And I’m still looking for my father, two weeks after his death at 92—searching among his closeted clothes and dresser drawers for confirmation that an unrecorded event, more than two decades old, really occurred, proof that my imagination didn’t invent the roadside timothy grass and what happened there.
Memory’s poignant snapshot of my father bears no resemblance to Bacharach’s stiff-backed view: that formal portrait on a living room end table where a trial lawyer stares from his medieval office chair, its cordovan leather cloak outlined with giant brass thumbtacks.
What am I hoping to unearth as I go through his things? What splendid secret waiting to be surprised? Something that, like a zoom lens, would zap the airspace in our distant kinship.
Perhaps an envelope inscribed in his elegant penmanship, “To Be Opened After My Death.” Love letters from a mysterious woman, breath-tightening as the rubber band around them. Even one of the birthday cards I’d drawn for him every year since I was five. Or—impossibly of course—a jigsaw puzzle piece.
Yet a mahogany box, cornered in a bureau drawer, assaults me with empty space. From jacket pockets, I harvest two sealed toothpicks, one torn theater ticket stub, three broken golf tees and a penny—the flotsam of a long life.
My father was sixty-one when I was born. Aunt Helen said her sister had married “The Old Man of the Mountain.” Though I knew nothing of the Great Stone Face, Father could have been carved in Mt. Rushmore’s cliffs like granite presidents in my history book. Secured by bow ties, spats, vests, and cuff links, he never rolled up his shirtsleeves, raised his voice, loved a party or got a joke. His greeting to me was “Good morning, daughter;” his verdicts on me were indirectly expressed through practiced triangulation via Mother.
We shared only one ritual. The winter of the year I started school, Father took me– though never by my hand– on his Sunday afternoon “constitutional,” a sixty-five block walk from our Manhattan apartment to his law office and back again. The wind snatched most of the stories about New York City when he was my age; those that I grasped belonged to hippodrome fairy tales told by a tall man with smoky breath. Weekdays he went where I could not follow: with locked briefcase to court trials, with heavy silence to study stock exchange reports behind the barricade of his evening paper, with stoic reluctance to dinner parties, with chronic indigestion to bed.
Sometimes, back turned, he bent over a billiard-green puzzle board on which he spilled 2,000 wooden jigsaw pieces. I was never, ever to touch them. Most were cut like amoebas. Even the precise edges of recognizable shapes—a windmill, bell, half moon, and several animals—were eventually lost in a larger whole.
I assembled my image of Father from the scarred leather strop in his private bathroom; a bottle of Tracy’s Gas Eliminants, uncapped on his dresser; decapitated eggshells on his breakfast tray; laconic phrases drifting up from the living room as I eavesdropped over banisters, acorn smooth, cheek warm.
One Labor Day morning as we returned to New York from our Canadian summer place, I sat in the backseat, trying not to bounce—(“It makes Daddy nervous,” Mother said)—and studied his white hairs, combed into strands and stretched into swatches like long Band-Aids over his bald crown. I was sandwiched between my mother’s hatboxes and an extra passenger: the abandoned newborn wild bunny she had found trembling by the sweet peas in the garden after a storm, its ears veined as if with a fine red pen, its newly opened eyes frozen with fright.
Father ignored it. I resented the way Mother had carried it round, bundled into the ribbing of her new burgundy cashmere sweater, taming it with baby talk and trickling milk down the crevice of its split lip. With a delft-blue wink to the Customs officer, she even smuggled it across the border in its cardboard bassinet, once the box for her dress-up satin pumps. When we stopped for the night at a New Hampshire Inn, the bathroom between our adjoining rooms became the bunny’s tiled gymnasium and sleeping quarters.
Early next morning my parents’ tone of voice—and both of them in the bathroom at the same time—made me flatten the pages of Nancy Drew’s Mystery at the Lilac Inn on the bedspread to listen.
“You’re not going to leave it there, are you?” Father was saying in that way he had of folding answers into questions.
I tried to picture ‘there’. Surely not an unflushed toilet. The tub then. The sink?
“I wrapped it well in newspaper. Are you worried that the chambermaid will—she’ll just empty the wastebasket.”
Father must have meant something else.
“I think it should be buried.”
That was the something else he meant.
There must have been breakfast. The self-conscious wait while Father relieved chronic constipation, suitcases loaded into the car, and somewhere, a corpse.
I remember only the cortege pace of our silent drive. Matte black edges of softening tar turning glossy. Humid ghosts fleeing from the road ahead.
Hours later, while the wind made a landlocked regatta of the hillside with green, yellow, and vermillion leaf flags waving in the rigging of poplars, birches and maples, Father said, “There.”
Mother parked by the roadside. We all got out at a wooded place patched with sunlit timothy grass.
It was Father who held a shoebox, bending awkwardly to rest it in shade. I watched my mother watching him. Did she tremble for a second? Or did a sudden cool breeze make her button that cashmere cardigan across her blouse?
With what did Father dig the grave? A stick? Flat rock? The fold-up snow shovel carried year round in the car trunk? Surely, concentrated as a magician’s audience, we would have seen him fetch it.
My mind retains only images sharp as Sierra Club photographs: tanned, large knuckled hands hollowing earth, digging rhythmically, ceremonially, the veins on them raised like roots in soil. They stop before the hole is large enough for the shoebox. The man who frowns on my bitten fingernails and calls mother to clean up a dog mess is lifting, bare-handed, a dead creature.
“The bunny loved your sweater.” He looks at Mother, sealing an imperative into the statement.
“This?” Mother grips one sleeve. “You don’t—“
But Father does mean it, although ‘yes’ is never spoken.
He shrouds the corpse in cashmere the color of sacramental wine and lowers it, scooping soil as if folding egg whites into earth. He lifts a penknife, slow motion, from the end of a gold fob chain, which held, I thought, only his pocket watch. Then hands that fumbled piano chords of Viennese waltzes whittle two lengths of birch bark, carve a half moon in one and tie a cross with timothy grass.
I would have made a tombstone from the shoebox, or printed a strip of birch bark with the bunny’s name and date. But the bunny had no name, and this was my father’s service.
Did he remove his Panama hat out of reverence? Or from physical exertion? Were those tears on his cheek? Or perspiration from The Old Man of the Mountain, who said nothing as we drove into the next town to buy a Wall Street Journal. Silence held us until he announced, “AT&T is off 3/8ths again.”
For him the event was finished. A center of gravity returned to my world.
One winter evening, after Father had left the living room, abandoning his unfinished jigsaw puzzle, I read the box lid title, Autumn Morning, from the doorway and moved toward the board with its scattered blur of leaf greens, yellows, and vermillions. Surprised by a rabbit shape, waiting in a circle of gold from the lamp he always forgot to turn off, I took a piece of my father I yearned to keep. I hid it so well that by the time the loss of the wooden bunny was noticed, I’d forgotten where I’d buried it. Blame fell on our Irish setter, whose tail swept many things onto carpets and into a vacuum cleaner as powerful as need devouring guilt.
No one suspected me.
Twenty-two years later, I walk around the dead end of Father’s bedroom, stalked by loitering questions. In the museum of memory, 1,999 puzzle edges interlock, outlining the shape of a missing piece, which, like that tiny glimpse of a sentient human being, never again surfaced.
Elizabeth Eidlitz is a teacher, columnist feature writer and studio potter in Concord MA.