What I thought was a kind of springcleaning of my Writingshed has really been an excavation. As I went through boxes of what I thought were old photos, I found stuff as well. Stuff like:
The 1956 Scimitar, the annual for the American School in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. I was in first grade and had nightmares about my teacher, Miss Hadaka. She does look quite dour in her photo.
A lunch menu from the Wonosobo dated November 27th 1957. The Wonosobo was the Dutch freighter that was our home for 75 days as we made our way from Saudi Arabia to Long Beach, California.
A disembarkment paper permitting me to leave the ship to visit Bombay.
And, I found some letters my father had written me while he was in Dhahran alone, earning housing points so he could bring us over with him. He took the job with Aramco because it meant getting us to a more financially secure place.
The letters span the period of about a year, from October 1953 to July 1954. I was four years old. I’m sure there were more – either I haven’t found them yet or they just didn’t make it to the scrapbook.
In these letters he assures me that Santa Claus comes to Saudi Arabia (he arrives by helicopter because the sand is hard on his reindeer); 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 ony the Bedouins who still use them – his crew has cooler cans with ice-chilled water; and 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. We couldn’t get a dog, he said, because they don’t have anyone to give rabies shots. But we’d definitely get a kitten.
In one letter, he describes a camp in the middle of the desert. He was on an exploration – probably a trip into the desert to explore for oil. “On each of these exploration parties, an emir and a troop of 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 locust, “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.”
Another letter speaks of his yearning for us, “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 little Dutch shoes 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.”
In what might be my favorite letter he says he got a high school graduation announcement from one of his nieces in Iowa. He see the photos of me and how much I’ve grown and changed since he last saw me and imagines the day that I will graduate form high school. He reminds me that there is a swimming pool where we can swim at night from April to November, it’s that warm in Arabia.
“Karen,” he wrote, “I was talking to a friend of mine here today who has been nationally known in America for his diving ability and he helps the children out, at the pool on swimming and diving. His star pupil is a little girl about nine years old. She’s cute as a bug’s ear and can she ever dive and swim. She’s a regular porpoise. He told me that when you get over here that he’ll help all of you out on your diving and swimming.”
I don’t remember whether this person taught me diving and swimming. But I do remember the diving board. I remember walking out to the edge of the board and looking into the water and being so terrified that I turned around and walked off the diving board to solid ground.
I know I did this several times, each time hoping to find the courage to jump. One day I asked my father to stand by the side of the pool as I climbed onto the board. I don’t really know what made me decide that that day was the day. I just remember that this time, I would not go back the way I came. I closed my eyes, jumped, hit the water, and felt the water rush up my nose. I suspect it was natural buoyancy that brought me back to the surface because I did surface, swam to the side, climbed out, and got in line to jump off the board again.
I don’t think I’ve ever yearned for a daddy who would take care of me, fix whatever was wrong and make the world right. My father wasn’t that kind of daddy. In fact, in many ways I tried to save him. Battered by his own father, his wounds ran deep, and for many years, I thought it was my job to heal them.
I didn’t need an omnipotent daddy – my road in life is one of independence and competence and adventure – exploring the unknown landscape, seeing the beauty in a desert drenched in full moon light. I suspect that is in my DNA.
I know my mother read my father’s 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.
For some reason, I never went back and read them, until today. They are written on delicate tissue-like paper – the kind of paper you used back then to send a letter via airmail. They were mostly written at night, just before he went to bed. His handwriting is not always easy to read – I have to get the context to decipher some words. Each letter ends with “I love you and miss you.”
My father died sixteen years ago. He had Alzheimer’s so really, he’s been gone for longer than that. He’s been gone so long, that I don’t exactly miss him. I’ve grown used to him not being here.
It was obviously hard on him, being away from us. Missing two years of our childhood, my brothers’ and mine. But, he did some pretty great things in his absence. He explored worlds few Americans knew of or experienced fifty years ago. He paved the way for us to join him, described the route we would take to finally reach him. When we had the opportunity to travel, he put us on a Dutch freighter so we could spend 75 days seeing worlds that were exotic and remote back then.
He allowed us to taste what he had tasted.
And, because of his absence, I have a record of how he felt about us, his family. Wistful yearnings for us mixed with the stories of life in a landscape far removed from our daily landscape. Tender feelings. Feelings as delicate as the paper he wrote them on.