Late January 2014
For the last several months I have been mentally flagellating myself, trying to declutter my garage. My husband, kids, and I moved into this house over three years ago, and the unpacking process was a never-ending Hydra of paper, housewares, and detritus from grad school and earlier. I claimed that I’d finished unloading the last box a few months after we settled in, but that was a lie. There were a number of other boxes that were untouched in the garage, filled with children’s art, knick knacks from my own and other people’s travels*, and outgrown children’s clothing I was always too tired and unorganized to sort through. Prominent among this collection of odds and ends was a cart my father brought to my apartment in Los Angeles in the spring of 1997. The plastic bags it contained, the dank clothing, the enigmatic blank sports trophies (he called them his “statues”), the stacks of Audubon Magazine (the birds and landscapes were the basis for his watercolor paintings), I’d long since disposed of, more than two moves ago. Sorting through it all, nearly a decade ago, I believed I was clearing out the past. Disposing of my father’s abandoned baggage in a literal sense and in the process, purging myself of the messy, sad, unresolved business of being his daughter.
My father only stayed with my fiancé and me for a couple of weeks. But he had intended to live with us permanently, so he’d brought most of what he owned from his room in the boarding house in Chicago. From his point of view, the visit was a great success despite the fact that he decided not to stay in Los Angeles. He met the man I would marry and assured himself (out loud, to us) that now that his daughter was all grown up and settled, he could die in peace. For me, his visit was the last in a long series of awful surprise appearances he’d subjected me to throughout my life. Ever since first grade when he showed up at recess to visit me at school, I’d been embarrassed of him. His increasingly wild-looking appearance, hair he cut himself, teeth missing after he lost his dentures, clothes with valuables and papers sewn into the pockets, not to mention his Chinese face and heavy accent, were unwelcome differences to me in Wisconsin of the 1970s and 1980s. When I was in high school and college, the shame of his surprise visits deepened. With his visit to me and the man I was going to marry, I realized he’d outdone himself in the terrible surprise department. Once I said goodbye to him, I began to relax and assumed I’d see him again in a few months or year, whenever he could next manage another Greyhound Bus trip out to the West Coast.
I was wrong. That painful visit nearly 17 years ago was the last time I saw my father. He died three years later after moving back to Taiwan to be near his brothers and sister. Just as I can’t bring closure to the manuscript I’ve written about my life with him, I haven’t been able to throw away his last possessions. This time I could, or nearly. It was 13 years since my father’s death. Hurrying to make room for new baby, my third child, it was possible to load up his shopping cart into my car and haul it away. But when I tried to throw away his postcard collection, mostly unmarked photos and illustrations of places he’d never visited, and his luggage tag, I couldn’t. Somehow I can’t let myself part with the things he looked at and dreamed of, or the way he wrote his name and the address he hoped to share with me in Los Angeles. But at least they take up much less space than those bags and bags of buggy clothes and featureless youths pirouetting and throwing javelins.
* Please, for the love of all that is holy, if you’re a friend or family member who wants to give me a souvenir of your visit to the Sphinx, or the Silk Road, or whatever, just send me a digital photo. I can’t handle any more tchotchkes. We all know I have a problem getting rid of that stuff. I recently took a deep breath and poured into the dumpster all of the mix tapes my long lost friends and ex-boyfriends made for me during the 1980s and 1990s. It was painful. But not as painful as finding another moldy corner to store them in.