Setting Daddy In

Setting Daddy In by Diana AltmanSettling Daddy In

My sister arrived from New York bearing gifts of a fattening nature. She believed I was bakery deprived living in Boston.That time, so long ago now, she brought a chocolate cake, cinnamon bubka, and rugelach. As soon as my children were asleep and my husband upstairs in front of the TV, I said to her, “You roll, I’ll get the cake.”

When I carried the cake, two plates, two forks, two napkins into the living room, a perfectly tight joint was on the coffee table and she was standing in front of the beveled mirror above the Victorian mantelpiece. “I hate this haircut,” she said. “I’m never going to Remio again. I can’t believe I went back to him. You know what he did the last time?  Did I tell you?  I said to him, just cover the gray, Remio. Don’t make it too black. He says he knows exactly what I mean. Next thing I know, I’m sitting there with hair so black I looked like one of those old ladies with the black hair and the red lipstick. I said, Remio!  Look what you’ve done to me!  He says with the first washing it’ll get lighter. So I go home. I’m telling you, I was walking along Seventh Avenue like some kind of criminal. I thought if I meet anyone I know I’ll drop dead. I go down into Penn Station and guess who’s there. Every day I take the train to Queens and never see a living soul and just the day my hair is the color of tar who do I see but that Linda Sudhalter person from Carnegie Tech who’s having that one-woman show.”

We took up our positions on the sofa, Isabel at one end, me at the other, the cashmere throw over our legs. Around us was my Victorian living room, bow windows covered in velvet drapery, ornate tiles around the fireplace, an upright piano in the corner with beginner music on it. Isabel lit the joint with her Bic, took a hit and handed it to me. “You know what she told me?” she said in a choked voice holding down smoke. “She said going to Yale graduate school made all the difference to her. She said she never really took herself seriously as an artist until she went there. She said I should go. I felt like saying, oh, yeah, with what.”  Isabel accepted the joint from me, took a drag, held down smoke, released it, and handed the joint back to me. “Anyway, there I am talking to her like nothing’s the matter. After a while I couldn’t help bursting out with, Linda, don’t you notice anything strange?  She said, what. I said, my hair!  Hasn’t it occurred to you that you’re talking to a person with weird black hair?  She didn’t even notice. Some artist, huh?  I never liked her work anyway.”

I handed the joint back to Isabel. “Your hair doesn’t look too black.”

“Not now,” she said sucking in smoke. “I went back to him the next day. I said, Remio, I washed my hair and it still looks too black. Fix it. So he did. Meanwhile, I have to sit there and listen to him tell me about all the movies he’s ever seen. Takes hours.”

Isabel took a hit, leaned toward me, I took a hit and handed it back to her. “Oh, want to hear the latest?” she said in a choked voice.

“This stuff is good,” I said.

“I know. So, listen to this. The court ordered Steve to pay me back child support and they increased the monthly amount. He wanted to pay me fifty dollars a week for both children. You know he hasn’t paid one cent for Jenny since she was sixteen.”

I accepted the joint, pulled in smoke, then made the I’ve-had-enough gesture. “What a scumbag.”

“You’re telling me,” Isabel said tamping out the joint in an ashtray souvenir of the Flume. “And you know they don’t do anything if he doesn’t pay. My lawyer says I can seize Steve’s car. You hire a sheriff, he takes a cut of what the car sells for. Maybe I’d get two thousand dollars.”

“And your kids will say Mommy took Daddy’s car away.”

“Right.” Isabel dropped the roach in her Ziplock bag. “You know how much he owes me in back payments?  Eleven thousand dollars. And you should have seen him. Showed up in family court wearing the most beautiful suit I’ve ever seen. Must have cost a fortune.”  We sunk into a momentary stupor. “You think she’ll be all right?”

“Sure. They’ll get that room fixed up.” 

“Can you imagine assigning her a room like that?  With that tuition and they put her in a room like that?  Paint peeling off the walls, holes in the ceiling, no shade on the window. I’m writing a letter. I am. I’m writing a letter to the college president.”

She got up, went to the mirror, fluffed her curls, then began to gaze at an old photograph in an oval frame that showed our father as a little boy in knickers and a ruffled shirt. Isabel returned to the couch, sat down at her end, adjusted her legs to fit around mine, tugged her long skirt down so her legs would not get cold, tugged my fleece bathrobe down over my legs and re-covered us with the cashmere throw. “You know tomorrow’s the anniversary of Daddy’s death.”

“It is?” I said. “Oh. Right. September.”

“Usually I get depressed around this time. Dr. Goldstone said I should always light a candle so I’ll remember what I’m depressed about. Can you believe that I’ve never visited his grave once in twenty years?  Have you?”

