BENEATH SNOWY FOOTHILLS
I am sitting in Albuquerque airport having left Dad’s bedside for what might be the last time. That I failed to say the words, I forgive you, Dad, will haunt me. I have to trust the meaningful looks we gave one another will be enough. I held his face and he attempted to kiss me on the lips, to taste my lips. There was always this tendency to get physically closer than I wanted, not in a sexual way, but in his usual mode of interference. This may be cultural—the Italian patriarch with his excesses, the exaggerated love of children, of flesh that is precious by virtue of its relationship to him—this is the overbearing behavior of my father.
I have been flying back and forth for a couple of months now, so it’s easy to assume I will return to see him one more time. Five days ago Mom and I were huddled in a lawyer’s office working out the best way to pay for years of nursing home care; days later hospice was called in, stopping all meds except for comfort. Dad hasn’t gone near food for weeks; this morning he spit out his pills for the first time.
Mom is in denial. Last night as we walked the Santa Fe neighborhood she and Dad moved to seven years ago, having left southern New Jersey for good, she stopped and turned to me. “What do you think is going to happen?”
“He’s dying, Mom,” I said, as gently as I could.
“Do you think so?” She seemed genuinely surprised, and I felt guilty. Why do I always feel guilty? I have been the practical one in the family. And Mom and I make a great pair; she the archivist, the keeper of impeccable records, and me, her choice of executor, the one who meets with lawyers, and reports back. I’m grateful for her careful notes as I attempt to change the beneficiaries on Dad’s life insurance policy. I’m acting on their wishes that the money be distributed equally among my two sisters and me, but Mom is not making this easy. And when I warn her that we have to act quickly, she looks at me plaintively, “Why?”
“He’s dying,” I say again.
As I’m leaving, Dad looks up at me from the fetal position. “When are you coming back?” His voice is weak, his chocolate eyes covered in a pale film. I can’t remember. What did you say your name was? Gone is the whiteness surrounding those large retinas, when he made his eyes big and chased me to my room. From time to time a flash of recognition replaces the vacant expression there a second ago.
“I’ll be back soon, Dad.”
What child hasn’t looked at a dying parent and wondered, is this the last time? Is that doubt I see in his eyes?
Weeks earlier, while still in his own bed, he took my hand and said, “I was a terrible father.” His glance didn’t waver, or maybe that was the dementia, or maybe it was his bid, a last wily attempt to have me forgive him. I knew he expected the words, I forgive you. Did he realize how large a door he was opening? What if I had said what was on my mind? You lied to me, Dad. You made promises you never kept. In fact you did the opposite of all that you promised, like setting up a college fund for our daughter. When it came time, and I needed that money, there wasn’t any. Then there was the land in the Pine Barrens, twenty acres for each of your girls, which you sold without telling us, along with a car you’d supposedly bought for me. Yet all my life, you expected me to thank you. And while you have been generous, you’ve given us what you wanted to give, when you wanted to give it, and you expect bragging rights and praise in perpetuity. It took me decades to recognize Mom’s gaslighting. Her insistence that you never made such promises, that you never beat me until I had bruises, that you never humiliated me in front of strangers. Mom insists none of this ever happened. She has said I’m the one who’s lying.
I spent my childhood confused by the ease with which my father vacillated between generosity and fury. For a long time I thought this was how human emotions worked. I learned to accept ambiguity in the actions of men, as if their most important role was to keep us guessing. My father was known for hiring and promoting women at work, yet he was peevish and tyrannical at home. He was the scary teddy-bear head on the wall of my bedroom, with swimming red eyes, a bow-tie and a crew cut. I once woke from a nightmare and Mom came running in as I screamed, and when I asked her who the figure was she hesitated, “I think it was your father.” I didn’t understand how a real person could cause someone to have nightmares. Once, finding bruises on my arms, I asked Mom what they were. She looked at me matter-of-factly, “They’re from your beating,” she said. Yours. You own it.
No one tells you how acting the better person, taking the high ground, isn’t necessarily satisfying or noble. Because every time I failed to tell my father what he had done to me, I hated myself. Mom was also afraid of him, but she could be haughty, lording over him the fact that she was smarter than he was. And though he most certainly recognized the manipulation this was, over and over he succumbed—he would never treat her as he did us. Maybe in this denial they renewed their vows. It is the age old way women exert power over difficult men. And honesty rarely plays a part.
Rather than enumerate decades of grievances, pointing out his physical and mental abuse, the way he’d enjoyed frightening me, and the weird sexual component to his bullying, as if women were placed on this earth to be the vessels of his frustration, instead of reminding him of this, I was mean. I looked down at his diminished figure, the pleading expression, and using one of his favorites, said, “You can’t win ‘em all, Dad.”
