Thursday, August 24, 2017

Lost and Found

It must have been 1994 or 5. My ex-girlfriend was home from college for Christmas. We had begun sleeping together again, as we often did when we were both home over holiday breaks. Her mother was living in a one-bedroom apartment on Sutter and Jones in the City. The neighborhood, which later became known as the Tendernob, was a uniquely urban one, bordered by Michelin-starred Fleur de Lys at one end and St. Anthony’s soup kitchen at the other. In between, theater goers in Wilkes Bashford suits and I Magnin gowns mixed blithely with drunks, junkies, and tourists, in a delicate Herb Caenian romance that may never have existed but is clear in the age-enhanced memories of 20th Century San Franciscans. I climbed those hills, arm in arm with a woman I suspected I would marry, our sweat cooled by Carl the fog. We’d sneak in, close to midnight, through their medievally heavy door at the end of a carpeted third-floor hallway.  Her mother slept on the couch when my ex was home for the holidays. We had eager, muffled sex, careful not to mention whoever we were seeing back at school. Early in the morning, sometimes without sleep, I’d creep out, back into Carl’s arms, and begin my drive north across the Golden Gate Bridge.
On this particular night, I’d parked my blue Honda Accord halfway up the block. We’d celebrated Christmas at my Jewish mother’s house the night before, a new development brought on by her recent marriage to an Armenian man from Oakland. My mother had given me two gifts, my step-father one. His was a quilted San Francisco Giants Starter jacket. It’s hard to imagine just how much joy this brought me in the mid-nineties. It was a clear attempt to buy my love by a man who didn’t yet know he didn’t need to. My birth parents had been separated for nearly 20 years by then. I had no memory of them ever being together. My mother had finally found a man who made her happy and treated her as I suspected she’d always hoped someone would. He took her to the opera. He took her to Europe. He always paid for dinner and he never got angry. I was sold.
It was my mother’s gifts that I’d wanted to show to my ex. One was a hand-carved wooden box that, in my memory, was supposed to house my collected works and ephemera. She had seeded the box with a letter she’d kept since 1970. I had never seen it before. The letter was addressed to my father, her ex-husband. When she gave it to me, she explained that she wasn’t sure why she’d ended up with it, but that she was sure my father would want me to have it. It was from my late grandmother, my father’s mother. Her name was Eunice Pearson, but everyone called her Nunie. She died of stomach cancer in 1980, when I was six. Then and now, my memories of her are among the most vivid I have. My father and I took several seasonal trips to her house when I was young. She glided around her Iowa City kitchen in a plush house coat, spreading Christmas like fairy dust, teaching me to make cinnamon rolls, and never ever losing patience with me. She was the warmest person I’ve ever known and also the most universally loved. In truth, I think she was the reason my mother married my father in the first place.
My grandmother's letter would have reached her recently wedded son when he was 23 or so, living with his new bride, my mother, on an Army base in Oklahoma. By the time it fell into my hands, its author had been dead for 15 years. The letter was a kind of apology or, perhaps, an acknowledgement; one she’d needed to make for a long time, but had never quite known how. My father was the youngest of three boys. The oldest, my Uncle Bill, blessed with his mother’s twinkling eyes and room-filling charisma, died in a tragic diving accident as a teenager. Uncle Dick, the middle child, had been born with his umbilical cord around his neck. The resulting loss of oxygen caused brain damage and what was then called mental retardation. He lived with his parents until he became violent toward his younger brother, my father. As his young man’s strength grew, my grandparents felt it had become unsafe or, at least, unwise for him to remain with the family. He was sent to live in “a home” in Missouri and remained there until he died, 50-odd years later. My father grew up in these shadows. 
          In her letter, my grandmother, seemingly for the first and only time, was acknowledging that my father had borne the burden of his fraternal crosses; the weight of the family resting on his narrow boy’s shoulder. It must have been hard, she wrote, and they had never told him that, all along, they’d understood just how hard. And maybe they should have. And maybe it was too late now. But too late was better than never, she hoped. Now that he was grown and married and bound to start a family of his own, she wanted him to know that she knew. And she was sorry.
