y grandmother’s name was Esther. She lived with my father, in a small two bedroom house, in an older part of Long Beach that had seen better days.
The house was white, with brown streaks from years of weather and grime. There was a large oak tree in the front yard, with limbs pointing in every direction. The leaves rested in decay on the unattended front lawn.
The inside was dusty and smelled like an old barn after a heavy rain. Dirty brown shag carpet, flattened from years of use, disguised the dirt on the floor. A small dining room was to the left of the entryway. There was a collection of old spoons hanging in disarray on the wall and a cabinet held black-tarnished silver trays and cups. To the right was a living room with a wood-burning fireplace and a dark mantel. There were no flowers or colorful decorations that women usually had in their homes. It looked more like a man’s apartment, with worn out furniture that didn’t match.
Esther led me down a narrow hallway to my father’s bedroom. Across the hall was her room. Both rooms shared a small bathroom. She said I could sleep in his room, or on the couch—wherever I was more comfortable. It never occurred to me that I’d be staying at their home, but quickly agreed.
His bedroom smelled of cigarettes and reminded me of my mother. There was a single twin bed pushed up against the wall and an old-oak student’s desk and chair. It wasn’t the bedroom of a man, but of a teenage boy. There was one picture hanging on the wall. It was of me, toothless, when I started kindergarten. He disappeared not long after the photo was taken. He missed my whole life. I wondered how he could look at it every night before he went to bed knowing what he did? I wondered if my grandmother had hung it there before I arrived.
I took a hot shower and the water felt good. It steamed away the smell of death I had experienced at the hospital. I put my long blond hair up into a ponytail. I could see his features in my face while looking in the mirror. We had the same dimple in our squared chin and high cheekbones. I never wear much makeup and prefer to fade into the crowd than standout. It's where I feel most comfortable.
My imagination always speculated about his looks. I was too young to remember. Why did I remember the Yankee game so well, but couldn’t remember my father’s face? Perhaps most people remember lost loved ones through photographs, not from memory. Mama kept no photos or anything else that had to do with our family. She never would tell me anything about him. I asked and begged her over the years, but she never said anything. He was dead to us.
We lived together like lepers, isolated from the rest of society. Mama’s parents died not long after Daddy left me, so I had no one other than her. This should have made us close, but she was a stranger whose mind I’ve struggled to know all my life. She acted like she was hiding from something. Maybe she was hiding from him?
Sitting in the middle of the living room were three large brown trunks, about three feet wide and two feet deep. The trunks were old, and I imagined someone shipping all their possessions in them from Europe, across the Atlantic, in a wooden boat with sails long ago. The leather handles on the sides were split, and cracked, from years of use and decay. The brass metal corner pieces were dented and bent inward inward from rough handling. Large round clasps fell, unlocked, inviting someone to peak inside.
“Esther, what do you have here?” I asked. It felt strange to call her that, but 'Grandma' was a new word in my vocabulary. I had my father and grandmother in a single day. It still didn’t feel real to me.
“You will find the answers to your questions about your father in there,” she said pointing to the trunks. “I’ve kept them for this moment, hoping that their contents will make you understand why he left you.” She paused staring at me with love in her eyes. It made me feel a little uncomfortable.
“The trunks are in order according to your father’s life. He is my only son. Your grandfather was never home back then, always away on business or chasing some skirt around the country,” she said rolling her eyes up to the ceiling. “I kept them for you, Portia.”
I didn’t know what to say. My inquisitive mind wanted to rummage through each one quickly. But, I knew twenty-five years of questions couldn’t be found in a few trunks.
“They’re numbered, from one to three, with a stamped brass tag on the top. They don’t represent birthdays or anything like that. They are just in the order I kept things. They more or less represent periods of time in your father’s life. I will leave you to them,” she said. “Your father wasn’t always the way he is now.”
That was an understatement. He is dying in a cancer ward at the hospital, but I knew what she meant.
“Goodnight?” I protested. “You can answer so many questions.” I didn’t want her to leave. I wanted to sit up all-night and listen to her tell me everything. We could go through the trunks together. She could fill in the missing pieces to the puzzle.
