The hill is very long, but I’m taking it slowly, feet hard on the brakes. Below, our house is just a speck of red. I know my father is waiting for me in the driveway, straddling his bike. I know he’s smiling.
As I pick up speed, I flatten my palms against the handlebars, steadying myself, just as Daddy has taught me. Gradually, calmly, I begin to lift them from the bars. Soon I’m soaring down the hill, arms raised to the sky, the hands of the wind holding me fast.
“Look, Daddy, look!”
I am at one with my beautiful bicycle. I am queen of the wind, astride a panther’s back, wheels growling, pebbles flying, swallowing up the black silky road.
But now I’m going so fast my feet can’t find the brakes. I grab the bars but the panther bucks beneath me, roaring in my ears. The wheel goes this way, the wheel goes that way and I am heading straight for my father.
Daddy’s arms fan out like wings. I cannot speak, cannot call out, faster and faster, cannot stop, closer and closer. Then I’m flying through space, over the handlebars. I’m going to die. My head meets his with a sickening crack, my foot in the gears, twisting, twisting.
“Are you all right?” he shouts. “Are you all right?”
I open my eyes. Our tall red house is somersaulting, somersaulting over my body. I lift my head and see his face. Blood coats his teeth, blood trickles down his chin. My sweet, handsome Daddy, what have I done?
We are all tangled up, my father and I: arms spokes legs chains. My body hurts all over. But I can feel his breathing, in and out, in and out, gentle as the whisper of a butterfly. We are alive. And there is this peace, this tender happiness as I lie still upon his chest beneath the spinning wheel.
My father hadn’t the pleasure of receiving his own eviction notice. It came to me instead, special delivery. “You will be forcibly removed from your apartment…” it read, and for one cold moment I imagined that it was me who would be put out on the street. Then I saw the signature of my father’s landlord, one of the world’s most kindly souls. What horrors had driven him to this course of action? I could imagine his sympathy, his patience, hardening into desperation, the usual course of emotions that my father – a man so paradoxical he was almost an impossibility--induced in others. Rent unpaid, apartment overflowing with detritus, he had undoubtedly given the landlord my address and then run for cover. This was nothing new. Tom Franks had been a barnacle on my life for as long as I could remember.
It has never mattered what I do for my father: he sabotages it. I hire a cleaning lady; he fires her. I assemble the forms for veteran’s benefits; he never files them. I ask him if he wants me to come up to Massachusetts and help him get organized, and--to my relief--he says no. Yet, when things fall apart, I am the one he turns to.
For years, I’d closed my eyes. A respite. No cries of distress. No calls from creditors. Dared I hope that I might finally be free of him? But no, of course not. The eviction notice is followed by more warnings. His electricity, his phone, his gas are about to be cut off. He’s been living in a firetrap, a health hazard, and an eyesore, and unless I come to the rescue, his next address – he, the perfect gentleman – will be a city shelter.
How can a man who in his eighties, a man so vigorous he can still win state shooting championships, fail to open his own mail? How can someone who so stubbornly dotes on his own independence put himself in such jeopardy?
Furious, I take my six-year-old daughter Amy, leaving my husband and son behind, and drive from New York City to my father’s home in the little town of Milford, which lies forty miles northwest of Boston.
My father, delighted to see us, opens the door and gives us each a bear hug. Even though it’s early afternoon, he’s wearing a blue terrycloth bathrobe so full of holes it looks like it’s been sprayed with a machine gun. Stubble sprouts from his chin, his fine brown hair sticks up at odd angles. But even with his knobby knees peeking out from below his robe, I have to admit that there’s something fortifying about my father. He’s 6'3" and big-boned, big forehead, big chin, his moist blue eyes magnified by his glasses, and a Roman nose gone bumpy with age. His half-moon smile, topped by a frog-like upper lip, lights up his face, a smile that has inspired even the most durable woman to soften her gaze.
“Oh, you don’t know how glad I am to see you,” my father says. Then he ushers us into the kitchen with, under the circumstances, comical gallantry. I push past him into the next room, following a narrow path that winds from the study to the living room, essentially a canyon bordered by teetering towers of cardboard cartons. My heart sinks as I look at the piles of newspapers and flyers covering every available surface, save for a small space on the sofa reserved for his recalcitrant bottom.
