My Father’s Loves
When my father died, in 1976, notes began to appear.
First, on a piece of blue paper, placed in his journal, “There are no hints given. The coffee hits the spot. The biscotti are making me non-literary and not inclined to edit the novel. The moon is full. The air is cold. My yawns weigh me down. All of me still in the first person. There is a philology book I am supposed read: The German Language. It is 800 pages long. I am going for a walk. Would you like tea when I get back? Do not ever forget I love you. Mary Ann.”
The trouble was, it was not in my father’s handwriting. Nor in my mother’s. My father had glued it into his journal in such a way that it was hard to open. And Mary Ann was not my mother’s name.
He wrote that he had found her note stuck behind the frame of her bureau mirror, once when he was snooping around. “It was folded in the middle, the way she used to part her hair, tucked away for the times I might need to read it.” With the date in his hand, “January 3, 1956.”
That was the first note.
Not too long ago, I found the second note.
My mother had asked me to repair the top drawer of her bureau. The drawer was binding and was hard to pull in and out. I knew a few gentle strokes with a wide-angle plane and a little sanding would do the trick. There, hidden from prying eyes, under the liner paper, was a scrap of paper and words written in my father’s hand, written twenty years after the Mary Ann’s note. “Up at 5, gone for a walk, we’ll have coffee together when I’m back. Don’t forget I love you.”
That morning my father went to the river in his gray felt hat, wrapped in his brown herringbone woolen overcoat, and puffing his pipe, a neighbor said, and doing the stroll he loved so much, past the mill pond, and down the lane through pines, over the glacial sand toward the salt river skirted with ice, and slipped into the black river without his pipe or coat, or felt hat which he left hung over a the post at the end of the town wharf.
After the funeral, we walked to the river—my mother went by car, she grieved too much to walk—and we threw wreathes of white florist flowers into the river and sang Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
A trusty shield and weapon
He helps us free from every need
That hath us now o’ertaken….
Six months later my mother discovered my father’s journal, and out of it dropped the message to him from Mary Ann. My mother read the diary, and a jealousy seized her so great that she was hospitalized for a week and nearly gave up her will to live. When she returned home, steadied between my brother and me—both in our early forties and undecided in our need for her to live or not to live, she asked us to assemble all my father’s papers, place them on the table beside her bed, and then leave her alone.
That night, she called me at my home in Cambridge. My wife and I had gone for a walk, and my Cynthia, our fourteen-year old daughter, talked to her troubled grandmother for over an hour. She could not sleep, her grandmother told her, without knowing what had become of this Mary Ann. She had to talk with 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. Cynthia said she 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 my father and wept and asked Cynthia if she believed in love, and whether she thought youthful passion meant more than the love between those who are old. My Cynthia is wise for her age, but these questions, she said, about youthful passion required an adult response, not hers.
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 disturbing her. Two days later, she called me. She could not sleep, she said. There were things to say, but they didn’t concern me and would I come for her the next morning? She wished to talk with my mother. And it would be a private meeting.
The next day was impossible for me, but the following Sunday afternoon I drove her to Marshfield. My brother had already arrived, to be with my mother as she waited. I led Mary Ann to the house, the Labrador following behind. My mother met her at the door—cordially, graciously, as she had always welcomed guests. She guided Mary Ann toward the living room and the crackling fire. She turned and asked my brother and me to walk to the river and see what the tide was. We protested that we already knew the tide. She said we looked peaked—that was her expression, in two syllables, and we needed a walk. It would do us good. My brother looked at me. Then Mary Ann asked us whether we could walk the dog. That she loved the water.
“She could swim in the river. It’s a place she would love.”
How did she know about the river? I thought, and had she swum there naked with my father?
My mother advanced on us, driving us back through the kitchen, and Mary Ann guided the dog to the door. “Her name is Lucy,” she said with a smile,
And then, more softly, “Maybe she can tell you the rest of whatever you might want to know about me.”
Then Lucy, my brother, and I watched the old women walk stiffly back into the living room and settle at opposite ends of the couch. I grabbed a few things I had set aside in the clothes closet, one of them my father’s felt hat, which I put on my head, and his pipe, which I put in my pocket.
Outside, snow began to fall around us in heavy flakes. We moved around the outside of the house so we could look through the living room windows. We saw the old women nod their heads as they talked and to our surprise laugh, not just once, but again and again. And then they cried and held each other and were soon sitting together in the center of the couch, where they looked at pictures from photo albums and drank tea, then sherry, and then more sherry.
The snow had built up on our shoulders and our feet had grown cold. Lucy the Labrador had found other things to do and wandered farther and farther away from us, skirting the yard, a dark busy form against the whitened pines. Finally, she pulled us away from the windows, and we followed her down the lane, past the mill pond, down over the glacial sand, crunching and squeaking in the fresh snow, until we reached the banks of the river and stood and watched the her plunge into the black water and swim toward the opposite bank—and be swept downstream by the tidal current, so that we called to her in alarm. But she climbed up through the salt grass on the far bank, bounded upstream, reentered the water and, using the drift of the current, returned, intelligent and proud to the very place we stood.
The sky had cleared, and the moon appeared big and round and bright. The Labrador walked to the end of the town wharf and shook her coat, so that the spray glinted in the moonlight for a moment, then disappeared. And we laughed 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 the dog got pneumonia. We needed a drink anyway, and when the dog stood beside me for a moment, I reached down and felt her, and she was black like the water of the river, and warm, and very much alive. The last thing I did, with my brother’s agreement, was take a last smell of my father that still lingered on inside rim of his hat—the same smell I got when I rubbed my own scalp and smelled my fingers. Then I lay down and launched my father’s felt hat, inverted like a boat, with his pipe in the middle. Then I stood up and the three of us watched as the hat began its journey seaward. I held the dog by the collar until her impulse to rescue the hat passed. It had started to snow again, and we stood for a while at the very end of the wharf, trying to see whether we could hear the big flakes hitting the water. A lost cause because of the way dog’s soft panting filled the night.
“How long will it float?” my brother asked, and I said I didn’t know much about the seaworthiness of felt hats or the buoyancy of pipes. Or, for myself, just when the water would extinguish his smell.