From the Microcosm

King Lear_HARRY MELLING_FRANK LANGELLA_STEVEN PACEY _PC Richard Termine

Photo Credit: AP—Frank Langella as King Lear

Gloucester
Oh, let me kiss his hand!
Lear
Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.


 

We are at the mercy of the elements. They are raging all around us. For some they are raging right where they are.

It is not so much that the elements are out of control as that we are not in control.

The stormy heath reflected the storm in King Lear’s soul. This is my stormy heath: Hurricanes. Floods. Wildfires. Earthquakes.

It reflects the storm that has been raging in my soul for lo these past few months. I woke in despair pretty much every day. Woke being a relative term since my sleep was something less than—well sleep. Night and day merged into one endless unsettling dream state.

And then, rather suddenly over these past two weeks, a calm came over me. I slept. And then I woke. And then I went about my daily life.

I became the eye of the hurricane.

I started each morning writing in my journal. I wrote two blog posts, which meant I had something to say again. Or perhaps more, that I could articulate what was swirling in my head and heart.

A darkness descended on the world with the election and inauguration of Donald Trump. I’m not going to apologize for that statement or even qualify it as an opinion. I think one can observe the world and see it is just the truth.

Religious opinion trumps (you will pardon the expression) science. Mansplaining is getting institutionalized in law. Women are told to shut up and know their place (she was warned, yet she persisted). The very narrow world of white, male privilege is being venerated (Charlottesville, repeal of DACA, Joe Arpaio).

I think these fools thought they could build an impenetrable wall around a very small universe that once was. The Jim Crow, father-knows-best, you’re-such-a-pretty-girl-why-can’t-you-make-a-good-cup-of-coffee, god-hates-anyone-who-isn’t-like-me, climate-change-is-a-hoax universe. A wall that would keep life out.

And then came the hurricanes, the floods, the wildfires, the earthquake. Not to mention nuclear weapons in the hands of two infants in men’s bodies.

I learned about the philosophy of the microcosm and macrocosm from my high school English teacher Ed Brush—aka, Mr. Shakespeare. And that’s what I thought of when the chaos and destruction began.

The microcosm is the world of the mortal. We live in our own microcosm as well as a collective one. The collective one right now is particularly micro because the “leader” of the free world has, as Bill Moyers says, an open sore in place of a soul. He has no respect or compassion for mortality.

The macrocosm is the land of the immortal. That which will continue with or without us. It encompasses life and death and ambiguity. Earth is steady and has earthquakes. Wind is gentle, and it wrecks havoc. And, in its absence, keeps sailing ships in the doldrums. Fire warms us and consumes us. Water sustains us and overwhelms us.

We are rarely in control. Not being in control is the essence what it is to be mortal, to live in a microcosm.

Feeling that lack of control is what brought me to a place of calm. Not the calm of the doldrums, but the calm of the eye of the hurricane. Mortality gives us definition. We have a beginning and an end parenthesis.

Faulkner said that writers should banish fear, the fear of being blown up by nuclear weapons, from their workshop, for only then can we write about the human heart in conflict with itself—only that is worth writing about. I learned that from Bert Fraser, another high school English teacher.

It feels good to not be afraid. It feels good not being in control. It feels good to ride out my own life, my private microcosm, to have faith that my life matters regardless of where the parenthesis ends.

To know that being human is to have a heart in conflict with itself is to have compassion for what it means to be human—to embrace our microcosm as part of the gigantic macrocosm that existed long, long before we did, and will go on for a long, long time, with or without us.

The Story 

fire and flood2There are two sides to the story, “they” say. But really, there’s simply the story, driven by yearnings challenged and yearnings thwarted.

I thought of this after hearing a Houston couple (my age or older) interviewed over the weekend about what it meant for them to meet 45 (I cannot write his name). The husband glowed from having touched his (small) golden hand. The only thing that would match her husband’s feeling about this hand touching, his wife said, would be when he meets Jesus after he dies.

