He wasn’t like anyone else’s father. That’s what I thought growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s. It’s still what I think, now when I am almost as old as he was when he died. My father was in and out of my life in episodes that I have pieced together like fragments. Here, I will relate everything I remember and discovered about him, from beginning to end, as I tried to figure out my relationship with him. My story of my father begins before I was born.
My mother married my father when she was nineteen and he was twenty. All I ever heard about their getting together was that he was hanging around pool halls and my mother’s parents objected to her seeing him. From the faded photos of their honeymoon on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, I can see there was an attraction. In one picture, they are leaning on rented bikes. Their smiling faces show a romantic, sexy interplay at work. That attraction must have been strong enough to propel my not-very-assertive mother to defy her parents’ objections and marry the guy.
A year after my parents married, my older sister was born. World War II intervened, taking my father to Europe for over two years. I was born seven years after my sister, making the two of us representatives of different generations with very different perspectives on our parents, especially our father.
My father was an only child. I hardly knew his parents, but images of them have always haunted me. My father and his mother smoked so many cigarettes that I can’t recall either one of them without an accompanying eye-watering aura. His mother was not a pretty woman. She wore the same black dress in every photo and every memory I have of her. I thought she was the oldest person I had ever seen then, and I still think she looked older than any ninety-year-old I’ve met since, though she was only in her late fifties when she died. She and my father had the same brown eyes—deeply brown, deeply sad. I think I have them too. If I ever fell into a psychotic depression, I think I would look just like her. I was four years old when she died.
My grandfather smiled. He had an actual grin. Maybe he was a drinker, I don’t really know. He lived a lot longer than his wife. I was taken to visit him in a nursing home every so often. He saved pennies for me in a cigar box. I used to line the pennies up around the edges of my room, pretending they were students, and I was the teacher, leading them in a march.
My grandfather’s death was one of the things that turned me into a writer. It was something so out of the ordinary for my life, I had to write it down. I remember the scene when he was dying in a place called Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. He was on the charity ward, a large room with many patients, all men. They were of different ethnicities, some spoke Spanish. He had a large bloody bandage around his neck. It was hot, probably summertime. There were flies in the room. The flies landed on his bandage. They hopped around the leaking blood stains. Nobody shooed them away. I didn’t understand why it was like this. I was twelve years old. I had seen people in hospitals before. When my aunts, my mother’s sisters, had babies, their rooms were bright and clean. There were flowers and friendly nurses. I didn’t understand why my grandfather was dying in this ugliness. It made me angry. I blamed my father.
My grandfather’s funeral was the first one I ever attended. There were people there I had never seen before. I heard they were my grandfather’s brothers, their wives, and children. Everyone walked slowly in a circle around the casket, each person taking a peek at my dead grandfather. The people I had never seen before were all dressed in really nice clothes. The women wore fur stoles and gold jewelry. The men wore suits and hats. If he had such fancy relatives, how did he wind up dying on that poor people’s ward? To me, it seemed terribly unfair.
Someone must have been with me at the hospital and the funeral. My mother or father must have taken me. I couldn’t have gotten my twelve-year-old self there alone. My sister probably came along. I remember it as if I were entirely by myself. It was my first confrontation with injustice and inequality. After the funeral, I went home and wrote it all down.
* * *
My father lived with us for the first ten years of my life. Like any other child, I took his presence for granted. I didn’t pay much attention to him—no more attention than to the steak knives with the yellow plastic handles on the right side of our dinner plates. Looking back, it seems that when he left, we stopped using those knives, stopped eating dinners around the table.
I can catalog my memories of my father from those years. He never drank coffee. He was the only adult I knew who still drank milk. He loved baseball. He watched one game on TV and listened to another one on the radio at the same time. He made people laugh. He and my mother sang songs out loud. It might have only been one time that they did that, but I remember it well.
My father was in the war, World War II. In the war, he had buddies. He never talked about the war, but he did talk about his buddies. One was named Hy. From where he was stationed in Paris and Belgium, he brought home a little pair of wooden shoes and a painted wooden bowl. They are on one of my bookshelves today.
My father didn’t have a special job or career. He did different kinds of work. For a while, he worked in a candy store that belonged to my mother’s uncle. Once he sold John Hancock insurance. While he had that job, he brought home a bunch of John Hancock coloring books for me. He ended up working for the Brillo Company and that was the longest job he had.
Because my father didn’t have a steady job, my mother, who was a secretary, worried about money all the time. She also wanted him to go on family outings, which he didn’t want to do. We did get to the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Rockaway Beach, and Coney Island at least one time each. I have the photos to prove it.
My father believed that the man of the house should decide what to watch on TV at night. He had a club chair that no one else was allowed to sit in. He liked to win at card games. He once studied all the words in the dictionary so he could beat everyone at Scrabble.
I remember the last night my father lived with us. It was raining. My parents told me they were getting divorced, and then I went to bed. From my bedroom, I heard them talking to my sister in the kitchen. She was crying. I heard my father trying to comfort her. She was very worried about telling people that she had divorced parents. She was very popular, in a sorority and all that. For a long time, she told her friends that our father was away on a business trip, rather than admit that he moved out. After talking with my sister, he came into my room. He kissed me goodbye. I wasn’t crying.
Some days after that rainy night, my father returned to pick up the two large suitcases my mother had packed for him. He carried them down the stairs and out the front door. A yellow taxi picked him up in front of our house. I watched from the other side of the storm door at the top of the stoop. I dug my fingernails into my palms to keep from crying. I blamed my mother.
That image of the ten-year-old girl behind the glass door watching her father leave stayed with me for many years. I put that girl into a good many poems, and I told her sad story to boyfriends in whose arms I sought comfort. There was no abuse or cruelty in my childhood, just the seeping away of love, the losing of something intangible.
