When I sent the e-mail asking my father to call, I knew I needed to keep the whole day free. Or the whole weekend. Even though his e-mail said he’d call promptly at 10:00 a.m., Dad was only prompt for people in uniform.
When the phone rang at quarter to seven, my husband and I were eating dinner.
“That’ll be him,” I said. The phone shrilled two more times. I didn’t move.
Ryan stared at me, bread in one hand, butter knife in the other. “Are you going to get it?”
I pushed back my chair. “Yeah.”
“Remember, Annette, it’s good news,” he called after me.
A heavy static clouded the line. “Dad?” I yelled.
There were a series of clicks. I’ve never gotten used to the delay for ship-to-shore calls. Then my dad’s voice. “Annie,” he said. “So what’s the big news? You lost a limb? Did Ryan win the Nobel Prize?”
“Very funny, Dad.” No apology for how late he was calling.
I’d practiced in the mirror, trying for the right mix of joyful and joking. “So. Ryan knocked me up. We’re having a baby.”
This time the pause killed me. I counted. One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand. My nervousness won out. “I’m due in June,” I said. So I’m about four months –”
His voice broke in over mine. “That’s just great. Just –”
We both stopped, embarrassed. “You first,” I said.
“No — I’m just — shoot. I’ll be damned. My little girl a mom.”
“In June.” I said. “I’m due in June.”
There was a surge of static. “Dad? You there?”
The fuzz cleared. “I just said, well — your mom would have been proud.”
I didn’t expect that. Dad didn’t mention Mom much after the divorce, and never since she died a year ago. My throat closed. “Yeah,” I managed.
“So you doin’ okay? You sick?”
“It was pretty bad at the beginning, but I’m better now.”
“Good. Good. You taking care of yourself?”
“That’s great.” There was a pause. “Well, we ship out next week. Should be back by mid-April. I’ll stop by then.”
I had a schedule up on the fridge with his travel dates marked. “Right, Dad. Thanks for the reminder.”
I hung up and stared at the empty squares in the calendar.
Ryan’s hand brushed my shoulder. “He excited?”
“I guess,” I said.
“What is it, hon?”
I couldn’t say what I was thinking. Instead I leaned my head onto his chest. “I don’t know what I expected.”
Ryan embraced me. “Well, was he happy for us?”
I nodded. But really, my mind was gnawing over the same thought I’d had since my mom’s funeral.
Why couldn’t he have died instead?
Horrible. But all I’d wanted since we’d seen the two pink lines on the pregnancy test was my mom. Not the distant, staticy voice I had instead.
One morning in April, Ryan finished painting the baby’s room in pale yellow, like the sun coming through fog. I’d chosen the shade long before. The color matched a patchwork quilt my mom made while she was dying.
“For a baby,” she’d said a year and a half ago, as I opened the unexpected box.
She saw my confusion. “I know, you’re not pregnant. But if you do have kids, I want the first one to have this.”
My mom wasn’t an easy woman to grieve with. She waved away my hug, then dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve. Brightly, she suggested we go for the walk we’d planned.
Now, I pulled out the box. Ryan had finished setting up the room; this would be the finishing touch. I could smell the lavender sachets my mom had tucked into the folds of the quilt. I lifted it out of its box and draped it over the daybed. It matched the walls, the white crib, the changing table. Even the tiny sage-green hangers I’d bought matched the leaves in the calico accent fabric.
Everything matched, except for one thing.
At the foot of the twin daybed, sandwiched in between it and the crib, was my dad’s antique trunk. Two metal bands held wooden slats together. My maiden name was spray painted on the top. It smelled of diesel. It was padlocked shut. Before today, it had sat in that room — once our office — for long enough that I had stopped seeing it. But with the painting tarps gone, the packing material discarded, and the furniture assembled, I couldn’t ignore the trunk’s ugliness anymore.
Dad carried the key with him. Once my parents divorced, he sold most of his stuff, put the leftovers in the locker, and lived on the ship when he came home.
Years ago, my mom must have agreed to keep the trunk. It appeared one day in her sewing room. My sister Beth and I knew whose it was, but neither of us asked Mom why it was there. I wonder whether Mom offered, or if he asked a favor. Knowing my father, it was probably the former.
Every time Dad was in town, he’d come to the house carrying a duffel bag. Mom arranged to be away. He’d hoist the trunk out of the closet. Then he’d look at us. “Give me a minute, girls,” he’d say. Beth and I would turn and go back into our rooms. Sometimes he would emerge with an emptied bag, other times a full one. Then he’d spend an hour with us, playing catch, hide-and-go-seek, or Asteroids. He’d leave, and we wouldn’t see him for another six months.