I could not find charity in my heart for them. My most uncharitable thought was that Darwin was wrong in his theory of evolution: this was a profound example of survival of the least fit. They had, I was certain, already procreated so their genes had replicated. You can’t fix stupid.

Then I thought, Jesus would roll over in his grave if he heard himself being equated with this man who, as Bill Moyers says, has an open sore in place of his soul. But Jesus rose from the dead, or so the story goes, so there is no grave in which he can roll over.

I find myself in this dilemma: as a writer, I must have compassion for my characters. I need to feel deeply that the character is right from the character’s point of view. I need to become god-like in the world I am creating, with a heart so open, I grasp the ordeal it is to be human and find some shred of compassion for being human.

Being human in a world that has no sense in the way we want to make sense of things. This happened because of that. If we do that, this won’t happen. God does things with infinite wisdom so that’s why He loves us more than those people over there who look so different from us.

I do believe there is an Infinite Wisdom out there, but it isn’t a being that is hamstrung by hubris. It isn’t the god of Abraham who asked that he sacrifice his son to show his absolute fealty to the Will of god. I’ve always thought that god was a total asshole.

The Infinite Wisdom I believe in is the one that comprises life and the inevitability of death. Humans, like all living creatures, planets, stars, and so on, begin and then they come to an end. And, now, having just written that, I wonder if the story of Abraham was a metaphor for my version of the Infinite Wisdom. In the end, we are subject to the Infinite Wisdom and sometimes that means we suffer the incomprehensible—losing a child.

I keep trying to wrap my head around the Abraham and Isaac story.

But, I digress.

I’m having a real hard time feeing charitable to anyone who voted for 45 and still believes it was the right decision. I especially feel that way towards those that associate Jesus with you-know-who.

This isn’t political. It’s moral. The story being written is sadistic, cruel, and profoundly solipsistic. It is a secular story disguised as sacred text. A retelling of the Midas touch, only people forget the end of the tale—the daughter of Midas runs to embrace him with love, and dies—the embrace turns her into a gold statue.

This story that is being written by he-who-I-shall-not-name does not end well. Holocausts never do.

The media this weekend fell all over themselves lauding you-know-who with praise, hoping against hope that he was learning to be presidential, that he was learning empathy. Well, Joy Reid didn’t fall for it. He’s 71 she said. This is who he is. He’s the man with the Midas touch—the touch that kills love. (She didn’t say the Midas touch part, that’s me.)

I don’t know what to do. I have been filled with blind, impotent rage, waiting for the Republicans in charge to choose country, love, morality, kindness over crass desire for power. They tend to be white boys and it is my belief that what they want is the power to make the world conform to their own image. To have the Midas touch.

This latest decision to betray the Dreamers is the final straw for me. I cannot abide anyone who doesn’t see or feel the cruelty in that decision.

I was hoping by writing this I would be able to find my way through—to finding just the right action to take. I haven’t.

What I have done is let go of the pressure to see that there are two sides to every story. No. There is just the story—and where that can take us.

Right now, the story we see unfolding is a secular one disguised as sacred text. Finite wisdom.

The Midas touch—the fires, floods, and destruction lurking behind them.

Penwomanship

story belongs to youBoth of my parents have died—my father 23 years ago and my mother 11. I am officially an orphan.

After my mother died, I was left bereft for several years. I like the word bereft. It sounds to me like it means. I see a solitary person in a rowboat in the middle of an ocean—the boat gently rocking.

I miss not having someone to check in with: to verify I remember what I remember, to find out what happened to that person, to uncover the secret that I sensed was real.

But, being an orphan has also given me my story—a story uncluttered with the expectations of what my parents hoped, wished, and dreamed would be my story.

A few years ago, in a box that had been stored in my mother’s house, I found an essay I had written that was part of an application for a local scholarship. I don’t remember anything about what I wrote. What I remember is how neat my penmanship was—no ambiguity created by the reader having to infer meaning from sloppily written words.

I don’t remember when my penmanship careened into the land of the indecipherable. Did it happen in one day? Over time?

