Scheherazade – XII — Love Letters
A remembrance of my father's letters to his wife and children.
If you wrote my father a letter, he would write you back.
You could count on it. Usually he’d write at length and most likely the same day. He was an utterly reliable correspondent. He showed up in correspondence in the same way he showed up for his joint-custody weekends, effortlessly and consistently. Barring business travel he was there for his sons every weekend of our childhoods, one after the other, year in and year out, dedicated until you almost stopped noticing.
When we were very young, his letters would come for us from his travels. To Master Chris. To Master Adam. They’d be penned on hotel stationery or company letterhead. Their language and tone would be calibrated for our age, letting us know what Poppy was working on so far away, whether his business plans were going to expectation, what work associates in these faraway places he admired or disliked, and what new or amazing things he had stumbled across. “ I watched men wearing kites jump from cliffs this morning!”
Of course he’d tell us when he’d be back, how much he missed us, and how much better it would be if we were there or he were here. The letters had a gentle, gracious spirit – of sacrifice and service for the beloved, of effortless adoration, of longing, and of tender expectations for homecoming.
As a condition of their marriage, my mother insisted, negotiated really, that she be allowed to travel to Europe and Egypt before the wedding in England. There’s some hesitancy writing “allowed to travel,” but it was 1961, and a fear around the balance of matrimonial power was at the heart of it. My mother predicted – and was beginning to read about with disturbing frequency – the collapse of a woman’s freedoms in marriage. She imagined her doors of opportunity closing, a financial and intellectual sequestration, an ominous curtaining, a wall rising. Marriage would be one long string of “I’m really not sure that would best, dear” until she was imprisoned in the basement, scratching her days of captivity into the wet concrete over the washing machine.
The two of them were never in accord on husband-wife roles, the fracture lines in evidence from the start, both of them distrustful of the other, both of them right to be wary, neither able to articulate their anxiety and neither of them up front about it. They also shared the mutual disadvantage of not being particularly good listeners. That the bride disappeared for months before the wedding should have been a clear warning shot, but my father was eager to close the deal, and he agreed to her terms. They set their London wedding date and kissed good-bye. Off she went on her travels, trekking the continents with her sister, as wild-hearted, free-wheeling and vagabond as she.
Marriage would be one long string of “I’m really not sure that would best, dear” until she was imprisoned in the basement, scratching her days of captivity into the wet concrete over the washing machine.
My mother would have spent that winter and spring checking in at the front desks of hotels across Europe and Africa inquiring after those “letters from Barry,” and she would not often have been disappointed. There are so many saved letters from the trip that it is as if he wrote them out of a personal lover’s challenge. He must have penned them nightly, or almost nightly, hunkered over the typewriter the way he did, mouth slightly ajar in concentration, tongue tip delicately scraping the upper teeth, eyes squinting in concentration, stabbing away with his two forefingers, thinking of his bride, forgotten cigarettes burning in the ashtray, the tear-away pages of a daily wall calendar peeling off behind him like in the old movies.
There were even days with multiple letters, carrying news of friends or the tea leaves on some exciting bit of publishing business. There were exact quotes of received compliments from executives he admired, not to mention tender compliments for my mother and his warm, but strategically vague, dreams for their life together.
In the movies that my mother adored, and imagined herself living in, those blue airmail letters would have flown across a map of the Atlantic on animated red trails. She would have watched postal trucks in ten languages and four different alphabets bringing those letters to her. In the rear of frame bicycle postal carriers would have passed the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sphinx to set the scene.
The letters would have fluttered this way and that over the entirety of Europe, my father’s charming back-of-envelope illustrations of rose bouquets tumbling through the air, floating on Parisian updrafts just over her head in the market, flipping past windowsill flower baskets, romantic postal workers in Italy topping them up with extra stamps, the letters slipping into Albanian fig baskets, smuggled across Communist checkpoints, finding their way onto Greek fishing boats, sailing off to island monasteries, fluttering in the sea breeze, pinned beneath open bottles of Metaxa.
A decade later, there’s a tragic reprise.
Again there are letters to Europe in droves. But now it’s different. My mother has taken the children to Italy in the fallout of a collapsed marriage. My father is back at his desk and at his blue airmail paper, writing, writing, writing, jolted into sobriety by the family exodus, looking for publishing work in earnest, rebuilding his life in a shell-shocked stupor, surviving in a small apartment on the Upper West Side. And again his lover’s communication rises up becoming almost a force of nature. Again he pens letters to a runaway bride, but now also to their children, the two boys, 7 and 9, letters to them collectively and individually, all of them so far away – and cruelly far away because they were far away on purpose.