“I think it is best you look into the first trunk before we talk more. The answers to some of your questions are in there.”
She was angelic looking for an old woman and I found myself not even considering arguing with her.
“Okay, Goodnight, Esther,” I said with my guard up never trusting anyone. I didn't know what to call her. She felt my hesitance.
“You can call me anything that makes you comfortable,” she said as if reading my mind. “Grandma is nice . . . no one has ever called me that.”
She got up and disappeared down the hallway to her room. It is hard to describe the emotions that were pumping through me. It was like being on a roller coaster, unsure where the next turn would take me.
It was winter and even in sunny southern California the January night was cold. I blew into my hands to warm them. The thermostat was off. It took a few minutes after turning it on before hot air whistled through the vents burning the staleness out.
I wanted to settle my mind and went into the kitchen to make some tea or coffee. The walnut cabinets were empty except for a few soup cans, some old peanuts, and a bag of stale potato chips. Coffee cups were all mismatched and most of them cracked. High up on one of the shelves I found an old box of tea. I wondered how long it had been sitting there hidden on the shelf. All I could find was a small soup pan to heat the water in. Two TV dinners sat covered in frost in the freezer. The refrigerator was empty.
The house felt vacant. Everything was neat, and tidy, but it looked like no one lived there. The lack of food in the kitchen could be just a sign they didn’t cook. Many people back home in New York City never ate at home, but they still had food in the kitchen. Maybe my grandmother didn’t live here with my father? I never bothered to ask.
There were old black and white pictures on the wall in the living room, including a few of me as a little girl. At least I assumed they were of me. I was too young to remember taking any of them. There was a picture of my father, and I, with a blond woman I didn’t recognize. We were all smiling. I couldn’t have been older than two. In one of them, my father was cradling me with bandaged arms with only the tips of a few fingers sticking out. His face looked gaunt and tired. He was smiling, but it looked like a painful smile, forced at the photographer’s request.
In one photo, my father was sitting with two other men. The picture was taken in a bar or restaurant. Scattered bottles and tumblers of drinks were on the table. They were all young and wearing military uniforms. My father held a cigarette in one hand and grinned for the camera. He was handsome—and for a moment, I remembered his face. The man in the picture was my dad, not the sick man in the hospital. My memory of him came flooding back to me. My eyes filled with tears. It was him.
The first trunk was divided into square sections and smelled like old newspapers. One section overflowed with pictures of my father when he was a baby and young boy. My grandmother was beautiful. Her hair was long in the photos. She was wearing flapper dresses like those worn during the roaring twenties. I thought of gangsters like Al Capone and illegal bars during prohibition. My grandfather was equally dapper. He looked important, well-connected, wearing a three-piece suit in most of the photos. His head was bald like a newborn baby’s. The gleam in his eyes spoke of confidence. The two of them were a very handsome couple.
My father was born, Robert Louis Miller, on March 5, 1924, in Chicago, Illinois, son of Charles Louis and Esther Mari Miller. I knew my grandparents full name. You don’t know what a marvel it is to learn your family’s name when you are thirty years old. Even though we were complete strangers, they were part of me—but, a history I’d never known. My mind was buzzing with questions.
I poured through all his baby pictures which had dates, and places, written on the back in perfect penmanship. Old photo albums were all in the same meticulous order. The pictures were all in black and white. Some of them had faded to a yellowish tinge and worn at the edges. The lack of color dulled everything.
From an infant, to his first steps, to every year in grammar school, and a lock of blond hair were all in the albums. In some photos he was standing in front of a Christmas tree with a new toy, a new bicycle, and one holding what I hoped was only a BB gun. Many were with his parents at different ages and with a girl a few years younger. She had similar features, and I wondered if she could be his sister. They were a family, one that I longed for my entire life. Why did he take that away from me? It wasn’t fair.
His report cards, for every year in school, were in the trunks. It looked like he received an 'A' in every class. Certificates of achievement in English, history, mathematics, and music filled an entire album.
He played baseball, football, and was on the diving team. He won first place in many diving events. His high school football roster showed him to be the captain of the football team and their quarterback. His team was the conference champion.