He puts his hands on my shoulders and quickly guides me back into the kitchen, clearing a stack of Styrofoam takeout containers from a kitchen chair. “Won’t you sit down?” he asks, pushing the chair right to the back of my knees.
I’d forgotten about this, his chivalrous persona. Even now, he hasn’t lost it. He’s always ceremoniously opened doors for women and rapidly surrendered his seat to them. “Please” and “thank you” fall frequently from his lips. It occurs to me now that these flourishes are a kind of salve, for he is exceedingly grateful for the attention they bring.
“Please,” he implores, “let me offer you something to drink.”
“No thanks, Dad,” I say. What could we expect to find in his refrigerator? Sour milk? Rancid orange juice?
“Mom,” Amy yells, holding out an open box of Wheaties she’s found on the kitchen counter. “They’re moving!” We proceed to unearth a half dozen other open boxes of cereal, all crawling with weevils. On top of the cartons there’s a parade of plastic bags. Out of curiosity I open them. The first bag: flashlight, shaving cream, Tums. The second bag: flashlight, shaving cream, Tums. The third bag: flashlight, shaving cream, Tums. I’m in a movie that keeps rewinding.
“Dad,” I sigh, turning to the man who stands there smiling obliviously, “What have you done here?” Tears are squeezing my throat. “Why do you do this? Just look! Look at this mess.”
His neck comes out like a turtle’s. He peers up, peers right, peers left. “Whatever do you mean?” he replies.
My father was born Thomas Edward Franks in Champaign, Illinois, an only child in a prosperous but unassuming family. His father, a morally erect man, had an insurance firm and served as mayor of the city. His mother was an accomplished pianist who, when she found out her son was tone-deaf, lost interest in him. A brilliant if solitary boy, he’d taught himself a multitude of skills without the educational advantages of the more privileged. He perfected his marksmanship by shooting woodchucks and squirrels on local farms and in the park his grandfather had once landscaped. He built a chemistry lab in the cellar and set off explosions in a field on the edge of town until the Champaign police put an end to that. He went to the University of Illinois, majoring in Chemistry and Engineering. General Alloys, a specialized metal-casting firm, recognized his gifts and hired him straight out of college.
My parents met sometime in 1940, when Tom walked up to the counter at Marshall Fields where Lorraine was selling rare silk stockings. Mother said that he was considered a great social catch: tall, handsome, clever, and aloof. Her roommates in Chicago all vowed to snag him but she, who played hard to get, was the one who did. She’d been born into a prominent Midwest family, the Swannell-Leavitts, who had once all but owned the town of Kankakee, Illinois. Her antecedents included a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria, a Connecticut Bishop, and a London hat-maker. Others would describe her as stunning with her full lips, large blue eyes, and lively personality. They would also say she was smart, generous, and beneath her insouciance, possessed by a deadly wit.
They married on November 17, 1941. He entered the Us Navy in late 1942 as an officer candidate and was commissioned as an ensign a few months later. After the war, he worked his way up to first vice-president of General Alloys. Then, after years of pregnancies gone wrong, I was born. Six years later, they produced my sister, Barbara Penelope. Choosing a stylish suburb of Boston, my mother moved us into a graceful Tudor home in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Mother was president of The Wellesley chapter of the Red Cross and also the brains behind a half dozen other charities. Gay and funny, she gave out gifts for no reason, offered help freely to friends in need and was in general much adored. My father, by contrast, was considered a somewhat mysterious figure, more comfortable puttering at his basement workbench than cruising the social circuit. However, he was an elegant dancer, did a mean Charleston, and squired Mother around town on demand. They swept into Valentine Balls and Boston Pops benefits in their ball gowns and tuxedos and graced dinner parties from Wellesley to Boston. My mother was head of the Boston Opera Guild under Sarah Caldwell and got her husband to act in several productions as an extra. She loved to tell the story of how, wearing a priest’s hat and brocade robes and carrying a tall crucifix for a performance of “Boris Gudunov,” he stumbled down some steps and nearly speared a bishop.
