Letters From My Father
By Amy Monticello
We like to have a destination when we walk. A place to arrive. Life with a baby is easier with small goals, the day divided into manageable hours. An hour of tummy time. An hour of napping. An hour at the thrift store, hunting for cheap treasures.
Boomerangs, with its orange block-lettered sign and kitschy window displays (a chess game set up mid-play on a wicker table with matching chairs, a mannequin wearing a vintage fur-trimmed dress looking into heavy mirror rimmed with embossed gold), sits just a few doors down from the Goodwill and its junkier junk. In the gentrified neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, three miles west of downtown Boston, Boomerangs serves the young white professionals like us who drive the rent up and pay more for their plastic art deco chair, their distressed leather jacket.
Our 8-month-old daughter, Benna, quickly became bored in the racks of women’s dresses. She began to fuss, drawing stares, so my husband and I wheeled the jogging stroller down the ramp into the back of the store, where unsteady bookshelves line the walls, hoping to distract her with the children’s section. We picked out a hardcover copy of Make Way for Ducklings, an adorable story set in Beacon Hill, and a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for when Benna is a bit older and can sustain attention for chapter books.
I don’t remember either of my parents reading to me, though I’m certain my mother did, must have. She had custody of me from the time I was two, and I had started memorizing my books by then. But she didn’t remember Where The Wild Things Are. When the Spike Jonze film based on the book came out, it was James Gandolfini’s voice, pure northeast Italian-American, that made a memory of my father’s voice percolate up from somewhere deep inside, an almost tactile memory of the book and how the wild things made me feel: frightened at first, and then smothered in comfort, like the furry pile of themselves they make in the film.
While my husband distracted Benna with her rattles, I pulled a new-looking kid’s book from the shelf. It was called Not So Rotten Ralph. The story features a lanky red cat with green, globular eyes that plays practical jokes on people and gets sent to feline finishing school in an attempt to make Ralph good. It’s not exactly highbrow stuff, nothing comparable to the subtlety of Maurice Sendak or Margaret Wise Brown, but the title reminded me of an old boyfriend by the same name, Ralph, who was also mischievous. I court nostalgia where I can.
When I cracked the still-stiff spine, an unopened card fluttered down to the dirty tile floor of the store. Its envelope was still crisply sealed and folded, preserved like a clover by the covers of the book. It’s true that have no respect for other people’s memories—I once combed through every one of my husband’s photos from college, trying to determine if his ex-girlfriend was prettier than me. I tore the envelope open immediately.
“I have a perfectly good reason why this card is late,” said a smiling cartoon beaver on the front. Inside, the card’s punch line: “I wanted to make your birthday last longer!” The card was signed, “Love Grandaddy and Pam.” Included was an uncashed check for twenty-five dollars dated December 1994. I was twelve years old in 1994. I remember braces. Frizzy, curly hair bluntly cut and hanging triangular around my face. My first love, John Lacy, moving away in the seventh grade. My first experience with unshakeable sadness.
I couldn’t stop wondering about the card, and why it had gone unopened. Did the mail arrive at a bad time—the middle of dinner, or the climax of a toddler’s tantrum? Did its recipient, the grandchild, feel slighted by its lateness, or simply uninterested in the banality of the accompanying book? Or was it the child’s parent who felt slighted, maybe carried inside them a legacy of disappointment? Missed school plays. Unacknowledged report cards. Did they grumble at the card’s sheepish joke, and then stash it in a place where it couldn’t hurt the heart of someone too young to understand that people sometimes forget, or are self-absorbed, or simply too busy, or unable to send a birthday card on time? Or was it simpler than I was making it, the card and check simply misplaced and forgotten in the chaos of a home with young children?
And what about the sender? Grandaddy. A man in a relationship with someone who was not Grandma. A man who later found Pam, and cared for her enough to sign her name to his grandchild’s birthday card. A man who wrote out, in careful cursive, a twenty-five dollar check and placed it inside a card that makes a subtle nod to shortcomings.
My own father, dead two years now, often gave money as a present. Sometimes for no reason at all, he would slip me a twenty, a fifty, even a hundred dollar bill. It used to upset my mother, the way he spoiled me without cause, the way he used money to show love, dropping me off at her house on Thursday evenings loaded with shopping bags from the mall. Buying love, she said, though we both came to understand it differently. He once sent me home with a check for five thousand dollars. Give this to your mother, he told me. I didn’t know then that he’d heard we needed a new roof put on our house, but that my mother couldn’t afford it. And yes, sure, he still loved her. He was sorry. But the money came without strings—it always came without strings, or at least, the strings were no more than a hope that she’d call him occasionally, let him tell her a joke over the phone.
My father’s grief was simply part of how I knew him. It made him vulnerable, easily pierced, even preemptive in his need to know I loved him. He lived in the apartment above my aunt, his footsteps muffled by brown shag carpet and the sound of the television, the History Channel or a Yankees game. Occasionally, his need would grow so loud that it required immediate relief. Here, hon, he’d say, handing me the fresh-from-the-bank bills from his wallet. Then he waited to hear the words. Thank you, Daddy. I love you so much.
