His Insouciant Smile

Dearest Carl

Dearest Carl

Oran le 12 Fevrier 1946

Dearest Carl,

I am sorry to answer so late your long and charming letters which reached me only in January; because I have had a lot of troubles home, though I have been thinking of you and I am thinking at you always. I have been very happy to get some news of you, I have not had that pleasure in a long time; you are in the best of health, that is the mere point. I think that when you receive my letter you will be discharged and happy to get back home. I am pretty sure, Darling, that you can’t come back to Oran, but I will surely go to the States to see you, if you care to give me your address. My brother Daniel will stay in the States and must marry himself pretty soon, so it will be easy for me to got there, and I make you a little surprise! Ho, la la —– oh! Darling I think of you always, and the good time we had together.

I like often to see like you the little pictures! souvenirs of our good time, and in the last one that you sent wish your letters, I see you a lot better, I can see pretty well your insouciant smile.

There are no more Americans in Oran, I think that elsewhere in North Africa it is the same: The dispensary, the Florida Club, the Navy-Hospital, all that buildings are closed, nothing else is open and I never pass by them without having a strike in my heart. I will never forget, dear Carl, all the kindness you have had for me during your stay in my home;

My dad served in the Navy during WWII, he was stationed in Oran, North Africa. Like many men of his generation, he didn’t talk about his time in the service so what little I know, I found out after his death.

My dad suffered from depression throughout my childhood. I loved him but I was afraid of his darkness; I learned early on not to get too close. It was a matter of self preservation.  To his friends he was an entertaining guy, but to us, he was moody and distant much of the time. He died in 1968, the day before Thanksgiving.  The year leading up to his death had been a tough one. My older brother, C, my father’s pride and joy, was away at college. My other older brother, D, his other pride and joy, was having a rough time in high school. My mom was struggling under the burden of yet another of my father’s breakdowns and his decision to buy, of all things, a candy store, so that he could get off the road.

That November was filled with tension. My mom was working long days at the candy store, while my dad was on the road as a salesman for Columbus Pharmaceuticals. On our own much of the time, D and I settled into an amicable indifference, leaving each other plenty of time and space to pursue our favorite hobbies. He cut school all the time to work on cars; I ate.

The day dad died my mom was at the store, my brother was home and I was at school (probably thinking about cookies).  My dad died on the road, D took the message and called my mom to tell her. You can imagine the chaos that ensued. My mother was exhausted, my older brother far away and D and I too young to be of much assistance.  Somehow all the arrangements got made, there was a funeral, dad was mourned and buried. Life moved on.

If my mother was distracted before my dad died, now she was almost completely unavailable. D used this time to jockey for a better position in the sibling pecking order. He was brilliant in his machinations; by the time the month was out he had conned my mother into buying a 1969 Chevrolet muscle car, complete with stick shift and air shocks. Left to my own devices (you can only eat so many cookies), I  spent my time alone sifting through my father’s life.

My parents’ bedroom, down the hall from ours, had pretty much been off limits. But now there was no one to discourage snooping, so one cold December afternoon I decided to investigate what my father left behind. I pushed open the bedroom door, one of those old ones, heavy, with a rough surface from too many uneven coats of cheap varnish, and stepped inside.

The smell hit me first, a combination of hair cream, cologne and despair.  A bottle of Old Spice, in its iconic white bottle, still stood on the dresser. His worn dark red bathrobe with tiny white and black diamonds hung on a hook inside the closet door, a scrap of paper from his company, neatly folded in half was taped to the inside showing a record of my dad’s weight over the past year (162 1/2 lbs. the week he died), inside were a few dark suits and a line of pristine starched white shirts waiting to be worn.

On the mahogany dresser sat a mysterious pearl inlaid box and a stack of 3×5 index cards covered with his impossibly neat handwriting. I gathered up the box and the cards and stole away to my room to read.

North African Box

North African Box

I learned more about my father and my mother that day than any other.

The stack of cards seemed to be from my father’s most recent hospitalization. Only weeks before he had been hospitalized (yet again) for depression. This might have been therapy, or, more likely his own attempt to sort out his broken family and feelings of regret. Reading through card after card, I finally found out why my Uncle and his wife (a true witch – and not in a good way -of a woman ) never spoke to us and the pain that family wounds caused my dad. It certainly explained why family gatherings and holidays were celebrated with an edge and an afterthought.