I never saw the inside of the trunk.
He was due to arrive in San Diego any day now, and I hadn’t heard word one from him since our phone call four months ago. No e-mails, nothing. He’d probably show up, unannounced, key in hand, wanting ten minutes alone with his stuff. Like always, he’d probably wave off our offer of dinner and drive away in the Ford truck he always rented in port. Bag full of whatever it was he got out of the “visit.”
I’d inherited the trunk and his sporadic visits when Mom died. Beth was still in college out of state. Taking the trunk was Mom’s only request of me.
I had lots of reasons to refuse. Instead, I said yes.
Before Mom died, I hadn’t spoken to him since he showed up for my wedding, half-sloshed, and grabbed the microphone at the reception for a “toast.” “People say Annette takes after me.” He waved a wobbly arm in my direction. “Hope so, ’cause we all want this marriage to last, right?” His laugh huffed over the sound system. “Other family members aren’t so good at vows. But sailors, we take duty seriously.”
Mom looked out the window at the blue of Mission Bay, her face calm. Someone wrestled the mic away from Dad. I ate my mixed green salad, bite after tiny bite, amazed I hadn’t before recognized his self-centered bitterness. As I ate, I examined the memories of my childhood with new eyes.
They divorced when I was 11. I’d always taken my father’s side. Why couldn’t Mom accept he was a sailor? That he’d never wear a suit like a normal husband? I loved his uniform, the acronyms, the ranks he moved through: Petty Officer Second Class, First Class. I cried when he made Chief. In junior high, I thought I would enlist when I finished college. I thought enlisting, rather than officer’s training, was honorable. What hard workers did.
Being a sailor, he’d always been an intermittent father, but after the divorce, he checked out completely. He missed every birthday, every Christmas, didn’t call when I graduated high school, or when I left for college. He never saw my school plays, or my college dorm, or met my roommate. Every time he didn’t show, didn’t call, I’d be sullen and touchy — to Mom, not to him. She helped by making excuses for him: she’d forgotten to remind him, given him the wrong dates, hadn’t given him enough notice.
After his toast, I saw his absences more clearly. I’d sent him an invitation for the wedding, assuming he’d make it a priority. But it took Mom calling him six times and paying hotel costs for him to show up. Not to mention paying all the wedding expenses.
My new anger was a hot light in my chest, that day at my own wedding reception. I suddenly hated how grateful I’d been when he came home to give me away. Even though we planned it around his calendar. Even though he didn’t remember Ryan’s name, until I reminded him at the rehearsal dinner.
Mom kept on making excuses for him, even then. An old habit, I guess, like the wedding ring she claimed she couldn’t twist off.
So when Mom asked, even as sick as she was, I wasn’t eager to take Dad’s trunk. “Why should I take it, Mom?”
I thought she’d get angry at me. But no, she just sighed and propped her head up with her hand. “Because he’s your father, Annette. Whether or not you like it, you have a relationship with him. I think it’s best if you try to make it a good one. At least on your side. So you’ll have peace.”
Sometimes my mom was a pain, too. She could be full of grace. But it was relentless grace. She was in control of her emotions; she wanted to be in control of mine too. But I wanted to be angry. I wanted to be estranged. I wanted to see her angry. Just once.
Instead, she up and died, and left me with a beautiful lavender-scented quilt and a trunk full of my father’s ghosts.
Now, awaiting my baby, preparing his room, wondering when my father would show up, I stroked the soft cotton of the blanket. Then I noticed its corner touching the filthy trunk.
I couldn’t take it anymore. What right did my father have to padlock the little bit of himself that lived with me? It was my house. I didn’t have to make space for him. At least not in my baby’s room.
I bent over one end of the trunk and heaved. It was heavy, much heavier than I should have been lifting at seven months pregnant, but I didn’t stop. I managed to drag it across the floor, my neck muscles taut. The trunk left a grey shadow on our white carpet. I tasted metal. I got it down the hallway, into the garage, into the corner by the work bench. The metal bracing screeched along the floor and up into the base of my skull. I tipped it up on one end. Something heavy dislodged inside and pinballed through the trunk’s belly.
The next Saturday, I was in the garage loading the dryer with towels when I heard a brisk tap on a loud car horn. Dad. My first thought was the trunk, up on its end next to the power tools.
I pushed start on the machine, tipped the trunk right side up, and opened the garage door for Dad. He was parking a gigantic, bright blue F-150 in our driveway. He favored patriotic truck colors. With gas prices as high as they were, I’d wondered if he’d get a compact, but I should have known better.
