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 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.