Although my father left me with a wealth of sadness, he also left absurd moments to laugh at. Many of my recollections of my father as a member of the family are preserved in photos. We had several reels of 8mm home movies we took as a family. In one, we are at a summer bungalow colony in upstate New York. Someone is filming my father, who is setting up a beach chair with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. He takes his time unfolding the various sections of the chair, setting them up, and placing a beach towel neatly on the back. He settles himself into the chair, but the chair is not stable; it moves forward as he leans back, bumping him on the back of the head. He laughs with a wide grin—and so does anyone who watches that movie. I’ll always remember his natural laugh in the face of his own silliness and incompetence in setting up that chair.
* * *
Weekly visits with my father took me from a lonely girlhood through a stormy adolescence to the cusp of adulthood. From the time my parents divorced until shortly before I turned eighteen and left for college, my father was court ordered to visit me once a week. At least that is what I understood. I was given the impression that “the court” would have him or me arrested if the visits didn’t take place. He was also required to pay a small amount of child support, which he brought in an envelope and gave to me to give to my mother.
Every Thursday, he pulled up in his black Plymouth and honked the horn to take me out to dinner. We went to a Chinese or Italian restaurant. I ordered either a combination plate with eggroll, fried rice, and spare ribs, or baked ziti and a salad. For a year or so before my sister married at nineteen and moved away, she came along and filled these dinner times with her tales of teenage drama.
Left on our own, my father and I struggled to make conversation. I reported on my grades in school each week. We talked about baseball during the season. He was a lifelong Giants fan, disappointed but willing to follow them even after they abandoned New York. For some reason, I rooted for the Yankees in the days of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Once, on a weekend, he took me to a Yankee game. I had a crush on the pitcher, Mel Stottlemyre.
Shortly after my parents’ divorce, he remarried. She was a woman with two children of her own. My mother’s opinion was that the court agreement excluded visits to his new home and family. The summer before I left for college, in a campaign of defiance against my mother’s rules, I spent some time with my father and his second wife, Betty, at their apartment.
Betty was like my mother in some ways. She was very responsible, got up every morning and took the subway to her job at the IRS. She was a lot jazzier looking than my mom. She had bright red hair and wore lots of make-up, including lipstick that matched her hair color. She laughed loudly and was always kind to me. She had a daughter named Linda and a son I never met because he was with his father that summer. Hanging out with them would have been more fun if my father and I weren’t constantly arguing about politics. He was the kind of working-class guy who held the belief that by identifying as a Republican, some of their wealth and status would rub off on him. I was a budding socialist and an avid anti-war protester.
At eighteen, I headed off to college and embarked on a mission to repair the world by protesting war, fighting inequality, and majoring in social work. My father was required to make child support payments until I became nineteen. Since my mother had remarried, he sent the monthly money order for the child support payment directly to me, along with a brief letter. I turned nineteen during my sophomore year of college; the payments were no longer required, and the letters stopped coming. I didn’t think much about it until a few months later when I heard from Betty. She asked if I knew where my father was. I didn’t, and neither did she. For the next seven years, no one had any idea where he had gone.
* * *
During the years my father was missing, I completed college and graduate school, earning a master’s degree in clinical social work. For several years, I worked on the psychiatric unit of a Veterans Administration hospital, where my life was filled with silent, unresponsive men. As a young, passionate social worker, I took it as my mission to draw out those depressed veterans, activate their inner resources, and rekindle their connection to life. I empathized. I cajoled. I coaxed. Some of them got better, if for no other reason than to get away from my badgering.
My devotion to the work was admired by peers and praised by supervisors. The connection to my own life was apparent, though for a long time denied. I was vaguely aware that in looking deeply into the eyes of the old veterans, I was searching for the pair that looked like mine. When I couldn’t keep the obvious connection to myself quiet any longer and started talking all the time about where my lost father might be, my mother broke down and told me that my father received a veteran’s pension for injuries he sustained during the war. Since I worked for the VA, she thought I might be able to locate him. Although it was her suggestion, she warned me strongly against it. “Finding him will lead to no good,” she said.
I discovered that the VA could assist, but only by forwarding a letter from me to him, which they would read and screen for threats or inappropriate demands. I wrote to him, and a short time later, he responded. It turned out that my father had fled Brooklyn after the demise of his second marriage. He resurfaced near Boston, where he rented a room in Brookline, Massachusetts, and got a job with the Red Cab Company. When his hair started turning gray, he dyed it an odd reddish color and earned the nickname “Red.” His given name was Irving, but at some point, he had started using the name Robert; some people shortened that to Bob. He was known as Irving or Irv to my mother, her family, and the world in which I grew up. His second wife and her children called him Bob, while his cronies at the taxi company all called him Red. I called him Daddy.
* * *
My father and I exchanged letters for over a year before I found the courage to suggest a visit. He never directly rejected me. He might forget to be in touch for seven or eight years, but he never refused contact when I reached out. He always answered my letters sooner or later. He said he would be open to a visit if I happened to pass through the Boston area at a time when he wasn’t busy. He never initiated contact, never invited me to visit him, and always had a reason why he couldn’t travel to my home. Despite his avoidance, I persisted and eventually succeeded in setting up a meeting.
The first time I went to see him after locating him in Brookline, we planned to meet at a Dunkin’ Donuts. I hadn’t seen him in about nine years. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, and a friend drove me to Boston. On a street corner at a stoplight on Brookline Avenue, I saw a man in a long winter coat. Although I could only see the back of his head—really just his neck—I immediately knew it was my father. I learned that it only takes the tiniest bit of skin to recognize one’s parent. I don’t remember much about the visit. We drank coffee and talked a little. This was the first of only three or four visits over a decade.
