My father died on the winter solstice of 1976, and, soon after, notes began to appear.
There are no hints given.
These biscotti are making me non-literary.
The moon has a ring. The air is cold.
My yawns weigh me down.
I write in the first person.
My third person says there is a book I must read: The German Language.
It is 800 pages long.
It’s beginning to turn light.
I am going for a walk.
Shall we have tea when I get back?
Do not forget I love you–Mary Ann
The paper was a faded purple. On the back of it, my father had written “January 3, 1948.”
Mary Ann was not my mother’s name.
My father had kept the note hidden. When he died, I had come right over to the house. The police had gone, the body taken away. That night, my mother drank a little whiskey, so she could sleep. I lay wide-awake on my father’s bed, looking at the ceiling. They had slept separately, in different room, because he snored. They visited back and forth. I lay listening. At last, my mother stopped crying, and after a while I heard her own soft sounds, like the breathing out of a young whale, slumbering on the surface of the sea, her mind resting, but still alert.
I got up and went through every inch of the room, doing what I had done all my life–looking for him. I found the note from Mary Ann under the paper lining of bottom bureau drawer. I returned it to its spot, until I could think what to do with it.
The next morning, my mother came into my room–my father’s room. She sat on the bed. She handed me a piece of paper. This one blue, with a sticky strip on one edge. It was a note my father had written her the day before.
Up at 5, gone for a walk,
we’ll have coffee together
when I’m back.
Don’t forget I love you.
Then he had gone to the river in his herringbone woolen overcoat, puffing on his pipe–a neighbor had seen him–went down past the mill pond, down the lane through pines, over glacier sand to the salt river skirted with ice, and slipped into the black water–without his pipe and coat, and his felt hat, which hung over a wooden post at the beginning of the Town Wharf.
After the memorial–my parents did not believe in funerals–we walked to the river. My mother went by car–my brother’s–still grieving too much to walk, and we threw wreathes of white flowers into the river and sang Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.
I had meant to retrieve the note from under the paper liner of the bottom drawer. I think I thought it was still somehow protected by force of the years it had already lain there. Plus, my parents had always respected each other’s privacy. Six months later, when she faced disposing of his things, my mother discovered the note.
The jealousy that seized her put her in the hospital, and, for a week, she nearly succumbed. When she returned, steadied between my brother and me, she asked us to assemble all my father’s papers, place them on the table beside her bed, and leave her alone. My brother produced an old journal. I asked him if he knew what was in it. He did not. He is several years older than me and claims some authority in important matters. He delivered it to my mother’s night table.
That night, she called me at my home in Cambridge. My wife and I had gone for a walk, and Cynthia, our daughter, talked to her grandmother for over an hour. She could not sleep, her grandmother said, without knowing what had become of Mary Ann. She had to talk to her, if she was still alive, and could I, Cynthia’s father, call her back immediately, no matter the hour, and pledge my support in this project. Then she and Cynthia–seventy-four and sixteen–talked about love and passion, and about the excruciating pain of jealousy felt in the permanent absence of the person one loved. And then she cursed Cynthia’s grandfather, and wept, and asked Cynthia if she believed in love, and whether she thought youthful passion meant more than love between those who are old.
Two years passed, and I spent many hours searching through records, telephoning relatives, interviewing my father’s surviving friends. And then I found Mary Ann, in West Arlington, alone in a brick house, with a black Labrador Retriever and a hired companion.
At first she pretended senility, the passage of years, forgetfulness, always disputing her identity as my father’s old love. After three visits I decided I would learn nothing, and I asked her to forgive me for the intrusion. Two days later, she called me. She could not sleep, she said. There were things to say, but they did not concern me. Would I come for her the next morning? She wished to talk with my mother. It would be a private meeting.
The next day was impossible for me, but the following Sunday I drove her to the house beside the lane. My brother had already arrived, to be with my mother as she waited. I led Mary Ann to the front door, the Labrador, Sonya, following behind. My mother opened–cordially, graciously, as she had always welcomed guests. She guided Mary Ann toward the living room and the snapping fire. At the door to the living room, she turned and asked my brother and me to walk to the river and see what the tide was. We protested we already knew what the tide was. She said we looked peaked–that was her expression–and we needed a walk. It would do us good.
My brother looked at me. Mary Ann said, “Could you walk Sonya? She loves the water. She could swim in the river. It’s a place she would love.” And my mother advanced on us, driving us back through the kitchen. Mary Ann clucked Sonya to the door. And together, the dog, my brother, and I stood in the yard, back from the windows, and watched the two women walk on aging legs back into the living room.
Snow fell around us in fine swirls. We moved around the outside of the house so we could look into the living room. We stood there, the three of us. It grew dark. Snow settled on our shoulders, on Sonya’s coat. We saw the old women nod their heads as they listened and talked, and–to our astonishment–laugh, not just once, but again and again. And then they cried and held each other. Then they looked at pictures from the photo album, and drank sherry, and then more sherry, and then our feet began to grow very cold.
Sonya had already found other things to do and wandered farther and farther away from the window, skirting the yard, sniffing for rabbits or squirrels, a skunk or a fox, she, a dark busy form against the whitening pines. Finally she pulled us away from the house, and we led her down the lane, past the mill pond, down over the glacier sands, crunching and squeaking in the dry fresh snow, until we reached the salt grass banks of the river and walked carefully out over the old boards of the Town Wharf. As we stepped up onto it, I briefly rested my hand on the top of the post where my father had hung his herringbone coat, his old brown felt hat, and, on top of that, his probably still lit pipe.
Sonya plunged–black against black–into the icy water and swam toward the opposite bank some two hundred feet away. A fuzzy moon hung over us. The river, already a few hours past flood tide, had changed direction and now rushed back to the sea, sweeping Sonya along with it. We called out to her in alarm, and feared a disaster, but she climbed up onto the opposite bank, far downstream, trotted back up-river through the frozen marsh, this time above us, reentered the water, and, calculating the drift of the current, returned to right where we stood.
The sky had cleared and the moon brightened. Sonya trotted out to us at the end of the wharf. We got out of the way. Jiggling her identifications tags, she shook out a fine cloud of spray that glinted in the moonlight and disappeared. We laughed, my brother and I, and said she was a hell of a dog, and that we’d better get back before the two old ladies killed each other, or got drunk and had heart-attacks, or we got pneumonia. Then Sonya stood beside me for a moment and looked up at me, her tongue out, and happy, and I reached down and lay my hand on her, because she was black like the water, and so warm and full of life.