Notes from the Father Field
by Lisa Romeo
Though my father never touched the large-number cell phone I once gave him, I like to think that, if he’d lived longer, and had I the patience to teach him, he may have taken to texting.
During his working life, Dad cracked wise and shared inside industry jokes while negotiating business deals on the telephone. At home though, he preferred handing the receiver over to my mother when I called from college, and later from my own home across the country. He never owned a computer, knew nothing of email. Letters, I assumed, were something he left to his secretary. The fax machine flummoxed him.
What he liked, instead, were notes. Short ones.
* * *
My mother kept every room in their large house stocked with pens and notepads of all shapes and sizes and colors, and every year or so ordered notecards with Dad’s name etched on creamy stock. Yet mostly Dad grabbed or tore off what was handy—an envelope, receipt, scrap of newspaper, displayed greeting card, a corner from the calendars Mom had scattered about.
When I got birthday packages (or thinking-of-you packages) from my parents—dozens over the three decades I lived thousands of miles away—nestled in with the cashmere sweater and photos Mom sent, perhaps tucked just behind a magazine clipping either thought I’d enjoy, would be a note from Dad. One single line.
Usually it wasn’t anything much: Hope your cold is gone. Good luck at the horse show. Or fatherly reminders, mostly unnecessary for a daughter grown fiercely independent while still in high school: Do your taxes on time! Have you checked your tires lately? Be sure to confirm your airline reservations.
But sometimes the notes strayed from practical matters, and struck me with their fervor, displaying a kind of humility and love I knew my father found difficult to express in person. Mother and I are proud of you. Congratulations on your promotion – knock ‘em dead! Happy Easter, with love from your dear old Dad.
I sometimes kept the notes, at least for a while. When I was single, if a note from Dad arrived when I felt low—lonely, missing home and family; licking wounds after a boyfriend break-up; feeling undervalued at work—I’d squirrel the note somewhere. Then, while going about my daily routine, there it would be. Smoothed out on the bottom of my purse, tucked into the side pocket of the suitcase I packed a few times a month for business travel, beneath a jumble of brushes and dashed dreams in the elegant tack trunk that accompanied me and my (Dad-funded) horse on the show circuit (where I was finding it difficult to win).
I’d love finding those notes, reminding me that someone was in my corner. I was in St. Louis once to see clients whose outspoken political opinions made me feel diminished (but which I was forbidden by my boss to address), and in my briefcase found a note from Dad telling me Concord grape juice contains a lot of vitamins and minerals. Once, in a West Palm Beach bar at the end of a challenging day in the hunter/jumper show ring, I was shrinking from the more successful riders, riders more skilled in the saddle, plus far wealthier and sophisticated, when I reached in my purse for a cigarette but fingered one of Dad’s notes: Here’s a fiver, have a drink on me.
Were I a more sentimental person, or just a woman who could intuit that decades later, she’d yearn to hold, to read, to feel those notes in her hand, I might have kept them all, and forever. Surely, I kept all sorts of other less important detritus—meaningless play programs and ugly Christmas ornaments, bad books and ill-advised clothing, in drawers, shelves, and bins. Why, I want to know now, did I let the notes from Dad slip away?
Often, I’d toss notes away as soon as they arrived, along with the gift wrapping. Push them aside (or into the garbage?) weeks or months later when I’d find a note among a messy pile of papers on my desk or fallen behind a bureau. Why didn’t I see then that those notes were little pieces of my father’s heart? The very essence of his protection and care? The wise way he’d hoped to gain the attention of a very busy daughter?
* * *
I occasionally imagine how lovely it would be now, over a cup of tea, on a windy winter night—now that my own children are grown and flown—to wander through those notes, through the stages of my life, and feel (and read) the care and concern of my now-gone father. But from the time I left for college, until my father died 30 years later, I lived in ten different places. With each move, I cavalierly tossed stuff, believing I was not only lightening my load, but that the decluttering act itself was valiant, that it was admirable, being able to part unemotionally with mere material objects.
The truth though is, as always, more complicated. Much as I liked them, there was also something about those notes that bothered me. For one, I disliked that they seemed to represent the extent of my father’s abbreviated attention span for anything not related to his business, the stock market, politics, or his house and property.
Then there was the look of them. My mother’s newsy, multi-page letters displayed prize-winning penmanship (she’d won a 1937 schoolwide award). But Dad’s notes were a visual challenge, the writing distracted and varied. My father—who was made to quit school in the 10th grade to work for his father, despite earning top grades and longing to become a doctor—handwrote always in a haphazard combination of upper and lower-case letters, mixing cursive and print. For so many years, I thought of his handwriting as a mess, and an uncomfortable reminder of how little formal education he’d had. (Though, come to think of it, had he become a physician, he’d have the perfect writing for prescriptions!)
Had I stopped to think about it, I’d have recognized that the notes’ appearance did not invalidate the content, nor obscure the underlying emotion. If anything, the notes, as esoteric and oddly timed as they might have been, reinforced what I suspected from a young age—that my father was deeply knowledgeable about the important things in life, if not in books.
I sometimes wonder what was written on the last note my father ever sent me.
