Clearing out biofather’s house. Inventory of everything imaginable. Mostly art, of course — but there’s all the detritus. Up in the studio, where the paintbrushes lived. And the rolls of silk paper and chops and engraving materials. Chemicals. Chinese watercolors. Favorite everythings: scissors, cameras, even silk cord. That was all upstairs. But then I ventured into the garage.
The garage used to be used as a machine shop when biofather was inventing something. A chemistry lab when he needed to make sunscreen or moisturizer for the Mrs or something. It had an enormous metal cabinet with wide thin drawers for keeping paper perfect. A lifetime’s supply of paper was piled up down there. Someone else’s lifetime, at this point.
In the years between his death and hers, she hadn’t dealt with either the upstairs studio or with the garage storage. I don’t think anyone had been down there in all those years. I started opening drawers. Paper. Lots and lots of perfectly perfect paper. This was, for a brief time, my inheritance: his art supplies. Until I got realistic and just let it all go. Did I want my house to be a mausoleum of art supplies that I too hadn’t used in decades? Was I going to take this stuff just because I was told that I could?
Second to last drawer in the middle column held long rectangular envelopes. I opened one. Valentine’s card from the Mrs. One of those ha-ha cards, very funny. Not one of the serious mushy cards. I opened another and another. How many years had they been together? He’d saved them all, every last one of them.
He really loved her.
I remember him crying one time, during his illness, perhaps a year before his death. He was sitting in the wheelchair, sitting there in pain — his leg (the one he had left) was tormenting him. He said it felt like fire ants running up and down his leg.
“What did I ever do to deserve this?” he moaned.
Strange that the rational atheist would construct a sentence that reeked of divine retribution for misdeeds. I kept my mouth shut. It was too easy to answer that question were one to buy into the God paradigm. But personally, I don’t believe that ‘deserving’ has anything to do with suffering.
And then he started crying harder. I don’t think he would have let himself cry in front of many people, the big strong bully, so I felt somewhat honored to be in the presence of his misery.
“The only thing I regret,” he continued — implying that this might be something that would cause him to deserve the pain he was in — “was how I treated her.”
He went on and on about what he put her through. Mostly about how she had to put up with his screaming at her, screaming for her, just plain screaming. Bellowing, really. He felt bad for her.
And look at all these cheerful Valentine’s day cards she’d gotten him. All the same shape. All with little funny cartoons. All with her own love affirmed on each and every one of them. Who knew he went for the eternally corny? He was such a hard ass brute to everyone, including her.
I opened the bottom drawer.
There, tied in bunches by a rubber band were all the letters I had ever written to him. Starting in 1965 when I was 17, which was when I met him for the first time after a hiatus of about 15 years — the fifteen years of my growing up existence. It looked like every letter I’d ever written to him — and more: Drafts of some of his letters to me.
Without a moment’s thought, these I bundled up and brought back home with me. A few more Valentine’s cards from the Mrs had snuck into my letter drawer, and they ended up coming along for the ride as well. Maybe just for contrast. My letters had not a drop of whimsy in them as I recall. Neither did his letters to me.
I got them home and then — didn’t know what to do with them. My fear, I think, was that reading them would reveal something terrible about him or about myself that I hadn’t previously been aware of.
I was afraid they’d be terribly banal and dull.
I was hoping they’d be filled with history, and be good documentation. A slice of the 1960s. 1970s. 1980s. The letters went about that far. That’s when email started happening.
So. Okay. I brought the letters home and spread them on my dresser. I thought to put them in chronological order. I thought the first ones might be the most interesting — documenting my (highly edited) experiences during the Six Day War in Jerusalem, and all. And yes, all that was there. Heavily edited, yes, how could it be any other way? I was only 18 after all.
Putting the letters in order felt too tedious. I started reading them at random. It was like reading nails on a chalkboard. Reading his. Reading mine. Reading his. Reading mine. There were also a few telegrams in the mix — acknowledging receipt of $50 that he’d sent me. Or saying I was staying put during the war and not coming home. Things like that.
My letters described everything. They compared things. They went all out to give a sense of what my life was like. A sense of who I was. What I cared about. What I thought about. Some of the language however, must really have been painful, however.
Did he dig it?
I saw this cool Picasso…
Selling candles feels too much like work…
I’m taking off for Belgium to be with my boyfriend…
I could just feel his blood pressure posthumously soaring at the vernacular. I sounded like an idiot.
His drafts all say something about how I’m wasting my life. About how I should come home and get back to school. About how my values are all skewed. I don’t remember any final drafts that actually reached me being quite that harsh, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I block stuff out pretty well. Repression is my friend.
All my letters ended the same way. Asking why he didn’t write to me. Why I didn’t hear from him. I tried being sweet. Tried coy. Tried a sense of humor. Tried mild swearing and cajoling. All pretty much to no avail.
Why did I want it so bad?
That would be his love, I guess.
One of the drafts was instructive. He wrote that he had reasons of his own for not writing me — that his reasons had nothing to do with me. That he was depressed. Depressed about getting so old and having nothing to show for it. He was approaching his 48th birthday.
I think that’s when he switched over. From Western art to Eastern. It’s about when he started growing bamboo. So that he could make his own pens and brushes. So he could paint pictures of the bamboo he was growing. So he could graduate to flowers. And then birds. And then mountains and streams. Finally, at long last — horses. And then human figures. Chinese painting gave him a fierce sense of purpose. A journey. So he started working on a Ph.D. in Asian Art — on Jewish traders of the T’ang Silk Road (which is why, I think, all his painted figures look like Asian Jewish traders with their horses…).
He found his sense of purpose.
No more drafts. No more letters.
No phone calls either. The Mrs did all the phone calls. And he’d step up, when she told him to, and put in his two cents. When he couldn’t complain any more about my ‘wasted life’ (with a Ph.D. under my belt before he had one under his, and a full professor to boot) he just shifted it all down to the next generation.
He tried to teach my son ‘killer chess.’ That’s what he called it. My son loved chess and loved to win. But he wasn’t into calling it a kill. he saw it more as logic.
What colleges are those kids applying to?
Why those? — they’re not good enough.
What law schools? Ditto.
Perpetual mutual disappointment. Mutual disenchantment. Furrowed brows. Lack of comprehension.
But then I think of all those silly Valentine’s Day cards.
Somewhere underneath his steel armor and killer chess there was a very soft and gushy underbelly. I’ve finally seen the evidence.
Now here’s the weirdest part:
I’m pretty sure that the tzaddik never wrote me a single letter, not once during his lifetime.
It would never have occurred to me to blame or berate him. It never occurred to me, not once, until this moment that I have not a single written word from him to me to show for our so many years together. And for the most part, neither does anyone else, I have to add. His ‘correspondence’ (that I returned to the museum for their archives) all sounds the same: people asking him why he never wrote them back.
And me? I think it’s funny. He just didn’t put things in writing. Am I complaining?
From him, I didn’t need letters to prove that he loved me. He just loved me. So. How did I know it? I’m not quite sure. I had his protection. His encouragement. His approval. His defense. His bedtime stories. His explanations. His curiosity. His gifts. His mysteries. His teachings. His wisdom. Deeds of compassion. His example.
He gave me everything. Everything, but letters.
I decided to throw out the biofather letters. But found that I’d tied them back up in a bundle with a bootlace and shoved them into the cabinet that holds all the family pictures. It’s not fair, I know — but when I’m dead, my kids’ll take them out and they’ll have to decide what to do with them. I’m passing the buck. The only thing I know is that those letters won’t end up as anybody’s archives.