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Love Letters From My Father
When my husband and I made the life-altering decision to pick up our lives in Washington State and relocate to Hawai’I, we knew it’d be no easy feat. But with our combined 20+ years of service (both active and reserves) we were up for the challenge. In our short eight years of life together we had gone from living sparsely in 700 square feet (with a bachelor roommate, no less!) to bulging at the seams in 1800 square feet. We’ve moved residences in a tiny single-axle trailer pulled behind our (shared!) Nissan Xterra with our young toddler in tow to requiring the largest Hertz trailer (and still not being able to fit everything!); boat, second vehicle, dog, teenager, and bun-in-the-oven in tow! We’ve lived in Texas, Missouri, Washington State, California, Vermont, Arizona, and returned to Washington State. Trust me when I say we are no strangers to moving. Financing a move, now that we were new to, very new to. After a few quick online moving quotes revealed we would need to deplete our savings, max out our credit cards, take out a second mortgage, barter a trade with Rumplestiltskin and possibly kill off Dan for his life insurance (last resort, but then completely counterintuitive) we knew we would have to unload. A lot. We did the keep-donate-toss thing about six different times. We weeded, then weeded, then weeded again. We had a massive garage sale, sold the boat, sold the truck, donated about 20 boxes of books, hauled three massive piles of furniture, home décor, clothing and shoes to my best friend’s house (sorry Jill, and you’re welcome), sold our heaviest items and appliances to our renters (SCORE!), and then just left a massive pile of killer steals in our driveway with signs posted at every street corner FREE QUALITY SHIT- TODAY ONLY!
Then came the hard part. The really hard part. With just a few boxes standing in the way of pure and total completion, it was the boxes I dreaded the most. You know which ones. That cache of boxes that lurks in every home the world over that never gets opened but never gets parted with either. The ones marked simply: Memorabilia. I had six. Baby clothes; I kept a few. Baby stuffies; I kept a few. Pictures (real pictures! The kind that I waited many painstaking hours outside the local Walgreens to get developed, only to be sorely disappointed when my non-photographer eye revealed chopped off heads, chopped off feet, blurry finger tips in the bottom corners, terrible angles, blinks, blurs, and what the hell is that?!); I kept a handful. Eli’s baby clothes; I kept most. Eli’s baby stuffies; I kept all. Report cards, holiday cards, birthday cards, drawings and a few broken handmade tchotchkes from my youth; we had a good laugh and then they all got tossed.
Five boxes down, one to go. I had deliberately waited to the very end for this one. For this box, this one box, this same box, had followed me from the very first day I left my parents house as a scared and excited teenager to this very moment. It was a large, blue Sterilite container which I had penned in fat, bold, permanent ink: *FRAGILE* DO NOT PLACE ANYTHING ON TOP- MOISTURE SENSITIVE across the lid. I removed the lid and everything was just as I had placed it. As my most sentimental possession, I was going to need a minute. I was going to need a few, actually. I pulled up a big, black footlocker that had been packed to the brim, inventoried, and sealed and took a seat. Row after row after row of carefully created music tapes from my father were neatly and tightly packed. I remember scouring my parents’ basement many times over for the right vessel and packing and repacking and repacking until I got the perfect Tetris-scale arrangement so as to minimize shifting and risk damage to the delicate plastic cassette tapes. The sleeve in each cassette was covered from edge to edge, top to bottom in my father’s scribbles and hilarious caricatures. Tucked on its side beside the wall of cassettes was a box that kept every letter and postcard my father had ever written me since moving away from my sister and I in Hawaii to San Francisco in 1992 in pursuit of better opportunities. I figured I’d start with the cassettes since I knew none would be making the journey with me. Despite my best efforts, time had found it’s way into my sarcophagean vessel and aged the delicate film, rendering them inaudible even if I were able to track down a cassette player. But first, Kleenex.
From the day my dad touched down in San Francisco to about ten years ago, my dad lovingly handcrafted very special care packages for my sister and I and sent them to us no matter where our travels had taken us. He would call us prior to, when he was still assembling these packages, giving us little nuggets of information as to what we would find in them. Then we would call him as soon as we received them and he would tell us the story about how each item came to have a place in our cherished package. Package contents varied greatly and could include oddball ethnic snacks, bumper stickers, local band and venue flyers, key chains, restaurant packaged condiments from hip little mom & pops, and always, always, a mixed tape. Some were themed: “Don’t Ska Me Any Punkin’ Questions” featuring the Clash, the Ramones, the Descendants, Op Ivy, the Vandals, NOFX, the Specials, (early) No Doubt, the Dwarves, Squirrel Nut Zippers. Some were truly mixed: Missy Elliot, Basia, the Cure, Chris Isaak, Brandy, Dick Dale, Tom Petty, Dan Fogleberg, Suzanne Vega, Iggy Pop, Bauhaus. We had surf mix (Beach Boys! Bamboras! Jan and Dean!), smooth mix (Sade! En Vogue! Lauryn Hill!), Brasiliero, Reggae, Reggaeton, Hawaiian, Pop, Salsa, Goth. My dad was the ultimate DJ and my sister and I his loyal listeners. Come to think of it, the thinning of the tape may have had nothing at all to do with time and everything to do with the repeat button, which stayed permanently depressed once the cassette went in. I realized too that this was not just a sloppy mish mash of what he heard on the radio, rather something that we could share in together. His mixed tapes became love letters in their own rite. Since listening to each song over again was no longer an option, I figured the best way I could honor all his hard work and the memories created was to read each and every song listed and, not surprisingly, I remembered the first time I listened to each and every one.
Okay, a couple balled up tissues, nothing major. But then shit was about to get real: the (BIG) box of letters and postcards. The early literature was short, sweet and to the point; made it to Cali, how’s school, miss you guys, be good. But then it became very clear to me that these became the lifelines to each other. I realized, reading them as an adult, that the move to San Francisco wasn’t just hard on my sister and I, it was devastating for my dad. These letters were not the requisite “You need to write your kids!” They were meant to stand in for him between the phone calls and care packages. Regardless of whatever was going on in my dad’s life, be it girls, jobs, you name it, an ocean apart was not going to make my dad disappear. As the letters progressed in time so did the subject matter. He tried to soothe us during the rough transition of taking on a stepfather and two step sisters, various moves, boyfriends, and trouble at school. Today it’s so easy to stay in touch with just a few keystrokes but back then it took real effort, and it showed in his letters. As did his support, relentless optimism and killer sense of humor (and artistic ability! My dad is quite the doodler. He really should have been a comic book illustrator.) His letters would also stand to serve as markers in time and our own little references to pop culture. One Nirvana postcard was purchased at the first mainstream goth/punk/skate shop to open in a mall: Hot Topic! He told me about an awesome all-chick concert in the park: Lilith Fair! Oh, and lots and lots of tears.
In the end I decided not to part with the letters. I reasoned there would always be room for that. Even if I don’t read them again until another great purge when say, Dan and I decide to retire and live on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Growing up, I came to realize that the relationship my father and I have is not the traditional father-daughter dynamic, although love like this definitely should be. In a time when most people communicate daily yet rarely hear each other’s voice, my father will still pick up the phone a couple times a week and talk with me. Like, 30-60-90 minutes talk; each time. He is just as interested in my life as he is in sharing his. And although it pained me to part with those tapes, every time I hear Basia in an elevator, or the Smiths in the background of some scary movie, or Dick Dale’s Miserlou riff in the Black Eyed Peas’ hit song I remember those fond moments, discussing every treasure, every song. Tom Petty’s American Girl will always be our song, but then we did air guitar to that one, too.