Most nights now Juliet is missing at the balcony. Or she’s there, but she’s frowning. Or whispering offstage to her sister or to the ladies-in-waiting. There’s laughter he can’t make out, voices he doesn’t recognize, faces he can’t see. He still rehearses their future in the letters, playing both parts, sweating into his greasepaint, trying to pump life back into the wrinkling balloon of the marriage, into the resentment and disappointment at his exposed magic trick.
My father was still the lover who would always be there, drunk or sober, who would not leave you or cheat on you, who would mate you for life like the rare and exotic bird, who could still write you back every night till the end of time, or charm you and make you laugh, brilliant and funny, and he could still do it like no one’s business. He still had the magician’s patter and panache, but the magic was exhausted. And the magician was exhausted. It just wasn’t enough.
He still rehearses their future in the letters, playing both parts, sweating into his greasepaint, trying to pump life back into the wrinkling balloon of the marriage, into the resentment and disappointment at his exposed magic trick.
The letters to his children that year are charged with the weight of this sadness and loss, too much and often inappropriately for children their age, but they also brim over with love and admiration for his boys, a love that his whole life he would never direct at anyone else with the same confidence and intensity as he did with his two sons.
My father was surprised, blindsided even, by how much he loved his children. He came late to fatherhood and didn’t expect the intimacy and personal connection that he found there. He didn’t anticipate the sense of direct identity he would have with his boys. It’s as if he thought his children would be strangers he would get to know, by and by, from across some agreeable paternal divide, from over the upper edge of the New York Times, or through the rear view mirror angled cleverly into the backseat.
They would have his name and they would be “his” children, but they would be selected at random somehow, from some impersonal child lottery far away, his children arriving with arbitrary personalities and traits, apart from him, cordoned off, a certain preconfigured distance in play from the start, like his not being allowed into the delivery room. And, as it was in so much of his world, so it would be with his children as well. They would be slightly apart, behind a psychological display window. They would be lovely, but not his own – in the same way that other people’s lovely children are lovely – but not your own.
They were so familiar these children. Their intelligence. Their promise. Their wit. Their gentleness. The kind eyes. The childlike delight in the world. They were like a beautiful song he was sure he’d heard before. It was as if they were born on the tip of his tongue.
But when his children were born there was a surprise, almost from the start. He recognized them somehow, inside and out, even if he didn’t know how or from where. They weren’t strangers at all. And this sense of recognition grew and grew, the pattern becoming more apparent to him with every year, drawing smiles from him suddenly and at odd times, when he was on long walks in the city or during business dinners. They were so familiar these children. Their intelligence. Their promise. Their wit. Their gentleness. The kind eyes. The childlike delight in the world. They were like a beautiful song he was sure he’d heard before. It was as if they were born on the tip of his tongue. But from where?
From where? From where?
The answer, anyone could see, was directly before the confounded.
They were his own beautiful features and traits, the ones submerged from his view, or distorted or hidden in plain sight. They were the parts of him that he denied or was spiritually unable to acknowledge. They were parts he diminished or loathed in his own person. These parts of him were like vulnerable children who had been isolated by quarantine, or punishments in closets, or the laughing stocks. They were the parts that held his wit and his promise. They had his kind eyes, his childlike delight. These were the parts of him you couldn’t honor directly or you’d risk accessing a frustration that could rise to anger –almost as if you were mocking him.
But now his most beautiful qualities were sneaking in from behind and around and below like vines. They were flowering up, pulling on his leg, asking to be picked up, looking at him directly and without guile, Love itself moving only inches from his face, pulling off his glasses and laughing, patting his bald head, making the days beautiful with soft smiles and clever children’s thoughts. His having children was not just an opportunity for him to love his children. It was an opportunity for him to love himself. Life had, in its own time and rather effortlessly, outsmarted him.
And for the entire year of scorched earth that his children lived in Italy, in the aftermath of a failed marriage, a failed magazine, months of unemployment, alcoholism, and aching depression, my father, hanging on by a thread, sat down in the evenings after AA meetings and wrote the most beautiful and heartfelt letters of his life to his two sons. He wrote letters charged with his deep sadness but also brimming with warm adoration, with brave calls for courage and fortitude and unconditional love. And without ever knowing it, he also wrote to the quarantined, the ridiculed, and the punished.
Feel something. Twice a week.