We didn’t say another word to each other that day. But I continued to rub his back, as I lay behind him, cradling him like a spoon. Then there was Frank’s deal, the most tangible, and lasting proof of my father’s failure to protect.
My husband, who isn’t American, agreed that we could try to live in the United States. So after twelve years in London, we sold our house, and planned an extended stay at my parents’ in New Jersey. After that we would drive to California and start our new lives. This plan had many advantages, among them continuous babysitting, and an opportunity for my parents to dote on their first grandchild. Our daughter, I reasoned, would be a sharable pleasure, a useful buffer, even as motherhood had seemed to give me immunity from my father’s worst taunts. But coming back was also a deliberate forgetting; there was a reason why I’d put three thousand miles between us.
Dad wanted us to stay at their house, but I insisted we have our own place, and so arranged with Aunt Maddy to move into the old servant’s apartment above the garage of her house. Our two families had always shared a beautiful sixteen acre property called The Harbour. This luxury, astride a lake, had come courtesy of Uncle Lewis, the rich man Dad’s sister had married. When Uncle died, Aunt Maddy moved permanently to Florida, so it wasn’t surprising to find The Harbour falling into ruin. This was another reason to come home, to say goodbye to the family homestead which I expected any minute she would want to sell.
The first week home was a honeymoon period. I was thirty-eight years old, an adult, but immediately became a child again in my father’s house. He insisted on making dinner every night, and dutifully the three of us would walk up the lane to sit in my parents’ kitchen, where I assumed my usual seat at the head of the table opposite Dad. Once, when I expressed the desire that my husband, daughter and I have our own meal together in our apartment, first Dad sulked, then he called repeatedly on the telephone, and finally he showed up on the doorstep. Why didn’t I want to come to dinner? He was making a roast. So once again we resumed our places, and Dad forced food, told stories, and that’s when he started mentioning his investment idea. The money from the sale of our house had just been wired.
“You remember Frank, honey.”
I didn’t, and said so.
“Yes you do. You know his father. Your mother and I have money invested with him.”
“Quite a bit of money,” said Mom with serious emphasis.
“Lorraine.” Dad held up his hand for silence, then turned to me. “He’s building these houses, Gail. You should see them. They’re gorgeous.”
“They are that,” said Mom.
I had never understood the geography of the pinelands, and my ignorance of those twisted lanes had always frustrated him. Gail, how long have you lived here? And I could hear him thinking, Girls are notorious for not knowing where they’re going.
Two days later my husband and I had a meeting with Frank set up by my father. I asked him whether he would be coming with us, and he gave me a withering look, “You don’t need me.”
Dad operated exclusively through local connections. Frank was another of what my father called smart boys, young men on the make, who came to Dad for mentoring, and encouragement; some managed to get Dad to loan them money. Frank had brought this deal to my father, and he was paying astronomical interest on my parents’ substantial investment. So this was the source of all that extra money. I recalled their most recent trip to London. How they pulled up in a fancy rental car and unloaded a matching set of expensive luggage. They sported new watches, and in my father’s demeanor was an uncharacteristic ease.
Frank’s newly renovated office occupied the second floor of a piece of local history, the old Ranere Estate, home of the family who once owned the Cadillac dealership and a listed building. The sprawling colonial, partially clad in Pennsylvania fieldstone, was an anomaly among so many cement shoe boxes, and a premises to suit a smart boy.
The inner door swung open and Frank came forward with a friendly reach and a firm handshake, and I knew I had never seen him before. And though we tried to establish when we might have met, it was clear we were strangers. He was younger than me, though not by much. Had he perhaps gone to school with one of my sisters? But failing to establish even that, we laughed, settling for the family connection, which Frank said was, “Wonderful. Your father is wonderful.” He gave my shoulder a painful squeeze.
My husband and I hadn’t discussed plans for how we intended to invest, nor how we would evaluate Frank’s offer. All we knew was the high interest he paid would easily allow us to get started in California.
I was meant to be paying attention, but strangely I felt bombarded by there being so little to focus on in the empty office. Frank thrummed through a chart, floor plans, a map, but I was suddenly overtaken by a familiar lethargy, my automatic reaction whenever Dad made a suggestion inevitably presented as a fait accompli. Many times since I’ve questioned my judgment, how I abdicated responsibility so easily by using a familiar counterweight; that when dealing with Dad, it was pointless to argue. Besides, the deal seemed so good. So even if I didn’t understand the exact workings of Frank’s business, I was thinking, Dad would never steer me wrong.
If I navigated my father’s dominance by giving in, my husband’s way of coping was to remain silent. He probably figured this was Dad’s show, or mine once we’d dropped into the isolation of southern Jersey, my father’s stomping ground where everyone knew their place. And so, on autopilot, I picked up a pen and wrote out a check for the full amount of the proceeds from the sale of our house.