“I went to the cemetery but it was for Uncle Howard’s funeral.”

“I cannot believe,” said Isabel, “that I didn’t even go to Uncle Howard’s funeral. What was in my head?”

“How could you go?  You were all alone with two little kids. Who were you supposed to leave them with?”

“Uncle Howard died that long ago? Jenny and Josh were little? That’s right. Josh was in nursery school. God. How I could have sent him to that place, I’ll never know. He used to go off on the bus, two years old.”

“But what could you do. You had to work.”

“They started screaming at me because I wouldn’t work at their dumb Bingo games. How was I supposed to work all day, take care of Jenny and Josh and go be a caller at their dumb Bingo games. Wasn’t as if the dumb nursery school was free. I had to pay and then work at their dumb Bingo game, too.”

From upstairs came the sound of a toilet flushing then footsteps in the upstairs hall. I flapped my hands toward the bag of grass which Isabel grabbed from the coffee table and hid under the blanket.

“Mommy?”  My seven-year-old daughter, dressed in her pink pajamas with feet, was on the stairs holding the oak banister and looking down into the living room. “I can’t sleep.”

“Go to sleep,” I said.

“I smell smoke. Is that the cake?  Mommy!  You ate up the whole cake!”

“What’s you’re father doing up there?”

“Watching the Red Sox.”

“Go watch with him for a while.”  She climbed back up the stairs, we heard the bedroom door open and release a wave of ballgame sound. “Isn’t she getting so big?” I whispered to Isabel.

“Adorable.”

“You know what I’ve always felt bad about?”  Isabel said blowing her nose. “I never put flowers on his grave.

“Why would you feel bad about that?  I never did either.”

“Because he asked me to.”

“He asked you to?  When?”

“I told you.”

“You did?”

“Yes. I remember telling you that.”

“Well, I’ve blocked it out. He asked you to put flowers on his grave?  When?”

“God,” said Isabel, “I have this post nasal drip that is so annoying.”  She blew her nose, sniffed, blew again, blew harder, then harder, then sighed. “When he was sick. We were talking about somebody, I forget who, and how everybody forgot about them the minute they were dead and he said maybe if I remembered every once in a while I could put flowers on his grave.”

“Daddy said that?”

“Yes.”

“You mean he knew he was going to die?”

“Yes.”

“He did?  How do you know?”

“He just knew. It was obvious.”

“It was?  Not to me. I was completely surprised. Never entered my head that he’d die.”

“Well, he wasn’t getting any better,” Isabel said. “He was only getting worse.”

“He knew he was dying?”

“Sure he did.”

“Did you know?”

“Yes.”

“You knew he was going to die?”

“Well, he wasn’t getting any better.”

“But die?  DIE?” 

We fell into a stupor. Outside some teenagers walked down the sidewalk singing and talking in loud voices, then they were gone and it was quiet again except for the occasional swoosh of cars passing on the street. My cat jumped up and curled on Isabel’s legs. “Why don’t we go visit his grave,” I said.

“When.”

“Tomorrow.”

“But I can’t. I have to go home”.

“Call up. Tell them you’re sick.”

“Tell them I’m sick?”  Isabel thought about this. “Just call and tell them I’m sick?  No. I’ll just tell them it’s taking me longer to settle Jenny in college. I’ll tell them the dorm room was horrible and I’m going to try to get it straightened out and I’ll be in on Wednesday.”

“Do it. We’ll go visit his grave.”

“I could put flowers on it.”

We sank into numbness again. Then I said, “Gee. I sure hope I remember how to get there. It’s easy to get to Worcester but once we get to Worcester. You know I don’t even remember the name of the place.”

Isabel said, “Do you think there are a lot of Jewish cemeteries in Worcester?”  She blew her nose again.

“I don’t know. Do you remember the name of the funeral home?”

Isabel shook her head. “Can you believe we can’t even remember the name of the cemetery where our own father was buried?”

“I never went there on my own,” I said. “I was always driven there. For Daddy I was in the hearse. For Grandma I was in the hearse. For Uncle Howard I went in Aunt Moira’s car. Wait. I know what I could do. I’ll call up the health department in Worcester and ask them the name of the Jewish cemetery. There’s probably only one.” The bedroom door opened and we heard footsteps in pajama feet going down the upstairs hall back to their own room.

In the morning, after my daughters left for school and my husband went to his office, Isabel phoned the textile design firm in Manhattan where she worked as an artist and told her boss the truth. “See, that’s what great about being freelance,” she said sitting down at the kitchen table and smearing cream cheese on a bagel. “Anyway, they sold two of my designs last week. I have a bunch of color combinations to do and some repeats. It can wait a day.”

