better to tell all of you. Thanks for listening :)