Generosity

Generosity” originally appeared in Self Magazine’s A Summer of Self-Discovery

In July of 1998, I found out that my father, an Academy Award-winning producer and eighty-two years old, was addicted to cocaine and crack. After months of conversations with professionals, after confronting my father, after confronting myself, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t help him if he wasn’t willing to be helped. I wrote him a letter telling him that when he was ready to get help, I would be there. Until then, I couldn’t stand by and pretend nothing was happening.

During the subsequent two years of being out of contact with him, there were, predictably, layers and layers of self-discovery. I spent much of that two years torquing my decision this way and that. Had I done the right thing? How had my father and his only child gotten to this place?

August of 1999. I’d been out of contact with my father for almost a year. His life had gone the way you’d expect the life of someone in the thrall of drugs to go. He’d been arrested and put on probation. He’d been forced to sell his apartment. He’d liquidated all his considerable assets, and was spending money at an extraordinary rate. When he moved out, some of my stuff that had been stored there since I’d lived with him for my last year of high school came back to me via my mother (divorced over thirty years ago from my father, but still friends). School journals, horseback riding ribbons, my glass animal collection. And a red box. A box that my father had called me about in early 1998, months before any of those revelations.

He’d been poking around his storage space and had found a red box filled with his letters and cards to me when I was a child. When I was in high school, I’d put them in a gift box, the kind that might hold an expensive sweater. It had taken him a few minutes to understand what the box was doing there. (I’d never moved it out.) He insisted he’d saved the letters. I pointed out that they hadn’t been his to save. He’d sent them to me. I’d saved them.

Either way, he’d been extremely moved. For the next several calls, he told me the story of discovering the box again and again. He was not moved by my saving the letters but by the letters themselves. They showed he’d been a good father after all. I’d been impatient with his self-nostalgia. I know, I’d kept saying, I’m the one who saved the letters.

After finding out what I’d found out, I was just sad. Imagine doing crack for two years, I thought, and then finding that box.

And I wanted that box back, not only for the letters themselves, but as a reminder that I’d put them together and saved them. Now, a year later, I had my wish.

It took me months to go through any of the stuff, and when I began, I didn’t begin with the red box. I finally took it out on a Friday in my office, August Berkshire heat weighting everything with a layer of dampness. I had misremembered it. It was red, and glossy, a gift box, but it was smaller, more like a shirt box than a sweater box. There were the remnants of a light blue ribbon stuck to the lid. It was crushed at three of the
corners. The sides bowed out.

I’d looked through it before, and there were things that I remembered: certain kinds of stationery—the 8 x 10 pieces of paper with “Teenage Graffiti” printed in pinks and purples along the top; the Kliban cartoon paper the texture of newspaper with a drawing of Freud wearing a slip, admiring himself in the mirror. The caption read: “Freud’s First Slip.” I remembered that Dad thought it was funny.

There were other things which I remembered as soon as I saw them: the clothcovered book I’d made (my progressive elementary school had been big on things like book making) for him. The yellow construction paper label on the front read, “Daddy’s Engagement Calendar” in my feeble attempts at calligraphy.

It wasn’t until two days after I’d looked through the box that something occurred to me. When my father had called to effuse, he’d said the box was full of his letters to me. That had seemed right. I too thought it had been filled with letters he’d sent me.

But in fact it was letters I’d sent him, and it had taken me two days to realize our mistake.

Gradually our blindness started to make some sense. In my letters I always tried to give the receivers the version of myself they most wanted to receive. These letters had worked very hard to convince my father of what he’d become convinced of: he was a good father; he was, he was.

And I’d been putting off and putting off that red box. Why? To keep myself protected from what it contained. For one thing, I didn’t want to see what a good father he’d been because I didn’t want to see my decision to cut myself of from him as anything but correct. For another, I knew that those letters were also evidence of my responsibility for Dad’s sense of himself as a good father. I didn’t want to acknowledge the significant
hypocrisy of, after all those letters, now communicating to him: Where in the world did you get the idea you were a good father? And, even more, I didn’t want to catalogue what I’d lost. Or rather, what I’d refused.

As a result, I hadn’t seen at all. I’d looked and looked through that box and hadn’t seen what I was looking at. Looking through, not at was the kind of thing I used to accuse him of all the time. You never listen. Can’t you even try and see what I’m talking about?

It bothered me that I’d been mourning a time when I’d put together and saved this red box. Now it turned out that that time wasn’t mine; it was my father’s. He’d taken the time and the care to save all these letters and drawings. And there I had another reason for my procrastination and blindness. I stared at the box and I saw his hands opening its lid, placing yet another letter, another tiny drawing in it. He’d even saved empty
envelopes. As if he’d known what this box might come to mean for the both of us. And I wondered what had gone through his head when he’d allowed my mother to place this box in the pile of stuff that would go to me. Why hadn’t he kept it for himself? Was it just anger? Had he said, with a wave of his hand, “What do I care what you do with that?

Throw it out.” Had he felt anger and something else? Maybe he’d thought I might need this box more than he did. And maybe he’d been right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • RSS
  • Facebook
  • Twitter