* * *
Four months after Dad father died, I got a call from an editor at the New York Times who wanted to publish something I’d written about motherhood. My husband Frank had answered the phone since I was in the shower, and as I toweled off, he handed me a plain slip of white paper—written in a strange combination of print and cursive, upper and lower-case letters. Not Frank’s usual handwriting, but he told me his hand was shaking, knowing what a stunning victory a Times byline represented for me. The note looked, in every aspect, as if my father had written it.
Dad was the reason I was a writer at all. It was his made-up stories when I was a child, and the way he devoured newspapers, that shaped me into a reader, and later, a journalism major in college. Words connected us. The way Frank’s note looked rattled me, and for a few weeks, I thought again of Dad’s long-gone notes.
* * *
Then I didn’t think about Dad’s notes again for a couple of years, until I began writing a book about the way grief unexpectedly slammed into me after his death, mixing abrasively with the emotions of midlife and motherhood. Trying to understand why I experienced grief in the way I did—constantly “talking to” my father postmortem—I went in search of anything that might help me recreate on paper the sometimes-fraught relationship I’d had with Dad during his lifetime. The notes were gone, I knew, but I hungrily handled photographs, objects I’d claimed from Dad’s desk, some of his sweaters that now lived in my closet.
Around the same time, Frank and I were clearing out old household financial files, including the one that held payment records of our long-ago all-paid-up mortgage (private mortgage holder: Dad). That’s where I found the one note I did, unknowingly, save.
It wasn’t anything special: about 15 words, in black pen, written on a slant on the corner of a piece of corrugated cardboard. It was torn, I’m guessing, from a box lid in his garage just before taking one of Mom’s packages to the post office around the corner to send to his youngest daughter across the country.
Be sure to file the mortgage completion papers with the state before April 15.
That was all.
So, I did still have a note, though technically I hadn’t saved it at all; it simply got caught up in that file, where it belonged. I tossed the file, but for months, I kept that cardboard note on my desk as I wrote. Then I moved it into the top right-hand desk drawer, where I saw it each time I reached for a fresh cartridge of printer ink.
And then, inexplicably, one day, it was gone.
* * *
In his final years, Dad’s “notes” to me came at the bottom of a birthday or Christmas card. My mother signed, Love, Mom XO, and then Dad wrote, “With lotions of love, Dad.”
“Lotions of love?” I once asked him, probably in a superior I’m-a-journalist voice. “Don’t you mean ‘notions’?”
“Notions, lotions, what’s the difference?” he said. “I like ‘lotions.’”
A few of the cards must still be in my house somewhere, buried in years of family stuff I now no longer so blithely toss. Maybe one day one will turn up again. I think of Dad’s closing valediction whenever I smooth on hand cream. Lotions of love, Dad.
* * *
My father’s notes didn’t change my life, but some days, they did cushion it. Though they expressed the simplest of thoughts, took up the smallest of space, they communicated what Dad wasn’t able to say out loud—and frankly, I might not have stood still long enough to hear. At times though, I’ve wished for more.
I recall being jealous of a dear friend not long ago because she has a small suitcase filled with meaty philosophical letters from her father, beginning when she went away to summer camp, continuing through college, marriage, divorce and on into her 60s and her own retirement. How I envied those letters.
Turns out, Dad did write letters, only not to me. He wrote to my sister, twelve years my senior, his first child, to whom he was bonded as to no one else in life. And he wrote to a sister who lived in Italy, and to two of his brothers—the black sheep of the family who always asked for money, and the younger brother he’d once promised their father he’d look after.
After Dad had been gone for a few years, I found myself alone in his house—Mom’s house by then—quite late one night while she was in the hospital recuperating from a heart attack and pneumonia. As adult children are occasionally wont to do, I went snooping.
I had no idea what I was searching for, but I found it in the bottom drawer of a guest room bureau. I dropped to the floor and began reading, and kept reading until the desert dawn began flitting in around the edges of the black-out shades. When I stood, my legs were unsteady stilts beneath me, my head and heart skittering.
In the 1960s and 70s, Dad traveled frequently for his work as a textile executive, and in his roles with various charities. What I’d found were his letters from the road to Mom, his wife—love letters, dozens of them. Pages and pages of mixed up printing and script of indeterminate case and size, on sheets of stationery from dozens of hotels. How he loved her! How he missed her! How lucky she was to have a husband who wrote her letters!
How lucky I was to have a father who loved my mother so. Who wrote her letters, letters his daughter—who’d carelessly thrown out his notes—would find one day, years after his death, answering a yearning to once again see his strange handwriting, read his words, touch the pages he’d filled, and remember that he once wrote to her, too, in his way.
Lisa Romeo is the author of the memoir, Starting With Goodbye (University of Nevada Press). She lives in NJ.
Lisa Romeo is the author of the memoir Starting With Goodbye (University of Nevada Press). Her work is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2018 and 2016, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Essays have appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Longreads, The Nervous Breakdown, Under the Gum Tree, Sweet, Harpur Palate, GreenPrints, and other places. She teaches in an MFA program, is an editor with Cleaver Magazine, and an independent manuscript editor and writing coach. Lisa is at work on a new memoir, writing from her home in northern New Jersey. Visit her website at LisaRomeo.net