Years later, after Mother died, Dad, now in his sixties and unemployed, dropped a bomb on me and Penny: He was almost penniless. Our parents’ finances were a mess, we’d known that, but not that the situation was so dire. We had to sell our beautiful family home and we had to sell it in a hurry. Penny and I packed up some one hundred cartons that held not only the contents of the house, but the memorabilia of three generations of grandparents on both sides of the family. We saved every ivory button, every cracked ramekin. Over the years, Penny and I had emptied some of the cartons, but the remainder accompanied my father first to his new little house in nearby Hopkinton and then, as his financial circumstances worsened still further, to this smaller apartment in Milford. As I squeeze past the cartons, it appears as though he’s never opened one of them.
After we arrive, I hire local boys to clean out the bulk of the spoiled food, scour the kitchen, and lug the newspapers out to the Dumpster; my father follows them around, bellowing in protest. “I can do this myself!” That’s always been his mantra. And now, he has no choice. He’s walled off almost everyone from his life with his hard-nosed silence—his wife, his daughters, his friends, his coworkers. I’ve been forced into an impossible position, a nagging figure against whom he must play the game of deflect, hide, duck, and resist. I hate being the side of my own mother he and I both detested.
Since my son Josh was born thirteen years ago, we’ve tried to reach some kind of accommodation, though every word we share feels forced. My husband Bob and I invite him often to come to our apple orchards in Fishkill, in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York. Yet he’s always canceling at the last minute: He’s sick, he’s tired, he isn’t up to the drive. Is our distance from each other too painful for him? I’ll never know, for he’s certainly not going to admit to anything. He ducks Penny the same way, never flying out to California to visit her. I know that he’d rather be with us and his grandchildren than anyone on earth. But he’s always been afraid of something; it makes him stick like glue to his Queen Anne couch, once my mother’s pride and joy, now torn, its brocade worn smooth. It makes him open the door no more than a crack when the neighbors come to check on him, makes him quickly dispatch them with a nod and a smile.
After the initial cleaning frenzy, Amy and I begin coming up every weekend to work on my father’s apartment. We want to make it more livable for him and frankly, it’s a relief to get away from home. It’s the girls against the boys back in New York City. Josh and I have always been extremely close, but when he hit the age of thirteen, he made it clear that just talking to his mother was as much fun as having Cambodian root canal. The strife between us has sent Bob running for cover but when pressed, he takes Josh’s side. He’s an older father, after all, and he loves to have his youngest son’s approval. Amy, on the other hand, is my special pal. We’ve begun to rather enjoy our trips up to Milford. My father loves his quirky granddaughter with her Alice-in-Wonderland hair and heart-shaped lips. This unsmiling man comes alive in her presence. Sometimes he’ll make his hands into birds’ wings and flap them at her. Sometimes he’ll put his thumbs in his ears and wave. She rewards him by breaking out into giggles. Sometimes he’ll just look at her and say “my little princess.”
I was his little princess, a thousand years ago. Just he and I and a huge white telescope in the middle of the dew-soaked lawn. He bought it for me when I was five. Spring, summer, fall, winter, we would go stargazing, peering cheek to cheek through the large lens he had ground himself. So close, like twin stars huddling in the Northern Crown.
January is our favorite month. Although the cold sometimes brings on my asthma, that’s when my favorite constellation is high in the sky. He lifts me up, shivering under two blankets, the wind whipping back my hair, my blue eyes widening at the wonder of the galaxy. “Look, Cindy, look to the left. Do you see the three bright stars, what are they?” “Orion’s belt, Daddy!” And The Might Warrior slowly emerges as Daddy points out each star, giving life to the head, the bright knee, the red cloud of gas in his tummy: Orion, sword drawn back, so tall he can wade through the deepest sea. “Uh-oh, I think he’s going to get Taurus the bull this time.” “No, Daddy, he’s going after the rabbit, he’s going to chop his head right off.” “What’s the name of the rabbit, Cindy?” “Lepis!” We tour the dancing Pleiades sisters, scuttling Cancer, Canis hunting in a pack of two.
Sometimes the stars, shimmering like the sequins on Mother’s velvet gown, make me short of breath. I try to muffle my wheezes, but Daddy always knows. He hears the cats meowing in my chest and he carries me away, leaving our beloved galaxy for a bed clammy with steam.