I wept for a long time when I read the letter. I’d always understood my father’s childhood through a series of oft-repeated, humorous anecdotes. As a child, I’d begged him through belly laughs to retell the stories. Like the one where my grandfather had been sent to Drumheller, Alberta at the age of nine, in the depths of the Depression, to find the father who’d abandoned him and his mother to homestead on the frozen tundra. He took the train across the border alone, used his life savings to buy a mule at the station, and rode for three days through the freezing snow and wind until he found his father. They spent the winter together. It was awful. And then my grandfather went home to Iowa. Ha!
Or the time when oldest brother Bill had run around the neighborhood in the middle of the night, waking the neighbors to announce the birth of his new baby brother, Charles Joseph Pearson. When my grandparents returned from the hospital, one neighbor after another rang the bell, asking to see little Charles Joseph. “Who?” my grandparents asked. “The baby, of course?”  And so it was that my soon-to-be-dead uncle named his baby brother, without his parent’s permission, and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it. Guffaw!
Or the time when, after decades apart, my father had gone to see Uncle Dick at the home in Missouri. The attendants brought Dick down from his room and the long lost brothers spent the day together. Though they didn’t recognize each other at first, the hours they spent together in the pool and the game room, walking the grounds and sharing meals, had felt like something real. My father returned to his nearby hotel feeling for the first time in his adult life like he had a meaningful connection with his one living brother. The following morning, he went back to the home to have breakfast with Dick before going to the airport to fly home. When the attendant appeared in the dining room, she was escorting someone my father didn’t recognize. “Who’s this?” my father asked. “Dick Pearson,” came the answer. Dick and my father breakfasted together in near silence. My father drove to St. Louis and flew home. He never did find out who that first guy was. But it sure as hell wasn’t his brother. Hillarious!
My grandmother’s letter proved the old adage, comedy equals tragedy plus time. I’d always understood my father’s family history as a series of comic stories that all but defied belief. The letter racked my focus. Suddenly, my father, who’d always seemed impervious to pain, seemed to me a repository for it. How had I never seen this? And, more amazingly, how had he never shown it?
The letter spent the night in its wooden box in my car, carefully hidden under my new Starter jacket. My ex and I had been too busy flirting and screwing for me to bother her with it. Besides, if we were getting married someday, I knew there’d be more time.
I left the apartment, bathing in the wash of clandestine sex and the City’s pre-dawn mist. I approached my blue Accord and felt something crunch under my feet. Shattered glass littered the blacktop. I reached through the broken window, unlocked the door, and looked in the backseat. The jacket was gone. And so was the box with the letter.
There is some nameless emotion between sadness and anger; one that makes a person want to smash his hard fist against something harder, so that the tears that won’t fucking come might come easier. Why not just leave the box? It’s been 23 years and I still wonder why they had to take the box. 

My father called me last night. He and my step-mother were doing one of their semi-annual feng shui purges.
“You won’t believe what I just found,” he said. “It’s cassette tape that my mother and father made in 1979. They’re on a trip to Hawaii and they wanted to send something to you and me.”
He went on to say that my grandparents sound awkward, two old people unfamiliar with new fangled audiocassette technology. He also told me that their voices were unfamiliar to him. Maybe the tape was worn out or maybe he was getting old, but it amazed him that he wouldn’t recognize his own parents’ voices.
On the end of the tape, my father and five-year-old me recorded something to send back to them. “It sounds like you’re in the bathtub. This would have been the house on Porteous, I think. I thought your kids would get a kick out of hearing your voice at that age.”
He seemed tickled by the tape. I could imagine why. Another chapter in the book of funny stories about our family. But I could only think of the voice from beyond the grave. On this tape were, perhaps, the last words my grandmother ever spoke to me, followed by the last words I ever spoke to her. I doubt that what I hear will make up for what I lost, but I still don’t know. Right now, I’m afraid to listen.

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