My first published short story when I was quite young… this story appeared in the January, 1984 issue of Redbook. Mimi Jones was the editor then.
I have been aching ever since our fight last night. It’s not that I don’t like Peter or that I have anything against your moving in with him, I just wanted to be sure that he was right, that he was good enough for you.
But you called me jealous, selfish. Well, maybe there is a little of that too — you have to understand that you and I, we’ve been through a lot together. There was a time when you were all I had.
After I left for work today, I felt alone. Of all the days for you to be moving out, I thought, why today, in this weather? The snow was coming down hard. As I walked to work I thought of you putting your clothes and books into boxes, not speaking to me. In the office I couldn’t do anything but stare out the window into the snow. When I came home, Martha suggested I might feel better if I wrote and tried to tell all I was feeling.
Do you remember how you used to have dreams — bad dreams — of a big black bird flying in your room? And when you called I’d come in, turn on the light, open the window and say, “Begone, you bird! Anne has to sleep!” Then I’d tuck you in again, close the window and turn off the light. You’d be asleep before I was out of your room.
You do remember, because I have heard you tell friends the story, and I have heard you laugh. I want to tell you now about Grandpa and the cheesecake because it too should be something to hold in your memory. And maybe it will help you understand how I feel about you.
You were six years old when I brought you to New York. I was desperate. I didn’t have a job and I didn’t know what to do. It was difficult for me to return to my parent’s; without you, I never would have. Without you, I would have missed so much.
You see, Anne, I left home when I was quite young, the age you are now. I wanted to make it on my own, to be strong and brave. Like most people, I wanted adventure. I traveled a lot; I had a few adventures and many misadventures; I discovered that I wasn’t very strong or very brave; and more than anything else, I found that I didn’t want to be alone. I learned that I wasn’t unique, that I needed a place for myself and that I needed others. I stopped traveling when I was nineteen and in Montana.
You were born in Montana, in Missoula. Your mother first saw me when I was working in a cafe as a dishwasher. She told me that she would come in and eat breakfast just to see me, through the window in the kitchen door, washing dishes. It took her quite a few breakfasts before she got up the nerve to speak to me. The rest happened quickly.
It was spring. Snow in the mornings, rain in the afternoon, stars at night. You must see a Montana spring someday. The valleys turn green while the mountains are still white. The rivers become loud with fast water. The blossoming cottonwoods, the wildflowers — all the smells — infect the air with a good madness. You were born out of some of that madness, some of the best of it.
Your mother didn’t leave you. This I have to tell you, this you must know — she left me. I was twenty two, you were two, she was twenty. Maybe she decided that all the numbers were against the number three. Maybe she fell in love with me because of the stories I told her, and maybe she just wanted the adventure of living her own stories. I heard from her only once after she left, about a year later. Just a short letter, a note. I didn’t keep that letter – it hurt too much to even hold it – but I couldn’t help but keep the words: “Sam, I’m sorry. Take care of Anne. Feed her well. Tell her lots of things. Make her laugh, the way you made me laugh. You and Anne, deserve better than me. Love, Maggie.”
If I had had money, perhaps I would have found her, but I never even tried. These things happen, and not just to you and me, so we must never let ourselves feel freakish for them. This I know, though: Your mother loved you.
So we ended up in New York after a sad four years. Even though I tried to keep you laughing, you missed her at least as much as I did.
It had been nine years since I went away. When I left, I thought I’d return only if I was returning proud. A romantic fantasy of coming home rich and wise, of shaking hands with the father who had driven me out, of hugging my mother, of being able to show them both how strong and good I had become – that was the fantasy I had left home with when I was sixteen. Instead, at twenty-six I was hungry, broke, with no fantasies at all. I didn’t return with nothing, though. Not by a long shot. I didn’t fully realize it then, but I had come home with a treasure. You.
It was snowing the night we got in. They didn’t know that we were coming. They didn’t even know that Maggie had left us. You were coughing, and all you had eaten that day were a few candy bars a garage attendant in Pennsylvania had given us. I hadn’t eaten anything in two days. Dad answered the door in his bathrobe, more asleep than awake, and the first thing he said was, “Do you have any idea what time it is?” Of course he let us in, but it was nearly as cold in that kitchen, while we waited for Mom to wake up, as it had been along the side of the highway. You looked at the dolls, made from rags and yarn, sitting on top of the cupboards and fridge. You asked Dad whose they were and he said, “Those are Florie’s.” “Who is Florie?” you asked, and he said nothing, too ashamed of me even to acknowledge a tie to you. Or maybe he was just too tired to answer.