This morning, I decided to be deliberate as I wrote, dredging up the muscle memory of how to form letters in cursive writing. The muscle memory took me back to then—fifty years ago. That’s how long it’s been since I graduated from high school.

I was on the committee that selected the theme song for our graduation, the one the choir would sing. It was between “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” It’s fitting that we chose the impossible dream. It all seemed before us. Possibility.

But really, what I thought was that my goal was to marry. Take care of that and the rest would follow—that would be my destiny. It did not occur to me that I could shape my own.

Or, not consciously, anyway. Twice I married the wrong man. In retrospect, it was a way of rebelling against the notion of being a wife, while trying to satisfy that requirement—being married. Fortunately, third time was a charm.

And then I remembered there was that period of time, after my first marriage ended, when I gave away all my books. Did not keep a single one. What was that about? And then I took a class in basic grammar because I forgot that I knew how to write. Why did I forget that?

In 1976, I traveled alone to Europe. An eight-week trip. That’s when it came to me that I was a writer. I wrestled with that. I wasn’t married. Wasn’t I supposed to be? And weren’t women supposed to be wives and mothers first and everything else second?

I wrote by hand while smoking little cigars and drinking scotch. And I wore a beret and hung out in the Caffee Trieste in North Beach. I had stinky breath and got headaches from the scotch. The writing was my version of Michelangelo’s visits to the quarry to find the slab of marble that contained the statue.

I persisted.

I have been silent for a few months now. Not really knowing how to pen the words that expressed the abyss I was in—an abyss that started on November 9th, 2016. I won’t write his name. I can’t.

Apparently, when Al Gore got into George Bush’s territory during one of the 2000 debates, he was castigated by the media. There was not really even a peep about he-who-shall-not-be-named lurking menacingly around Hillary Clinton during the second debate last year. I knew how she felt. I think most women (if they are willing to admit it), know what it is like to be physically menaced by a man—in this case, one who we had learned two days previously that he bragged about sexually assaulting women.

She soldiered on during the debate. Remaining cool and calm. Putting on a good face. God, I’m tired of women having to do that. Look what happens when we do—we end up with the drunk, abusive father driving the car the wrong way on the freeway with the children in the front seat unrestrained by seat belts.

I don’t know what brought me out of the abyss. Perhaps it was deciding to persist. And from that came the muscle-memory of writing neatly by hand that unleashed those other memories—the memories that began with wanting to dream the impossible dream.

Caterpillars heed the call at some point, wrap themselves in a cocoon, and turn themselves into goo so they can transform into the butterfly. It’s called transformation. But they have the same DNA they had as a caterpillar.

I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing the past 10 months. Cocooning. Some caterpillars don’t make it through that phase. I’ll have to admit, I wondered if I would make it through this time. The landscape seemed a waste land and I couldn’t see my way around it. So I went through it. And I think I’m emerging from it now.

My DNA is the same as that of my younger self who believed in the impossible dream. But, I’m not that caterpillar anymore. My voice is stronger than it has ever been. I have no shame in it, using it to speak my truth, and insisting that it be heard.

And, I’m working on my handwriting. Making that cursive writing beautiful again. My muscle-memory voice.

Penwomanship.

I believe the quote about owning your story is attributed to Anne Lamott.

The Wrath of Tom

Tom dragonIt’s the story of my life.

That’s what I said recently when two men: one middle aged, the other a talented but arrogant 18 year old, forced me out of a production that I had given birth to, nurtured, and for which I had worked my ass off — days before opening night. By forced out, I mean bullied me with their behavior.

“That’s the story of my life,” I said aloud. The story being that I do not know how to protect my creative products.

I lingered in the doldrums of that story, languishing on the couch watching mostly political programs that recorded a world that was the antithesis of uplifting until I finally grew weary of the malingering.

The question came to me: Really? Is that the story of my life? That I don’t get to take credit for that which is legitimately mine?

