You Always Signed Your Letters, “Love, Dad”
When you died, I figured there wasn’t any point in writing to you. But since the world broke down last year, everything has shifted, including how I want to communicate with you. I know it’s been a while since I last wrote to you. Yes, I know—15 years. You value precision.
You were devout about following the news, but has it all been too much, or what? The election, the pandemic, the racial reckoning. Plus an insurrection not far from where you worked. Maybe your passion for current events is part of why I needed to talk to you. It’s not the only reason.
I’d built a believable character arc for you. You were the villain with an underlying soft heart, horribly abused by your own father and unwittingly taking over his part when raising your two girls. It’s why I spent my early years keeping more than six feet of quarantine distance from you.
Our narrative included me confronting you in your later years about your bouts of rage. You cautiously took responsibility, wanting desperately to build a loving relationship with me. I eventually mustered up forgiveness and even came to appreciate some of the better traits I got from you. The perfectionism sometimes pays off for me.
But the past two years shook up my storyline about you. The pandemic brought death so close, with many of us not knowing if we’d be the next to catch COVID or die from it—or if it would hit our parents, spouses, kids, friends, neighbors. Death has been on our minds so much; it’s become less mysterious and distant. Maybe that’s why I felt closer to you.
Like so many others, there were months when I rarely left home. I had time to dig through everything you’d saved—the report cards, archery awards, notes from parent/teacher conferences.
I started viewing you differently when I found photos I hadn’t seen before. In one, it’s 1956, five years before I turned up. You’re 31, wearing your trademark brown, horn-rimmed glasses. You hold a cigarette and a book. Your first daughter sits on your lap. You read to her. She’s not yet two and unbelievably cute. You don’t pander to the camera. Your eyes are fixed on the page. It’s a moment of such sweetness, free from the dramatic scenes that would erupt in later years.
Trying to build a case in your defense, Mom has always said, “Your father loved you girls so much.” As I dug through the remnants you left behind, I started believing her theory.
In your notes from a 1969 meeting with Principal Rosenberg, you detailed her views on my misbehavior. Your notes are glaringly free from any mention of what was happening at home, which may have caused me to behave as I did.
You and Mom tried to address these conditions through family talks. You both also tried bribery (briefly effective), and unkept threats of limiting my rampant TV watching. I remember that Mom ran those family meetings. Talking was never your strongest skill. I realized how out of place you might have felt living with three females—especially since the two of us, me and Mom, were always extremely verbal.
You once came to my 4th-grade class to talk about your job. After telling us you were an engineer at the Interior Department, you started sweating, forgot what you’d planned to say, and tanked in a classroom of nine-year-olds. Later in life, I understood why you’d never earned the elusive Ph.D. you’d sought—you kept failing the oral exams.
Your limited communication skills must have left you flummoxed as you raised us. But in the paper trail you left, I found evidence of your efforts to converse with me in your own ways.
There was a short note you sent me in 1978, my first year away at college. It’s in your beautiful handwriting, reminding me of the countless attempts you made to improve your daughters’ penmanship. “Dear Laura, don’t let yourself get discouraged,” you began, before offering ideas for making friends and getting involved in clubs. You signed off, as you always did, “Love, Dad.” In light of the emotions that had piled up this past year, the Love, Dad really crumpled me. Amidst those boxes, I discovered how much I missed you.
I can’t know exactly how you would have responded to what’s happened these past two years, but I’ve got some ideas. You would have yelled at the TV and the newspaper regularly, louder than my husband, Tom. (These days, I’m even more sorry you were gone before I met him.) You and Tom would have watched the news together, with you using the colorful language he knows I got from you. He grew up with polite midwestern restraint. Generally, he finds my foul mouth amusing—except when he’s appalled.
You would have been proud of the results of my more focused attention on my writing career, figuring you’d finally conveyed your love for following the news to me. “That’s my daughter in The Washington Post,” you would have said about your hometown paper to every person at the assisted living place you’d be sharing with Mom.
But you’ve been gone since 2005, after eight grueling years of declining health, the last spent as the lone Jew at the Lutheran Church Home. I created a file called “Grief,” and put it in a drawer since your death. Reopening it, I found the chaplain’s eulogy for you. He wrote how you attended worship services with unfamiliar scripture, taking solace from the physical pain you endured. I still flinch remembering our calls after I left Maryland for California. You were always so happy to hear from me but often ended our talks abruptly when a fresh bout of pain overtook you.
In the grief folder, I also found a cassette with a voice message from two weeks before you passed. You painstakingly formed the words: “Hi Laur, this is Dad. I’m just calling to say hello. (pause) I love you, Darling, (then, more faintly) bye-bye now.”
In another box, I unearthed the Super 8 films and had them digitized. In 59-seconds of grainy film, I wear a thick, white bathing cap at Rock Creek Pool. At age two, I retain a touch of baby fat and sport the dimple that prompted aunts to think my cheek was theirs to pinch. You carry me down the concrete steps into the water. You’ve got the start of the weight gain that took hold of you later. Your dark, ultra-curly hair is short. Your glasses are off. You smile at me the whole time. You dance with me! — spin me around in a way you wouldn’t live to do at my wedding. At 31-seconds you lean in to tell me something. The film is silent, but I can hear it, Dad. I can hear us laughing. And I can feel myself, Dad, so small beside you, so safe and filled with joy over your delight in me.
It seems weird how part of you always wanted to protect me, even though no one protected me from you during your rage blackouts. While I’ve got a temper of my own, I work my ass off to mitigate it. Even so, Tom sees evidence of your influence when I stifle a flare-up. Mom often asks me what qualities I got from you, and I usually cite the anger. But these days, I can also see that your less-visible, tender heart is also part of our shared DNA. I’m guessing you’re cringing while reading this, that you’d admit to being a badass much sooner than copping to being fragile.
With every box I sorted, I saw how much you cared about me, how much you’d want to know I’m okay. Despite the pain our world faces, I’m doing alright. I’ve got Tom. I’m healthy. I’m very involved with looking out for Mom. I’ve got wonderful friends. And, of course, still the cats. And the writing.
It took a worldwide catastrophe to make me wish you were here again, alive and in-person, though I would have fretted over you like I do over Mom. She recently told me you’d worried about me too, like when I had that anxiety attack and was taken to the hospital during my first year of college while you were four hours away. I understand now that I’m a stepparent. Just like you, Dad, I got two girls. I see what it feels like to want to make sure they’re safe.
Reconnecting with you wasn’t something I thought would come from so unwillingly spending so much time staying home. But I’ll take it. It’s good having you around again—especially your foul mouth.
Your voice comes through me as I wander the house cursing about the news, about the world of injustice that keeps getting unearthed. I stomp down the stairs, channeling you. And I feel slightly better, knowing you’re with me.
Laura Sturza’s writing is in publications including Gathering: A Women Who Submit Anthology, Hippocampus Magazine, The Washington Post, The LA Times, AARP’s The Girlfriend, and LA Weekly. She is completing her memoir, How I Got Married After 50 for the First Time. Laura wrote, produced, and starred in the one-woman show, Finding the Perfect Place to Live in 111 Gyrations. She earned an MA in Writing/Theater/Communication from George Mason University. Laura identifies as a dual citizen of LA and Rockville, Maryland. She currently lives just outside DC with her husband, Tom, and their new kitten, Zari. laurasturza.com