I walked to the edge of lawn. I realized I had my hands crossed over my belly, as if to protect it. Dad opened the car door and swung out of the cab. Jeans, plaid button-down, cowboy boots, and a Chargers cap. The brim shaded his eyes, but his dark pupils still peered out, sets of lines around them like eroding coastal soil. Not seeing him very often made his aging more apparent when I did.
I always wondered if he was going to hug or kiss me. Instead, he gave me a jaunty half-salute and patted my arm. “You’re already big,” he said.
I was wearing the baby more side-to-side than out. I’d expected as much from photos of my mom pregnant with me. “Yep, he’s a lounger.”
My dad blinked. “So it’s –”
“A boy,” Ryan finished, coming unexpectedly behind me, putting his hand on my shoulder. I relaxed some at his touch.
Dad took off the baseball cap and rubbed his head. “A boy.”
“He kicks a lot, Dad. He’s real active. I always feel him swimming around.”
“Wow,” he said. “My grandson.”
There was silence. We all stood there in the driveway, awkward as prom dates. Our baby jabbed my stomach a few times. It felt like someone trying to tickle me from inside.
Ryan, as usual, took the awkwardness and made it right. “You want to go inside, Doug? We’ve got some cold ones in the fridge.”
“Much obliged,” said Dad. We started into the house, walking through the garage.
Dad stopped halfway in. He saw the trunk.
“I was just clearing out the baby’s room,” I said. “We’ll move it back inside soon.”
“Naw,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking. I can take it off your hands. You’ll need the space.”
I saw the trunk through my father’s eyes — his most valuable possession, discarded like trash in a corner. I hadn’t expected to panic, but suddenly, my act of defiance frightened me. This was not the way our family worked. Dad left, I seethed, Mom comforted. Now there was no one to disarm my rebellion. “No, Dad, no worries. We can –”
“I’ll just load it up when I go,” he said, as if I hadn’t spoken.
From the veins standing out in his neck, I knew he felt wounded. I couldn’t tell if I felt angry, or guilty, or both. What did he want from me?
Well, hadn’t I wanted it gone? Except now I felt like a traitor. To him and my mom. God, how could I not honor the one request she’d made of me?
Inside, Ryan retrieved two Red Trolley ales from the fridge and started talking football with Dad. I sat on the stool by the counter. Ryan leaned next to me, his long body all ease, as if he didn’t feel the dark waves coming off of me, the tension emanating from Dad. Bless Ryan, he was comfortable in his own skin no matter where that skin took him. Dad leaned against the stove, gesturing with his beer bottle.
As I half-listened, I felt the baby squirm. Then kick. Kick again. That’s how it went — an hour or two of silence (I thought of it as silence, not stillness), and then a disco dance.
“Here he goes,” I said to Ryan, interrupting the discussion of the Chargers moving out of town.
My dad looked from one to the other of us, confused.
“Your grandson,” said Ryan. “You should feel him kick.”
I raised my eyebrows. He didn’t usually invite people to touch me.
Then I looked at Dad. There was something in his face that surprised me. Longing.
I got up off of the stool carefully, my fear making me unsteady. “Give me your hand.”
He hesitated, then set down his bottle.
The baby did a back flip.
I took his calloused fingers and placed them on my belly without looking in his eyes. “He’ll probably stop moving now,” I said. “He can tell when I want him to move.”
I smelled my father’s scent: the Polo aftershave he always wore, the aroma of axle grease, the tang of seawater. I looked down at his hand, his liver spots, the blunt cut of his squared-off fingernails, the scar on his thumb where he’d cut himself once, carving me a slingshot.
Our baby kicked again, right under my dad’s palm.
Dad jumped. “Was that him?”
I laughed. What else would it be? “Yep. That’s your grandson.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” he said. “I’ll be damned.”
He pulled his hand away, picked up the bottle, took a sip of beer. “I never got to feel that with your mom,” he said, more to himself than me.
“Yeah?” I would have guessed as much.
He didn’t elaborate. I sat back down. But not before I saw telltale brightness in his eyes, turning their dark green to black.
We couldn’t convince him to stay for dinner, or to watch ESPN with Ryan, or, despite my last-minute stab of guilt, to leave the trunk in the garage. Dad shook Ryan’s hand, patted my shoulder, hoisted the trunk into the bed of his truck, and backed out of our driveway with a final tap on his horn.
Every time I came into our baby boy’s room after Dad’s visit, I noticed the empty space where the trunk used to be. I got the carpet shampooed, so the smudge it left was gone, but the shadow it cast was tougher than any soap. Every night, well after I should have been asleep, I brooded. I’d hear Ryan’s breathing, and think about all Dad’s departures: his goodbye after every too-short visit; the day, post-divorce, that he cleared his closet in a silent, white rage; the first deployment I remember, when I waved at his frigate well after all the human figures on board had disappeared from view.