There is not a doubt in my mind that women in this culture get shut up. Just look at what that sorry-excuse-for-a-snapping-turtle Mitch McConnell did to Elizabeth Warren. And I think the ascension of Donald Trump into the presidency has given the bullying male new breath—their entitlement to shaping the world into their own image reinforced.

I pick myself up. I dust myself off. I start all over again.

But, I malingered before I did that this time. In the silence of the doldrums, I felt the impact of having my creation stolen from me. It was devastating.

The difference this time is that I quit the production the week before opening, knowing that I was leaving them in the proverbial lurch, because I would not be bullied. I did not sacrifice myself for the good of the “family.” And I did not feel ashamed of my anger for being driven out by bad behavior.

I could not have done that without Tom’s wrath shielding me. He was enraged at what happened to me, and let loose his wrath on those responsible for my pain. His wrath is powerful—a fire-breathing dragon that emerges from the cave to defend life.

Tom’s wrath provided the safe harbor I needed to linger in the doldrums.

And it bestowed on me the right to be treated with the respect men are treated with when they take possession of themselves.

It’s a wonderful thing to be loved like that. It’s receiving grace. It’s what a truly alpha male does.

Grace—the unearned gift. The gift that you don’t have to earn. The gift that you are born with.

The answer to the question “Is this the story of my life?” is no, but it’s one I’ve been living.

The monologue I wrote for the Finding Your Voice production included the line, “We need to live the story that is ours.” It is ironic that the whole monologue got cut from the production. That I worked hard to provide a space for people to find and express their voice.

I started this blog to change my story. Really, it’s been about finding my story, and living it out loud.

I don’t know what that means yet. Like any story, it needs to unfold the way life unfolds.

I am grateful for Tom’s wrath. It let in my grace. I think grace was the missing ingredient for me.

The Pink Stuff

forkaren

Mom and me, 1991 in front of the Haida totem pole in Sausalito

My mother made the pink stuff for winter holidays. When I took over hosting the holiday meals and my mother asked what should I bring, I would say, “The pink stuff. Bring the pink stuff.”

I couldn’t remember its name.

I called it the pink stuff because it tasted pink—not cotton-candy-bubble-gum pink. But rose unfolding pink. It tasted great with turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and the warm spinach salad I made—a recipe I adapted from the Greens* cookbook. No hot bacon grease to wilt the spinach. Rather olive oil that had slowly been heated along with smashed garlic. Then there was the feta cheese and Greek olives and pine nuts.

We each were who we were with those dishes. Pink stuff and warm spinach salad.

My mother was not the cookies-baking-in-the-oven kind of mom. Though she loved cookies. And she loved crumbling saltine crackers into a glass of non-fat milk and eating it up with a spoon. It had to be non-fat milk, which had a blue cast to it. I referred to it as blue milk.

Whole milk she claimed was too rich. Blue milk was what she drank and crumbled saltine crackers into. During the last years of my father’s life, she shared her home with the stranger my father had become—a man who was disappearing into Alzheimer’s. I would visit and we would talk late at night as she spooned up the blue-milk-with-crumbled-saltine-crackers concoction. It brought her comfort.

She finally had to find him a home in a skilled nursing facility. It was a good one. But really, no one wants to end their days there. It’s kind of a waiting room where some go as they hover between what was their life, what has become their life, and where their days will end.

She taught me about loyalty.

My mother came as close to being a feminist as she could. She was encumbered by the teachings of her mother and the world she inhabited as a young woman.

That encumberance was often a grand canyon between us. Crossing that grand canyon took a leap of faith that she didn’t always have. I learned about that leap of faith from Jeanette and Sally, two older women I knew from my days with the Gray Panthers. We had great meals together. I learned new ideas for cooking from them, as they, by their presence and experience, gave me permission to womanup and be the woman I am.

But at holidays, it is my mother who visits my heart. It’s always unexpected, though it’s happened every year since she died.

