I thought of writing you this letter so many times, but how do you write a letter to someone who can never read it? How do you write to someone who can’t give you any answers?
Though you have been gone for almost 30 years, I still wish you could see how I turned out; what I’ve become. But most of all, I wish I could have talked to you and asked you why about so many things. Maybe you could have helped me to understand how I can be so much like you, and yet not like you at all—and what to do with those feelings, which have swirled, unresolved, these 30 years.
In your last letter to me, you said you were finally trying to improve yourself. Get healthy, stop smoking. It was a journey you’d never bothered to take. But after the heart attack, you seemed to really get how short life is, and said how much you wanted to stick around to see what happens.
You said you wanted to see me graduate from college. I did. You said you wanted to see me get married. I did. You said you couldn’t believe it was something you wanted, but you wanted to be a grandfather. My son is 10. I also got divorced, got jobs, got promotions, moved to California and then back to Ohio—I could never explain all you’ve missed.
Your life of self-destruction finally intersected with our bad genes, and it was a fatal collision. Four months after the heart attack, a stroke took you.
I’m still angry with you about so many things. I’ll never not be angry. I’ve learned that. You imagined that your family, who hated me and my sister for choosing to go with mom in the divorce, would unite and take care of us after your death. You couldn’t have been more wrong. You thought that because we were girls, dealing with your death and after-life care would be “too much,” and you put your nephew, our cousin, in charge of your affairs. He hated us so much, and I had to come to understand that was partly your fault. You spent years playing a “poor me” card that was a lie, misrepresenting my relationship with you, painting me as uncaring and rarely in contact so they would feel bad for you and hate me. It worked.
At your funeral, your nephew made fun of me crying next to your casket. He knocked pictures to the ground I brought, and had them turn off the Sinatra tape I had brought and asked them to play, knowing how you loved Old Blue Eyes. Your sister physically shoved me out of the way when I was in front of your casket. Her daughter came up and spit on me and my sister. They shut us out of the limo and we rode in my sister’s beater car at the back of the line to the cemetery. It was humiliating and bewildering.
Our cousin screwed us out of everything he could after you died, as quickly as possible, and with the vehemence and viciousness I’d only ever seen in movies like The Godfather. But the Corleone family has nothing on your family. They blackmailed your mother—my grandmother, with whom I tried to carry on a relationship after you were gone. You were here favorite and we were both heartbroken. We began to talk and lean on each other. I borrowed cars and got rides from college to visit with her. Coming from Greece as a young girl, outliving her husband, five babies that didn’t make it and two of her adult children who had died, she had incredible stories and a lot of pain. I finally had the chance to get to know her as a young adult. One day, I called her to arrange another visit. She broke down crying. She said that they told her if she continued to see me, to communicate with me and allow me into her house, they’d stop bringing her groceries. An old lady! This is who you picked to handle things after your death.
They took everything.
After you died, they told me nobody could go into the house; that an inventory had to be taken for legal purposes, for your “estate.” My cousin’s wife, who I maybe met once, got on the phone and screamed at me that I was an ingrate, that I deserved nothing, and that I should only communicate with the lawyer going forward. Screaming at a girl of 21 who had just lost her father. I kept calling the lawyer’s office, asking when I could make a trip home to get some things from the house. Not yet, they kept saying, not yet.
My cousin and your brother held an auction two weeks after you died. They didn’t notify me or my sister. I found out by calling the lawyer’s office again. “There must be some mistake,” the secretary said. “Everything in that house is gone.” They sold every lick of furniture, threw out every memento, photo, toy, everything that was in the house that didn’t sell. The orange comb you used for years, that stupid little plastic orange comb and a bottle of Old Spice, that was all I wanted, really, but those things were all gone. They sold your car, a car I could have desperately used as a college student, to my cousin’s wife for a pittance.
Then they sold the house to the first bidder, at a staggeringly low price, with no negotiations. That plot of land alone was worth twice what they sold it. It was the biggest on the block, you always said.
A couple months after you died, they held a “memorial dinner” for you at a church you were never a member of and never attended, so they could spend thousands and thousands of dollars on an event they could charge to the estate, lessening the meager amount my sister and I would eventually get.
The house you bought from mom after I graduated from high school so I would always have a home to return to quickly went downhill. The new owner used it as a rental. I heard there was drug activity. It became dangerously in need of repair and was eventually condemned. It sat empty for years.
I drove by the house whenever I went to my hometown, just to look at it. You could never imagine there was a family there; a whole life in that yard, where I played and ran and raked leaves and made forts in the snow, swung on the rusty swing set in the backyard, and later, laid in the sun next to my sister, reading magazines and listening to the radio. I was picked up for homecoming on the front steps. You took my picture on those steps the first day of my first job, at the Hardee’s restaurant down the street.
I lost a pinky ring in that yard. Mom got it for me from Avon for my birthday. It was gold toned and had a little pink stone in it. Stupidly, I wore it out to play in the snow the day she gave it to me. I looked and looked for days, but I never found it. I looked again when the snow melted. But it was never found. I looked every single year for that ring. I wonder if it’s still there, buried in the ground.
A well-meaning friend just visited our hometown last week, and sent me a picture of the lot. The house is gone. Razed, finally and forever. There’s nothing but a big patch of grass now.
That’s how I feel about you now. Empty. I learned terrible things about you in the years after you were gone. You were a bad person, and that’s so hard for me to reconcile with the father I loved so much, especially because you and I were so alike. We were pals. You taught me all about life. You taught me how to buy cars, how to spot a con, how to negotiate, and how to stick up for myself. You told me never to stay where I wasn’t wanted or where I was mistreated. “There’s always another guy, another town, and another job,” you said.
But there’s no other dad than your dad. Reconciling the monster within you and how much I resemble you in so many ways has been tough. But I am not like you. I’m better. I’m a good person. I help people when I can. I try to do better all the time. I’m not a bigot or a racist or a deviant. I’m a mother, a listener, a friend, a loving partner to my new fiancé, a caring daughter to my wonderful mother.
I wish you could see how I turned out. But then again, I’m not sure you deserve to.
Love, eternally, because I can’t help it,