Last week I accompanied my mom on a trip down to Palo Alto, where she was meeting the realtor who will sell the house. I’d told her I was interested in coming along, so she set it up on a day when I was off work. It was a warm, clear morning, too warm for early Spring in the Bay Area, and the car grew stuffy as we drove on the freeway.
I hadn’t been down to the house in two and a half years, since before she and Dad moved out. I’d never seen it empty or even in the process of being emptied. The last time I was there, they were living there: Dad careening around the ground floor in his electric wheelchair, knocking into furniture and doorframes; Mom reading on the couch, her legs tucked under her purple bathrobe, a New Yorker in her lap; the canister of muesli in the cupboard; the cat eating from her dish on the kitchen counter.
From the quiet street, it looked just like before: brown shingles, red trim around the windows, the red front door. The garden was a little scrubbier, the bougainvillea on the trellis over the bay window maybe a bit thin. But it was the same house. Only when you came up the front steps could you see the realtor’s lock clamped around the front door knob, that universal symbol of a house that is no one’s home—a place suspended in transit, a kind of purgatory between the warmth of families, of people breathing and sleeping inside.
The realtor unlocked it for us with his key. We stepped inside to survey the bare walls, the wood floors stripped of my parents’ Turkish carpets.
It was strange, of course, to see it that way: empty. Part of it was the strangeness of simply not having been there in such a long time. But part of it was also being there without Dad. Not just that he wasn’t physically there, but knowing that he never will be there again. He felt more gone to me there, that afternoon, than he ever has in the year since he died.
Especially: In his office, so bare and open, with the light falling through the windows off the deck. In the TV room (which we used to call the pink room, with its peach-colored walls and pink couch), I guess because of the time we spent there as a family, and because of how he used to sit in there later on, watching TV in the evenings. On the balcony off my bedroom—which is odd, because that was not a place where I ever spent a lot of time, certainly not in the last several years, certainly never with Dad. But there was something about the view out there, how you can see down into the neighbors’ (once the Varian’s) backyard, and the slope of the shingled roof, and the stepping stones around the side of the house. The smell of the garden and the wind chimes pinging in the breeze in the middle of the day…. What it reminded me of was the feeling of being home. That feeling of a place where you’ve spent many long, quiet afternoons doing nothing in particular, just letting time and space slip around you, utterly familiar, uninteresting, and comforting. I think the balcony was a place where I used to go when I was feeling that way: bored. Also the floor of my bedroom, where I did most of my writing. In the summer I would lie there with the balcony door open, my diary on the carpet between my elbows, and those sounds and smells became a part of the room itself.
The overwhelming impression I was left with, as we drove back that afternoon—back “home”—was of having had a happy childhood.
A memory comes back to me now, from Dad’s office, when he used to sit there in his red armchair, surrounded by his books and papers and, later, his blood pressure cuff and pill bottles: I would have been in college, or maybe even out of college. Too old to sit on his knee, at any rate, but that’s always how those conversations felt—like he was there to impart some wisdom, to tell me how the world works and offer some tips for navigating it, which I was supposed to accept with solemn reverence.
That day, things had already begun to turn toward their inevitable, downward direction: He was a little pensive, even troubled. He told me he felt he had done nothing of consequence with his life, hadn’t “contributed anything.”
“Dad,” I said, “You have a loving wife and a strong marriage. You raised two happy, successful daughters. What greater achievements could you ask for?”
He shrugged. He may or may not have said out loud, Big deal.
I remembered, then, a story he’d told me about his father, my Lieber Opa, an executive at a printing company in post-war Germany, whose colleagues, upon his retirement, gave him a complete encyclopedia set with a special page inserted: an entry with his own name and picture, and a detailed synopsis of his life and work.
“Of course,” Dad had explained to me, showing me the volume on a shelf at my grandparent’s house, which fell open in his hands to the page, “This was the whole joke, you see. This is the very definition of irony: He was a nobody— a printing executive, a person who by no stretch of the imagination deserved his own mention in an encyclopedia, let alone an entire page.”
That afternoon in his office was the first time I saw a glimpse of my aging dad, a computer engineer whose work I did not understand and had never asked about, as a person with his own ambitions, his own desire for recognition and approval. Someone who wanted to make an impact, however small, upon the world, perhaps to have his name logged somewhere, alphabetically, un-ironically.
The sun rose over the house and the day turned hot. After the realtor left, Mom and I went down to the basement. She had to remove the last of the framed pictures stored there, and some other random junk. Underneath the house, the air was still dark and cool.
She had already done a pretty thorough job of clearing stuff out; there wasn’t much left to pilfer. I took a big ceramic bowl (the one Dad used to make Schnitzbrot) and two hand-painted ceramic mugs with “Sabina” and “Christina” written on them.
In the closet that always smelled of mothballs, there was one box of papers and binders labeled “IBM.” I opened the box, pulled some papers out at random and shuffled through them. From what I could tell, they were drafts of scientific papers Dad had written and submitted to journals. There were some patent applications, too. I saw one patent rejection letter. I didn’t see any letters of acceptance or approval, nor were there any copies of published papers—which I assume meant these were rejected, too.
It was jarring—strange and sad—to imagine Dad as someone who suffered the pain of rejection. For some reason I can imagine vividly, almost feel, what that must have been like for him, and it hurts almost as much as my own rejections, my own little failures.
I wish I had told him, while he was still alive, about the book I wrote, which never was and never will be published. At the time it seemed like something I couldn’t bear to tell him; I imagined he would be amused at my vanity and naiveté, for even trying to publish a book at all.
But I wish I could tell him now. I wish I could feel him pat my shoulder while I cried, murmuring, “Oh Bupele. Oh Bupele.”
How could I have doubted it? That this is what he would have done? Why did I imagine he would laugh at me?
He might have laughed. But now I can see (or I guess I can imagine, hope, in a way) that if I hadn’t been so ashamed, if I could have told him about the pain and disappointment, that he would have comforted me as no one else could have—because he would have understood. He would have stopped laughing, and he would have patted my shoulder and said, “Oh Bupele. Oh Bupele.”
I took those papers, the random handful that I pulled out of the box. I stuffed them in my bag and brought them home with me. I suppose the rest of that box will end up in a landfill or a bonfire: the last of my dad’s ambitions, his attempts at achieving something memorable, something archived in an official index of worthy and recognized things.
But this small pile of papers, I have them. For what purpose, I don’t know. Maybe as much for his sake as for mine—to prove that to someone, they were worth keeping.