For complicated reasons, I did not help clean out her apartment after she died. And so I did not get the recipe for the pink stuff. I know she used cherry Jello, cranberries, walnuts, and perhaps, cream cheese.

voteThough she did not completely embrace feminism, my mother would have voted for Hillary Clinton. She would have voted for her with gusto and been pissed, really, really pissed at the outcome. She knew about that grand canyon of limitations, even though she couldn’t take that leap of faith.

Is is almost fashionable to humiliate Hillary Clinton now for not becoming president—I will not use the word “lose.” Women have been humiliated throughout the history of our country when they have the audacity to leap over that grand canyon of limitations—limitations defined by tiny-hearted men and the women who depend on them for their power.

It took Russian intervention, Wikileaks, voter suppression, the FBI, and an antiquated institution that was incorporated into our country to protect slavery to keep her out of office. She wasn’t defeated. I say again, she won 3 million more votes than the man who represents the worst of what passes for manhood in our country.

For the sake of women like my mother who saw the grand canyon but could not leap, and for all the women who have been taking that leap throughout our history, it is time to stop abusing Hillary Clinton.

I don’t know why the pink stuff this year is mixed up with the betrayal that was this election. Perhaps it’s fear that all the work that has gone before was for naught. Even though she didn’t take the leap, my mother got to the precipice and wondered what could be. Without that, I might not have been able to take my own leap.

I feel like the old guard is dancing on the graves of women they are unworthy of. It’s a slap in the face. But this latest slap in the face is just that. A slap in the face. We’ve stood up to bullies before. We will do it again.

I’ve Googled and Googled, but to no avail. I cannot find the recipe that my mother turned into the pink stuff. I’ve come to accept that the absence of the pink stuff at my holiday table is out of respect for her. The dish missing from the table because it was her dish. Like her, it cannot be replaced or replicated.

*Greens is the Zen community vegetarian restaurant at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

That Sandwich Is Filled With Shit

“Rage is a substance waiting for our transformative efforts.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves

protest-shitI’m mad. I’m damned mad. I’m pissed. I’m enraged.

And I’m not alone.

Yeah. I know. Electoral college.

But still, the woman received nearly three million more votes and still didn’t get the job. And the man who slimed his way in on lies, innuendos, and abuse smirks and the woman who got him there smirks along with him.

Kellyanne Conway was born in 1967. Either she has no idea what women endured for her to get to where she was, or she doesn’t care. Todd if-it’s-a-legitimate-rape,- the-female-body-has-ways-to-try-to-shut-that-whole-thing-down Aikin was one of her clients.

No, she hasn’t shattered a glass ceiling. She comes from a long history of women who trash other women to climb to the top of the boys’ club. And I mean boys’ club. Not men. But boys. You know, how Melania referred to her 59-year-old husband’s boasts about grabbing women by the pussy.

Kellyanne was willing to eat the shit sandwich and say it was chocolate.

Well, I’m not. I did it for years, and I’m not willing anymore.

All you have to do is look at who Trump is bringing in to help him run the country. It is the nightmare of bosses, ex-husbands, co-workers, clergy, professors, and politicians we endured for years. They will take us back 50 years.

That was not a great America. That was an America where women died from illegal abortions; only white males were assured of the right to vote, earn a salary commensurate with their qualifications, and could beat the crap out of their wives and family with impunity.

In that great American, if you ate the shit sandwich and pretended it was chocolate, you stayed alive.

Well things are different now. The white men I know and love don’t think that America was so great because it wasn’t so great for them. These are men who are capable of having more than one idea and find smart, powerful women sexy.

Dare I say it—they have learned how to harness their feminine side.

And women who don’t think that America was so great don’t count on the power of their man to give them a place in the world, and don’t destroy women who have womaned up and embraced their lives as their own. And, they know that one can embrace a domestic life right alongside the life that happens outside their home.

Dare I say it—we have learned how to harness our masculine side.

And we don’t eat no shit sandwiches anymore. We know what shit tastes like and it doesn’t taste like chocolate.

The outcome of this election is an abomination. It took help from Russia, the FBI, and voter suppression for a man so clearly unqualified, a sociopath, to ascend to the most powerful office in the world.