A friend once told me that having children shifts the center of the narrative, our own past usurped by our child’s future. Still, it’s impossible for me not to project. Not to install myself in others’ stories—even, and maybe especially, my daughter’s. In The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison writes, “When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I don’t know if this is empathy or theft.” I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve been thinking about what it means to feel sorrow on someone else’s behalf, if it’s ever possible to feel their sorrow, or just supplant it with our own. Desperate for rest, we sleep-trained Benna when she was six months old. Making the decision to let her cry was agonizing, so I made a secret stipulation in order to agree to it; I would inhabit what I perceived as my daughter’s confusion and fear. My mother has abandoned me, I imagined her cortisol-flooded body telling her. Perception is reality for a baby—I couldn’t show her I was right outside her door unless I opened the door, and the point was not to open it. I didn’t do what experienced parents recommended—take a shower, go for a walk, stick earplugs in to cancel the sound of her crying. I couldn’t allow myself to be spared and reduce my family’s overall suffering.
And can it go the other way? Will Benna someday be wounded by the absence of the grandfather she never knew? Will I desire her to feel wounded? To mourn because I mourn? When I tell her about her grandfather, what will I emphasize so she will feel his absence particularly? He would not have changed a diaper. He would not have babysat by himself. He would have come to visit, but only if my mother drove him. He would have paid for dinner. He would have been amused by fine motor skills, fascinated by language acquisition. He would have told jokes about her seriousness. He would have liked that she doesn’t go readily to other people. He would have been proud, and said so.
He would have doted on her, spoiled her. I think he would have loved her; I think he would have allowed himself that. When I say all of these things, will I be doing so to satisfy a curiosity, or to make Benna feel more loved? Or will I say it to see my grief reflected back to me?
Last week, as my father’s birthday loomed full moon on the calendar, I attempted to wear the locket where I keep a tiny bag of his ashes. Because of my daughter’s exploring hands, I rarely wear jewelry anymore. She was immediately drawn to the locket, an anomaly on my person, which is otherwise so familiar to her, my body just an extension of hers. She gripped the delicate braided chain and pulled with determined hands. Afraid of it breaking, I took the locket off and tucked it back into my jewelry box.
But I wanted to put something of my father into her hands. So I took his Yankees baseball hat off the bookshelf where I keep it. The inside of the hat once smelled of his scalp, but not anymore; it smells like nothing now, or of our house, which I can no longer smell. Benna wasn’t interested in the hat. Again and again, I placed the hat in her lap, on her head, on my head, and again and again, she flung it aside, looking for something more exciting to play with. I tried to snap a picture in the few seconds when the hat was still in her possession. I heard my father tell me not to do this. Not to manufacture a moment between them. He didn’t like when the seams of an emotional performance were showing. In the pictures I took, it was clear what I was trying to do. The seams showed. I deleted them.
I became a writer in part because I want to make the things I’ve lost come back to me. John Lacy, who moved away in the seventh grade. My ex-boyfriend, Ralph, who was not so rotten. I create mirages of them. I imprint them onto the world as I live in it now by writing essays where they walk across the pages, back into my hands, my life. My daughter and my father missed each other. There isn’t anything I can do to change the end of his life and the beginning of hers. She will not recognize the smoke-and-dander smell of his scalp faded from the inside of the baseball hat. She will not beam him like a hologram into her books, her family holidays, the time we spent together in her infancy, nursing away the days already forgotten. She may never understand the happiness my father would have felt to know the sale of his business left a small nest egg for us.
The money came a year after my father’s death, when we settled his estate. And just like that, with a check, he was part of things again. The money bought clothes and a convertible car seat for Benna, and an extended maternity leave for me that kept me home with Benna for a full eight months. His money bought us 14-hour days of nursing. Every thirty minutes or so, Benna rooted and latched, and I settled us into the couch so I could watch her ears—perfect replicas of mine—twitch as she swallowed. As my milk let down, suppressing dopamine for prolactin, a surge of sadness crested from my belly to my throat, and sometimes, I would cry. The narrative collapsed then, my story and my daughter’s folded into waves of milk. I nursed my daughter because I could, and I could because my father was dead.
Money, I want to tell Benna, is time.
Of course, it’s only my imagination that can project my father into a life lived long enough to know his grandchild, or, perhaps even more astonishing, to meet another woman. Pam. In line at the bank, maybe. A companion after so many years in that apartment above my aunt,. An embarrassment of riches—a partner and a grandchild—in the twilight of his life. I imagine a happiness so unexpected, so total, it makes the days on the calendar fly, his beloved grandchild’s birthday temporarily lost in the blur of new joy.
But then, he remembers. “I’m gonna run to the drug store,” I picture him telling Pam. He yanks on his brown winter jacket and the Yankees hat. He drives the ten blocks. He peruses the sparse selection of cards, knowing he has to acknowledge his lateness somehow. The imperfection of his love. He wants to give more than the mea culpa of the cartoon beaver, so he writes the check out at the post office. Twenty-five dollars is a lot of money to a toddler.
He signs the name his granddaughter gave him. Grandaddy. Traces the “G” in darker ink so it will be clear.
Drops it in the mail and trusts it will arrive.
Author’s Note: Benna can now recognize my father in photographs, and even calls him Grandpa. Perhaps just as importantly, she can also recognize Mickey Mantle.
Amy Monticello is the author of the memoir-in-essays Close Quarters, and a regular contributor at Role/Reboot. She is an assistant professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, MA, where she lives with her husband and almost two-year-old daughter.