I used to think that I knew my father pretty well. After all, we lived together for over two decades, and had seen each other at our best, and our worst. In many ways, I used to consider him just a typical dad: stoic, capable, reliable. He’s a guy’s guy. He hates what he calls “Hallmark sentimentality.’ but when I was a teenager, I found tucked in the back of a drawer in his massive, antique desk an overflowing folder labeled “Erin,” full of certificates, drawings, prize ribbons, and old homework assignments...all mementos of the small successes I have achieved in my young life.
I knew that he liked baseball, politics, history, and fine scotch whiskey. I knew that he venerated books the way a Boston Irish Catholic venerates the Holy Mother. I knew that, according to my mom, he was the only person in America who actually fell asleep in the middle of an exciting movie theater during a first-run screening of Star Wars. I knew he’d met my mom through a blind date while he was in the army in the 60’s, but that he never called her afterwards. The family story says that he only got back in touch with her when he realized that he was going to be stationed near her. He sent her a letter which included an additional note (different paper, different ink, much earlier date) explaining that he had only just realized that he had “forgotten” to mail her enclosed note thanking her for their lovely date. I knew that Mom had married him despite that.
For a long time, in my smug young-adulthood, I considered Dad a puzzle I had long since solved. It wasn’t until I had been locked up for several years that this changed. After his retirement, he’d gotten in the habit of sending me forty pages each week on information he had culled from the internet. He called it his Eclectic Periodical (EP for short), and it invariably contained fascinating, engaging stuff: biographies of Roman generals, essays by Malcolm Gladwell, updates on the Washington Redskins, fun facts, and brain teasers. In short, he sent me anything that he thought might make the long hours in my prison cell a little less tedious.
The EP did take requests, although at times they may have been fulfilled rather reluctantly; I’m sure that he was literally shuddering when he included several pieces on Kate and William’s royal wedding that I had asked for. Of course, it was surely pure coincidence that in the next edition was a ten-page article about the historical ramifications of the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
But as much as I enjoyed all of that, what I really came to cherish were the personal asides and commentary that he eventually began including. They gave me glimpses of the person that I miss so much For example, a column that he sent me just last week was entitled “Weird Facts About the Bible.” The final fact, that there were forty-nine different foods listed in the Bible, was accompanied by a photo of a delicious-looking Tex-Mex goodies, along with the disclaimer, “I’ll bet tacos are not on the list of 49.”
Some of his comments are more personal, offering glimpses into his past and feelings in a way few of our previous face-to-face conversations had. An article on migrant workers was paired with his reflections on growing up in Pomona, California, surrounded by the orange groves. An essay on Willie Mays inspired him to share just how deeply baseball inhabited him. He included a photo I’d never seen before. In it, a small, scabby-kneed Bill squats, clutching his battered baseball mitt, probably imagining the glorious career he’d have as a major league catcher.
My dad has only ever missed a few weeks of sending me an EP during his long labor of love. It was only as he entered the terminal stage of throat cancer, that he has admitted that he was going to have to send fewer pages - it is simply too much for him now.
But I still receive a few envelopes from him every week. And though he is no longer able to speak to me on the telephone, I hear his voice and laugh with him as I read his snarky comments. And I have moments when I am utterly amazed that I had managed to live for so long with such an extraordinary man without knowing just how remarkable he is. Now, at age forty-five, I’m finally realizing that, although I’ll never have the chance to know him as well as I would like, I know enough. I know what I need to.