He is a danger to us and to the world as we know it.

All this talk of the forgotten white working man, well, my father was a white working man. A union man whose union was destroyed by the sainted Ronald Reagan. The aftermath left him working his final five years without a pay raise. It affected his pension. It was a total denunciation of the value of his craft (he was a master electrician). He was humiliated.

He never—never in a thousand years would have fallen for the con job that came out of Donald Trump’s mouth.

Of course, the irony is that Hillary Clinton actually had policies that would have helped the working, middle class. But we never heard about them because pundits had to talk about her emails and the Clinton foundation.

Hillary Clinton had ambition and the desire to implement an ambitious vision—one that went beyond herself. One that was informed by what it takes to make a safe place for children and family in our society.

Sure she was flawed. But what did her in were not so much her flaws, as having the audacity to think that a woman could have ambition along with the smarts, the integrity, and the competence to enact that ambitious vision of the world. And she had that audacity when Kellyanne was still shitting in her diapers.

No, it is not time to get over it. It is not time to move on. That is what people who abuse you and get a way with it say so you’ll shut up. Lay down. Surrender to their ill-gotten power.

Nope. Not gonna’ happen this time.

Trump did not acquire the presidency legitimately. The welfare of the country, the integrity of the country, the idea of the country that actually makes America great are nowhere on his radar.

All politicians are somewhat narcissistic. But most of them do not exhibit it as a personality disorder.

He is not my president. I will not support this administration. I will fight however I can to make sure it either fails, or bends its trajectory to one that benefits the diversity of stories that actually do make America great.

I don’t know how. But I do know that I’m not alone.

Do not underestimate the power of the crone—the wise woman and man. We are mad. We are damned mad. We are enraged.

And we will harness our rage into transformative efforts.

We don’t eat no shit sandwiches, but we will relish the taste of fair-trade chocolates as we take to the streets, the airways, the halls of Congress, and flood our communities with the wisdom of the crones.

I Flew To Where He Was

Once upon a time, my father wrote me letters.

I was 60 when I found them, excavating my childhood, exploring the boxes that had been in my attic since my mother’s death four years earlier. Boxes that contained my high school graduation announcement; a dried corsage, a faded memory of a long-ago senior prom; a good citizenship award from eighth grade, report cards from seventh; a menu dated Le 28 Novembre 1957 from the Wonosobo, the Dutch freighter that was our home for 75 days as we made our way from Saudi Arabia through the Far East to Long Beach, California.

And in one box—along with loose photographs that documented my life from infancy to high school graduation—my red scrapbook, covered in dust, its pages frayed at the edges.

Randomly pasted throughout the scrapbook were the letters my father wrote me while he was living alone in Saudi Arabia. He had to go before us to earn enough points for family housing. He was there for two years before my mother, brothers, and I could join him.

The letters began when I was four and ended shortly after I turned five, between 1953 and 1954. In them, he assures me that Santa Claus comes to Saudi Arabia (he arrives by helicopter because the sand is hard on his reindeer). He explains that Arabs drink water from water bags made of goat skin, describes how they make them, confesses that he would likely never drink from a water bag made from goat skin, and explains that really, it’s only the Bedouins who still use them—his Arab crew had coolers with ice-chilled water. He talks about how happy the Arab children are, though they have no toys.

In nearly every letter he describes the kittens he’s come across and how they make him think of me, and that when we join him, I will get a kitten.

In one letter, he describes a camp in the middle of the desert. He was on an “Exploration”—a trip into the desert to explore for oil.

“On each of these exploration parties,” he wrote,  “an Emir and a troop of Arab soldiers accompany each party. The troops have their tents pitched a mile from camp, and over about three miles and a couple of sand dunes away, the Emir and his four wives have some more tents pitched.”

He describes the desert foxes that come into his camp, the kangaroo rats, and the locusts. “You see one flying around, or rather, a jillion of them, and you’d think it was a flock of sparrows. The Arabs catch them and boil a big bucket full of them and let them dry in the sun and eat them, but they have no competition from me, ’cause Daddy was getting too good of food to try anything like that.”

