The International Writers Magazine: Lifestories
There’s really no way to prepare for the death of a parent. When it happens, it happens when you least expect it. When it happens, you grieve, but you feel relieved. Guilty, but relieved. Eventually, guilt subsides and the chore of setting things right begins.
When my father died, I became the sole survivor. My mother had passed when she turned eighty-five, she was five years younger than her husband. My father died five years after my mother’s death, five-and-a-half years, to be exact. Following my father’s passing, and as the only survivor of our troika, I had to settle things. Settling things, of course, meant having to become a heartless administrator of the pater’s estate. Administrating things was not my forte, in fact, I saw it as a tedious undertaking.
When my father died, I was not in shock. I felt rather guilty. I felt guilty because--and this goes against everything I believe in--despite the love, closeness, and despite my sincerity, I was kept awake at night by calculations: if, and when he’s gone, I thought, I may be able to sell this house and use the money to settle my bills. I may even have money left to buy a decent flat. I felt guilty for thinking like a mercenary. Of course, I was innocent, but not in my heart.
I had been practically destitute before I moved into the pater’s homestead. My situation, the job that I’d held for nearly ten years, had been outsourced to India; given to some lucky Indian man willing to do my job, long-distance, at below the minimum wage. At my age, the prospect of finding another situation similar to the one that had occupied half my life, was slim.
When the pater passed away, I was relieved. Relieved that he was free, free from pain and suffering, released from the prison his frail body had become. For that I felt relieved. I was now free to take over the estate and administer it as I saw fit. Yes, again, guilty as charged.
Two weeks after I put my father to rest in a squarish plot adjacent to my mother’s well manicured plot, with fresh flowers and a shiny granite tombstone chiseled with the dates of her birth and death, beneath a flying swallow, I decided I to begin the task of digging for the papers necessary to transfer the deed of my father’s house to my name, and to settle any debts he may have left unsettled. That meant walking into my father’s study and riffling through his private papers. It was difficult. I was not used to opening private drawers and pecking through his personal possessions. Photos, letters, bundles of bills marked “paid,” coupons for the supermarket neatly stashed behind the phone bills. Prescription written by his doctors held together by pinkish rubber bands, resting quietly next to a radio “mini world 100” made by "GRUNDIG," the size of a cigarette pack.
On another corner of his massive oak desk sat a WESTCLOX clock, its face was yellowing with age, as was its ivory colored metal casing. Its hands had stopped at thirty minutes past five. I stared at the motionless hands thinking of the many times I’d watched my father pick the clock and turn the little metal crank, with a back-and-forward motion, with both hands, until the ticking had resumed. I nearly picked up the clock to try to mimic the same motions, but I resisted the temptation and let it sit motionless, marking that frozen time forever.
After spending nearly an hour, an hour-and-thirty minutes to be precise, going though drawers and boxes, and realizing how meticulous my father had been in his record keeping, I came across a small, gold filled skeleton key. It wasn’t labeled. It sat next to a wooden box that looked like a portable humidifier, big enough to accommodate a dozen full Coronas. My father loved to puff on a cigar whenever he had cause for celebration. A dirty little habit my mother frowned upon. A key, a box, a mystery. I lost no time fitting the key into the keyhole. I turned the tiny key several times, clockwise and counter-clockwise until I heard a muffled click.
It took me a few minutes to get the lid unstuck. It had been shut for long enough to cause the lid to stick. Finally, I opened it wide and stared at its contents momentarily. Its contents were minimal: a small black case, and two or three ledgers, the size of a paperback book, tied together with a purple ribbon. The purple ribbon looked familiar. I had seen its likeness in the embroidery my mother kept around the house. Doilies, curtains, and some coverings for the mantel she had fashioned. The small black case was labeled with gold stamping: “Joseph Burke, Optometrist,” it was an old fashioned metal case with blue velvet lining. Inside was a pair of spectacles the type no longer made. You just don’t see them on people’s noses anymore: small oval frames, in polished 12k gold, with wires that hook around the ear. They belonged to my mother. I remembered that she wore them only when she was writing.
