When she left, I lit the fire to warm the house. The furnace had created a foul burning smell, so I turned it off. The stack of wood next to the fireplace was old, and dry, igniting quickly in a large popping flame. Rain began to fall harder and hit the windows with a certain cadence that sped up, and slowed down, as the storm inched by. It was strangely peaceful given the odd circumstances.
I thought about Frank and my grandmother’s tale of how she met my grandfather. It sounded so simple. Boy loves girl and girl loves boy. Nothing else should matter. Even though I believed in love, emotionally it was hard to trust someone with my heart.
Frank Rhein and I met at an alumni dinner at New York University a few years ago. He is a professor of American history there. He is the stereotypical professor, wearing wool cardigan sweaters, and keeping his hair a bit too long in the back. He is a calming force in my life. A kind, and caring man, who I didn’t deserve.
I, on the other hand, could be a moody, temperamental, bitch, who pulled him in and pushed him away when the mood suited me. It hurts him, but he hangs in there with the hope that someday I would say yes to his proposals. I don’t know what he sees in me. I’ve never shared the World Series story with him. All he knew was that my father died when I was young. I’d built a perfect wall around my emotions and was afraid of anyone tearing it down. To be close to someone, to love them without restraint, terrified me. I had the urge to pick up the phone and call him, but the secrets in the trunks called to me like lead to a magnet.
In the second trunk, there were rows of letters still in their envelopes, neatly tied with string and dated according to month and year. They were all addressed to mom or dad.
I wanted to make notes to ask my grandma questions later. Letters sent only one-way would need some interpretation. In the top drawer of the desk in my father’s bedroom I found a blue photo album. When I opened it, I was startled at what I found. As I turned the pages, my school pictures from first grade through my college graduation were in the book. How did he get these? Mama must have sent them to him. She didn’t even keep a photo album of me. It took the wind right out of me. I could feel my pulse beating in my ears and I reached for the bed before I fell down. My hands were shaking so badly I had to sit on them. He has photos of me growing up. What was going on?
I was sure if I looked into a mirror my face would have been bright red. My shock had turned to anger. They had conspired together to keep me away from him. Even if they had a good reason, like he was a child molester or something, the charade should have ended when I was an adult.
“I’m thirty years old, Mama. You could have told me!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
After all these years, why didn’t he come to see me? She hadn’t been hiding him from me. He was staying away. It didn’t make any sense. Why would he do that? What did I do that was so bad? Didn’t he love me? I am his daughter.
I searched through the rest of the drawers. In the bottom drawer, there letters addressed to Robert Miller. I recognized the handwriting. It was my mother’s with her steep script. She had written him. She told me he had died. Mama never told lies. It made her sick to lie.
The letters were all dated in December, around the Christmas holidays. All of them were about me; how I was doing in school, sports . . . growing up. I sat on the floor reading them stunned. They hid this from me. In the letters, she was proud of me, almost bragging to him of my accomplishments. It was like reading the words from a different person. It didn't make any sense. Finding out that my mother was involved in the conspiracy to keep us apart made me angry. It wasn’t fair.
I rummaged through the rest of the desk and found an empty pad of paper, a blue tipped pen, and his torn 1950 World Series ticket stub. He’d kept it too. I pulled mine out of my pocket and held them together. I pictured him, like me, holding the ticket all these years. How many nights did he sit teary eyed wondering what I was doing or how things could have been. I know I did. My eyes filled with tears as I held it in my hand. It was like a beginning and an end. We were like the tickets, finding our way back to each other. I knew he didn’t have much time left. I hoped for an explanation and a chance to say goodbye.
Back in the living room I began to read my father’s letters. My grandma said I would hear his voice and was eager to do so. Now that I had seen his face, I needed to hear him. If he dies before he wakes, his words in the letters will be the only voice I ever hear.
April 17, 1942
Your last letter reached here last Monday, the 14th. It’s postmarked on the 9th, so that would make it about five days traveling. How come the par aviono? Are there French ports down there?
That is some snake. Is it a boa constrictor? Those small coral snakes would be more dangerous, I think. As far as the psychological affect goes, that picture would arouse sadism more than fear. However, I got rid of the picture.
The house in the background of that snapshot doesn’t seem to be so bad. Life ran an article, with pictures on Trinidad, that seems to support your statements on the housing conditions down there.
As far as the activity up here goes, things are pretty quiet. I had a whole week’s vacation for Easter. I went to Philadelphia last Friday and Saturday to play a concert. Philadelphia is all right in spots, but I didn’t think much of the business section. The streets are narrow and crowded. The Chamber of Commerce doesn’t have much of a showmanship sense. They sandwiched all their important historic spots between modern skyscrapers.
I went ten blocks through the heaviest business area, turned a corner and bang . . . there was Independence Hall between a Christ-Craft office and a fur dealer. I got a kick out of seeing all those historic points. I was alone in the hall. It was eerie to be in the same room, with the same chairs, desks, and even the same writing materials they used to adopt the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
I saw some things that the casual visitor misses. In front of the hall, way off in a corner of the lawn, is a small sign put up in 1803. It informs you to step softly, as you are walking on the grave of 150 soldiers killed in the Battle of Germantown, 1776. In one of the rooms, there are bloodstains where the wounded were kept.
About three weeks ago, in composition class, we had a problem in orchestra writing. Our homework was to write out a small theme for a full orchestra. I was pretty tired that night and didn’t have a melody in mind. So, at the last minute, in desperation, I decided to burlesque all the famous types of music. I took a Bach fugue and put a Bolero rhythm to it, played “The Blue Danube” backwards, made a modern blues version of one of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, and wound up with a portion of a piano concerto where all the pianist did was put his elbows down on the keyboard.