On the same trip he describes the sight of his Arab crew kneeling and bowing in prayer along the ridge of a sand dune. “Sundown is prayer time for the Arabs and so they try to get on the highest point to try to be the last one to see the sun go down. They feel they are closer to Allah that way.”

In that same letter he says, “The thing I remember the most that I liked was at night; as I’ve told you, we had a full moon, and you’d walk out past the camp lights— it was cool at night—just right for shirt sleeves. You could sit out there and talk— everything seemed so peaceful you’d think you were on another world.”

My mother must have read his letters to me when they arrived, but I have no memory of that. She or I glued the envelopes with the letters tucked inside into the scrapbook that also has my drawings of angels, spelling exercises from my first grade class, and a letter to me from Santa Claus.

The letters end shortly before he came back to the States to accompany us on the journey to where he lived. We traveled across country by train, stopped in New York, flew to Amsterdam where he bought me dolls in Dutch costumes, and had dinner at the Rome airport. These were the days of prop planes.

I woke the morning after we left Rome and looked down on what I thought was the Mediterranean Ocean he had described. “No, Punkin’,” my dad said, “those aren’t waves. That’s the Empty Quarter. Those are sand dunes. We’re flying over Arabia now.”

He continued going out on Explorations, bringing home arrowheads and rocks that had been smoothed by sandstorms. One time he returned from the Empty Quarter with the promised kitten tucked in his shirt. It is still a mystery to me how he found a kitten in the Empty Quarter.

I knew my red scrapbook existed. I had looked through it over the years while it lived at my mother’s house, but I had never read the letters written on delicate tissue-like paper—the kind of paper you used in the Fifties for letters sent via airmail. They were mostly written at night, just before he went to bed. Each letter ends with “I love you and miss you.”

In what might be my favorite letter he says he got a high school graduation announcement from one of his nieces who lived in Iowa. He sees the photos of me, notes how much I’ve grown and changed since he last saw me, and imagines the day that I will graduate from high school.

He was, of course, there the night I graduated in 1967. We had been back in the States for about seven years by then.

The years that followed were not easy on my father and me. I went to San Francisco State University, which by the end of my freshman year was getting swept into the turmoil of the late Sixties. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in April of my freshman year, the Thursday before Spring break, and Robert Kennedy in June, just before we went into finals.

My sophomore year began just weeks after the violent 1968 Democratic Convention. Richard Nixon got elected president that November and my school went on strike.

But politics were not the problem for my father and me. A union man, he was a staunch Democrat who opposed the war in Vietnam. He hated that police used their Billy clubs to punch protestors in the kidney—a particularly debilitating blow. Perhaps it had happened to him in his early union days.

What opened a chasm between my father and me was my loss of innocence. I saw bloodied students stagger to the Student Commons. African American Vietnam vets, students in their mid to late twenties, raged that they had been sent to risk their lives for a country that had opened fire hoses and let loose attack dogs on them when they marched for civil rights—and killed their little girls in churches, civil rights workers on back roads, and their leaders in front of their homes. Their murderers were tried by juries of their peers so they would be set free.

This was not a campus where coeds celebrated getting pinned or engaged. It was a microcosm of what was changing in the world. I saw bad things happening. I could not be a little girl and survive in such a world.

In 1971, I married in an unconventional ceremony, one that did not include my father giving me away to my husband. I claimed that I was no one’s property to be given away or to. Or that’s what I told myself.

The father giving away his daughter, a friend had told me, was symbolic of transferring protection from the father to the husband. Complicating the innocence I had lost as my college campus descended into turmoil, was an earlier experience.

I had been molested by my maternal grandfather and uncle shortly after we returned from Saudi Arabia. I had of course, kept it a secret.

It was not a part of the story that belonged to my father and me, but by virtue of the insidious nature of such familial crimes and the unspoken demand for secrecy, it had intruded into ours. I had lost my trust in his, or anyone’s, ability to protect me.