In early May, a few weeks after Dad’s visit, I came home from school and got the mail. I was surprised to see my father’s handwriting on a plain business envelope. His lettering was so regular it looked like type.
Inside, I set the rest of the mail on the kitchen table and tore the envelope open. Out slipped a folded sheet of lined paper with a Post-It note attached. The Post-It read, “Thought you’d like to have this. Dad.”
I unfolded the second paper. It was brittle with age, its creases worn soft. My mother’s looped cursive leapt off the page.
Feb 20, 1973
I felt the baby kick today! Yesterday, it was all gentle nothings — so soft I wasn’t sure if I’d imagined them. Then today, jabs.
I’m so glad you finally made the cassette. I play it every night before we go to sleep. (We! I’m a we!). I put my belly right up to the speaker so Baby can hear you talk.
I miss you. I wish you were here to feel him? — her? Our Mystery. I’m used to the solitude now, I guess, but I don’t want to get used to doing without you.
That was me, the mystery inside my mom. And the other mystery: my parents, in love, expecting me. Before Mom learned to do without him. Suddenly I was angry.
Ryan usually worked late on Tuesdays. He answered his cell phone on the third ring.
I told him about the letter. “What does he want from me? Why did he send me this?”
Then there was a long pause. Ryan sighed. “Why are you angry?”
I started to answer, but then stopped. It was a good question. I was silent for a long time. One thing about Ryan — he doesn’t try to fill the empty spaces. “Habit, maybe?” I said. “I dunno. I guess I get used to not having to think about him. And then he goes and does something like this.”
“Something nice, you mean?”
We both were silent a minute.
“You know, I don’t think your parents ever stopped loving each other,” Ryan said. “Especially your dad.”
I laughed. “What are you talking about? He won’t even say her name.”
“Well, would he be so angry if he didn’t care?”
I considered this. My dad, broken-hearted? That seemed way too sensitive for him.
Ryan’s voice cut back into my thoughts. “I mean, take this letter. He had to have saved it all these years. Doesn’t that strike you as romantic?”
I hadn’t even considered the how of its existence. Why had he kept it, all these years? And where?
His trunk. “I wonder what else he saved?”
Ryan didn’t seem to register my question. “And you have to admit it was really generous of him to part with it.”
I bristled. I hated it when he tried cajoling me into — what? I sighed at my own rigidity. “It was nice of him. Thoughtful.” How unlike him, I thought, despite myself.
Ryan cleared his throat. “You know, I think sometimes he doesn’t know how to be a dad. So sending your mom’s note lets her do it for him.”
Well, that sure summed up my whole childhood.
But did I need to be bitter? He’d tried. Wasn’t that what I kept wanting him to do? And he’d given me something I’d been longing for ever since Mom’s death. Her voice.
Dad died when my son, Oscar, turned seven. It was late summer; the sycamore leaves in the canyons turned gold in deepening light. By then, we had three kids: Oscar, serious and gentle, like Ryan. Madeleine, four, bossy and irrepressible. And Grace, our baby, still working out her personality.
Dad showed up when he showed up. Now I understood what I’d done when I got rid of the trunk: I cut the last physical tie binding him to our family. I’ll be honest, sometimes it felt like freedom.
He was most consistent for Oscar — being a boy helped, I think. Dad would lift my son up onto his shoulders and take him to the park, probably to play war games. Oscar idolized Grandpa Doug.
But Madeleine was a year old before they met. And the first meeting wasn’t too successful — she screamed when he tried to pick her up. After that, the visits got more sporadic. He’d never met Grace. He said he’d come by next time he was in port. But there wasn’t a next time.
Dad never retired from the Navy. One day, on the open sea, he didn’t wake up. We buried him facing the ocean, in the cemetery on Point Loma. Dad’s headstone is part of the diagonals scattered over the lush, kelly-green lawn.
His CO gave me a box of his possessions. I knew what I was looking for even before I opened the box: the ring of keys that rattled in one corner, tagged with a self-storage facility’s logo.
At first, I wanted to be alone when I opened the trunk. I wanted it so badly that in my head, as Ryan drove home from the base, I practiced asking him stay with the kids. I thought it was reasonable — less of a hassle for us all. Then it hit me I was doing the same thing Dad always did: open his trunk in secret.
I turned to Ryan. “Can we go to the storage facility tomorrow?”
“Sure, hon.” He made a smooth exit off of the freeway. “You want me there?”
“I think I need you there.”
