Finally, I hold them in my hand. Five letters, hand-written on translucent onionskin paper and sealed in light blue airmail envelopes bearing red and white 8-cent U.S. Air Mail stamps. The stack of letters had been whispering to my unconscious mind ever since I’d read them shortly after my father’s death in 1991. I’d read them only once. The letters were so poignant, and their effect on me so strong, that whenever I revisited the file box in which they’d been stored, I gingerly avoided them.
The letters are from a woman my father dated in the 1960s, after my parents’ divorce. I remember Bobbi: a pretty, petite woman with chin-length dark hair, animated eyes and a ready smile. I was shy as a twelve-year-old, but Bobbi won me over, in spite of my initial shock at visiting her apartment and seeing my father’s shaving things in her bathroom—a detail I confided to my mother when I returned home that night. Even so, I was impressed to meet a published writer and editor of children’s books. I sensed right away that Bobbi was a dynamic, accomplished person (something I aspired to) who genuinely loved my father (something we shared).
I’d stashed the letters high in my hallway closet, in a box containing my father’s army discharge papers, his cancelled life insurance policy, business cards printed on yellowing card stock, travel itineraries, letters and postcards. Among boarding passes to London, Amsterdam and Tokyo, 100-yen notes, and papers from the Veteran’s Administration and Social Security, I find packets of photos. At electronics industry dinners, my mother sits beside my father, the two of them looking as glamorous as movie stars. In later photos, my father appears without my mother, but always with a woman leaning into him or glancing coyly in his direction. After the divorce, my father dated lots of women, sometimes his pretty young secretaries. These affairs didn’t last long, because, as he put it, he didn’t want to “get serious.”
“Do you think you’ll ever get married again, Dad?” I once asked.
“No,” he replied, and when I asked him why not, he said simply, “I don’t want to get divorced again.”
When I was six and a half, my father left New York to establish a business in California, leaving my mother, my older brother and me behind. Over the years, he sent letters containing evidence of his sunny new life: A snapshot of him water skiing, slalom, the very first time he tried. Postcards from Lake Tahoe, Mexico, Japan—a wider world that my father intended to enjoy as much as possible.
A Brooklyn boy who’d lived through the Depression, my father had quit high school to get a job. He was working as a shipping clerk at Harvey Radio when friends introduced him to my mother, a curvy, auburn-haired, Bronx-born model of sweaters and bathing suits. Handsome Sy and beautiful Flo couldn’t wait to marry. They eloped before my father joined the army. Later, when my dad was on leave, they had a “real” wedding for the benefit of their parents.
After several years at Harvey Radio, my father was ready to venture out on his own. When a colleague invited him to form a partnership in L.A., he decided to go for it. It was just for a while, my mother reassured me; when my father was settled, we’d join him. I lived in that promise. A year and a half later, my mother, brother and I joined him in Burbank—a shock for his cosmopolitan wife and kids. We were used to Manhattan, and here we were in a suburb, a foreign lifestyle no matter how lovely the smog-diffused sunsets over the foothills.
It was a dream-come-true to see my parents reunited. I watched, shyly thrilled, as they slow-danced in the living room of our Burbank apartment. But as much as I enjoyed family outings to Knoxbury Farm and Hearst Castle, I missed my friends at home. I couldn’t get used to my new school, and when it rained the water rose to my knees for lack of sewers in the earthquake-prone valley. As the weeks passed, a preoccupied expression settled on my mother’s face. The experiment lasted six months. When my mother, brother, and I returned to New York, the word “separation” was replaced with a new, whispered word: Divorce.
Now I had parents on two ends of the country. My mother, to whom I clung with renewed fervor, on my side; on the other, my father, a long distance voice on the phone, except for annual four-day appearances when a business trip would bring him to New York. I’d await his arrival in thrilled anticipation. Finally, the doorbell would ring and I’d greedily inhale his unique smell of cigarette smoke and shaving cream as I was held at last in his arms.
The days that followed were a dream of held hands and shy smiles. I clung to his hand on excursions to the top of the Empire State Building and climbing the narrow staircase in the Statue of Liberty’s torch. We went shopping at Franklin Simon where he treated me to a pink and white checked dress and afterward, an ice cream sundae. While visiting his Long Island relatives, I sat with my arm wrapped around his leg and leaned my cheek against the light wool of his trousers while he stood chatting, scotch in hand, the ice cubes in his glass tinkling like small, celebratory chimes.
The first letter is postmarked September 1964. It begins in clear, legible print.
“It’s pretty revoltin’—I’ve been here two weeks and haven’t done a thing… Haven’t moved in… haven’t done much of anything but wonder why I’m here in the first place… Gawd, how uncheery can I get?”