By aged nine or ten, I can stand on my own two feet and look through the lens. Bulls and swords give way to nebulae, asteroids, quasars, the formation of the planets, celestial explosions. “Dad, what’s beyond the universe, what does it look like?” The thought obsesses me, makes me shiver. “What do you think nothingness is?”
“That’s a very good question and I just don’t know the answer.” I’m an Episcopalian, indoctrinated by Mother, and he’s something she calls a “damned atheist.” “Dad, I think maybe God is beyond there.” He unscrews the lens. “Maybe you’re right,” he says gently.
As I grow older, we hurtle from the orbit that held us together. He’s away from home more and more, on mysterious business trips. The telescope slowly rusts in the garage. There are a few perfunctory kisses on the head as he goes down to his workbench. We play a board game or two, but he drifts off in the middle. He acts with me as he acts with all adults: remote, emotionally impenetrable, a voyager to places I cannot reach. I become caught a conundrum: My father acts as though he loves me, but if this is so, why is he so far away? Like someone whose real self has been sucked up forever into the yaws of a big black hole.
Every carton I unpack now is a reminder of the puzzles and pleasures of my childhood. At the bottom of one, I find old records: ragtime music and the complete collection of Knuckles O’Toole albums.
Immediately the band strikes up in my head. Music was always such a big part of Daddy’s life when we were growing up. He was an aficionado of Ragtime and Dixieland and as soon as he came home from the office, he’d go over to our record player, which Mother had disguised as a French Provincial Lowboy, take off her Ezio Pinza LP, and put on Knuckles O’Toole. His favorite ragtime player, O’Toole could move his fingers up and down the keyboard fast as a hummingbird’s wings. Daddy would stand over the phonograph, tapping his foot and snapping his fingers. You always knew Daddy was taking a shower when you heard his sonorous bass booming “bum-bum, bum-bum”. Unfortunately, he only had two good notes, which was why he confined his singing to the bathroom.
Sometimes, he’d take me to New York to hear bands like the Dukes of Dixieland. We’d sit in some smoky dive, my feet dangling from a barstool. The restrained, painfully private father I knew from home would vanish, replaced by a sunny, animated man who joyfully beat his hands on the mahogany counter in time to the clarinets and saxophones and drums. But now, he doesn’t even listen to jazz. The phonograph is long gone, and he’s never replaced it. If Knuckles still exists, he’s somewhere in my father’s head.
Another box contains a mishmash of chipped china wrapped in strips of pink insulation, decks of cards, papers, pennies, a butterfly net that my father had made out of green mesh, and a number of homemade bullets rolling around on the bottom. Bullets and butterflies, such a bizarre combination of hobbies. I sift the lead slugs through my hand.
Smells of childhood: pea soup simmering on the stove, wet dog, hot radiators, sweaty socks, lilies in the living room. All the scents I never had. Instead, the warm, bitter odor of gunpowder and molten lead had wafted up from the cellar as Dad, in the murky lair, meticulously cast his ammunition. He melted old bullets on a special hotplate, slowly tapping the gunpowder into the rows of indentations in the mold.
A champion marksman, he insisted that his homemade bullets shot more accurately. The acrid smell permeated everything, as my mother crossly strode about the house, squirting eau de vie into the air in a futile attempt to mask the smell.
The carton bulges with evidence of his other hobbies. I find some old minutes of the meetings of the Cambridge Entomological Society. He was an officer of the Society, an authority on insects. He was also once a tournament bridge player, a jazz authority. He had a pilot’s license and flew planes, caught big swordfish that won prizes. He once had a collection of American civil war tomes filling two wall-to-wall bookcases, many of them first editions. After he’d exhausted the subject, he’d given most of them to some library. Now his only hobbies are chain smoking and reading gun magazines.
The next carton, stained and crumbling to the touch, is filled with delicious artifacts—old brocade napkins and lace doilies stained brown with age, baby dresses hand-smocked by my mother, the satin negligees with gathered bosoms that she must have worn as a bride. I finger a disintegrating rose silk sweater that must have belonged to some distant granny. I love finding this stuff, the fusty smell, the miniature embroidery, the thought of careful, intent hands that worked the cloth under much dimmer lights.
