A new season began. It had any number of false starts, and there were many points where it seemed prudent to put the winter boots away, only for them to be needed again. Spring is now officially confirmed. First I browsed the flowers at the botanical garden, and then, finally, got around to planting my own.
Thoughts of my father come and go. When they come, they are sometimes sharp and painful, other times the gentler nudges of saudade.
His presence keeps making itself felt. For a translation job I finished this week, I worked on an essay about Ingmar Bergman, Pa’s favorite director. As it happened, there was an entire paragraph in the text explaining how it was that Bergman came to have such a great following among cinephiles in South America, and particularly Argentina, where my parents come from. (He and my mother attended retrospectives of Bergman films in Buenos Aires, and after the screening psychologists would help the audience parse the dense symbolism they’d seen.) My jaw dropped as I read this, and I wanted to pick up the phone right away to tell my father all about it.
We are going through different cycles of saudade and sadness as we prepare to say goodbye to our beloved Brooklyn (and New York) this summer.
J and I have decided to move our family to the Washington DC area, where I grew up. This is not an easy decision. I have lived in New York for twenty years, and J has never lived outside the state of New York in his life. But the move offers everyone exciting opportunities, so we are making it.
The process of moving is destabilizing and stressful, but provides brief moments of happy discovery. I celebrated my twentieth “Appleversary” shortly after my father died in February — two decades living in New York City. So it was fitting to find the other night, in a folder labeled “Floor Plans,” this sketch of my very first New York apartment. My employer at the time, Columbia, offered me subsidized housing in one of the many apartment buildings they own in the campus area. I had to choose between two apartments within a short time span, and I was in New Orleans at a conference when my turn came up. My father took the train up to New York for the day, visited both apartments, and produced this floorplan of the apartment he thought I should take.
Of course, he included the measurements of the other apartment, in different color ink, so I wouldn’t feel shortchanged at not having been able to see it.
Pa chose well — it was a lovely apartment and I spent five very happy years there before moving in with J. Every evening I had a front row seat to sunset over the Hudson River. In 2000, I watched from my window as a historic parade of tall ships sailed up and back from the George Washington Bridge. I did not feel the oppressive sense of living in a cramped space that is the stereotype of most New York City apartments, especially the first one that you live in when you arrive as a young person. I bypassed that struggle. I had ten foot long windows in both rooms. I could see the river, and across it, the mainland of the U.S. (lest I forget where I’d come from). Now, as my time in New York winds down to a matter of weeks or months, the past twenty years flood forth, in memories and in boxes.
In preparation for selling our apartment, we had painters in for a week. After a few days of attempting to live here while the painting took place, we decamped — first to J’s parents’ house, and then to friends. I was between assignments, so I was able to devote my full attention to a memoir called Educated, by Tara Westover. She tells a gripping story of her fundamentalist family’s life on an Idaho mountaintop. (I won’t spoil it for you — you simply must read it.)
Her father is a central figure, and as I sat on my friend’s couch on a sunny afternoon, waiting for the dust to literally settle in my home, I came across this passage which took my breath away:
Alongside all of the love that I have expressed in my memories of my father is the fact that he was a complicated person — the most interesting people are. Our relationship wasn’t consistently harmonious — because good ones often aren’t.
For me, the idea of moving back to my hometown was, at first, impossible to conceive. It even angered me. New York was my dream and my goal, as early as age ten. Dreams change, of course, especially when children are involved. When we began discussing our move with the kids, Young J (age 11) said, “You know, I’ve never really seen myself as a city person.” It was a stunning expression of self-awareness on his part, but not at all a surprise. He’s long dreamed of living in a house “with stairs inside it,” something which would never be possible for us here in Brooklyn. He adores the country, by which he means anywhere with greenery that you can go a day or longer without hearing a siren. Young A (8) is less enthusiastic, because he’ll miss beloved friends and teachers, as well as the NYC subway, which he deems superior to that of Washington’s, because it is older and dirtier (a child after my own heart).
Moving back home seems unthinkable without Pa there to obsess over every single detail of our home purchase, the traffic volume in our new neighborhood, or any number of minutiae I can’t even think of which he would have sent numerous emails or made any number of calls to us to discuss. Moving to a house without Pa to scrutinize its floor plan seems impossibly sad.
A few weeks ago when we were visiting my mom, I saw my grandfather’s old writing desk in the corner of her cluttered dining room, finally unburdened of the boxes that had been sitting on top of it for years. I realized that I wanted that desk for my own, and I could never have it in our current apartment. That was a crucial turning point for me. It pitted NYC versus a longed-for connection to my past — and unlike prior rounds of the same battle, I wasn’t all that sure that the city should win this time.
I also found myself, late one night, hard at work on a floor plan of Mom’s apartment, trying to figure out what size of couch might work best in her living room. I used my father’s graph paper and his father’s ruler.
It is not that he won’t be there, I’ve come to realize. It’s that he will be there to guide my hand when I need his help. And maybe now it is even easier to let him.