I dialed the Worcester Health Department but before it rang I hung up. “What should I say? Uh, excuse me, I don’t know where my father is buried, could you tell me?  Can you believe anyone would call up with such a question?”

“Tell them it was your uncle and you’re from out of town.”

The health department gave me three possibilities so we got into my red Volvo  and drove on the Mass Pike toward Worcester. After a while I said, “I’ve always felt bad I left him completely up to you.”

“You were in Boston. I was there. And anyway. You couldn’t leave your job.”

“Still, I should have taken more time off. I just never thought he’d die. But I’ll do Mother.”

“I know,” Isabel said. “I’ll help you though.”

“You will?  But that wouldn’t be fair. You did him. You went to the hospital every single day. But you loved him.”

“He wasn’t exactly so great to take care of. He was always impatient. I remember he wanted some slippers so I went out and bought him some. He thought if he had new slippers maybe he could walk better but he couldn’t because all the nerves in his foot were dead. He threw the slippers at me.”

“I remember.”

“Right in front of everyone.”

An hour later we stopped at a restaurant and had a piece of chocolate pie. “Now this is what chocolate pie is supposed to taste like,” I said.

“Let’s get one,” Isabel said.

“A whole pie?”

“We can have it tonight.”

“I had to help him pee one time,” I said stirring cream into my coffee.

“You did?  When?  You never told me that.”

“When he was at that nursing home. That one where they kept calling us his granddaughters and that nurse kept talking to him like he was a slow-witted baby.”

“You had to help him pee?”

“I had to hold the pitcher under him. I remember his thing was little and yellow.”

“How mortifying. He was so modest.”

“He said don’t panic.”

“He did?”

“Yes. He said to me, don’t panic.”

“Well,” Isabel said. “At least he still had his sense of humor.”

Box of pie in hand, we got back into the car and drove along unfamiliar streets and at last saw a sign. We drove into a cemetery, stopped to look around, then agreed it was the wrong place. “This is too fancy looking,” I said. “It wasn’t this fancy looking. And I remember going down a hill to get to the grave.”

It was early in September, warm and clear, the leaves just beginning to turn yellow, orange and mustard. We drove along a wide boulevard. “I remember one time,” Isabel said, “Uncle Howard visited the hospital and Daddy’s pajamas were all open and you could see everything. Uncle Howard got so flustered. He said, wait a minute wait a minute you wait out here, and he made me wait out in the hall until he could straighten Daddy’s clothes and cover him up.”

We drove past houses and stores and churches. We were slowing around a rotary when Isabel said, “Hey!  There’s a flower shop. Let’s stop.” 

The proprietor greeted us. “Are you twins?”

“Yes,” I lied.

“Mother!” the man called to the back room. “Come here and look. Twins!”

“How nice,” said the woman. “What can I do for you girls.”  It was a small shop, one wall was a refrigerator full of flowers, one wall was shelves of potted plants. It smelled of lilies. “We need to put flowers on a grave,” I said. The woman began to show us bouquets but Isabel had her mind made up. We would buy an azalea plant and it would bloom forever.

With a new set of directions from the flower shop lady, we set off again. “How are we going to plant that thing,” I asked.

“Don’t you have a shovel in the car?”

“No.”

“We have to go buy one.”

“Buy one?  But I have a million shovels in the garage. Why don’t we just leave it in the pot next to the grave?”

“No. It’ll die.”

We drove around Worcester looking for a hardware store. “You know why I never visit the grave?” I said.

“Why.”

“Because I’m scared. I don’t even want to go now, to tell you the truth.”

“I know what you mean. But don’t you think we should?”

“I don’t know. Do you think he’s really in there?”

“His bones are.”

We drove on. “It’s like opening up old wounds,” I said. “I mean who wants to burst out crying all over again.”

“I know. But isn’t that supposed to be good for you?”

“What’s good about it. I don’t like crying.”

“But don’t you think we should?”

“I don’t know. All I know is my heart’s beating fast.”

We found a hardware store and went inside. “Hey,” the salesman said. “Are you twins?”

“Yes,” I lied.

“Thought so. You look exactly alike. Which one’s older?”

“She is,” Isabel lied. We selected a spade, put it in the back seat with the azalea plant next to my younger daughter’s car seat and drove on following the hardware store salesman’s directions. We went through intersections and left at a gas station and right at traffic lights. We drove without speaking.

Then I said, “You know what I’ve always been jealous about? That he kissed you on the cheek that time.”

“You mean at his funeral?”

“Yes. He didn’t kiss me on the cheek. How come at his funeral he kissed you on the cheek and he didn’t kiss me on the cheek.”

“I don’t know. But I felt it. I was sitting in the hearse and I felt it.”