The next time we met, I asked to see where he lived. To my surprise, he agreed and took me to the single room he rented in a building on a side street. The room was so dusty; everything was covered in cigarette ashes. He was a two-pack-a-day Camel smoker his whole life. I chain-smoked for over twenty years. Eventually, I quit. He never did. In his room, I had an overwhelming urge to clean. I wanted to wash the floor, the windows, change the sheets on his bed. I wanted to buy him a new television and maybe a nice recliner. Of course, I didn’t act on any of those impulses. It seemed disrespectful to offer. Over the years, I had my share of unkempt boyfriends for channeling those urges. At the end of that visit, when I was leaving for a friend’s apartment, he called a Red Cab Company taxi for me. He knew the driver, and he introduced me to his colleague, saying, “This is my daughter.” It filled me with a strange joy to hear him say that. The driver was surprised: “Your biological daughter?” he asked. I felt proud when my dad said, “Yes.”
On my way to see him the third time, I arrived early and stopped for lunch at a Brigham’s Restaurant. It was crowded, and I was asked to share a table with another customer. I was joined by an older well-dressed woman. Initiating a conversation, she asked me why I was in town, and I told her I was there to visit my father. She seemed interested in my story, asking me what he did for a living. For her benefit, I poured out a tale about my father, telling her he was a professor of English Literature at Harvard. I told her about his particular interest in Victorian realism and the works of Thomas Hardy. I described how he had encouraged my interest in reading and writing; that when I was a child, he and I read all fourteen of the Oz books together. When she asked me his name and I told her, using Robert instead of Irving or Red, she said, “Yes, I think I’ve heard of him.” It occurs to me now that she also might have been pretending to be someone other than herself.
After lunch at Brigham’s, I met my father at his job at the Red Cab Company. By then, he held the position of dispatcher. I sat on the dispatcher’s desk behind the cage in the garage where the drivers signed cabs in and out. It was like a scene on the TV show Taxi. I joked about that with all the drivers I met there. Several found it surprising that Red had a daughter, and again my heart was touched each time he introduced me that way. The afternoon at the Red Cab Company feels more like a dream than a memory.
If I hadn’t used the Veterans Administration to track down my father, I probably would never have heard from him again. I searched for him because there were things about him that I thought I needed to know. I did get answers to some of those questions. I discovered that he was not lost, homeless, or despairing. He was not like my patients at the VA hospital. He had no need for an impassioned young social worker. He wasn’t an unhappy person. He wasn’t lonely. He did have a bad back, the result of war injuries and too many years driving a taxi. That was why he became a dispatcher at the cab company, so he didn’t have to go out on the road anymore.
He was satisfied with himself and his life, though it seemed to me a narrow life. He liked to go to a piano bar where he would join in singing old tunes. I asked him to take me there once. He didn’t say no, but we never did go. He had a girlfriend named Norma for a while. When he refused to get married again, she found someone else, but they stayed friends.
He spent much of his free time at Suffolk Downs racetrack, betting on the horses. He kept meticulous records of his bets, winnings, and losses. When I was a child, he talked about some wonderful day when his horse would come in and we would have lots of money. I don’t remember whether he or I added a move to California, where we would have our own swimming pool. My mother didn’t share that dream. She believed in hard work and hoped for a move to the suburbs. Neither of their dreams came true.
I am quite sure my father wasn’t an alcoholic. He would have some drinks at the piano bar and a few beers at Suffolk Downs, but there were no beer cans or liquor bottles among the empty soda cans in his room. He was devoted to his hobby of gambling on the horses, but I don’t believe it reached the threshold of an addiction. He just was who he was. It has never occurred to me to diagnose him.
My father and I continued writing to each other. He responded to my occasional letters with three-quarters of a page on lined paper. Each letter began with “Dear Lynn” and ended with “Love, Dad.” He was the only person who ever used Lynn as a nickname for me. My letters from him would eventually fill a whole shoebox. In my letters to him, I told him about my moves from one place to another, my jobs, my apartments and living situations, my ever-changing relationships. Since he had no expectations of me and made no judgments, I could include as much or as little detail as I wanted.
* * *
Eventually I ended up in western Massachusetts, where my daughter was born. When I wrote to him about her arrival, he sent his congratulations. He said he felt proud to be a grandfather again. He didn’t mention the fact that he had never seen his other two grandchildren—my sister’s sons—who were now in their twenties. He didn’t express any interest in seeing my daughter.
In one of my father’s letters, he told me to be on the lookout for a package that would be coming for my daughter. He gave me the name of the company from which the package would be sent. For some reason, a picture came to mind of a beautiful rocking horse from my childhood—the big kind with a shiny painted horse on a stand with silver-colored springs holding the horse in place, ready for bouncing. A child could climb aboard and bounce up and down or rock back and forth to her heart’s content. I never had one and envied the children I knew who did.
Although they were no longer in fashion, I convinced myself that my father was sending a brightly colored rocking horse to my daughter. I visualized a delivery truck bringing a large box to our doorstep. I picked out the spot in our living room where I would put the horse. One day, a medium-sized brown envelope arrived from the company my father had mentioned. I stared at the envelope, thinking to myself that this couldn’t possibly be his gift. Maybe it was just a notification to be on alert for the rocking horse that would be coming.
I opened the envelope and out poured about fifteen pieces of cardboard. They had been cut from packages of Poligrip Denture Adhesive Cream. Along with the bits of cardboard was a letter addressed to my father explaining that he had sent the wrong part of the package. He was supposed to send in the barcode on the package to redeem the free stuffed animal offered by the company, not the words that he had so carefully cut and mailed.