At the end of our six month stay, we packed up and drove across America, and I recall the huge relief as we pulled out of The Harbour, thinking how once again I would be putting many miles between myself and my father. Yet I was grateful to him for introducing us to Frank. The money eased every decision, and I finally understood what it was like not to have to worry about money. Even so, I counted on Dad to keep an eye on our investment, which I thought was implicit in the arrangement. And if, as he said, he was dedicated to helping and protecting his girls, Dad would do that. He would protect me.
All was well for three years. Our daughter was settled in a new school, we had rented a comfortable, nondescript house in a suburb of San Francisco, my husband had found work, and we were making a smooth transition into our new lives. Once, when Frank’s interest payment was late by several weeks and arrived finally in the form of a cashier’s check, I called Dad in a panic.
“For God’s sakes,” he snapped. “It’s your investment. Call Frank.”
I was taken aback and more than a little furious. But I called Frank and when he wasn’t there, I left a message with his secretary. Not long after that normal payments resumed, and what with our lives so busy I managed to forget, or at least put aside my worries.
Months later as I was making dinner, the phone rang. Our seven year old was screaming, and I had my hands full with a hot frying pan, so my husband rushed in to take over at the stove and to tend to our daughter while I answered. It was Dad, and right away I knew something was wrong.
“What is it?”
“It’s all gone, honey. Everything. We’re wiped out.”
Trite and cliché sounding in movies, those same words when applied to real life carry the force of a sledge hammer. “Frank killed himself. Blew his head off with a shotgun.”
It took me several seconds, and I think I managed an “oh.”
“Your mother and I put all our money with Frank. If he wasn’t dead, I’d kill him.”
“You don’t mean that, Dad.”
“Oh, yes I do.”
I can recall the yellow lights in our kitchen, and how I had my back to my husband and daughter, not knowing where to rest my gaze. I was numb. I wanted to feel bad for Frank, but really I had the urge to scream at my father. Instead, I said, “At least we’re alive, Dad. Think of what he went through.”
It was a performance I’d perfected. Never show how I was feeling, take the blow and pretend what we discussed was nothing more than a random item in a newspaper.
“I recommended Frank’s deal to a lot of people. You’re the first one I called,” he said.
“What happened to the money, Dad?” I was thinking about my sisters and how much they might have invested.
“No one knows. The FBI are going to investigate. Honey, they’re never going to find that money.”
I still believed Dad could fix things, that he could call his contacts, work some magic. Maybe something could be recovered. When I suggested this, he said, “Gail, please.” Those two words carried a familiar sting. Though it was our money that had been lost, I wasn’t meant to question. I was there only to listen.
Then, “I let you girls down.”
My lie: “I don’t blame you, Dad.”
No longer able to afford our rented house, we moved quickly into a much smaller place, cheaper and further away. This was mere days before the school year started, and so we scrambled to get out daughter into a new school. Our confidence was shaken; we felt like fools. The move would define the next decade, a constant reminder of the influence of my father.
I left him in the fetal position staring into space.
The last of the blood was draining from the sky, and the moon was up like in a painting by Rousseau. Beneath the plane was another outcropping of lights, a town or a small city. So much life going on. The sky had turned a deep brown, framed by thin strips of blue above and below. Mom would be taking out the leftovers, the kale salad with shrimp, the lemon dressing with hot peppers and garlic. Feeling sorry for ourselves last night we’d attacked a whole cheesecake, which we’d failed to finish. Mom was hopefully pouring herself a glass of wine, meeting the evening with equanimity, maybe she was following my directions and relaxing in a hot bath with her best salts, after which she would slide Chinatown into the DVD player. Or perhaps she had gone straight into the cheesecake, skipping dinner altogether.
When I’d booked this return flight, I’d expected an improvement in his condition, and when that didn’t happen, I rationalized I needed to get back to work, to my husband, to my own life. Later I wouldn’t recall the order of things. Was it the next day, or was it two, or was it four days later when Mom called? It was so early, and very dark.
“The phone is ringing,” said my husband, “I think it’s your mother.”
We had removed the bedroom landline so we wouldn’t be disturbed, the action of people who don’t believe in emergencies. I slid out of bed but my body moved slowly, and I reached the kitchen only in time to hear the tail end of her message. I called back without bothering to listen.
She was crying. She said, “I’m leaving now. I’m driving to the home.”
“Okay Mom. I’ll book a flight and be there as soon as I can.”
I told her to drive carefully; it was snowing in Santa Fe. I must have still been asleep because I hadn’t thought to ask her a single question. I hung up, and made a reservation. Then I called her from the airport to say when my flight would get in. “How is he?”