The carton below it is labeled “Mother’s BOTTOM Dresser Drawer.” The secret drawer, where Penny and I knew that beneath her underwear she kept a box containing a pink plastic diaphragm and sophomoric letters from an old flame named Jimmy Green. She spoke longingly of Green, who became a successful doctor; when I felt sorry for her, I would fantasize that she’d married him. In the three decades since our mother’s death, neither Penny nor I have had the courage to examine the contents of her drawer again. Inside the carton I find the lustrous silk nightgowns she liked so much. She bought them in different shades of pastel. They’re limp, sad, musty now. I lift out diamond-shaped bottles faintly redolent of her favorite Shalimar perfume, long white slips, big bras with hooks crawling like centipedes down the back, huge girdles yellowed with age, the rubber brittle and cracking.
I turn to the next carton, which is filled with Mother’s old files. I’m tossing bunches of them into the mouth of a garbage bag, which leans toward me like an eager lamprey.
I look over at my father, his big veiny hand on Amy’s shoulder. They’re sitting side by side on the couch in the living room, watching westerns. He’s holding his usual cigarillo. There’s a trail of ashes snaking down the plaid flannel shirt beneath his ratty bathrobe. I’m embarrassed looking at him. This is the man who wore blue cashmere suits, real silk ties, crisp white hankies peeking out of his pocket. The man who patted his lips with a napkin, lit his cigarette with a flourish of silver and wore cheap English Leather cologne just because I gave it to him.
Suddenly, I smell something. “Dad, look what you’re doing!” I shout. He is burning a hole in his pants. He looks at the cigarillo curiously and then moves it away from his pants.
“You could have set yourself on fire!” I say.
“These pants aren’t flammable,” he replies in his deep, authoritative voice. “I don’t wear flammable pants.”
“What are you talking about? All pants are flammable! I mean, at some point they’re going to burn, like they could go up in flames if you doze off.” I survey the room; the evidence of his carelessness is everywhere. “Look at all these burn holes, on your pants, on the rug, on the sofa cover.”
“I’m very careful, I know what I’m doing,” he replies quietly. He was always manic about fire when I was growing up; he would eye me after I blew out a match to see if I would commit the ultimate crime of tossing it into the wastebasket before it stopped glowing.
“You don’t put your cigarette down, that’s the problem.” I say, trying to get my voice under control. “Between puffs, you just hold it between your fingers. You could set this house on fire and the people upstairs would never get out. They would scream and burn and nobody would hear them!” His apartment occupies the bottom floor of a house and a middle-aged woman and her adult daughter occupy the top.
“You’re wildly exaggerating.”
I whirl around and go off into the kitchen and start in on his refrigerator, throwing out all the expired food that has accumulated since last weekend. I stick my head back into the living room. “You’re being irresponsible!” I shout, before returning to the icebox, where I accidentally drop a box of blueberries, sending them flying all over the place, pick them up and drop them again. I stomp back into the living room and shout some more.
“Look,” he says, taking a long, deep draw from his cigarillo. “My landlord came to talk to me about my smoking and I gave him a tour of the house. This is what I showed him.” He gets up and points out little fire extinguishers under the blanket chest, on the wall, next to the couch, everywhere. “He left without another word.”
“Huh. This must be the same landlord who’s about to evict you.”
As usual with my father, there’s no use arguing; it’s like hitting a bulletproof wall. But I do manage a smile. My little helper Amy is writing notes in red marker and is taping them all over the place: “Put yr sigret down wen yr not smokin it.” This, he agrees to do, and does – for about two minutes before it begins to dangle from his hand again.
“I could use some fresh coffee,” he says cheerily, coming into the kitchen for the fifth of his ten cups a day. He’s apparently forgotten our spat over his smoking. But he’s still wearing the blue terrycloth robe that he greeted us in when we arrived this morning, which I consider a hostile act. No amount of reasoning or even bribes have convinced him to put on a fresh shirt and a pair of pants so we can go out to his favorite restaurant, the Newport Creamery, whose name, for reasons I cannot imagine, he has somehow reinvented as the Herschel Creamery.