For a long time, I stared at the letter and the pieces of cardboard with “Poligrip” in bold green print. Slowly, I put the letter and cardboard pieces back into the envelope. On a sheet of paper I wrote, “Dear Daddy, this came for you to my address. Love, Lynn.” I put the envelope and my note into a larger envelope, addressed it to him, and took it to the post office as soon as I could. I stopped thinking about the rocking horse and tried hard not to think about why, if he wanted to send his new granddaughter a present, he would choose a free stuffed animal acquired through a denture cream company. If he wanted to give her a stuffed animal, why not just go out and buy one? Why in the world did he go to all the trouble of cutting up the boxes of his denture cream?
This unsettling experience with my father changed something. It relaxed my need to orchestrate visits with him. The idea that I might introduce my daughter to him faded. My mother’s second husband was a devoted grandfather—reliable and predictable. My daughter didn’t have to meet the elusive, dreamlike shadow that was my father. No need for her to inherit that sense of longing that haunted me. He never asked to see her, and I never again brought up getting together.
Eventually, the free stuffed animals arrived. There were two sets, identical: a momma koala bear with a baby. The baby fit securely into the mother’s arms, which wrapped and closed around the baby with Velcro. They were unusual and adorable. I gave one of them to my daughter. She played with it for years, attaching and reattaching the baby to the momma hundreds of times. The second set is still wrapped in plastic in my closet. Someday, I plan to give it to my grandchild.
* * *
I was twenty-six when I located my father in Brookline after he disappeared for seven years. I was forty-six when he died. I saw him only a few times over those two decades. I used to think that I would find out that my father had died when one of my letters was returned to me stamped “Deceased.” That was not how it happened. It was a phone call. It wasn’t even a phone call to me. My father had listed my sister as his emergency contact. It’s likely that my frequent moves were the reason for this. My addresses filled several pages of an address book, while she had only one residence from the time she got married. She had not been in touch with him since his initial disappearance, nearly thirty years earlier.
When the call came, my sister was dealing with a serious medical crisis in her own family. A Brookline emergency room doctor delivered the news that her father had passed away. She refused to get involved. Then she called me. She gave me the phone number of the ER doctor and told me I could do whatever I wanted.
I had never been responsible for anyone who died. I had no idea what to expect when I called the doctor. I assumed that Dr. Michaels was a young intern or resident, because he seemed as unprepared for me as I was for him. I identified myself and he repeated the news with his condolences. I asked him what he wanted. He asked me what I wanted. Dr. Michaels seemed to think I would want to come and see my dead father. Not particularly wanting to see him when he was alive, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see him dead. Dr. Michaels said something about claiming the body. I pictured orderlies wheeling a gurney out of the emergency room entrance and stuffing my father’s body into the trunk of my car.
The doctor said I would need to make some arrangements. I must admit that one of my first thoughts was how much this might cost me. “What happens if I don’t do anything—what if I just hang up right now?” He suggested I talk to a social worker. I told him that I was a social worker. Dr. Michaels explained that if no one showed up, my father’s body would be turned over to the city.
I had once heard a radio story about how homeless, friendless, family-less people are buried in mass graves. Volunteers attend these public burials, paying their respects and saying prayers for those unknown souls. It appealed to me to witness and pray at the disposition of disposable people; I considered doing that one day. Remembering my own reaction to the radio story made it clear to me that I couldn’t avoid getting involved in this.
I shifted into a different frame of mind. Using my social work skills, I started to investigate. I asked Dr. Michaels how my father had come to the emergency room, and he read the ER notes aloud. The Brookline Police Department had dispatched an ambulance to his address, and EMTs found him in cardiac arrest, lying on the floor in the doorway of his room. The EMTs administered CPR and transported him to the hospital. Emergency room doctors worked on him for twenty minutes but were unable to resuscitate him. My father was pronounced dead at some particular hour and minute.
As I listened to Dr. Michaels read the report, I calmed down. The pressure to immediately do something was lifted. I asked how much time I had to figure out what, if anything, I would do about my father’s body. I had a day or two, and my initial panic settled into a steady anxiety that propelled me forward.
My next call was to the Brookline Police Department to discover how they knew to send an ambulance to my father’s building. I identified myself as his daughter and gave them his name, date of birth, address, and the date and time of the ambulance pickup. I managed to throw in my credentials as a social worker. To my surprise, they read the police report to me over the phone. The report began with a phone call from a woman named Louise, who lived on the second floor of my father’s building. She had called the police and told them that a man was lying face down in his underwear on the first floor. He had been there long enough without getting up that she had been motivated to call the police. She said she didn’t know him. I was also surprised that when I asked if I could have Louise’s phone number, the police officer gave it to me.
I called Louise and explained who I was, how I got her number; I told her that my father was dead. She may have offered some words of condolence, I don’t recall. I do remember her saying several times that she didn’t know my father. She also said more than once, that “people in this building keep to themselves, mind their own business, and don’t get involved with each other.” She told me that when she came home that afternoon, she saw that the door to my father’s room was open, and someone was lying face down over the threshold. She repeated that she didn’t know my father and she thought that whoever was lying there was probably drunk. She continued upstairs to her room. When she checked a little later and he was still there, she decided she should call the police; they insisted on taking her name and number. “That’s all I know and all I can tell you.” I was able to stop her from hanging up long enough to ask her how to contact the landlord. She gave me the name of the real estate company that collected rents and the name and number of the man who managed the building. The resident manager’s name was Richie.