From what I can surmise, Bobbi had been living in California, became romantically involved with my father, and then returned to New York to look for a job. The letters, a bridge across their geographical separation, were written four years after my parents’ divorce, when my father was 44 years old, and Bobbi, I guess, was in her mid-thirties.
The letter continues:
“Can you help? From a distance? Wouldn’t that be NICE? love you”
Her plaintive plea reaches me. Like Bobbi, I’ve had plenty of experience of long distance longing. I note the lower case letters of the tentative final two words: underplaying the sentiment, defusing pressure. The letter is unsigned—intimacy requires no signature.
The next letter, written 2 days later, is typewritten.
“Sy dear, You’ve gone away again. It’s the times when I reach out gropingly, and you just aren’t there that unravel me a bit. ARE you there, Semory?”
I can’t help noticing the careful way she expresses her pain while making light of it. I wonder how many drafts she wrote, and whether she chose to type for fear her handwriting would betray her.
The letter shifts into a newsy style, catching up on mutual friends, mentioning phone conversations she’d had with my brother and me. Clearly, she’s serious enough about my Dad to stay in touch with his two kids. She notes that she’s looking for a job.
If I do get a job, I’ll have to worry a bit less… or look around for new things to worry about. Like you... But I’ll try to fix it so that you’ll hardly know the difference.”
She’s still denying her feelings, trying to fix things, trying to please him, all the way to the upbeat ending, complete with physical gesture:
“Pat, pat, pat, honey. Did I thank you for the card? I read every single pat, pot and patsy.”
I feel the physical gesture in this wordplay; the comforting pat, followed by playful punning. How light we women feel compelled to make of our needs and desires, for fear of being rejected.
Reading Bobbi’s letters, a pang goes through me. These are my father’s personal effects: not just records of random life events, but also the effect he personally had on others. Including me. My entire life has been spent missing him, trying to deny my need, and replaying the original drama.
When I was a child, my father and I had our own private game. I’d climb into his lap and play damsel in distress to his rendition of pirate. “I’ve got you in my power, me fair beauty, ha-haaa!” he’d cry, his tooth with the gold crown flashing as he grinned, then rubbed his rough, whiskered cheek against my own tender one, scooped me up into his arms and tickled me until I shrieked with joy. He was right, I was fully in his power, and I loved it. Then the game was over. Although I understood the explanations offered by my mother and father, life was never the same after my father left for California. And never again would I feel in his presence the trusting abandon I felt in childhood.
As far back as I can remember, I always knew the boys I loved would leave me. I knew this with such conviction that as soon as love appeared on the horizon, from the very first kiss or empathic moment or pang of physical longing, I would begin mourning their loss. I then went about making it happen. “I’m too messed up to be in a relationship,” I told the devoted, patient boys who loved me, and later grieved when I watched them pair up with girls who weren’t conflicted about getting involved. When one admirer fell in love and got married, I sobbed through their wedding, even though I had done my best to keep him at arm’s length for a decade of devoted attention. And even when I’d find someone as skittish as I was, their fear of intimacy would often reverse itself after a couple of years of tussling with me.
In my early twenties I fell in love with David, a guitar-playing poet. When he moved in with me, I was deeply immersed in our shared domestic happiness. But within a couple of years, I became depressed and claustrophobic. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, I’d become so anxious that in an effort to calm down I’d throw on my coat and run around and around a two-block radius of our apartment. Following the advice of a therapist, I asked David, to his surprise, to move out of the domestic nest we’d established, to give me “space.” After he moved out, I promptly fell apart, filled with self-reproach for having destroyed the one stable relationship in my life, and at six-and-a-half years, the longest.
Three years later, in spite of intermittent attempts to get back together, David married a beautiful, accomplished young woman. In the emotional purgatory that followed, I met Bob, a charming, sexy California loner with vivid blue eyes, unruly dark curls, athletic build, and wild sense of humor. He water-skied, slalom, like my Dad, and like my Dad he had trouble forming attachments. His feelings against marriage were so vehement that he boycotted friends’ weddings. Bob and I did a sado-masochistic tango, breaking up and getting back together a dozen times over a six-and-a-half year period, after which he moved back to California.
“Has it ever occurred to you,” asked a close friend after Bob and I parted, “that your two major relationships lasted six-and-a-half years—the exact age you were when your father left?” She was right, of course; how could I have missed something so obvious? The pattern soon changed; after David and Bob, my relationships became progressively shorter in a countdown to middle age: three years, two years, one-and-a-half, one.