Memories clouded my mind briefly. Mom, dad, and me, sitting around the kitchen table chatting, laughing, eating. My mother and father. I had not thought about the two of them together in a while. It was comforting and bitter sweet at the same time. My love for both seem muffled and rather distant now. It was not as deep and strong as when as a child: I’d go to bed and cry each time I thought the dreaded thought of what would happen to me if they both died. It terrified me to think them gone, I cried myself to sleep. With time, my feelings changed, I still loved them both, but they were no longer essential to my emotional survival. It was, I thought, the result of my emotions mellowing with age.
I snapped back to reality, remembering that the deadline for submitting all my claims was getting near. I needed to find all the documents to begin the settlement. I put the box aside and browsed through stacks of papers. The purple ribbon in the wooden box, that held together the three notebooks, caught the corner of my eye. Purple, yellow, brown, gold; the colors of the little notebooks. They were not labeled. The three were bound in wrappers with leather spines that showed little damage. I picked up the bundle and untied the knot that kept them tied together. The books had a distinct musty smell of aged paper. Without much fanfare on my part, I picked one up at random and opened it slowly, trying not to break the spine.
The pages were soft to the touch. They had foxing all around the edges, that golden brown color that paper turns with the passage of time. The front end-paper had been decorated with doodles of flowers on the top and sided. In the center of the page, in very neat hand writing, was my mother’s maiden name. I recognized the swoops and decorative swirls. It was her hand writing. A hidden treasure revealed, I thought. Surely, these were my mother’s diaries she had kept. I had never seen the books before. Perhaps, I thought, my father kept them safe as keepsakes of the memory of mom.
I felt a bit uneasy having access to her private thoughts, If that is what the notebooks held. Perhaps I should not read them, I thought. Obviously, my father must had read them and decided they were precious enough to keep, albeit under lock and key. My uneasiness went away and I began to read its pages:
“What I have to relate now is painful to tell, but tell I must. It is my hope that Phillip will forgive me.”
The moment I laid eyes on those words, that my mother had carefully written down with neat cursive hand writing, I was curious, a bit annoyed, and guilty that I had come across her private journals. I had no reason to not read them. I was hooked.
“The first time Phillip asked me out, I was hesitant. I didn’t particularly like his face or his demeanor. I didn’t like that he was older than I was, and was not as fit as I would have liked him. He was fat. He was fat and pink, with a receding hairline.”
Oh my god! This is my father she was describing. I guess the old man had not been very attractive, even in his early years. Poor mom. I thought.
“He was, nevertheless, someone I had admired from afar. He was bookish and intelligent. He was one of the best professors that I’d had. His knowledge of literature, fueled my ambition. He was a published author, whose works had received critical praise, and were selling like hotcakes. He had become wealthy from his work, and rather famous, or at least he had a reputation among the faculty of being a star. I had my own ambitions, and perhaps, I felt, having ties, friendly ties, with a man of his reputation, will give my ambition of becoming a writer, the necessary boost, or at least he’ll introduce me to the right people in the right places and at the right time in my blossoming career as a writer. After all, Phillip did steer me towards creative writing and away from any criticism.”
I never knew mother had wanted to become a professional writer.
“The day he came to pick me up for our ‘date’ I was nervous, very nervous. I needed to calm my nerves, so I made myself a couple of gin-and-tonics before he arrived. I had two, then, two more. I figured he would not be bothered, or aware I’d drunk them. He was very punctual. He knocked on my door at exactly half-past five. It was too early for dinner, so we went to the Madison hotel for drinks. After a couple of Manhattans, we drank two shots of whiskey; a drink that was Phillip’s favorite, which I never learned to like. Despite the smoothness, and the quality of the drink, the burning taste of the libation going down my throat nearly made me gag. Phillip, on the other hand, could down as many as three or four without even blinking.”
The thought of my mother and father getting drunk together seemed alien to me. I never saw my mother or father drink anything other than the casual glass of Merlot with dinner for a special celebration.