“Dad,” I say, “Why not just get in the car? You can make an appearance at the Newport or Herschel Creamery or whatever it’s called in your nightclothes. You’d be a real hit.”
“That’s an idea,” he says as he walks back into the living room, coffee cup in hand.
“It’s not as though I’m asking you to put on full tuxedo dress,” I continue. “Just why are you doing this, Dad?”
“Damned if I know,” he says, reaching for one of his many open packs of cigarillos. He taps the cigarillo down on the end table in front of him, takes a yellow Bic, and slowly lights it. “Okay, okay, just hold on a minute,” he says. “I’d like to have another smoke first.”
I give him a dirty look. Once again, I feel an old anger and with it an old pity. One moment, I’m sure he’s refusing to dress just to torment me, and the next, I go cold and scare myself with absurd pictures: Has he forgotten how to dress himself? Is he worried he’ll put his underpants on over his trousers? I wave the ridiculous thought away. My father is the sharpest man I know.
“Is there anything to eat here?” he asks plaintively, as though he were a guest in his own home. I glance at the clock. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and he probably hasn’t eaten since yesterday. I give up arguing with him and put a frying pan on his one-burner hot plate, melt butter, and tear up pieces of ham and cheese. Then I scramble in two eggs of unknown age that I find in the icebox. I’m no cook so I lean over, nose to the bubbling mixture, to be sure the edges of the omelet curl up crisp and brown, which is how he likes it. I hear Amy’s little voice, a diminutive version of mine in a sane moment, and peek into the living room. “Grandpop, come here. You have to get up and put on your pants,” she says matter-of-factly, tugging at his hand. He smiles, holds onto the arm of the sofa, and allows her to think she’s pulled him up. Then, miraculously, he goes into his bedroom. When he emerges fully clothed, in a faded short-sleeved shirt and wrinkled pants, with even his socks and shoes on, my daughter looks at me with sly pride.
“See, Mom,” she says, quietly so he cannot hear, “If you scream for somebody to do something, they won’t do it and then they feel terrible about not doing it and that makes them not want to do it even more.” Thank you, my six-year-old daughter.
The eggs are ready and my father comes into the kitchen. I sit with him, watching him still chew with an unnerving slowness, and I understand for the first time how frustrating my mother found this.
“Gee, look at that red bird pecking at the grass.” Dad puts down his fork and peers out the window. He speaks in low tones, stretching out his vowels. Amy says he sounds like Eeyore. “I think it’s a, oh, what’s its name.” “A cardinal, Dad,” I say. Funny that an avid birder would forget the name of such a common bird. The kindly women upstairs have put out a garden chair for him and spread seed on the lawn so he can sit outside and watch the birds when the weather’s fine.
He mops both sides of a piece of toast with the egg yolk. “Mmm, this is the best egg I’ve ever had.” I smile because this was always what he said when I used to cook him something, no matter how simple. Finally, after forty-five minutes, he meticulously pats his lips with his napkin and says, “I never eat like this when I’m by myself.”
I sigh. I don’t even want to think about what he feeds himself when I’m not around. I settle him back in front of the television again with Amy so I can get back to the chore of cleaning out Mother’s old files
Between a pile of them is a couple of small boxes. One is a flat cardboard box sealed securely with layers of a kind of duct tape. I use a sharp knife to open it and find one empty army-green film can and ten transparent envelopes with tiny rolls of negatives inside. I hold them up to the light; they’re snapshots of distant ships, some aircraft, and blurred factory-type buildings with smokestacks. Also a series of what look like some kind of machine and boiler. Boring pictures. Why were they taken?
I next take up a wooden cigar box whose latch is rusted out; inside are what appear to be old Navy pins and tiny bars of different colored ribbon. There’s a smattering of foreign money: blue notes from New Caledonia, two large copper coins from Britain, French francs, a few Swedish Kroner. And then a creased square of thin brown paper – it looks like the toilet paper I used when I was based in London - with three names on it: Bourbon, Granny, and Alf. I also find a receipt from a restaurant or bar in Gotenborg, Sweden, whose date I can’t make out, and a carefully folded square of silky material. I open it to find a map written in fine black ink with the destination, X in a circle. The street names are smeared, unreadable. What on earth do all these things mean?