I scribbled this potpourri down in a hurry and handed it in the next morning and forgot about it.
Menikoff happened to see it and he thought it was funny, so he made a copy for the school symphony orchestra and they played it. It sounded good, so they recorded it.
A guy from WNYC heard it, and he thought it was different, so it was broadcast over that station on a New American Music program.
Last I heard of it, it was broadcast over WQXR two days ago. Just another example to show that it isn’t so much the melody in modern music that goes over, it’s the new ideas you put into it. Menikoff summed it up pretty well when explaining it to the pianist in the orchestra. “The first movement you play what Miller writes, the second movement you play what you please in the original key, in the last movement you simply play what you please.” The boys in the school have named the piece, “The Melody Went That Way,” or, “Who’s got the Ball?”
Sports for the last month have been varied. Every weekend there’s always a baseball game on Long Island; same team, same guys, same conditions. Piano playing is very good training for batting, but it’s terrible for fielding. Your wrists get too strong for snap throwing. But it sure has helped with my batting average.
I’ve been doing some saber fighting the last few weeks, but I am not a match for the guys up here.
Believe it or not, I was introduced to a new sport—polo. The guys from the school got up a game over here on a polo field near Westchester Golf Club. I always figured it was fairly easy, like playing golf on a merry-go-round. Don’t let anyone kid you, that game takes more out of you than football. At least in football you can relax every few minutes. Practically every rich man knows how to play polo. And I’m going to be rich.
I always get very ambitious in the spring. Most guys fancy turn to girls, mine turns to money, or rather the things you can do and have with it.
I think that’s all there is at the moment. I hope I can dodge the coming war, or at least get two years of college done so I can get into the Air Corps instead of the infantry.
C’est finis. As I write the sun is just going down behind the forest near the house. Through the trees it looks like a giant bonfire.
He had just turned eighteen when he wrote this letter, full of bravado and a life ahead. He was the high school quarterback, tall, good-looking—special. Those who hated him did so in silence, boys and girls alike. But the fear of going to war was in the back of his mind, which must have made the future he planned for himself a distant dream.
My life was different growing up. When Mama took me to Louisiana, we stayed in a big house. I remember a large porch with a swing and the smell of flowers in a garden surrounded by a huge green lawn. The air was warm and humid. I remember lying on my back, in the middle of the grass, watching small white clouds whisk by, wondering if my Daddy was up there in heaven. We didn’t stay very long. Mama moved us back to a small apartment in Brooklyn, where there was no green grass or scented flowers. My bed was the couch. Each night before I went to sleep, Mama would make it look like a bed with sheets and blankets. She rolled towels to put between the cracks. It was never very comfortable. The cushions were too lumpy, but that’s where I slept. I never had my own room until I left home at eighteen and even then it wasn’t mine.
When I was ten, I discovered we were poor. Mama came home with tickets to the Nutcracker Ballet. She was so delighted, dancing around our small living room. I think she always wanted to be a dancer. She was in one of her good moods where she opened up all the blinds and played the record player loud. She’d been saving all year to take me.
We got all dressed up and took a cab to the show. The lights on Broadway were so bright. We waited in line outside. A long black car pulled up to the curb in front of us. A man, wearing a funny hat, stepped out and opened the car door for the people inside. My eyes made contact with a pretty blond girl about my age. She was wearing a beautiful green dress, with shiny sequins all over it and a red shawl. We looked at each other closely. I ducked behind Mama not wanting the little girl to see my old black coat. I wasn’t sure why I did that. It was the look in her eyes. She was looking down at me. Her family didn’t have to wait in the line. They went right to the front and the doorman let them in.
Our seats were so high I could barely see the performance. I spotted the girl sitting in a balcony close to the stage. Mama said they were rich. After that day, I was on a constant look out for these strange people with long cars.
“Why aren’t we rich, Mama?” I asked her.
“You don’t have a father.”
“Only people with fathers are rich?”
She glared at me and said, “Yes. I’m just a simple uneducated seamstress. This is all we’ll ever have, Portia. Get used to it.” I got that a lot from her growing up.
Mama’s way with words was always short and to the point. I’m not sure we ever had a conversation that lasted more than ten minutes, unless she was on one of her highs, which wasn’t often. When that happened, she would ramble on about everything, except my father. I always tried to work him in when she was in one her good moods, but it never worked.
My father grew up wealthy. He was like the little girl in the red dress. He could have given me that life. Where did this brilliant, cocky, athletic, and brazen boy go? The young man who says he is going to be rich. I looked around the tiny house. It wasn’t the home of the man I was reading about. I wanted to know the man in the trunks. Where did he go? That’s who I dreamed about.
My mother didn’t answer the phone when I called. She knew this man. Why did she keep him from me all these years? It didn’t make any sense. I wanted to call Frank, but didn’t know what to tell him. He’d worry about me if I didn’t call by the end of the day. We had a dinner date scheduled for this evening and I wasn’t the type that didn’t show. I decided to call him later.
Sitting at the piano I played a few notes, hoping to find one that wasn’t out of key. I’m not sure why. Somehow it made me feel closer to my father. He had played this piano. The dust on the keys made the tips of my fingers all black. I didn’t know how to play, nor could I sing. The musical side of the family had passed me by. The notes, like my father, were all off-key. I hoped that my trip out here would tune things between us.