Tucked in among my father’s papers I find a small stack of cards and letters, and recognize my youthful handwriting on the envelopes. It seems my father had kept every greeting card and letter I’d ever sent him. I read my brief greetings, carefully hand-lettered, each one bearing some variation on the words “I love you.” One Christmas card was sent along with several black and white photos of me taken by David in the early 1970s. We’d gone for a walk in midtown on a cold December day specifically to take pictures to send my father. In the one my father chose to frame I look at the camera wide-eyed and smiling, my usually long hair, recently cropped in an attempt to please David (was it a coincidence that my Dad also favored women with stylish short hair?) blowing in feathery layers around my face. Another photo shows me hovering in mid-air. “Think of your father,” David had said, and I leapt up and clicked my heels.
Another Christmas, after David and I had separated, I sent my father a small woodblock print made especially for him—an abstract, jagged-looking sun design carved out of a black background, and inscribed below in pencil with a quote from Yeats: “We must laugh and we must sing, we are blessed by everything; everything we look upon is blessed.” Holidays back then were a time of intense anguish for me, and I see in these cards and letters a transparent attempt to create, at least on paper, some semblance of a solid emotional life.
For decades I’ve hoarded bags and boxes of letters, photos, sketchbooks—every scrap of paper that held meaning for me. Every few years I’d drag down them down from “the attic” to pore over, then stash them away again in the dark closet. Among them were David’s postcards from London the summer he went on vacation without me, telling me what a great time he was having, and that he thought of me every day. There were also several un-mailed cards and letters to David that I didn’t have the guts to send, in which I confessed how desolate I was to be alone in the hot city while he was off in London. I can imagine that the ones I did send must have been penned to please, belying my need for the emotional security I didn’t feel worthy of demanding.
At some point, I tossed most of these letters and cards, keeping only a few essential ones; a decision I came to regret. How could I know what they might have revealed to me the next time I saw them? Even so, the memories they evoke still ache within me.
Now, looking at my carefully phrased letters and cards to my father, I am reminded of Bobbi’s letters, and feel a sudden sisterhood.
In the next letter, September 21, 1964, Bobbi takes a new tack.
“Dear N.G.R.I.M (No Good. Rotten. Impossible. Miserable. Kindly familiarize yourself with the symbols.)
Aha! She may be joking, but at least she’s expressing some of her frustration.
“I use my radio to sing me to sleep. It plays N.Y. music too.” (The radio was probably a gift from my electronics-savvy father.) “Nothing newsy. Just wanted you to know I was thinking about you. I’m really managing nobly – I think – but for some peculiar reason when I think of you (pretty dam frequently) I get misty eyed. NOW THIS HAS GOT TO STOP! Like look how embarrassing this can be. Some joker pulls out a pack of Paxtons – Instant red eyes! Walkie talking in a store window – splash! And two people kissing – umbrellas – for this! And the pollen count is 2, which cancels out hayfever and anyhow I miss you consistently only some times more than others –
You rat –
How eloquently her letter evokes her sadness and longing. Yet she also comes close to expressing real anger, in her graceful way, before voicing a clear demand in her postscript:
“Honey – it’s so good to talk to you, that as soon as I move (next week, maybe) I’m contemplating a direct line – OK?”
“See if you can’t manage to miss me MAGNIFICENTLY
– at least,
What was with my father? Couldn’t he tell that this creative, loving woman was worth keeping around? Or was he so addicted to the joys of bachelorhood?
Wake up! I want to tell him. She’s going to get away.
During a break from college in 1970, I visited my father in California. He was living in the most current of a series of furnished studio apartments he jokingly referred to as his “bachelor pad.” It had a breakfast nook where he’d stand sipping his instant coffee (a habit that persisted in spite of my gift of a Melitta filter cone and a pound of fresh-ground gourmet Columbian) before setting out into the dazzling California sunshine, reflected everywhere by adobe walls and turquoise swimming pools. His love of life out West was apparent as he showed off some prized possessions: a soft antelope skin jacket and a pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots. His bookshelves contained a few volumes of Readers Digest Condensed Books and stacks of National Geographic magazines (I inherited the magazines after my Dad’s death). Among the few pictures displayed on the walls were a photo of my mother and me, and a framed etching I’d made of a sprouted avocado seed with long dangling roots.
My father maintained an active social life and didn’t spend much time alone in his apartment. Sometimes, I noticed, he left the television and radio on simultaneously, perhaps to ward off loneliness. But otherwise he seemed to enjoy the freedom and simplicity of his bachelor’s lifestyle, as open and uncluttered as the wide California sky.
Letter number four, dated 12/31/64:
“Tap. Tap. Tap.
“(Very lightly, with the fingertips.)
