Armchair Father, One Postcard at a Time

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last autumn, I sent my father a card from a vacation in Missoula, Mont. He posted back days later with a card from Bozeman. Another time, I mentioned I'd be going to Maui for a conference. Before I left, my father sent me postcards from Hawaii, with palms, surf and sand. By now, I know he hasn't visited these places, and isn't writing from them. My father lives across the bay in Berkeley. He never makes the 30-minute drive to San Francisco to visit, or calls to say hello. My father sends me postcards.

He sends postcards for my birthday and for Easter. At Christmas, he sends several over a few days. He sends them every week of the year. At 66, my father has mastered the art of jet-set travel without the hassle of finding a post office in Stratford-Upon-Avon, much less the bother of packing a suitcase. Sometimes I get cards from Zurich, the Grand Canyon and Saigon--all in one week.

Last Thanksgiving, he visited Manhattan and Germany's Koln Am Rhein castle before heading to San Diego. He arrived in time for a 1970s sunset at the beach, featuring young people in feathered hairstyles and peasant dresses enjoying cocktails in the surf.

Each card has the same compact writing and Berkeley postmark, the same list of happenings at the corner cafe and around campus. Their musty smell evokes the bargain bin of a local bookstore where he must find them. When I leave the infrequent message on his answering machine inviting him to meet in person, a few days later a card arrives from the Panama Canal or Tagaytay confirming our meeting time and location.

When we venture a dinner, our visits are much like the posts I receive. There are pleasantries, but little depth. The few inquiries into my life soon retreat behind the patter of an acquaintance. I long for the intimate conversations a letter of several pages might afford, but which postcard parenting does not. Once I tried asking him why he sends the cards. "Because they have a pretty picture on them. A letter is so boring and plain," he explained, as if the logic were universal. "In a letter, you end up babbling on for three pages. With a card you can be concise." What about calling now and again? His response is instant and dismissive: "I don't like the phone." No debating. Case closed.

Another time, after walking back to his house from a cafe meeting, I steeled myself to encourage him. "You could be in my life a little more, you know. You could play the role of parent, get involved."

His gaze wandered from me onto the gravel driveway as we stood by his back stoop. "Some friends are organized and like to schedule and coordinate lots of plans," he said. "I'm not that way."

Memories of my father, like our dinner interactions, are stored in my mind as a series of postcards. One memory is a 5-year-old's recollection--a snowy street, a statue of Babe the Blue Ox. My father had gone to teach business law at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, while my mom, two older sisters and I remained in Ann Arbor, Mich. We made one visit that year to see him. In this memory, I recall a street smeared with slush, Babe's massive torso blotting out an overcast sky, the silence and frost of winter. I can't at all conjure the details of my father's apartment. My father is nowhere in view.

Over the next 14 years, he'd leave again, to deliver papers at conferences or to take a semester to settle in to a new town and teaching post. His most frequent departure, though, was to the basement of our home, where a TV, reclining chair and sofa furnished his "office." My teenage sisters and I called it his "dungeon," and he disappeared there for hours at a time. It was the world he created and inhabited alone, below our family's universe upstairs.

The postcards began arriving during his early sabbaticals from fatherhood. By my senior year of high school in San Francisco, he still lived in Memphis, Tenn., a stop we'd made in the mid-'80s. We'd moved West; my father remained in the geography of our past. He didn't show for my commencement, but sent a card. By my graduation from Berkeley, I expected nothing different.

I ask my mother for her theory. She hesitates, this woman who was married to him for 27 years, searching for a response. Her answer, when she speaks, is a guess: "When he lived by himself in Bemidji and other places, he was bored. He just wanted to have someone to talk to." As if just remembering, she adds, "I have a whole box of them under the kitchen sink if you want to look at them." She finally shrugs her shoulders. "I don't know, Rae." Bewilderment hangs in the silence between us, and we turn to the solid footing of other topics.

Even though I lived with him for 14 years in all, there are manila envelope-sized gaps in what I know of my father's life. My grandfather, his dad, was an Army colonel who uprooted his wife and son every six months or so. They moved between the U.S. and their native Puerto Rico, from base to base. They even called a hotel in Ensenada home for several months.

Maybe my father has postcard-sized memories of the towns, cities and Army bases of his youth. He attended countless new schools, and probably made an unblinking practice of leaving behind newly minted friendships. Maybe the postcards started even earlier than I know.

A month ago, cards of another type began arriving. Two came proclaiming "DIVERSITY" and "GRACE." A third declares "PEACE." Maybe, I tell a friend, along with the usual reports from the neighborhood front, he's sending me a message. After a few more posts, from Hong Kong and Rio, I drop the coded message theory. But then I receive a card heralding "The Great Women Superheroes." The front is an illustrated splash of yellows, oranges and reds, its cartoon heroines nearly bursting off the card in valiant action. The back says only "Love, Papi." I hang it on the wall above my desk.

Yesterday, a card arrived, and along with it perhaps an answer I have sought. It is a black-and-white photograph of the Bush-Holley House, the Connecticut inn used by Willa Cather and other New York writers as a retreat. A single wooden chair and side table repose on a broad veranda. The front door is ajar. Sunlight bleaches porch railings. Beyond the veranda, lush foliage and trees hint at a summer day. Written below the photograph are Cather's words: "There are all those early memories; one cannot get another set ...."

These postcards are the conversations my dad holds with me. I can't request another set, but I can savor them, and know they have been sent with love.

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Rachel V. Rodriguez, a freelance writer, lives in San Francisco.

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