“He died, honey. He died right before I called you. You were the first one I called.”
People were filing past me dragging suitcases. The noise around me seemed to ratchet up a notch. The coffee kiosk beckoned, but I wondered how I would walk there and order.
In their later years my parents had loved traveling and being driven in one of those airport carts that old people sit in like they are being taken to some nirvana. The waters parted, the beeping a signal that precious cargo was coming through. How sad, I’d thought, not to be able to walk as fast as possible pushing my stowable overnight, upright on multi-directional wheels that allowed me to go faster than everyone else.
Then a young man with an inscrutable manner stopped his geriatric cart. He did not look at me, but at a place above my head. “Can I take you to your gate?” I had never been offered a lift in one of those carts. Normally I would have laughed, said No thank you.
“Yes, please,” I said.
I was surprised at how fast we were going and how skillful he was at steering. I turned around to look at him. “My father died this morning.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I just found out.”
People were staring. I imagined them thinking, what’s an able-bodied woman doing in one of those carts?
“Here you are safe and sound,” he said.
I walked like a zombie towards the desk, though I was already checked in. There, again, I explained that my father had just died. I told the woman I couldn’t wait to board, or I might go crazy. She avoided my eyes, and upgraded me. But there was something going on at the gate that was delaying us. An ambulance with flashing lights drew up, and we all watched as several men loaded a coffin onto our plane.
Mom and I had much to do. We were waiting for Lisa to arrive, and Donna, who lived in France, would come later. It took days to get through all the officialdom, death certificates, arranging for cremation, contacting insurance. We drank more than we usually did and went out to nice restaurants. There was certain information I needed, but when I asked Mom to supply a phone number or check a detail, we would argue. At one point, Mom stood in the kitchen with clenched fists. She was leaning forward like a child, yelling at me, insisting I didn’t understand. I’d rarely seen her so angry. She was right. I didn’t understand. Her years with him were her years, my experience had been different. Or had it?
If Dad’s death was an earthquake, my memories were the aftershocks. I revisited every slight, every broken promise, and I did it silently so as not to burden her with my list.
Mom refused a final ceremony, electing instead to keep Dad on the fireplace hearth in an antique milk can my sister had found on EBay, because, as she explained, Dad had always loved milk. He loved milk and cookies. Dad was like a child, that is when he wasn’t a tyrant. How to square the two men contained in the one visage of Dad, to respond to either was to realize that a switch could take place at any moment. I did what we humans do when remembering the departed, I tried to reconstitute only the good parts.
I looked down from the airplane into a vast bowl. The weather had cleared, but the foothills were still covered in snow. I was thinking how their adopted hills would make a fine place to scatter ash. But in a strange twist, I thought about taking him back to the flats, to the Atlantic White Cedars, to the old Harbour, to that beautiful Bartram setting of pines. I pictured him on his La-Z-Boy in the den, un-predisposed to travel, but hearing music. Music ran in the family. His antique ukulele in its case. I recalled funny uncles who sang opera and told fibs. The entire parade re-remembered. It was strange how with more and more of them departed, Uncle, Aunt Maddy, and now my father, the memories only grew stronger, as I struggled to reconstruct the past, my childhood, and Dad. I had the sudden urge to go home, to scatter his ashes across the bay, flying like his line once did as he cast in surf. He wore oilskin trousers, his powerful forearms wielding his fishing pole, sweat on his upper lip. There was the time he forced me alone onto a scary carnival ride, and when it didn’t crash, and I didn’t get sick, he smiled. Risk followed by success. We had looked at one another and felt pride. How much of him was in me? I don’t like to think about this, yet I sleep like he once did with my fingertips between my eyebrows. Seeing him that way, asleep in the den, I always thought he looked in need of comfort, the way I was often in need of comfort in his house. We sought relief from some congenital wound handed down. I didn’t want to think I carried that same wound.
When he whispered, “I was a terrible father,” why didn’t I say, “You know, Dad, you weren’t the greatest. But I forgive you.”
I didn’t, and it’s too late now. I can only trust that memories are a form of forgiveness.
Gail Reitano writes fiction, memoir, and personal essays. A collection of memoir vignettes, “Growing Up Italian in the New Jersey Pine Barrens” appeared in the anthology, Songs of Ourselves: America’s Interior Landscape. She has won a short story prize from Glimmer Train Press, and a chapter from a recently completed novel, The Taste of Anise, was a finalist for The Masters Review. Her work has been performed on public radio in the Bay Area, and on stage at The Strand Project in Youngstown, PA. She now lives in California, but is forever an east coast girl. For her family, the search for missing history, stories, and ancestors is alive and well.