“Before I continue with this story, I must first clarify a few details about Phillip that might shed some light on the reason that I did not feel attracted to him sexually, but intellectually. He was upper class. His family had the roots of all those gilded age families with Boston and Rhode Island residences. He was an intellectual. I had him as a teacher at Brown where he taught a class on American Realism of the Nineteenth Century. When it came to talking about authors and books, Phillip was a lion. After my graduation, I kept in touch with Phillip. He was, at that time, working as editor for a prominent New York magazine. He was also writing books about the current state of American literature. Phillip moved in circles I had no access to, but wanted to be a part of. Phillip had seen my writing, and he had tried very hard to stir me away from the critical writing and pushed me more into fictional writing. He said that I had what it takes. Perhaps that was the reason I felt enthralled by him, the fact that he recognized my talent and helped me develop it through feedback and discussions.”
Boy, the old man really knew how to snare a woman. I didn’t realize he was so smooth!
“ After we drank the whiskey, we went to a restaurant on Fifth Avenue. By then, we were both close to being drunk. The food was excellent as I recall. He ordered a bottle of Champagne, I had a glass or two, he finished the bottle. This, I later learned, was his modus operandi. He spent his money on high class restaurants, and booze. Little did I know that this would become a burden down the line. After the restaurant, and following a brief stroll down the avenue, both staggering, I’m sure, we took a cab and ended up in his apartment. It was late. He lived in one of those tall buildings with a doorman. We went up several floors in a spacious elevator, I don’t remember in exactly what floor we got off, but I recall the noise of the elevator bell announcing our arrival.”
My father the playboy? Wow, I’d not know this side of him, or perhaps, he was forced to do away with it after his marriage.
“Phillip and I, both tipsy, but not ready to call it a night, went into his study. He wanted me to see his collection of rare books, first editions, signed editions, and great bindings. We went into his study, which was lined with bookshelves, and we talked about the latest authors. He showed me his rare collection; I still remember caressing the beautiful pages of a book by Henry James, still ‘uncut.’ a virgin tome, that nobody had read.”
I know that book. I remember holding it in my hands. Father kept it inside a crystal cabinet. It remains unread to this day, it’s pages uncut, a “virgin tome.”
“I was curious. I wanted to know more, learn more. He was the perfect person to teach me. I had gone up with him with the intention of talking to him about books, about his literary circle, about the prospects of becoming an author. We both were drunk, and did not want the evening to end. It was then that it happened. He pulled me close to his body, and I let him, I didn’t resist. He pressed his mouth to my mouth and kissed me hard.”
Oh my god! I don’t think I can continue reading this. It’s really embarrassing. My father and mother making out!
“I have to say that I let him. He did not force me. I know we were drunk, I had come up to his apartment, not because I had sex in mind, but because I felt it was what people did after dinner and drinks, and I wanted to talk, just wanted to talk more about what interested me, and what he had to give. Phillip kissed me and then we made love in his study. The next day, I left the building without talking to him. I left him in his bed. He was naked, pink, and fat, and snoring. I felt sad and angry at myself, but I didn’t blame him. It had happened. Three months went by without us making any attempt at getting in touch, until we run into each other at a poetry reading. He looked the same as I remembered. Pink and fat. We spoke briefly, neither of us mentioned the dreaded incident. After that meeting, we began corresponding. He wrote to me, and I wrote back.”
They wrote letters to each other. I wonder if he has them stashed somewhere in this house. I bet they make for interesting reading, I thought. By now, I could not put the little book down. I felt guilty reading these confessions, but at the same time, I wanted to know more. I read as if I were a stranger privy to the inner thoughts or another stranger. This surely was not my mother, I kept telling myself, I never knew the person who wrote these lines.