When I called Richie, he said he knew my father and was sorry to hear of his death. He was pleasant and helpful. I asked about my father’s room and whether it would be all right to come and pick up some of his personal possessions. Richie said I could get a key from him and take anything I wanted from the room. He would take care of whatever I left behind.
I filled my mother and my sister in on what I found out. Although they were unwilling to participate, they listened to me and offered advice: “Don’t talk to any more people, and don’t get involved.” I made up my mind to go to Brookline and claim my father.
* * *
I left my daughter with a friend for the day and went to Brookline. Driving there alone from western Massachusetts was new for me. Though I had visited my father before, it wasn’t from this direction. Adrenaline fueled the trip. Heading off in my Toyota Tercel to claim my father’s body and clean out his room turned out to be one of the biggest challenges of my life—and one of the most extraordinary.
I found my way on the Massachusetts Turnpike and through some suburbs of Boston with surprising ease. I recognized my father’s building from my previous visit. Richie had given me directions to his basement apartment, down some concrete steps on the side of the building. He responded quickly to my knock. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, with a cigarette hanging from his lips and his hair pulled back in a ponytail, Richie greeted me in a friendly manner and came outside. He walked me to the front of the building, unlocked the front door and the door to my father’s room, and gave me a set of keys, including one for the bathroom down the hall, so I could come and go on my own. Richie said my father’s rent was paid until the end of the month and it was fine for me to keep the keys until then. I told him again that I was planning to take some of my dad’s personal possessions. I thought I needed to explain myself to him. I needed to explain myself to someone. In his casual way, Richie left me at the door of my father’s room. I felt lost in unknown territory, as if I were intruding, doing something wrong. Along with confusion and anxiety, I felt a responsibility to manage the situation, to take care of the aftermath of my father’s death. I had neither a guide nor a companion.
As I entered my father’s room, the familiar smell of Camel cigarettes engulfed me, as if he were greeting me with a hug. Everything was covered in a layer of ashes. There were several ashtrays placed strategically around the room, all overflowing with cigarette butts. Wandering alone through the remnants of his life, I began putting together bits of information about my father. His departure in cardiac arrest was clearly not anticipated. His room probably looked the same as it had before, when he was simply living his life.
There were large windows across from the door, covered with dusty pulldown shades. I walked slowly around the edge of the room a few times before it felt okay to touch anything. Extending into the middle of the room was his unmade bed, with a night table next to it and a small chest of drawers along the wall. Around the perimeter stood a small desk and straight chair, and a tall dresser, which held his television set; an upholstered chair sat opposite. There was a walk-in closet with its door open. On the floor of the closet, several large plastic bags held a startling number of soda cans waiting for redemption. An open box of trash bags lay on the closet floor.
I picked up my father’s pants first. The tan khakis had been tossed on the floor near the door. I remembered being told that the EMTs found him lying on the threshold without any pants. He must have been stricken with a heart attack as he was dressing, opened the door for help, and collapsed. I picked up the khakis, and an impulse led me to put my hand into a pocket. I found two checks: one from Social Security and one from the Red Cab Company. Both checks were endorsed with his familiar signature. I slipped the checks into my own pocket. Later, I would find a Brookline Savings bank book and a deposit slip already filled out for the two checks.
Next, I made my father’s bed. Spreading the blanket and smoothing it out, I created a surface on which to place items I would take home with me. Folding the pants neatly, I started a pile on the floor where I would leave the things I didn’t have a use for, taking advantage of Richie’s offer to clear out the room. In some odd way, I felt that Richie was more entitled to my father’s belongings than I was. I felt as if I should do what I had said and take only personal and family articles.
In addition to dust and cigarette ashes, every surface was covered with stuff. I started with the desk, where I found a bank book. Opening it, I discovered my name as the co-owner of the account. That was the first surprise. I recalled that years back, my father had sent me a card to sign with my Social Security number and told me he was adding me to his bank account. I never thought much about it but assumed that there was no more than a couple of hundred dollars in any account of his. I discovered that the balance recorded in the bank book was over seventeen thousand dollars. In a desk drawer, I also found a VA life insurance policy with me as sole beneficiary.
On the desk, along with a telephone, an overflowing ashtray, and various papers, I found a collection of betting slips from Suffolk Downs. I gathered them together into a neat pile. I had no idea how to tell whether they had been redeemed, so I decided to take them. I placed the pile of betting slips on the bed to take home, along with an assortment of Suffolk Downs paraphernalia: key chains, wallets, hats, bags, and T-shirts.
Eventually, the whole bed would be covered with my father’s possessions. With increasing confidence, I went through everything on top of the furniture. I courageously opened the drawers of the dressers, desk, and night table. I explored the closet. I found notebooks in which he recorded in careful columns all his bets, losses, and wins since his arrival in Brookline. I thought I should take those home with me, along with shoeboxes filled with pay stubs, phone bills, rent receipts, tax forms, and other documents going back a decade or more. Filing in shoeboxes must be a family trait—I do the same with bills, bank statements, letters, and photos.
Along with the papers and record books, he had saved a few photos, some cards and letters, and other memorabilia. There was a pile of letters I had written to him, photos I had sent—including a picture of me in a frame taken about fifteen years earlier—and baby pictures of my daughter. I found a few Christmas and birthday cards from the mysterious girlfriend Norma, some old photos of his parents and their birth certificates, divorce papers from his second wife Betty, and a couple of pictures taken at the track. In a desk drawer, there was an assortment of expired driver’s licenses and taxi driver identification cards; the photos showed the progressive aging of my father’s face. His military dog tags were in a jumble in a dresser drawer with a few rings, old watches, cufflinks, and tie clips. I put a blue rabbit’s foot into my pocket; I still treasure it and believe it brings me luck.
