One February morning, not long after I left your father, my own came to visit me. He'd been dead over twenty years by then, and you were barely six. Do you remember that little apartment we moved into, with its linens and forks and pans all furnished, the wood-stove we used every night? Rooms that felt like sanctuary but never quite home, which held the strange delights of the temporary bivouac but also the underbelly of fear, for it was the place to which you came every other week without promise or choice. It spooked me, I can tell you, now that you're a little older. Under my feeling of temporary safety lay a darker note I never let rise up: a feeling of deep insecurity that maybe underlies all our dwelling-places, maybe underlies our passion for "decorating" once we convince ourselves that we own a space.
How appropriate that my father should visit here. A ghost in a ghostly, in-between place.
Do you remember the short hallway connecting our bedrooms, the dark brown linoleum, so icy-cold on your toes when you got up for school those winter mornings?
That's where I saw him: my father, the grandfather you never met. He was standing in that hallway between your room and mine: those two identical rooms, with their pale yellow walls.
But listen: it was early morning, and you were still asleep. The night before had been one of the difficult ones. Tears and bathwater and pajamas. I held you close on the landlady's pale blue nubbly sofa, a sofa not ours. It makes sense now: for what else would bring the dead back like that, with such urgency, indecipherable messages fluttering in their hands? For there he stood, at dawn, in the icy hallway, and I could see that he was struggling to make a decision: should he look in on you, the grandchild he'd never known in life? But it seemed he needed, just as desperately, to tell me something concerning himself, his own wellbeing. It was [End Page 109] clear from the way he gripped the doorknob that he was in a terrible rush. A stab of knowledge: this was my father in life, too.
"I'm glad you're here," I began. "Hannah – "
"Listen, sweetheart, no time to talk," he replied in his old gruff way. "I need you at the hospital. I'm dying all over again."
"Oh Dad, I can't," I said. "My little girl's sleeping – "
"Hurry," he said. "Please – I don't want to bother your mother. She's been through enough."
"But I can't," I cried.
"Are you sure?" he said, and he gave me a look I can neither forget nor properly describe. Not a look of disappointment, or of accusation or even of self-pity. He knew everything, that was all. He knew everything, and still could not resign himself to the way it had gone, the way it had to go.
"Well," he said with a sigh. "You can't blame me for trying. Goodbye."
Surely there was more, but here, my memory fails. The blue twilight of winter dawn, and you, my little girl, what woke you? For here you came, skittering across the linoleum of the hallway, its true emptiness, its terrible distance at last revealed, now that he'd gone. You stood by the bed a moment, then got in under the covers, wriggled and pushed me over, loving and aggressive all at once. Flannel pajamas, cold toes, soft soft hair, the fragile blue of your eyelids. Oh, what will happen in your life?
I closed my eyes and invited, no – willed – my father back, but he did not come. When at last I got up to make our breakfast, the unfinished feeling was as powerful as an undertow; the icy linoleum, the pale blue carpet, all were emptier than they were before.
An absence, once announced, cannot be taken back.
Marjorie Sandor is the author of three books, most recently the short story collection Portrait of my Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime (Sarabande), which won the...