My dad had rented a 5′ by 5′ space at a place close to the port. We left the kids with my in-laws and drove downtown. Zipping over ribbons of grey freeway that led us to the city’s center, I felt as though we were about to perform surgery, to open up my dad’s heart and see its substance.
We walked through the stark rows of teal garages and corrugated metal walls until we found the door to my dad’s unit. A shiny, large key opened the lock. The trunk sat alone in the middle of the empty space.
I couldn’t wait until we got home to open it, even though the garage was a furnace from the sun beating down on the metal roof. The padlock was well-oiled and fell open without protest. Ryan squatted beside me, and we pushed the lid all the way open.
It was filled to the brim with tidy files, shoeboxes with years written on them, leather-bound books. Each piece packed just so; the logic of the arrangement like dove-tailed joints.
The file on top held current bills, rental car statements, a checkbook, car insurance info. Credit cards, his social security card. No wonder he’d needed access to the trunk every time he was in town.
Underneath were accordion files that held bank account statements, tax returns, pension updates. Next to those, I recognized a stack of ten Navy-issue logbooks. I opened one and found a line-by-line diary of last year. The most recent I’d received from his CO. Most entries logged tasks on board, personnel problems, orders given and taken. But flipping through the book, I found the shadows of my family:
8 June, 2005. G born
23 Feb, 2005. O rode bike without training wheels.
I rummaged through a few books before I found the date I was looking for:
13 Feb, 1997. Judith Grace Williams. RIP
I stared at that one long enough that Ryan cleared his throat. “I wonder what’s in the shoeboxes?”
I moved the books into a stack beside the trunk, then lifted out the first of three TopSider shoeboxes. I was surprised at its heft. I blew the dust off of the cover and opened it.
It was stuffed full of photographs, neat as a library card catalog. The box top was labeled Kids 1. There were small dividers labeled with the year in my dad’s exacting penmanship. I pulled out a photograph from 1974 and was rewarded with a picture of infant me, the same one that hung on my mom’s wall growing up. I was in a high chair, my face covered with dark crumbs.
Ryan touched the back of the photo. “He wrote something here.”
I turned it around so we could both see. “No, that’s my mom’s writing,” I said. Annie 03 Sept 74. First chocolate cake.
I pulled out photo after photo. I recognized all of them: they were duplicates of the ones I’d grown up with in albums and frames. Each labeled, with my mom’s handwriting, until the mid-eighties. That’s when they’d divorced. After that, the supply of pictures dwindled, and my dad wrote the captions. But there were still plenty. School pictures. My ballet recital. Beth on a horse. All of them dotted with thumb tacks and tape marks, coffee stains, cigarette burns. Heavy with fingerprints.
Maybe he hung them around his bunk. Maybe he showed them to his buddies.
All those years he’d been gone, he’d catalogued us. He’d thought of us so much all those years, tried in some way to stay connected to us, handled these photographs over and over alone, on board ship. Never with us. He was present for my childhood only in his mind.
“Look,” Ryan said, distracted by a box labeled Grandkids.
He held the first picture we had of Oscar. Our son’s umbilical cord was still attached, almost pulsing. His chest was covered in the red and white goo of birth, his pink mouth open in a howl. It wasn’t a picture you showed people, so I didn’t look at it much. I’m surprised I sent a copy to my father — but I’d been so delirious then it was certainly possible.
“You remember?” Ryan asked, in wonder.
I did remember, a half-dream — my muscles so exhausted from labor I could barely cradle the tiny, inexplicable baby. The half-pain, half-pleasure of my son suckling. Even my skin ached, as if I’d birthed my own self.
It had been so — physical. My body, my son’s body were the whole world.
The photo of it was so — flat.
Suddenly, I was in that raw moment where my family had been forged. I started to weep. I remembered feeling the raw ache of my mother’s absence. Remembered the ache of my father’s absence too, hidden under a decade of anger. Felt him aching, holding the picture, not understanding how to enter into it. I saw him file it away to pull out now and again, in his best attempt to be part of my life.
“He didn’t know how,” I said. “He wanted to, but he didn’t know how.”
My husband pulled me into his arms and held me there for a few minutes until I was quiet. When I finally sat up and wiped my eyes, I saw the snot and tears from my face on his black wool sweater. How many times had my children stained my clothes, my jacket, my sleeves like that? Every illness, every tantrum, every disappointment marking us with its relentless, icky residue.
“You okay, honey?” Ryan asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
We loaded everything into the trunk. I tried, but there was no way to fit everything in as neatly as my father had. Finally, we gave up. Ryan locked the lid. Together, we lifted my father’s trunk into the back of the car and started for home.