It all began with a brother’s email a week ago.
Hi. When Dad retired in 1973 he had his files shipped to me and I have been holding them all these years. I had a fire at my office the end of last month which caused me to review my files. Dad had a file on each of his seven children. I have put each one in a Fedex envelope which should arrive tomorrow or the next day. Enjoy!
Enjoy? I was worried.
My parents married in 1933. By 1942, they had five children. Then, in 1952 a son, and in 1954 a daughter, which was me. My father died in 1974 from cancer when I was twenty, still in college, still dating a “bad boyfriend” I met in high school, still……well, to sum up, still not grown up. My older siblings, especially the first five who were in their thirties and forties when Dad died, had become doctors, lawyers, or married to men clearly destined for success.
I imagined what would be in their files. For example, one brother went to medical school after college and specialized in surgery. One day during my high school years, my father arrived home from work and came into the kitchen where I was with my mother. “Bessie! Look at this!” Sitting side-by-side at the kitchen table, they read the next week’s schedule of the operations their son would perform. The hours allotted for each operation were sketched into the schedule as well as the name of each operation. They read this aloud to each other with nothing but awe and admiration in their voices. Surely, this piece of paper was in my brother’s file. Another brother had a very successful law practice, having followed in his father’s footsteps. My brother closest in age to me had begun his study of law before my father died. Surely slips of paper marking these milestones of success were placed into their files, too. My three sisters had completed their master’s degrees while simultaneously raising numerous grandchildren they had brought into my parents’ lives. My one sister who was still single completed an MA in history and served as head of the history department in a prestigious private high school.
But what would be in my file? I had done nothing remarkable in those first twenty years. But there was more. Truth be told, I feared my file.
In 2005 our family had gathered to celebrate what would have been my father’s 100th birthday.
On that occasion, a relative-by-marriage remarked that I gave my father “a very hard time” when growing up. I knew what this relative was referring to. I had struggled to find myself growing up in the tumultuous sixties as the youngest daughter of a prestigious county judge who had fathered so many success stories. My solution was to go as far away as I could to sort my life out for myself. I attended the University of London in England as an undergraduate spending my summers working as a waitress in Galway, Ireland. My parents approved of this plan with one caveat: I was to graduate from a stateside university. During the spring of my junior year in London, I started the process of finding a stateside college which would accept the credits I had accumulated at the University of London. It was a spring morning in late March when I received a letter from my brother (the doctor) telling me Dad was dying of colon cancer. I finished that semester’s work early so I could go home in late April and stay there for that summer of 1974. Dad passed away mid-September.
This “hard time” referred to my being away from home so much, my untraditional college choices, and to be honest, my feeling more connected to Ireland and England than the States for the last four years of my father’s life. However, when this remark was made, I was shocked and saddened. I never meant to give my father a hard time. No child does, but we often do. From my own observations as a mother of two sons, if children don’t get around to it in high school, they make up for it in college. I knew the stories of disobedience and disappointment generated by my older siblings when they were growing up, but they had redeemed themselves in their twenties and thirties, long before Dad passed away. I had not.
These thoughts about their files and my file consumed me for the next two days. Driving home from work the second day, certain the Fedex overnight envelope would be waiting for me when I reached home, I decided I would not open it. If there were any verification in that file of my giving my father a hard time, I would be devastated. I reasoned that this devastation would serve no purpose, as in the years since I had certainly redeemed myself. If I were able to tell my father the rest of my story, I knew I would see nothing but love and pride in his eyes.
But there was no Fedex envelope. I was disappointed, as this meant another day consumed by my conundrum. I began to make some tea, when the truck pulled up in front of the house. I met him at the door, and he put the overnight envelope into my hand. I could feel a thick file inside. I ripped it open, sitting in the nearest chair to the door, and read. An hour later, I was still there.
There were several letters my father wrote on my behalf to assist in my transferring to a stateside university to complete my degree. As I was in London, Dad was helping with getting transcripts and test scores to the appropriate people. These letters were mailed from his chambers, he having dictated the content of the letter to his secretary, who typed it and put a carbon copy in the file. However, there were copies of other letters Dad had sent to me in London that revealed more about our relationship then.
In a letter dated December, 1972, Dad enclosed a clipping from the New York Times explaining that it was written by James Reston, whom my father states is “one of our best American newspaper writers”. In the clipping, Reston had interviewed Arnold Toynbee, whom my father refers to as “my most respected advisor”. The interview is, he wrote, “in respect to the world situation covering many fields in which you and I are both involved and affected in respect to the last quarter of this century and the first of the next.” Dad tells me that Toynbee lives in London, at St. James Square, and he suggests I engineer an assignment at my college that would require I interview Toynbee and make his acquaintance. If not, he suggests I attend some of his lectures – “Keep your eye and ear on Toynbee, Susan”.
In another letter, Dad addressed my choice to study and work overseas shortly before I first departed for London. “It is my conviction that a student should be permitted the college or university of their own choice. As a further reason in your case, combining your academic training in England with time in Ireland would enrich your Irish American cultural background.” Shortly after writing that letter to me, he wrote to Sister Mary David, the nun-in-charge at Mount Saint Vincent, the women’s college from which my mother, my aunts, and three older sisters graduated. There had been hope that I would also graduate from the Mount. In this letter, My father goes to great length to convince Sister Mary David that it was essential for the Mount to recognize the value in study abroad and offer this opportunity to her student body.
One summer I had a problem getting on a flight to return to the University of London after a short visit home. Dad intervened, securing a seat on Aer Lingus through a man named Mr. Maxwell. In Dad’s thank you letter to Mr. Maxwell, he closes: “But for you we would have had to let her go on Pan Am which would never do for an Irish American like my daughter, Susan.”
However, my father’s most poignant letter was written early in July, 1973. I had returned home earlier that spring for a family wedding, which did not go well for me. There were aspects of being home that were close to my heart, but by then I had been spent so much time elsewhere, that I felt like a fish out of water that day. Even though I was part of bridal party, I had never felt more lonely than I did in the reception room full of family and friends. When I returned to London, I apparently wrote a letter to my parents sharing these mixed feelings.
My father replied. “Your last letter home arrived last night. You give me mixed emotions because you make me very happy with your expressions of love for us and your deep feelings for home. But I am also unhappy because you are apparently suffering a bit. Mommy is also writing a letter to you today…which should cheer you up. Believe me, you are not being forgotten by us. We all love and treasure you to the utmost of our feelings and emotions.”
Dad closed that letter giving me his arrival time at Heathrow the following month, as he was attending the Oxford/Berkeley Summer School for a four-week course on International Law and Jurisprudence. I met him at Heathrow International Arrivals, helped him with his bags, and rode in a taxi with him to his hotel. Over dinner that night, he spoke more to me of Toynbee but also Teilhard de Chardin, another of my father’s heroes. The next day at the train station, he was like a kid off summer camp, for he was so excited to be going to Oxford. The following summer he was on his deathbed, passing away in his sleep early in September 1974, 69 years old.
I reread this letter several times before closing my father’s file, tears streaming down my face. There was nothing to fear in my file. My father loved me, and I him.