I smile as I write, remembering how you, hungry, sick and exhausted, said to Mom as she came into the kitchen, “Oh, you must be Florie, my grandma,” before she even had a chance to get her glasses on, before she even saw you. You won her over right away, telling her about our adventures and asking her about her handmade dolls and telling her how great a dad I was. I didn’t feel like a great dad then, being too broke even to have bought a bus ticket – no, I felt like a rotten dad – but you won me over too.
And then you turned to Dad again and said, “I don’t know your name. Mine’s Anne. You must be grandpa.” Oh, but he was tough. Do you remember how he answered you? All gruffness and rudeness – “I must be” – and how he got up and went back to bed without another glance at you, Mom or me?
He was a bitter man in many ways. A hard life had made him sullen. I don’t know what tragedies had happened – whether he and Mom had lost children before me (I’m and only child too, Anne) or what.
this is what you must remember: that I told you, when we were cold and waiting for someone to give us a ride, that the best food in the world was hot cheesecake. I told you that most people didn’t know what “good” was and ate their cheesecake cold, but that we, when we got to New York, were going to have hot cheesecake. I told you that your grandpa made the best hot cheesecake in the world, and that he would make a huge pan of it just for you, so much hot cheesecake that you would be in cheesecake heaven. What you didn’t know was this: I remembered my father making cheesecake only once; that cheesecake was the best food I had ever had; and I didn’t think for an instant that my father would make you hot cheesecake or anything else.
I thought about my father’s cheesecake because I had been terribly hungry, as you were. I told you about it because… who knows? Because the thought of hot cheesecake while shivering beside a wintry highway was such a good thought that I needed to share it with you. Maybe.
You were sick during our first week in New York. You slept a lot while you got better, and I was out looking for work and then working long hours, and there are a few times, those first few months, that are hazy. Maybe you remember that time better than I do. I know you and Mom spent a lot of hours together. Dad stayed away from us. He’d come home, covered with cement dust, and take off his clothes in the hallway. It was a routine. While he was in the shower Mom would vacuum his work clothes, and she would vacuum up the trail of white dust to the shower. Maybe you asked him why he was dusty; maybe you asked him about his job. Did he tell you that he worked in a masonry factory where huge machines mixed dry cement and filled hundred pound sacks with the stuff? Did he tell you that he was so big and his arms were so strong because he loaded those heavy sacks all day, year after year, into trucks? You must have asked him something, because I remember the day I came home from my job and saw him tossing you into the air, throwing you nearly to the ceiling, and catching you. He tossed you like a sack of cement but he caught you more gently than he ever would have caught a sack, and you were laughing.
He was still gruff, but I began to notice that he was different. We’d all sit down together and he’d talk a little. Just a few words here and there, about the weather – looks like more snow – or about the meal – good bread – but mostly it was you who talked. You talked about everything., and sometimes when you were catching your breath, he’d tell you to eat more, and damned if I didn’t see the faint lines of a smile on his face.
Even though I had my feet firmly planted soon after we arrived in New York, you were nearly ten before I met Martha and the three of us moved into our own place. You should understand that you and I stayed with your grandparents for so long because we wanted to. It wasn’t because I owed them my presence that we stayed; we stayed because there was love in their apartment. Even as a little girl you always had a way that inspired – that’s the word – everyone around you to want to love you. You made grandpa want to do things for you, and he did, and he discovered that he wasn’t too old or too hopeless to be human again. Anne, it was all your doing. It was you who chased out the bleakness from that small apartment, just as I had chased out the black bird from your room.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I came home one evening and you ran up to me and said, “Grandpa is making hot cheesecake!” But I was. For sure enough, there he was, my big father, wearing an apron over his bathrobe, egg cartons, milk bottle and cream cheese wrappers all around him, a mixing bowl in front of him, a large spoon in his hand, making a hot cheesecake.
“Come on Anne,” he said, “We’re going to add eggs now.” You ran to him and hugged his knees, and he lifted you up to let you crack the eggs. I had to go into the shower and turn it on so I could cry.
Martha is asleep now. Outside, the snow has stopped. It looks calm out there, soft and quiet. I’ve been sitting here writing for so long that it has grown late; by now, you’re all moved in with Peter, and from across the city I think I can feel how happy you are.
I’ve never written to you before – never had to, whenever you were away I knew you’d be back with me soon. Can a father stay friends with his only child when she’s grown and left home? Let’s try, Anne.