Tuesday, June 24, 2008


I see him walking down the street across from me, a man who is not exactly a friend, but a pleasant sort of acquaintance. I’ve heard him play music – singing songs he’d written that were witty and rhymed well, playing a guitar skillfully. I’ve been to his house, he’s been to mine. When I saw him the other day he was hobbling, holding a cell phone tightly to his ear, his body distorted to the point of being frightening. He has the same disease as my father so I thought of my father – I was driving through town – I was almost home, passing the familiar string of Woodstock shops in summer – and I am thinking again: am I missing something, am I doing it wrong, letting my father go, not calling, not writing, knowing he is sick and riddled with trouble. And who am I not to be at his side, helping?

My father sat in the dining room at the head of the table on Sundays. After dinner – or lunch really, it was lunch though it looked like dinner – he would sit a little longer. He would linger and we had to linger too.

“When I am old,” he said once with a laugh after lunch on a Sunday, with a smile and a challenge in his eyes that told me I must not question this, “I will divide the year in three and spend four months with each of my daughters.” He said it in an ironic tone as if he wasn’t being serious – and I knew I would somehow manage to escape this – it wouldn’t really happen, but I know now I am absolutely supposed to be there, taking care of my father, his real wife.

That’s true, and at the same time, that possibility feels small and distant like it’s at the end of a very long tunnel, a telescope even. Marta taking care of her father isn’t as real as it used to be.

I picked him up from the airport the day he came back from Dubai, a crazy crazy last-ditch trip he made when they were so broke they were selling the house and declaring bankruptcy over credit card debt and my father flew to Dubai with a loose-leaf binder of black and white photos of houses for sale in Westchester County, a real estate license being one of his attempts to get back on financial track, the trip looking maybe, almost, like the years of glamorous business trips in his heyday when I was little and he would go and come frequently with heavy leather luggage and a passport with extra pages inserted to hold all the stamps.

I was about twenty-four when he went to Dubai for a week. A little piece of me hoped it would work. A big piece of me was pretty sure it wouldn’t and that it would make things worse because it would add more failure to the heap.

The one thing they still had was a brand new Suburu station wagon and while my father was gone with the binder in Dubai, hoping he’d find some takers for this real estate – my father who is no salesman, who has no gift of the gab, no easy manner to put people at ease – my little sister, a teenager in high school, crashed the Suburu one night. She was unhurt, the car totaled.

This I felt would be unbearable. My father, already on his knees, to hear the car is gone, the one thing they owned.

“I’ll pick Dad up,” I offer. “I’ll give him the news.” I am living in New York City, things aren’t going so well but I am holding them at bay, I have my finger in the dike. Having a family to answer to adds a little structure to my life, populates my bare bones canvas. My mother agrees. It’s unspoken. I am my father’s favorite person. I will tell him, as he comes off the plane from a failed trip where the last coins in the bank account have been wasted. I will let him know his car doesn’t exist anymore.

“I have not felt this bad since I first came to the States,” my father says from the passenger seat, and I know he means the suicide attempt he made before I was born, before he married my mother, when he was here alone, in the States, not speaking the language, forced to work in jobs that made him feel like an ordinary person, a plain person, a person he could not bear to be. I know he took pills. No one has told me all this. I have put it together.

I’ve never had a relationship with my father, I think as I approach my driveway. I think in terms of real connection. It has always been a calculation on his part, a struggle, a resistance, a disappointment on mine. I could never go be with someone I am not really in relationship with, and pretend that I am.

“I gave a lot in the past,” I think, as I start to turn. “I gave for years and years and years. Now I’m paying myself for all those years.” And I felt a pang of pleasure, like when you’ve worked a long time and then the money comes in and you can spend it.

I run out long on the leash, get jerked back for a moment, then run on long again, the image of my father sitting, in dark clothes, hunched in his Budapest apartment, waiting silently for me. Though, no matter what, I will never ever go.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


I used to have two sets of twin sheets. A set of white ones with dark green stripes, and a set with pink flowers.

My younger sister had given me both. I valued them. I preferred the pink flowery set. I made my bed with them in the room I had to myself for three years, a single bed up against the wall and in the corner almost underneath the window. I lived there for three years. Opened Christmas presents with my mother there. Decorated it with Christmas lights. Wrote there at the small yellow desk I found in the corridor. Covered the windows with plastic in the winter and opened them in summer so I could hear the school bus/shuttle roll in three times an hour to stop at the small bus stop just a few yards away where the teenagers hung out late into the evening, making too much noise for me who wanted to fall asleep early so I could wake up before dawn.

“Which set of sheets did you prefer?” my sister asked me years later. “The pink ones,” I said. “She laughed with surprise. “I thought for sure you’d like the pin-stripe ones.”

I have a few 100% cotton sheets now, picked up here and there, never bought. They’ve taught me that neither the pink sheets nor the green striped ones were full cotton. They were 50/50. I assumed at the time that they were cotton. Could not imagine my sister giving me anything less.

I wrote a card to my mother on Saturday. It took me less than a minute to write. It was a flowery card that a charity had sent me in the mail in the hopes that I would make a donation. It had lines for you to write on inside, like the lines on that green paper we used to write on in third grade, copying the letters from above the blackboard.

It was a note I’d been hovering over in my mind for a few weeks. I picked up the pen deliberately. I had finally made up my mind.

I told my mother that I needed a six-month break. Not to worry. To call Fred if anything big came up. Said too that I realized this would be a strain for her. Said I appreciated her support.

Sealed the envelope and stamped it and wondered if I would think of something important that had to be added, but I didn’t.

And it went.

And there are moments, waves that wash over me when I think how could I, but many many more moments when I feel like I have opened the door to a room I have been longing to enter for along time and never thought I was allowed – a field more than a room, an outdoor place with a lot of sky.

When I was nine I asked to go to boarding school. I didn’t make a formal request. I mentioned it in the wistful way I mentioned any number of things I wanted, but didn’t expect to get. Going to boarding school was too big to actually get.

But I went to boarding school. At the time I thought I was getting my wish. Now I know it was a magnificent coincidence. I would have gone that year to boarding school even if I’d never longed to.

Even then I was trying to get into the room or the field where I wasn’t allowed to go. I stayed in that school for three years. I liked it there. And then betrayal hit and I wanted to go home and my mother said yes of course, I could come home. She didn’t ask what had happened and I would not have told her.

Home. I did not want to be there, but I knew no other place to go. A dark shadow closed over me and hung there for years.

I never liked living with my mother. But right now that’s not the point. She could be a living saint and I would still write the card.

On the drive home this evening I see a bank of grass by the road covered in dense red flowers. I slow down to look at them more closely. I don’t know their name. “Indian paintbrush” I hear in my mind, a flower’s name that my mother taught me. I think of digging some up to bring home and plant here. That’s what my mother would have done. She did that a lot when I was little and I never knew why she wanted to do those things that no one else I knew did. But today I want the same thing, and I think as I pick up speed again, of the things I got from her, but that’s not what this is about. This is about having a turn in the field.