“We spent some time together. He liked to drink. I was not a stranger to the delights of a good Martini. He took me to his family’s estate in Rhode Island. We rode the train and spent a weekend together. There is where I saw him at his worst. He was not only fat, and pink, but he was also a slob. He had servants. A maid took care of all his needs. I was not used to that. During that weekend stay, I felt a strange guilt. I felt that the night we spent in his study and made love--my secret--had become a burden. I could not shake it off. I felt that my sin – even though I did not consider it a sin in a religious sense, more like a misdemeanor--had sealed my fate. Phillip continued to pursue, and pressed me to become his wife. He was rich, he was smart, and he could do wonders for me with his connections. After several months of relentless pressure, I said yes.”
Relentless pressure? He bullied her into this marriage? Oh my god! poor mother, I thought. When I turned to the next page, a little black-and-white photograph, which had been wedged between the pages, fell on my lap. It was an early snapshot of my young mother. She looked like she was seventeen or eighteen years old, at most. She wore a very cutesy smile that revealed her prefect teeth. Her tiny nose and chubby cheeks showed the baby fat she had not yet grown out of. Her hair, lots of it, was pulled to the side and tied with a little ribbon. Her long eyelashes made her look like a teen Angel. On her right shoulder rested the hand of the man who standing next to her, my father, towering over her. He had his arm around her as he stood staring directly into the camera; as if placing his arm around my mother’s shoulders, had been an afterthought, a necessity dictated by the fact that they were being photographed together. He was not smiling. His face looks fat, with his hairline receding away from his beady eyes. In contrast to the pretty dress my mother’s wearing, he’s wearing a checkered neck tie, with his shirt buttoned so tight, that his fleshy neckline spills over the collar. It’s obvious that my mother is sitting down and he is standing up. My father’s bulging belly, showing through a gap in his shirt where a single button was undone or missing, was next to my mother’s pretty face.
I held the photo in my hand for a while. I studied it. My mother looked so young. She was so pretty. My father was fat, old, and probably looked pink. I felt uneasy about what I had been reading. My father was the ogre who had somehow captured the fair princess, and imprisoned her. It was unsettling. Why did she marry him? I began to ponder. Did she feel sorry for my father; a lonely, yet powerful beast, a minotaur?
Did she think that perhaps some day she would be rescued from becoming a sacrificial virgin by some legendary Theseus?
I skipped-over pages, skimming, stopping at key phrases and passages stopping to read when a juicy bit attracted my attention:
“He was drunk, very drunk, I had never seen him this drunk before...”
And she went on and on:
“Phillip grunted threats, but did not hit me tonight...”
I could not go on reading. I closed the journal and put the it down. Could it be really true, that my poor mother had been bullied into a loveless marriage by an old fat man, who had the advantage of money and powerful friends? Was my mother so helpless as to have become his victim? And when did I come into the picture? what about me, her child? I was afraid I might find out, by reading further. I guess the obvious question is why? Why did my father keep these diaries?
I had spent a great part of the afternoon in my father’s study. I was hoping to resolve, once and for all, the question of the estate. After reading the few pages of my mother’s diary, I was shaking, staring at the diaries my mother had kept, and father never let me see before my mother’s death. I guess their marriage had lasted until my mother’s death. They had been together all this time. I felt they’d loved me dearly, and had chosen to never let me find out that their marriage was a sham. That love was not what bound them together. That my mother was the hapless victim, and my father was the forceful bully. Never, in my wildest dreams, had I envisioned it.
I wrapped the journals with the purple ribbon. The same ribbon that had held their secrets for so long. I put the bundle back into the box and carefully closed the lid. Then, I picked up the gilded skeleton key, and locked the box shut. I felt a tear roll down my cheek as I turned the key and pushed the box aside. Then, I stared at the snapshot of my young innocent mother-to-be, next to my fat, pink ogre father-to-be, posing together.
A badly injured marriage, I whispered to myself, who would have ever thought?
© Oswaldo Jimenez February 2013
Chris pinched the knight with his thumb and index finger and with a delicate twist of the wrist made two skipping moves in the air before placing the ivory horse-head on the black square, between his opponent’s Rook and his Bishop.
Idolatry. There’s really no other way to describe it. My behavior had reached the idolatrous phase. The shrine that I had created inside my walk-in closet was clear evidence.
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