“There just isn’t any way to tell you (other than tap tap tap) what I’m feeling now. – and honey – I promise that I’m not gonna be able to do any better later. Cause there just aren’t words. A jumble of confusions—absolute positives—maybes—a rosy haze of lovelys—a shine of gratefuls—a smattering of tears and sighs—some lonelys—some remembrances and some beautiful dreams of yesterday and tomorrow—
“Pat. Pat. Pat.
A very hopeful, happy new year—and please don’t forget that seat is occupied.”
Again, the word play unsettles me. Pat pat, and tap tap—code words for the intimate language of touch. I picture slender fingers tapping my father’s chest, his familiar square-palmed hand patting a reply on Bobbi’s shoulder, two lovers finding comfort in one another’s physical presence. How sad her tone is. I already know what’s coming. But did he?
Final letter, December 1966.
“Si dear –
“I’m gonna get married.
“Until I wrote that down, I didn’t believe it. It just didn’t seem likely. The thought has been bouncing around in my head for a while—the pros and cons ping-ponging like crazy—invariably to wind up with ‘but what about Sy?’. I’ve hassled with this to a bitter end.
“Letting go is rough. You are very much a part of me. What you do—what you want to do. How you feel. How you think. These things are mighty important to me. They always were. They always will be. As important tomorrow as they were yesterday.
“But suddenly tomorrow is maddeningly enigmatic—and for the first time, tomorrow frightens me. I seem to be preparing for it very badly.
“So I’m taking a giant step, with a wish and a prayer and a hope that this will be right for me, and selfishly, not wrong for you.
“As ever, Bobbi
“P.S. I just have to talk to you—Is it all right if I call?”
A final blank page printed with pale green flowers.
This is the point where I had become so sick at heart that I buried the letters in my closet. I couldn’t bear the thought that my father’s choices had resulted in loneliness and regret during the final years of his life. It terrified me.
Like my dad, I’ve had opportunities to “settle down” with a loving partner but I’ve held out, each time hoping the next one would be better. Even when I’ve ended relationships myself, I’ve mourned their loss as if grieving a death, yet never doubted that their demise was inevitable. After surviving a series of anguished breakups, I’ve become accustomed to living alone, undistracted from my work and free from criticism or demands. But sometimes, after too many hours at the computer, or when I catch myself playing the radio and television simultaneously, I think of my father. His shadow falls on my life in other ways. Like him, I’m self-employed. I tend to fall in love with strikingly handsome men who are ambivalent about commitment, or who live thousands of miles away.
Now, reading the letters a second time, I find myself rooting for Bobbi. Good for you, I think; you finally stood up for yourself and got what you needed. Sadly, my father lost out.
After Bobbi, my father had a series of flings before finding the woman who would be the final installment in his romantic life: Bev, an attractive, red-haired, sharp-witted widow. Before long, my father was included in family holidays, Bev’s children got to know him, and my brother and I got to know Bev—but only too briefly. My father’s microscopic handwriting, his odd, running gait, the tremor in his hands and bobbing head were diagnosed as symptoms of Parkinson’s disease when he was barely fifty. My father resisted Bev’s desire to marry until the progression of his disease was undeniable. Then, when the head bobbing, trembling, stumbling, and car accidents had gotten the better of him, he proposed. With great sadness, Bev turned him down. She had nursed her husband through a protracted struggle with cancer. She simply could not do it again.
Within just a few years, my father was back in New York and living in a nursing home, cheered mainly by regular visits from the daughter he’d abandoned so many years before.
In his final years, my father would sometimes look at me wistfully and say, “I hope you’ll find someone to take care of you.” I’d bristle a little at his words. Wasn’t the whole point to become autonomous so as not to need someone, so that just in case that person left, I wouldn’t be devastated the way I was when my father left so many years ago? And when I finally had him close to me, back in New York because he’d formed no lasting roots in California, he left again, permanently.
The year I turned forty, when my father’s death left its indelible mark on my life, I started to think seriously about my own future. Did I want to live alone forever? And who would be with me at the end of my life?
Since then, I’ve become more open to the challenge of commitment, and also more content with my work- and friend-filled life. My boyfriend of the past four years—who happens to bear a striking facial resemblance to my father—lives in Europe. Every few months we spend three concentrated weeks together, after which I return to living alone, free to do as I please. It’s a compromise that works for both of us, at least for now.
I pack the letters carefully away, grateful that my father preserved them. I wonder how long they sat unread in the closets of his various West Coast “bachelor pads.” I wonder if he ever took them out and read them, and whether their meaning had changed for him over time. Hidden away in the “attic” of my New York City “bachelorette” apartment, the letters are now part of my life story, a point where his and my stories meet.