I got a letter from my aunt today. She’s my namesake. Her name is Marta. She’s my father’s younger sister, his only sibling.
They were such a picture-perfect family. I’ve seen the photos – my grandfather seated way over on one side, gruff, in a suit. Seated way over on the other side, my grandmother – pretty white curls, slim, dignified, faint smile. My aunt – pretty and dark haired draped near her dad, smiling. And my dad – handsome and suave in a suit – standing over his mother. All in sepia tones.
My aunt never writes to me. She doesn’t speak much English, but this is a full typed page with some handwritten additions. She explains that she got her goddaughter to translate.
It’s all about the apartment and what they should do with it. It’s all about money and how the two of them – my aunt and my father are roommates – will live. I’ll have to read it again to get the details, but I think my aunt is saying she has enough money for herself. So I guess that leaves my dad. She’s asking if I can send money. Otherwise, they might have to sell the apartment. Her grandparents bought it in 1928.
The bank is threatening to take my house back so I can’t help with theirs. I will send a nice letter. I’ll write about how I do love that apartment, but I don’t love it that much. and even if I did it’s beyond my reach.
She says that she and my father don’t agree on what to do with the place, how to proceed. It seems like she’s writing behind his back, but his signature appears at the bottom too. At least, I think it’s his signature. I looked closely.
This geographic distance between my father and me and my aunt is more than just geography. It’s not a coincidence that we live on different continents. My father says he never intended to be cut off like this, but he was cut off all along, even when we lived in one house.
I think of us, say, at the dining room table in the Armonk house. This was the house I’d known since I was three, though we hadn’t lived there solidly. We’d move away, rent it out, move back in, move away again, come back. Now it was high school and we were living there again after coming back from five years of relatively extravagant successful living in England, my father traveling to Switzerland and Morocco regularly. Now we were back and we were broke. There was a feeling of barrenness, of sparseness, of having what we needed but not a hair more.
My father really a weekend presence as he had become while in England, a weekend presence, a guest. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t there, it was more about what it was like when he was there, what it was like to be in the same room with him.
“Come on,” he’d say to me from the end of the table, a challenging smile on his face, not a smile of warmth and receptivity, but a smile that demanded some sort of combat, some sort of prove-it-to-me. Prove it to me that you’re smart, that you’re ambitious, that you’re winning, that you’re cultured and not just another useless all-American teenager. “Come on,” he’d say it a little sharply. And this wall would rise up inside of me that did not want to let him over, but I had to hide the wall, just like he was hiding his wall with that smile. “I’m a friend,” that smile was supposed to be saying. “I’m innocent. If there’s anything missing here it’s your fault.”
To get up and slam the door was not an option. And so I’d squirm and prove only that I was none of the things he was looking for -- not the bright conversationalist, nor the learned scholar.