I don’t know that I really understood the convoluted feelings that went into my decision at the time, but in retrospect, I was breaking from being a little girl of sugar and spice and everything nice, so I could enter into the world of being a woman neither my father nor I imagined when he saw kittens and thought of me.

My father died in 1994. He had had Alzheimer’s for over ten years by then, so really he’d been gone for longer than that. He was never remote in the way I have heard so many describe their fathers. But, I had long since given up believing he was the daddy who would fix the world for me. In fact, as he descended into Alzheimer’s I wanted to fix the world for him. By that time I had learned that his father had beaten him until he wet his pants, raising welts that took a week to heal.

I was ready to close the distance between my father and me, but Alzheimer’s had created a new chasm, one that was insurmountable. A scared little boy had taken up residence in his body. He looked like my father. I loved him like he was my father. I began to believe he was my father—the man I wanted to reconcile with.

But there was no reconciliation because that man—the one I had to break from—was no longer there.  All I could do was help my mother tend to the reality of his living with and dying from the loss of himself.

In the world of Father Knows Best, a popular late Fifties-early Sixties television series, Jim Anderson called his daughters Kitten and Princess. They lived in his protection, waiting for the day each would marry a man who would take her into his home, ensuring that she would not have to fend for herself in the world.

I don’t know for certain if that’s the life my father imagined for me, but that was surely the story I believed he wanted for me. I think he hoped that he could protect me from the world where bad things happen and that protecting me from that world would assuage the brutality of his childhood.

Parents want to do that, protect their child from the world where bad things had happened to them. I wanted to do that for my stepdaughters. When I became the grownup to my father’s child, I wanted to do that for him. I knew I couldn’t protect him from his father, but I thought I could protect him from Alzheimer’s.

That was impossible, of course.

I will never know what my father thought of the woman I grew into, or if he ever reconciled losing his little girl. He left me before he left.

I will never know whether my father knew that he opened doors for me by the choices he made. In the same box that held my red scrapbook I found a “Disembarkment” paper from our Wonosobo trip—it permitted me to go ashore in what was then called Bombay. We toured the city in a horse-drawn carriage, taking in the scenery, inhaling the aromas of pungent spices mixed with teeming humanity, some of whom lived on the streets.

We were unusual, the carriage driver told my father. Most Western tourists took taxis.

My father took me to a world beyond Kitten and Princess. That was his legacy of protection for me—protection from being sheltered like a kitten or a princess.

I will never know what could have been if Alzheimer’s hadn’t possessed my father. I thought that was the father I was left with.

And then I read his letters, written on delicate paper so they could fly to me, rather than be carried over land and sea. He writes stories that made his exotic world come alive, and expressed his yearning for the day there would be no distance between his world and mine:

“Honey, I’ll sure be glad when you guys get over here. It’s sure lonesome without you. You’ll have a good time over here. First of all you’ll have a nice long airplane trip across the U.S. to New York then across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and stop at the place Daddy sent you the Dutch dolls from. Then you’ll fly over some real pretty mountains and cities to Rome, and from there across the Mediterranean Ocean and then over the desert to where I am.”

Alzheimer’s and death make for a one-sided relationship. Frozen in time for the one who goes away, the one left behind carries its legacy with all the ambiguities of love flawed by expectations, disappointments, secrets, and misty memory. We are compelled to write and rewrite the story of the relationship to make sense of it, to find peace with it, to accept that we love and are loved imperfectly.

My dust-covered red scrapbook with its frayed edges had several empty pages. I don’t know when or why I stopped pasting memories into it. I don’t know when it got stored away as a relic of my childhood.

But, once upon a time, my father wrote me letters. He promised I would get a kitten when I joined him and assured me that Santa Claus would find me no matter where I was.

And, just as he imagined, I flew over some real pretty mountains and cities to Rome, and from there, across the Mediterranean Ocean, and then over the desert to where he was.