I fish down to the bottom of the carton and suddenly I’m holding a military cap. It’s grayish green with white trim and a sharp peak rising high above the brim and then sloping down at the back. At the top is the raised metal insignia of an eagle and at the bottom, a skull and crossbones. Now I find a threaded badge in the shape of a cross with flared sides and a thin white border. Was it what my mother had sewn on her Red Cross jacket during the war, when she drove trucks full of wounded soldiers? No, it seems too big.
Perhaps it’s some kind of religious cross. During my childhood, my mother marched us off to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church each Sunday. My father was the only one of us who never went, he who had been an Episcopalian altar boy and once was so serious about his religion that he planned to go into a seminary. But by the time I was born, he had lost his faith. He scoffed at religion: “How can you believe in God after everything that’s happened in the world?”
Anyway, this doesn’t really look like a crucifix; it’s too square. I turn the badge over and feel a chill. There’s a swastika inside the middle of the cross, a symbol of the Nazi Party. I examine the cap again and sure enough, in a circle just below the aluminum eagle is another raised swastika. An Iron Cross. A Nazi cap…in my father’s house?
All I ever knew about my father’s military service when I was growing up was that he was a Navy lieutenant who wanted to go to sea but was instead assigned to be a liaison to the US Marines in the Solomon Islands. He would never divulge more than that.
I feel a sudden wave of anxiety. My father was fluent in German. He was almost thirty when he joined the Navy. Was his history before that carefully constructed to obscure another life? Did he really go to the Pacific or was he a blackshirt marching through the streets of Munich? An informer who went back and forth between America and Germany?
Two years ago, Bob and I had convinced my father to give videotaped testimony about his war activities to the Museum of Jewish History in New York. Even though he had never opened up for me, he had done so for the world, telling the story of one remarkable and grisly day in the European Theater. I wanted to hear more. But after that day, every time I tried to pin his shadow to the events of World War II, tried to get behind his façade, I was met with his usual stony silence. He was still The Man Who Wasn’t There. He probably always would be.
I look back down at the cap and Iron Cross in my hands, symbols of horror, buried beneath the files Mother kept while running charity drives, the epitome of suburban innocence.
Discovering them changes everything. What these odd things in the boxes add up to I don’t know, but now I have visible evidence of something that even Dad cannot deny.
I walk into the living room holding what I want to know about most -- the cap and cross. My father is sitting with Amy on the couch, watching television. “Dad, what is this stuff?” I ask, aware that I’m leading him into a trap. “I found it in one of Mom’s cartons.”
He leans forward and squints. He looks at the cross and cap for a long time. “I don’t know,” he says blankly.
“You must know.”
He takes the cap in his hands and turns it around. “Huh,” he grunts. He doesn’t touch the cross, in fact seems to recoil from it.
“Dad? What’s a German cap and an Iron Cross doing in Mom’s belongings?” I suddenly have an unpleasant thought. Could my mother have had an affair with a Nazi?
“It didn’t belong to your mother,” my father says. “It was mine, from the war. It’s something I’d rather not talk about.”
“It was yours? From the war? But I don’t understand.”
“I would rather not talk about it.”
“I’d rather you did.”
”Some other time, I’ll tell you about it some other time.”
I know that some other time will never come. I sit down and think about my father’s attributes. He has a photographic memory and a face that he can keep absolutely deadpan in any circumstance. He is steel-willed. He is unflappable. He is a crack shot. And now the silk map and the foreign coins and the tiny negatives and the names written on toilet paper.
But it’s the cross and cap that ignites a fuse, a strange sensation of urgency about my Dad that I’ve never felt before. I think about that bizarre story Lou Golden told me: , the one that had led to Dad’s museum testimony. And now, comes something else: the hints Lou gave that Dad was a haunted man, that he had done some peculiar things during the war. Lou, then his best friend, was a peculiar character himself and I had learned to ignore his monologues of high drama. Besides life with my father had been too hard for too long. I simply didn’t listen.
I pick up the cap and run my hands along the shiny, smooth brim. Perhaps now, I had a reason to listen.
My Father's Secret War: A Memoir