I went into my father’s closet and selected some clothes to take with me, including two flannel shirts, several winter jackets, a few sweaters, and a sweatshirt. Most of his clothes I left for Richie, along with the bags of soda cans. I took several shoeboxes from a shelf in the closet and placed them on a corner of the bed. Opening the first box was a shock. It was full of money. The others held cash as well. I found additional shoeboxes of money in the bottom drawer of his dresser. They held currency of all denominations: ones, fives, tens, twenties, fifties, even hundred-dollar bills. With each box I opened, my heart beat faster and my hands shook.
My mind raced. I felt as if I were in an episode of a TV crime drama. Was my seventy-six-year-old taxi driver father, living in this single room, a counterfeiter? Was he holding on to this money for the mafia? I couldn’t think of a legitimate reason for him to have so much money. Perhaps at any moment, some shady men would burst through the door, guns pointed at me. They would either be criminals wanting their stash back or government agents ready to arrest me. Without thinking, I ran to the window and pulled down the shade.
I used my father’s telephone to call Dr. Michaels, who told me I wouldn’t need to come to the hospital, but I should find a funeral home to collect the body and make burial arrangements. I put everything from the bed into plastic bags from the closet, including the nine shoeboxes full of money, and carried them out to my car. I made sure the door to my father’s room was locked, got into my car, and drove down the street. On the corner, I saw a Brookline Savings Bank.
I still had my father’s checks and bank book in my pocket. I walked into the bank, went up to a teller, handed her my father’s checks, his signed deposit slip, and the bank book. She processed the checks, updated the bank book, and handed it back to me with a cheerful smile. I asked the teller if, as co-owner of the bank account, I could close it. She said that I could, after the checks cleared. At the bank’s customer service desk several days later, a kind gentleman would offer his condolences for the loss of my father and hand me a check for all the money in the account and the bank book stamped “Closed” on the last page.
After depositing the checks, I headed down Beacon Street. Moments later, almost magically, I saw a sign for Waterman & Sons Funeral Home. I slammed on the brakes, pulled over, and parked the car. Bravely, I walked up the steps of the funeral parlor, pushed open the wide front door, and entered the sweet-smelling, ornately furnished establishment. A pleasant man greeted me; Mr. Walsh was short and had a Boston accent. He ushered me into his office, inviting me to sit on a plush chair. He was welcoming and helpful; he possessed all the knowledge and information I lacked. Most importantly, as I explained my situation, Mr. Walsh wasn’t weirded out. In a matter-of-fact tone, he suggested that I search my father’s room carefully, checking under the bed and in drawers for concealed cash. He said it was common for men like him to hide money in their rooms. I didn’t tell him about the stash I had already discovered.
Mr. Walsh also let me know that as a veteran, my father was entitled to a free plot in a Veterans Administration cemetery. The nearest one was on Cape Cod. The funeral home could make all the arrangements to bury my father there—all I had to do was sign a stack of papers. Sitting in that office, I recalled a conversation with my father on one of my visits. Something came up about funerals and memorials, and I asked him his wishes. With his familiar gritty laugh he said, “Oh, don’t bother about that—just throw my body out in the backyard.”
I gave Dr. Michaels’ contact information to Mr. Walsh, who assured me that he would arrange for the pickup from the hospital and burial on the Cape. I agreed to return later in the week to identify my father’s body and say goodbye to it/him. Mr. Walsh asked whether I wanted him to reserve time for a memorial service. At that point, I hadn’t thought about it—and couldn’t imagine who might attend. Mr. Walsh held the time, just in case.
From the funeral home, I found my way to the Red Cab Company, where my father’s boss, a young man named Matt, offered his condolences. He had kind words to say about my father and more papers for me to sign. He said he would ensure that all the money my father had earned would be forwarded to me. He told me that my father also had a small life insurance policy through the Red Cab Company. Matt wanted to know about funeral arrangements, saying some of the drivers might want to pay their respects. I told Matt the date and time that Mr. Walsh had set.
As I got into my car for the drive home, I realized that I had committed to having some sort of funeral; I appreciated Mr. Walsh’s foresight in making the reservation. I reflected on this surreal day. I had been moving through completely unfamiliar territory, yet all the pieces had fallen into place. At each location, my tentative steps were rewarded with boxes, bags, and envelopes full of money.
* * *
Later that week, I returned to Brookline. After closing the bank account and returning the keys to Richie, I headed over to Waterman & Sons for my father’s sendoff. Before anyone else arrived, Mr. Walsh took me into a chapel-like room where my father’s coffin lay between two large flower arrangements. One was from the Red Cab Company and the other from the staff of the clinic where I worked. Mr. Walsh lifted the lid of the coffin, and I saw my father’s dead yet familiar face.
Including Mr. Walsh and me, there were eight people present for the funeral. A close friend of mine, Emily, insisted on driving out from western Massachusetts to support me. Dennis, an old friend living in Boston, asked if he could attend; he was a sociologist, and his inquisitive presence was a great help in easing the awkwardness of the event.
Matt and three taxi drivers, all clearly fond of my father, arrived at the funeral home. Each of them related anecdotes about my father, whom they knew as Red. One driver said his last name was Cortelyou; he told us how Cortelyou Road in Brooklyn, a street that was well known to me and my father, was named after his family. Another driver was from Trinidad and also had a few stories to tell. My father had apparently told his coworkers that he arrived in Boston one day with only a nickel in his pocket. They described Red’s friendly manner, his sense of humor, and his love of the track. They knew nothing of the wives, children, and stepchildren he had left behind in Brooklyn. They shared these stories with me, clustered in the back of the small chapel where the coffin lay at the front. Dennis was fascinated by these men, and he kept a lively conversation going; this partially made up for the absence of other friends or relatives.
