When my father died there was a long period of sadness in our family. My mother sat on the verandah on summer evenings, gazing out over the lush grass and waterways, listening to the frogs and owls and crickets, as the moon rose, first a sliver, then half, then full, and eventually as absent as my father. If I moved correctly and found the angle, I could tell she was weeping, and she would look at me and smile, and I would not ask her to explain. It was obvious that no one could have loved a person more, or missed him more, than my mother did my father.
When the time came, she asked me to clear out his desk and bureau drawers, a task too painful for her to perform herself. And so I waited until she found a need to finally be with her sister, on the coast, in the city of trolleys. Then I drove the four hours up to the old house – the one I had grown up in, crossing over the bridge at the stream, on down through the fields and irrigation ditches. She had gotten a neighbor to take over the task of managing the cattle. All twelve of them. They were Black Angus, and the day I arrived they dotted the field, black against green, standing in water and lush grass, with mountains rising in the background — some of them still streaked with lingering snow fields.
The desk was in his study. They key was where it had always lain, on a ledge that divided the pine paneling that stopped three feet from the ceiling. It was a cherry wood desk with drawers that curved outward, instead of being flat across the front — a piece of furniture I cherished and hoped I would someday inherit, depending on the whim of my older brother, who lived in New York and, because he was my older brother, would probably get the first choice.
I went through the entire desk, beginning with the pigeonholes, the drawers above them, and finally the lower drawers. I placed the contents by category into stationery boxes I found in his closet. I sorted through various instruments for writing, measuring, painting. There were tools and pieces of machinery that he had felt the need of having in a safe, findable place — and probably never used again. As I picked through his things, I smelled his smell — a cross between Edgeworth pipe tobacco and the smell I could glean from my own scalp if I rubbed it with my hand and then smelled my fingers. I think I was looking for him, as I explored, as if he would suddenly speak to me and touch my arm and remove his pipe and smile his guileless smile and say: “Have I ever told you I love you?”
Not that he had ever said that, but it seemed as if he might, as I touched his things — the things that were in his personal, private realm where no women, not even my mother went. This feeling of being close to him increased as I approached his chest of drawers, with its twisting, spiraling columns of mahogany, extending up from the legs to the top surface. There were fluted glass drawer handles the color of mother of pearl and abalone.
Then came the top drawer. This was the inner sanctuary, the place where the smell of him was strongest. This was where his most private self dwelt, the place where he kept things: arrow heads, batteries, bits of pumice, old eye glasses, parts of musical instruments, a pink plastic lobster peg which always said he wished he had invented, an old wooden flute, a compact Leica monocular which also showed where level was, for birding, left to him by a German business acquaintance. And tucked back from the socks he kept in the front of the drawer, under the monocular, I found a package wrapped in light blue onion paper and tied with a piece of honey-colored fishing line his own small factory had braided nearly twenty years before.
I opened the package, slowly, with the apprehension of a thief, suspecting the private the letters they turned out to be – love letters from my mother to him. I made myself a mint tea and took the letters out onto the porch and sat for a while in the chair my mother normally sat in evenings as she wept for him and watched the moon come and go. I suppose I read them with a sense of some kind of entitlement. After all, who of us can quite imagine the intimacy between one’s parents? For which there should be some kind of proof, visited just once, and then the matter would is resolved.
The very first letter surprised me for it frankness. How long could they have known each other, I wondered. She described their evenings together, how they met at the stream between the adjoining farms, the bed of grass, lying among the Indian Paint Brushes, touching each other, joining, on dry land, in lukewarm irrigation overflow, over the roots of poplars. It was shockingly frank. Even the handwriting seemed infected by the directness and seemed foreign and different. And then I slowly realized that the handwriting was too different. And, when I reached the end of that particular letter, there was a name I did not know – only that it was not my mother’s.
I found a date that was only ten years before, and then I checked through the rest of the letters and found they had come as recently as a month before he died and that none of them had been post marked, and must therefore have been left somewhere for him.
When I had finished, the sun had set and the cattle had moved closer to the barn to soak up the warmth still reflected by its grey vertical siding. The moon came up, now an indifferent enemy. There were crickets, owls screeching out over the fields, gliding with unfair stealth, and occasionally a frog from one of the ditches whose song, uninvited, mingled with my own soft blubbering tears and confusion. All of which, I suppose, if observed from the proper angle, could have been explained or not, depending on your point of view.
I walked through the silvery moonlight, avoiding cow patties, to the narrow irrigation stream that divided our farm from the neighbors – people I did not know – to the poplar grove where the stream into a pool, out of sight from everything but the mountains and their lingering snow. For a moment, I considered knocking on the neighbor’s door. If a woman answered – the Latina I thought she might be – and she recognized the letters, and if it was safe, I would give them to her. But in the end, I lit a small fire, which reflected orange in the eyes of all twelve Black Angus, who had followed me, I suspect out of curiosity as to why a human would walk their fields at night. I opened each letter, crumpled it up, and fed it to the fire. Half way through, it occurred to me that some of the letters were from my mother to him. But I kept on going. I had already violated his privacy, and now I would restore it – all of it. And as I burned, before my highly interested ear-tagged witnesses, I considered, more calmly now, whether there is such a thing as the mystery of love, complicated but still legitimate, and whether it should be explained or, like my father’s top bureau drawer, even gone into at all.