Private: Unpleasant (and disjointed) recollections of my father

My dad lives on a street shaded by old ficus and banyan trees. The windows in his Florida room overlook a large backyard and a canal beyond it. On the open market, the house would sell for well over a million dollars, but the buyer would tear it down and build something else.

While Dad lives in an old-money neighborhood, wears European suits, and drives a Lexus, he does these things for the sake of appearances. Close inspection reveals that the house is falling apart.

Many trees in Miami, particularly ficus, grow above-ground. By the time you can see the roots stretched ten feet from the tree you’re in trouble because the underground root system extends much further than that, deep down until it disrupts the very foundation of your house.

Dad’s backyard is bumpy with roots. You can hardly take two steps without tripping over one.

“You should really get those roots cut back,” I said, when I was down for Christmas three years ago, before I stopped talking to him. We stood on the rotting deck overlooking the yard.

“Oh, no, they’re fine,” he said.

“Have you had them checked out by a professional?”

“There’s no need for that, Maud.”

Inside the house, the plumbing is in disrepair. Two of the toilets won’t flush. The air smells musty because the house has sat, closed up, on too many hot, humid days without air conditioning while Dad is at the office. Kitchen cabinet doors sag. The house is nearly empty of furniture.

When my parents divorced in the early 80’s, my mom got the furniture, the accent items, the small kitchen appliances. She had a year to take everything she wanted, except for the beds. Dad controlled the terms of the divorce agreement, which allowed him to deduct the furniture and knick-knacks from what he would pay for her half of the house.

It’s a big house — four bedrooms, each big enough to hold a full bedroom suite, and three-and-a-half baths. The Florida room alone is nearly the length of my current shotgun apartment in Brooklyn.

Mom left behind a few things out of pity: a desk, a dresser, small pieces of furniture that could serve as nightstands in my room and my sister’s, since we were to stay at Dad’s house several nights a week.

Everything else was abandoned out of simple disinterest: the fake fireplace, the ugly Florida room table with the matching chairs on rollers, and the billowy green and white canopy with the chandelier in the middle that hung over my parents’ bed and that my mom had paid an interior decorator a pretty penny to dream up.

Although he had a large salary when he and Mom divorced, Dad never replaced the furniture.

Couches, he said, were unnecessary in a house with three beds and four straight-back chairs and built-in kitchen seating. “We all have a place to sit,” he said. “What good would a couch do us?”

And why, he wondered aloud, would he need a TV when he had a perfectly good one already? Never mind that it was a 12-inch black and white model manufactured in 1977.

Each year after the divorce, his parents drove down from Mississippi, in one or another late-model Monte Carlo.

My grandparents are conspicuously upper-middle-class. My grandmother is not shy about reminding everyone that her father used to run a plantation. She does not, however, mention that my granddad was a postal worker before he got into insurance. They talk in low tones about the neighbors who fail to maintain their landscaping, who keep ratty couches in their living rooms.

They update their own modest ranch house every few years, reupholstering furniture, stripping out the flowered wallpaper to update it with still more flowered wallpaper, but in the latest colors. Their bathrooms were yellow in the 70’s, pink in the 80’s, hunter green in the 90’s, and now are a pale avocado shade.

When they first visited after Mom left, Grandma and Grandpa settled into my room and my sister’s. They forced smiles as they looked around, noting that the rooms were empty except for a bed, nightstand and lamp. They conferred privately in the bathroom and then joined Sister, Dad, and me in the Florida room.

All of us except Dad sat in the ugly rolling chairs. Dad sat on a stool because the chairs were taken. The built-in shelves on the far wall were filled with old toys and professional journals.

Grandma, a small, immaculate woman with trembling hands, tried to offer decorating tips. “Why, this room would be so cozy with a sofa and loveseat,” she said.

Dad frowned and fiddled with his watch.

Grandpa cleared his throat a few times and shook his head, as if to say, “This is a woman’s job,” while still agreeing with my grandmother. He’s a tall, no-nonsense man with a full head of white hair, intimidating white eyebrows, and remarkable posture. He doesn’t like to get involved.

Dad went off, as he so often did, to make a phone call.

Some form of this exchange occurred at every subsequent visit. Grandma grew increasingly frantic each year. “Now, Tom,” she would say, “why don’t you go ahead and buy yourself a new table? Get one of your friends to go with you to pick out a living room suite.”

Dad would laugh and change the subject.

