This post has been floating around in my head for quite awhile – shifting and taking shape and revealing itself to me slowly. I have debated posting about it for a long time, and keep justifying it in my head. It feels relevant to the idea of ephemera, has been part of the reimagining of my business – that kind of thing. But really, it just feels necessary. I’m sick of this secret.
This post is about my favorite piece of my own ephemera. It’s not a photograph or a card, or a great letter – though I have many to choose from. This is about an empty envelope.
When I was seven years old, my parents had a talk with my brother and me about strangers, and how we were never to go with anyone except one of them or a short list of others we knew very well. Knowing that things don’t always go according to plan, my dad asked me to come up with a password that someone else would need to have in order to pick us up from school in some kind of an emergency. Being seven, obviously the first thing to pop into my head was Purple Bumble Bee. And so that was our password.
Luckily we never needed to use it. The years passed quickly, life went on, and the phrase went dormant, settling somewhere in the deepest part of my mind.
My mom tells me that one day when I was a baby, she was hanging up my little clothes on the line and just started crying imagining the day when I would leave home. I am not a mother, but I know that is a hard and universal thing. I went off to college in the fall of ‘95, about an hour and a half away from home, and, missing me, my mother sent cards left and right to 219 Littlefield, my freshman year dorm room.
And it was in my dorm room on March 5, 1996, that I found out my dad had died. Actually I thought I still had time. He was very ill from heart disease, and had been in the hospital again. My mom could only get out the words, “Not yet, but soon,” on the phone. That was a lie – he was already gone. I actually didn’t know that until a couple of years ago. I guess people just do what they can. So I hung up, frantically found a bus, my best friend’s mom picked me up at the station, brought me to the hospital, and I realized I was too late.
You see, while my mom and I were close, and she would send me these cards every week, my dad and I were not so much. Since those days when I was seven, I had turned into a pretty typical teenager. Like a lot of people, my adolescent years were not my best, and by the time I went to college, I had turned into kind of an angry little thing.
Not that I was so awful – I wasn’t even disobedient. The worst thing I ever did was probably lie about being at the library. But I flew off the handle, acted out, and questioned everything. Especially my father. I hate to say this, but I’m pretty sure I thought he wasn’t very smart. And I thought he was too closed-minded. I was judgmental, and I consciously tried to separate myself from him as much as I could, aligning myself and identifying more with my mother who I understood better.
I didn’t go home before it was too late because I just didn’t really think he was going to die. Yes, he was sick, but he was always sick. It was just a part of our atmosphere like the way you know you’re Irish or Puerto Rican (or both, in my case). It was just our thing.
So for him to die before I could apologize – before I could turn into whoever I was really going to be – was no small thing. To make matters worse, I think I just gulped it down. Because that’s what you do when everyone saw it coming. You don’t feel like you have permission to be upset for very long.
The next week was Spring Break, and after that, I went right back to class, and tried not to talk about it. It would come up in conversation, and people would give me that look – that sad look – and I’d say it was no big deal and change the subject. I didn’t want any attention on it or from it, I just wanted to move forward and pretend that was true. I ended up moving far away from home, and I’m sad to say I’ve visited kind of seldom. At the time I didn’t know that was why I left, but it was. Distance.
It’s been a long time – fifteen years ago today. Someone smart told me that sometimes when people die too soon, you look for the point in time where you could have fixed it. And yes, I’ve played it over and over in my mind – if I’d been more patient, or nicer, or smart enough to know how serious it was. If I’d been a better daughter, or gone home a few hours earlier, or any number of impossible things, maybe it would be different. Not that I could have saved him – I know I couldn’t change that. But that maybe we could have simply remembered all of it better.
Don’t worry. Here’s where it gets kind of sweet.
You know about my box of letters – my big beautiful mess that is still no more sorted out than it was 2 years ago. By far the most precious item in it is this. It’s the envelope from one of those cards my mother sent to me in the fall of 1995. The card itself got separated a long time ago. My dad wasn’t big into writing on these cards. I don’t think he ever even signed one – I’ll have to check. But on this one, sent 6 months before he died, he wrote his own little P.S. on the back of the envelope.
Purple Bumble Bee. My mom and brother don’t even remember what that is.
So maybe now you can see why this worthless, useless, empty thing is priceless to me. I am so thankful that he wrote that down – that he said something – even though I can never know for sure his intention. I know it’s possible he just wrote it on a whim, or as a joke. But now that I’m older, I have to wonder if he knew his life was ending. Maybe he wanted to send me a message I wouldn’t fully understand until now. To remember that he had been a rebellious, imperfect kid himself, having lost his own mother at 15. Maybe he knew I was going to feel guilty. Maybe he was smarter than I’d given him credit for. Maybe he wanted me to know that even though it wasn’t ok that we weren’t finished, that he was ok. That he was choosing to remember a simpler time, and a kinder one, when all you needed was three words to prove your worth. And that I could too. That maybe I wasn’t so bad.
PS. I feel like I should clarify that I am not sad today. This is kind of a sad story, but I feel like it has a happy ending. Tonight I’m going out to an action movie, and eating empanadas at a Puerto Rican restaurant – activities of which my dad would most definitely approve. And next time I promise I’ll show you something a little cuter than this.
PPS. If you knew my dad, or if this post reminds you of something in your own life, I would love to hear about it in the comments section.