“Well, see, that’s why you want to go put flowers on his grave and I’m driving along here dreading it. The only time I ever felt him was when I got married. When I got married, I felt him rise up and float away. Really. Like he was kind of pressure in the air and after the wedding it was gone. Do you think he was just hanging around waiting to see who I’d marry?”

“Probably,” Isabel said. “Wait. Turn right here. This is the McDonalds she said we should turn right at.”

We came to a narrow road. On the left was a sign, Hebrew Cemetery. “You know what,” I said turning in through the gates and seeing rows of grave stones. “I think this is the place.”

“But we didn’t say Hebrew Cemetery to that lady.”

“I know. But I think this is the place. I remember that road. All overgrown like that.”

I parked the car and we got out. There were no other cars or people, just blue jays, robins and sparrows, winging in, pecking the earth, grave stones all standing at attention as far as you could see.

“Let’s take the plant,” Isabel said.

“Don’t you think we should find the grave first?”

“No. I want him to see it right away. “She took the plant in her hands and I took the spade.

“I remember it was down a hill,” I said. “This place seems so flat. I don’t remember it being so flat.”

We stood next to the car and looked at the rows of stones, one after another after another. “Daddy?” Isabel called. Her voice was small and sad under the blue September sky.

“Let’s do it systematically,” I said. “You start up there and I’ll start down here. Just look at every grave stone and shriek if you find it.”

Holding the azalea plant, Isabel gave each grave stone a long chance to be his before she moved on to the next one. Back and forth we went down the rows of stones checking all the names, the Goldmans all buried in a row, the Blooms buried behind them, the Siegels in a row of their own. “These stones seem too new,” I called out to Isabel. There was no answer. I stood straight and looked for her. She was way across the cemetery stooping in front of each stone. “Sis?” I called louder. “These stones are too new.”

We crossed the cemetery toward each other and stood close for a while. “I don’t get it,” I said. “I’m sure the name of the place was the Hebrew Cemetery.”  We decided to check every stone again and after we did that we walked back to the car, put the Azalea plant and spade in and sat in the front seat for a while not knowing what to do. I was scared of a looming void and disappointed. Did this mean he was lost forever?  Could I be so careless?  Even if he was difficult to get along with, does any father deserve to be that forgotten? “Should we go home?” I said.

“No,” Isabel said. “Go up there.”

I backed out of the space and drove in the opposite direction from the entrance gate. “Just see what’s up here,” Isabel said as I steered onto a dirt road. The car bumped over pebbles and into ruts, tall trees on either side of the road. Suddenly, the trees opened out and we came upon a flower garden lit up with color, wildly blooming and radiant. The flowers were so large and abundant they seemed unreal. The dahlias were the size of pizzas, the chrysanthemum were as big and frilly as tropical birds.

A woman was tending the garden. When I stopped the car and rolled down my window she turned slowly to pay attention to us. Isabel called, “Is there another part of the Hebrew Cemetery?”

“Yes”, the woman answered. “The old part’s further down the road.”  She smiled and lifted her gloved hand in farewell. I turned the car in the direction she  indicated and though my foot was on the gas and my hands were steering the wheel, the car took on a strange confidence as if it knew exactly where it was going. We went up a hill then turned left and both Isabel and I said at once, “This is it. This is the place.”

It was an old cemetery, the stones now blackened with age and round shouldered. Some were lopsided and had settled into the earth, fuzzy around the edges with moss. Behind the cemetery was a forest full of singing birds.

Isabel cradled the Azalea in her arms, I carried the spade. We went down a hill, as if being pulled along, and we came to his gravestone, his name bold above the epitaph we chose.

Now I remembered how impossible it was for Isabel and me to think up what to put on the stone. We couldn’t say beloved husband. Our mother divorced him. Though Uncle Howard probably would have liked us to say Beloved Brother, tact made him leave the words up to us. Daddy was too eccentric and his relationship to us was too complicated for us to be comfortable with Beloved Father.

 Which can say more Than this rich praise - that you alone are you. It was Shakespeare and I was a college English major at the time.

Isabel touched the stone and said, “Hello, Daddy.”  We stood quietly in front of it for a long time. There were no other people there and you could tell that people seldom went there by the way the chipmunks were so unafraid scurrying across the stones. The sun was hot and strong and the atmosphere was peaceful.

“I don’t feel like crying at all,” I said.

“Me either,” Isabel said. She took the spade from me and began to dig a hole in front of the stone. I was going to say let me dig, too, but I just stood back and watched her as she bent down and pushed the spade into the earth, watched as she set the plant in the hole and tucked it in with loose dirt, watched as she patted the ground and said, with the final pat, “There.”

 

Diana Altman

© 2010 Diana Altman. All rights reserved.

designed by Doug Barron