Mr. Walsh came in and ushered everyone to the front of the room, asking me whether I wanted to say anything. I declined, and he offered to say a few words and recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. I left it up to him. He delivered a eulogy from the distance of someone who didn’t know the deceased or any of us yet was familiar with the customary rituals. In his thick Boston accent, he read the transliteration of the Hebrew prayer. There were enough mispronunciations that, as the only Jewish person in the room, I had to contain my laughter. I felt like I had fallen into a Mel Brooks movie.
Mr. Walsh efficiently brought the proceedings to a close. After guiding me though a few more signatures, he handed me a folder filled with receipts, copies of the death certificate, and other necessary documents. Behind-the-scenes helpers had placed the two flower arrangements into the back seat of my car. They also put my father, in his coffin, into a hearse ready for his trip to Cape Cod. The small funeral party dispersed, and it was all over. On the drive home, I discovered that I hate the smell of lilies.
The next day I went to work. At that time, I supervised therapists in a counseling clinic. With no appointments scheduled, I wore jeans, my father’s Boston sweatshirt, and one of his Suffolk Downs caps. I didn’t pretend to do any work. I sat in my padded desk chair, swiveling idly in the middle of my office. My colleagues, all social workers and therapists, dropped in between sessions offering condolences, along with reactions to the sudden revelation that I had a father and that he had died. It was both distracting and comforting. Some spoke about their own disengagement from their parents and the complex feelings that arise when a parent dies. They listened to the details of my story with curiosity and concern. It was my own improvised variation on sitting shiva or holding a wake.
* * *
Among the handful of photos I found in my father’s room, two were of him seated in the bleachers at Suffolk Downs, surrounded by fellow horseracing fans. I don’t know whether to call them his friends. Did he go and just hang out with whoever was around? Did he have a set of cronies, people who knew him and called him Red? Should I have invited them to his funeral? In both pictures, he had his usual grin and dangling cigarette. It was impossible to know his relationship with the bystanders. I fantasized that if I went to Suffolk Downs, someone in the crowd would recognize me as his daughter—or I would strike up a conversation with someone who would have stories to tell me about him. Needless to say, when I did make it there, none of that happened. One rainy day, I took off from work and went out to Suffolk Downs. I brought with me the twenty-three unclaimed betting tickets I had found on my father’s desk. The tickets provided me with an excuse to check out what was apparently my father’s home away from home.
I found my way to the racetrack without much trouble. The main area at Suffolk Downs felt like a train station or an airport. It was an open airy space, with chairs, benches, and closed-circuit televisions displaying lists of races and horses instead of arrivals and departures. Many stands selling beer, pretzels, hot dogs, pizza, popcorn, and burgers made it a haven for junk food lovers. There were also plenty of ashtrays, with no prohibitions about smoking. I could see why my father loved the place. I could imagine spending the rest of my life there, too—if I didn’t have a child, a home, two cats, and a professional job to which I was committed. Had things been different, I could see myself hanging out there on a daily basis, guzzling beer, munching on hot dogs, smoking Marlboros, and calculating betting odds while waiting eagerly for my horse to come in, my fortune to change.
Along the walls were windows, each with a person inside, like a bank teller, taking bets and paying out winnings. I ventured up to one of the windows, prepared to offer a lengthy explanation about these overdue betting stubs. The guy at the window needed no explanation. He took the tickets and told me he would run them through a machine, and I should come back later. I went outside and observed a few races; one would be run every fifteen minutes or so. I wasn’t sure how it all worked. I watched horses run around the track as people cheered for them, some pleased with their wins and some losing with frustrated expressions. It felt too awkward to figure out how to place a bet, so I just watched.
After a while, I went back to the window where I had left the betting tickets. Many were losers, but there were a few winners in the bunch—seventeen dollars’ worth, which covered the cost of my turnpike tolls and part of a snack at a rest stop. That day at Suffolk Downs I didn’t place a bet, eat a hot dog, or drink a beer. I had asked my father to take me to the track more than once. He never said no, but it never happened, either. This would be the closest I would get to spending a day at the track with him.
* * *
When they took my father’s body for burial at the VA cemetery on Cape Cod, I had no clear idea of where it was going. In the file from the funeral home, I found a pamphlet and receipt with information about the burial ground in Bourne, Massachusetts. One summer day, several months after his death, my six-year-old daughter and I were meeting some friends for a weekend at the beach. We would be driving right through Bourne, and I decided to stop and see the grave. The VA cemetery was a lovely place. There was an ocean breeze blowing when we found the small, rectangular stone with my father’s name and dates on it. It was one of thousands.
My daughter had brought some Starburst candies with her. She placed them on the gravestone as an offering to this unfamiliar dead man. We sat on the ground by his grave. I hummed some Jewish hymns, melodies that I find comforting. When my daughter’s patience started to run out, I suggested she eat the candies she had brought, since he wouldn’t really be able to. That bought me a little more time to think about my father and all that had led to this moment. When it was time to go, we folded up the colorful pink and yellow wrappers and placed them on his gravestone under a small rock. I haven’t been back to visit.
* * *
I put off counting the money in the shoeboxes for a long time. Late one night, weeks after I brought the money home from my father’s room, I took the boxes from the closet and spread them out on the floor in my bedroom. I didn’t have to sort the bills, since he had done that already—each of the nine boxes contained a particular denomination stacked and held together with rubber bands. It took quite a while to count all of it. There were thousands of dollars in bills, along with several hundred dollars in quarters that I found in a Suffolk Downs shoulder bag. I kept the bag of quarters in my closet and used the coins for parking meters, tips, and spare change for years. It seemed they would never run out, but eventually I spent them all.
