That’s Not the Way It Feels

This morning, while I search through sections of my wallet as I sit in my parked car,  a memory — perhaps more of a feeling — surfaces. I see myself as a teenager in my grandmother’s kitchen, where I sit with my uncle as he sifts through the recesses of his billfold to find a seemingly necessary piece of paper. As he splays the leather wallet’s contents on my grandmother’s kitchen table, I glimpse a faded photo of a curly-haired toddler in a blue flowered dress — me — amongst the scatterings. I feel a warm, enveloping — almost liquid — sense of comfort at the unlikely sight of it. I say nothing, but feel touched at the realization that he holds a small, slim place for me somewhere — albeit most likely forgotten, tucked between store receipts and business cards. He might have simply kept the picture there because he was stationed in the Navy when I was born, and the tangible photograph symbolized something like home for him. It might have been used as a prop to pick up girls in Honolulu bars near the naval base when he was off-duty. It might have been tucked in between dollar bills by my grandmother on a Sunday morning while he was home on leave in 1972 and sleeping off a raucous Saturday night — a mother’s impossible talisman of safekeeping for her son during the Vietnam War. I’ll never know. I was too shy to have asked him why he kept it. I am sure that I was too afraid to learn the truth: the gesture didn’t indicate what I imagined it had.

Instead, in that moment, I decide this: My uncle carried a picture of me. My father did not. In that sharp flick of sadness as to what my father did not choose to do, I found solace in the realization of what someone else had. This, to me, was miraculous: the suffusion of love and tenderness in the actualization of its absence.

I consider this dichotomy as I sit in my car now, with the window lowered to welcome in balmy October air, while the radio plays Jim Croce’s “Operator.” I decide that my uncle was indeed fond of me, and that it couldn’t be helped, because I was a terribly cute kid, and I adored him. I decide that it simply wasn’t my father’s way to acknowledge his feelings towards me, and that he had always disliked the bulky feel of a leather wallet while he drove our stick shift Toyota. He’d raise himself up from the bucket seat and dislodge the billfold from the back pocket of his jeans, and ask me to hold it while he drove. The leather felt pliable and masculine in my hands, and I felt important for being entrusted with its care. I adored him then, too. We were connected by more than I could possibly understand. That bond wasn’t formed by spoken words or tangible items, but through a shared feeling, something similar to what I was feeling now, a sense of us, while sitting in my own driver’s seat. It brought me to the realization of how disconnected he and I are now, and how we both exist on different planes of life and meaning.

I see my father’s worn, malformed billfold in my mind, laid on his nightstand with scatters of change, subway tokens and movie stubs. I think on how diligently he worked to keep the three of us afloat then — my mother and him and me — in a series of small city apartments and secondhand coats. There was comfort in the nightly sight of that curved, stitched leather  – comfort that I’d long forgotten, and strain to sense now.

When people die, and we garner the strength to sort out their belongings in the days — or months, or years — after their death, we cobble together our own brokenness from their effects. We say, “Look — they saved this,” or, “See? He kept this in his nightstand,” or “She tucked this into her purse.” We determine our worth in the random photographs and hand-written thank-you notes used as makeshift bookmarks, in the broken clamshells stored in clasp envelopes in junk drawers, in frayed hair ribbons and dried flowers from wedding ceremonies, and in photo booth strips from long-shuttered five-and-dime stores. We decipher meaning — whether fabricated or true — about them and about ourselves, and about what we represent to the dead and disappeared.

The duality of significance and meaninglessness so often strikes me in these moments. What we think is so, and what never truly, actually was. Who we become, and who we fail to be. How love endures for young men now grown older, and for little girls so wise beyond their years.





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  1. Brilliant. This brings me to a conversation I will share with you one of these days over tea. Little girls now so wise beyond our years… Perhaps in a tiny porcelain tea set from china town

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