My aunt from Budapest sent me the photocopy of a short letter she had received from a man who had just heard of my father’s – her brother’s – death.
The letter is written on stationery printed with the man’s name at the top in a fine delicate script. The guy is a baron and he has modestly drawn a line through his name and title as if we are not supposed to notice it.
The man writes two paragraphs – more than good manners demands – about how he will miss my father, of the great work they did together, the conferences they organized.
I read the letter, thinking how much my father would have loved reading it, would have soaked up every word – especially the crossed out aristocratic title. I don’t remember anyone speaking of him so highly.
I was looking recently at color photographs taken during those conferences, held in Hungary and Belgium, that my father had organized and been so proud of. I remembered thinking that in all the photos he was alone, never in conversation. I looked at him so closely in those photographs, confident I could read his every expression, not trusting that he was doing anything more than trying to make a good impression on somebody.
He had talked to me of these conferences with great excitement. When I visited Hungary in the late nineties he showed me the beautiful villa they had rented, and I had listened with only restlessness. What were these co-called conferences, anyway? Who came to them? Did they really accomplish anything? I didn’t think so.
My father was proud that he was working with a bonafide baron, and he mentioned too with almost equal satisfaction the name of an English banker he was working with. I realized with embarrassment it was the same sleazy man I had met once at a disgustingly sleazy London dinner party, but I said nothing.
During the same visit my father and I had the kind of shouting fight that only lovers have, and the words that came hurtling out of my father’s mouth at the peak of our exchange were, “You have never cared about my work.”
No, I never did. It was always an abstraction, a disguise my father could hide behind, the disguise of the gentleman, the man of letters.
But who are you really, I wanted to know.
Days before I was due to leave I accidentally broke a window in his apartment, sending shattered glass into the courtyard below, minutes before his secretary was due to arrive for her weekly bout of dictation.
My father hustled me out of the apartment with a broom as he ushered in the young woman with a smile. It made me furious! Tell her we just broke a fucking window and we have to clean it up, I wanted to scream. It’s okay to be normal, to have something go wrong in front of someone else.
And then here today was the baron, writing more than he needed to, acknowledging the foundation, describing a conference that would be held in a couple of weeks, saying my father would be missed. For a moment I felt a tug pulling at me to sink beneath the waves and believe the nice baron’s words, believe that my father was just who he said he was.
I am glad he wrote, that these kind words exist for a man none of whose three daughters attended his funeral. Although the letter did not lull me for more than an instant, it is an unexpected part of the collage, a finishing touch to a picture that will never be finished.