I never disliked my Aunt and Uncle more than I did that day. In the years that followed my father’s death my uncle tried to make up to my mom and us for all those years of pain, but no matter how kind or welcoming they seemed, there was always a part of me that held back. How unfair that after years of ignoring and hurting my dad that they dare pretend to love or care?

My mother seemed more forgiving, either that, or she was too worn out to care about hurt feelings. She seemed then, and now, impervious to memory. Now, it is the vascular dementia that keeps her in the present with no regrets, but even then she didn’t seem to hold on to much in the way of memories, good or bad. That might be why, when I opened the wooden box, I found an old love letter, yellow with age, folded over on itself many times, along with a picture of a dark haired woman, my father’s wartime love while serving with the Navy in North Africa.

My mother was not given to affection or praise. I think she loved my dad, but I cannot believe she was anymore demonstrative to him than she was to us, and that is to say, she wasn’t. I can count on one hand the number of time my mother said “I love you” to me during my childhood; I never heard her say it to my dad. I cannot remember being hugged as a child.

Her view of him, and her view of us, seemed to be that we were her charges. She was responsible to a fault. She took impeccable care of us. Our clothes were clean, there was always food on the table and if we were sick, she would sit by us. She wouldn’t say much, but she was always there.

Given all that, I wasn’t surprised she let my dad keep the picture and the letter. Nor was I surprised that she knew all about the woman and was willing to share the story, which she did, without any trace of emotion. The last page of the letter is long gone now and I can’t remember her name, I think it was Lillian. My mom told me that she was a French Jew  who fled Paris for North Africa before the Nazis invaded. She adored my dad – the letter certainly bears that out. My mom thinks they stayed in touch for awhile after his discharge.

Your insouciant smile

Your insouciant smile

My mom and Lillian gave me a gift. I never knew my father as anything but a disappointed man. His happiness, when it came, was rarely shared with his children.  It softens his memory to know that he was young and charming and happy, even if it was long ago and in a world far removed from ours.

I wonder she ever tried to find him, Carl, her love with the insouciant smile.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carole Cohen
    Nov 12, 2008 @ 20:35:18

    wow this is very poignant and well written. I will have to read it more than once to take it all in. My Dad elicited the same feelings in me regarding his happines quotient, or lack thereof. my Dad was also in North Africa. I have a ring he brought back for my mom, it says ‘tunesia’ on it. A cherished remembrance for me. thanks for sharing and doing it so well.

    Carole – thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think many men of that generation, being children of the depression and then the soldiers, simply stopped feeling at some point. It is poignant that these “things” they left seem to hold such memories.


  2. formerlyfun
    Nov 14, 2008 @ 17:29:41

    I really liked this, very evocative.

    Thank you – from the moment I found the letter and picture my view of my father was changed.


  3. Carolyn Bahm
    Nov 16, 2008 @ 02:20:56

    Since your previous commenters have stolen the very words I was going to use — poignant and evocative — I have to assume either they’re psychic or that we all agree this was one amazing, moving, deeply personal post. I’m so glad I read it.

    I’m thinking … they were not psychic. :o)

    Carolyn – thank you for your kind words.


  4. Chris Barzak
    Nov 17, 2008 @ 11:51:15

    Beautiful, Judy. Just beautiful.

    Thank you Chris – appreciate your stopping by and your kind words. Looking froward to the book launch of The Joy We Share Without Knowing – I hope to make it to the Oakland Center for the Arts, November 29 7-10 PM for the festivities.


  5. MB Matthews
    Nov 24, 2008 @ 07:55:00

    Your beautiful story made me think – or rather rethink- my own actions and responses toward my children’s father. You have reminded me of the need we all have to find that bit of goodness in our family members to connect to, regardless of the pain inflicted. We may have to search through many years of a life’s history, but now I see how important it is.

    Perhaps time has healed me enough to share some of the gentle stories of the young man I once loved before he became the sorry damaged soul who abandoned his family.
    My kids deserve that.

    I have struggled with this issue with my own children – especially with one of my ex’s and our son. It seems to me there is no easy way with this, but you are right, we are connected to our family in a way that our friends can never duplicate or replace. Thank you for commenting and sharing; it is comforting to know that many of us deal with these issues.


  6. Rebel Angel
    Nov 24, 2008 @ 11:32:49

    Found your site through Blog 5 at the PD and I’m glad I did. I’ve spent the better part of the morning reading and I’m blown away.

    This post is moving as well as haunting. It’s funny how sometimes we don’t know our parents until they’ve gone to the great beyond. With one innocent discovery, we’re suddenly in possession of something we never thought we’d have — understanding.


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