In a leather bound book, there were pages of newspaper articles: Robert Miller pitches a shutout against the cross-town rival The Bears; Robert Miller hits two home runs to help the school to the finals; Quarterback Robert Miller goes 20 for 21 throwing four touchdowns; Robert Miller wins the New York State prize for poetry; Robert Miller graduates class valedictorian; Robert Miller, Jamaica High School’s young genius accepted to Dartmouth College, but decides to attend the Music Conservatory of Westchester in White Plains, New York. There were so many, they filled the entire book with his accomplishments.
He was the boy the girls all swooned over and all the other boys hated. He was smart, athletic, and very handsome with the optimism of youth and tremendous success at such a young age.
Looking around the small house, with the worn-out furniture, I wondered how a boy, like the one I have been reading about, ended up in a place like this. He should have made his fortune at something the way he excelled at everything else. Living the life of luxury, and status, most people only dreamed about. Were we talking about the same person—the man in the hospital?
Many patients of mine are depressed because they weren’t rich or famous. Sometimes, I wanted to slap them across the face like Mama used to do whenever the topic of money came up. “Get real Portia. Rich people were not. Accept the cards you were dealt.” The boy I was reading about wouldn’t have lived like this. He was such an accomplished young man. He had it all.
Some of my young clients spent so much energy on boys like my father, they didn’t have lives of their own. There were the pimple-faced girls who were in love with the high school quarterback, their teenage fantasies so real, yet so absurd. They lived in their dreams swooning over boys who never even noticed them. Even I was secretly in love with the star of the football team once. Wasn’t every girl? Of course he didn’t know my name, but in my mind he did.
Boys like my father kept the couch in my office filled with teenage girls who had no confidence because their fantasy boy didn’t acknowledge their existence. A heavyset girl named Madeline cried in my office because the star of the water polo team had turned her down to go to a Sadie Hawkins dance. It was like the life was drained from her. The next time I saw her she was dressed in black from head to toe. Even her fingernails were painted black. When I asked her about this sudden change of appearance she told me since she was different, she wanted to look different. She was struggling to find her identity in a world of thin, beautiful, people where she didn’t fit in. I knew the feeling, but from a different angle. She soon fell in with the wrong crowd, who accepted everyone just as long as they acted like them. She started drinking and doing drugs. Her parents were very concerned. At least she had parents that cared. When I got into trouble my mother didn’t care. I told her to be happy she had people who loved her. They weren’t enough, she told me.
One day, her mother called me and told me Madeline had died. She overdosed on pills. She wanted to know if I ever thought Madeline was suicidal. I didn’t. But, maybe I missed it. I felt responsible, since it was me who encouraged her to ask the boy to the dance. Would she still be alive if I hadn’t told her to go for it? Did the boy’s rejection cause her downward spiral? It happened early in my practice, and I blamed her death on myself for years. Part of me still does. I pushed her like I did myself. I vowed never to let my personal demons get in the way of my professional advice. I too was afraid of boys like my father, but for very different reasons. It was a mistake I wish I could take back.
The more I read about my father the more amazed and baffled I became. Where did he go? Confidence wasn't something he lacked. Most people think I’m confident, but deep down they don’t know me. I just don’t stop long enough anymore to let the hurt, the loneliness, and the regrets to sink in. I’ve learned the art of numbness. Where nothing can penetrate the wall I’ve built up. Reading about my father was opening something within me. I felt the dam break and my insides flowed out in rivers.
Tears rolled down my face as I read the articles, many of which had my father’s grin plastered in them for all to see. His eyes were bright and full of energy. The awards and articles were so numerous, I found them all hard to read and my eyes were becoming blurry. I hadn’t slept and was exhausted. My emotions drained. I wanted to keep pouring through the trunks, but my mind was collapsing on me desperate for rest.
When I climbed into my father’s bed my body was rigid at first—confused about the day. I lay on my back, arms flat, rubbing back and forth as if I were making a snow angel. He slept here. I wanted to feel his presence, to know him. Somehow, it felt as if I were embracing him, the way I wished my whole life. My guard was crumbling. I wanted to believe what I’d read. It wasn't fair. The tears in my eyes would not stop. I sobbed into the pillow waiting for my mind to release me. Why?