The joint bank account had been the easiest money for me to access. After all the required submissions of death certificates, checks began arriving in my mailbox: several envelopes with money from my father’s last weeks of employment, overtime, and even a bonus; reimbursements of burial expenses from the VA and Social Security; and insurance money from the VA and the Red Cab Company policies. It was clear that my father intended the insurance money to come to me—I was listed as the sole beneficiary on both policies.
I never calculated the total of all the funds I received from different sources. The amount changed as money arrived and funeral expenses were deducted. I also began attributing any unanticipated sums of money that came to me in any way as the result of my father’s influence. It seemed as if he had passed on some magic to me that led to frequent windfalls.
The grand total was way less than a million dollars, but it felt like a million to me. I had been taught by my mother to be careful with money. As a clinical social worker, I made an adequate salary. I saved money when I was working and used it to support myself when I changed jobs and moved around. Once I had a child, I became more conscientious about staying in one place and saving money. Once in a letter, my father had mentioned how much he was making, assuring me that he was doing fine. He lived on a small veteran’s pension, Social Security, and whatever he made at the Red Cab Company. He wrote that he was thinking of retiring, but the taxi company had offered him one dollar more per hour, increasing his pay to eight dollars and fifty cents an hour, so he decided to continue working. He must have had a magic touch for picking horses, to account for the accumulation in the shoeboxes.
The money from my father allowed me to upgrade my car and take vacations: my daughter and I went to Disney World and Jamaica as gifts from my father. His money subsidized summer camps and piano lessons for my daughter; it contributed to the down payment on a house. That money has never seemed to run out. The good fortune that came with it keeps replenishing it.
This good fortune also changed my attitude about money. I began thinking of myself as a lucky person. I avoided horse racing and the lottery, but I started winning more than my share of raffles. In the year after my father’s death, I won a book at a writer’s conference, a restaurant dinner at a school fundraiser, a basket of pet supplies at an animal shelter benefit, and a box of toys at a children’s carnival. I began a practice of thanking my father for any money or gifts that came my way—from rebates, pennies on the ground, and quarters that fall out of vending machines, to bonuses, promotions, and raises at work. I always say, “Thank you, Red” upon receiving any unforeseen financial wins.
The other side of luck is generosity. I used my father’s money to help a friend in need purchase a car when hers broke down. Whenever she and I are together, we make a toast to Red. Because of how unexpectedly my father’s money fell into my life, I try to share what I have with others and trust it will be replenished. So far, that has been true.
Although my mother and my sister had told me not to get involved, when I returned with the found money, there was an expectation that I should share this “inheritance” with my sister. After much deliberation, I decided that I would keep the money he carefully and intentionally designated for me, but I could share the cash in the shoeboxes. With some mixed feelings, I delivered several shoeboxes of my father’s money to my sister.
Not long after, she called me and asked, “Do you think Daddy really didn’t want me to have his money?” I hesitated but answered truthfully: “Probably not.” She told me that she had put the shoeboxes in the bottom drawer of her dresser. At the time, caregivers from an agency were working in her house; apparently one of them stole all the money and never returned to the job. I chuckled to myself, and thinking of it now, I just shake my head and smile at the irony. I’m sure the grin on my face is the same as the one my father would wear if he heard that story.
* * *
There are many reminders that bring my father into the present. I wear his red flannel shirt on chilly mornings when I walk my dog. The blue rabbit’s foot sits in a basket on my nightstand with my own lucky crystals. The Suffolk Downs shoulder bag is empty of quarters now, but it is the perfect carry-on for airplane trips. I still offer thanks to Red for unexpected gifts, finds, and chance encounters with good fortune.
Once I was told by a tarot card reader that she sensed a black crow hovering protectively behind me. She identified it as the spirit of my father. Not long after that, my daughter, who had just started walking to middle school by herself, told me that she felt safe on her walk because a crow followed her down the street every morning. Do I believe that my father’s spirit visits us in the form of a crow? Not really. But smiling at crows and saying thanks for every penny that falls onto my path makes for brighter days.
In the beginning, my story of my father was a single image of a girl of ten, standing behind a storm door, fists clenched, as a yellow taxi pulled away. In writing this narrative about him, I have watched scene after scene unfold on the page. Once I thought of this as a story of loneliness and loss. Now it seems full of magic and luck. If my father had a motto, words of wisdom to pass on, it was a quote he used often: “You win some, you lose some, and some are rained out.” I don’t always know which are the wins and which are the losses, but I am a big fan of rainy days.
Madlynn Haber lives with her dog, Ozzie, in a cohousing community in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her work has been published in the anthology Adult Children (Wishing Up Press, 2021), K’in Literary Journal, Dissonance Magazine, borrowed solace, Buddhist Poetry Review, Muddy River Poetry Review, Poetica Magazine, Random Sample Review, and other journals. Online at https://www.madlynnwrites.com.
Deeply moving. Thanks for writing and sharing.
Oh Madlynn, My dear friend. this should be a short story. It has so many levels, so many generations. It reveals how you became the generous, forgivng, intuitive, perserveeing, endlessly wise and enormously loving person that I call my friend. It is, to me your masterpiece (so far). Naomi has a legacy she can hold onto. She is such a wonderful person in her own right, of course. But you enrich her life with these written stories, just as storytellers have always done throughout the ages. That art is quickly dying, so to me it is a miracle to you are bequesting this to me, to all of us, to your daughter. Thank you. I remember when my father left us. It all came back, I felt the pain, the shame, again. It is written so honestly, so light to the touch, yet every feeling is there. Thank you.Hildy