Eventually my grandparents started to discuss staying at a nearby hotel. “The Holiday Inn has all the amenities,” Grandma told me, looking sideways at my father. He was, or pretended to be, oblivious. “It’s affordable and fully furnished.”

I graduated from high school in 1989. That year, Grandpa took Dad aside and said, “Son, you’ve got a good job. You make more money every year than I’ve made in my lifetime. You get yourself a nice leather couch and a large-screen TV and a comfortable armchair.”

I stood around the corner, eavesdropping, so I couldn’t see the look on Dad’s face when he cleared his throat and said, “I’ve got a perfectly good TV right here.”

“You do as I say,” Grandpa said. “It’s just plain strange, the way you live. Like a miser.”

Several months later, Dad went out and did exactly what Grandpa instructed. He bought a green leather couch, a matching armchair, and a large TV encased in wood.

He set everything up in the Florida room, where it gathered dust. The living room and dining area remained barren. Would-be visitors looked through the front windows at the glistening wood floors and empty rooms, and thought they had the wrong house. At night, neighborhood kids threw eggs at the front door.

When I visited from college, drivers occasionally pulled into the driveway to ask if the house was for sale.

This happened less frequently at Christmastime. Then Dad pulled out his miniature artificial tree and set it on a table in the front window. The few tiny lights that still worked winked on and off, convincing passersby that there was life within.

In contrast to the bare living area, my closet and Sister’s were packed with presents for clients, secretaries, and family members, stacked on the floor and dated far into the future. Many of them probably contained Ralph Lauren robes and crystal clocks, discreetly marked “free gift with purchase.” At least that’s what Sister and I receive, year after year, along with the $200 checks he gives us.

A list in a woman’s handwriting sat on top of a pile of my future gifts. It said, “No gifts for the girls!! Until 2006!!!”

In Sister’s room, stacks of Dad’s client files cover the floor. Last I saw, the bed was pushed against the wall and the files were stacked in piles labeled “R” through “Z.” (The rest of the files line the floor of his study.) I guess Dad figures it doesn’t matter what Sister’s room looks like, because she’s spoken with him only twice since my wedding six years ago, and she doesn’t return his letters or phone calls.

Now that I don’t talk with him either, I’m sure my room is slowly being overtaken by something in need of storage, too.

Three years ago, Max and I flew down to South Florida for the winter holidays. We caught a red-eye on Christmas morning and barely made it to Dad’s house before Max had to leave for his grandparents’ place. I planned to spend most the day with Dad. I thought he might be lonely.

He drove me to the Bagel Emporium, a little diner in a mirrored strip mall near the University of Miami.

I ordered a coffee and a bagel with lox and cream cheese. Dad ordered orange juice.

“One for me, too,” I told the server.

Dad held up his hand, causing his Ivy League ring, which had always been a little too big — he’s a short, slight man — to slide down his finger, and signaled that the server should wait.

He turned to me and raised his eyebrows. “Now, that sure is a lot of saturated fat and refined flour. Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Yep. Pretty sure, Dad, thanks,” I said.

“Well, if you’re certain.”

The server raised her eyebrows slightly and went off to place our order.

Dad looked at me again. “You know, you should blow your hair out straight,” he said. “You look so much prettier when your hair is straight.”

I could have said: “This coming from a man who colors his white eyebrows with black kohl eyeliner every morning?”

Instead I said: “I know. I’m sorry.” He had a point. My hair, when I’m with him, looks even more dull and frizzed than usual. I think it’s the hard South Florida water, but maybe it’s the strained conversations. I’m not used to either one anymore.

We returned to his house and exchanged gifts. At 11:30 a.m., he announced that he was meeting one of his girlfriends for a quickie. Actually, he said, “I’m meeting a friend for lunch.” Then he gave me a hug and drove away.

Dad had no friends other than girlfriends, but he had plenty of those, apparently. My friends saw him out with different women all the time, and he introduced me to a handful of the long-term girlfriends. Since they didn’t know about each other, Dad coached me well before any introductions were made, filling me in on the specific lies I was to tell. “Now, if X asks you whether I’ve been up to visit you in New York, just say yes,” he said. “And if Y mentions anything about your sister’s course of study at FIU, just go along with it.”

I balked at this. “But Sister lives in Massachusetts now.”

“Best not to mention that, either,” he said.

Of the three girlfriends I’ve met, one shares my first name, and one shares my sister’s. I do not wish to contemplate the significance of this “coincidence.”

I went into the kitchen and looked around. On the table sat six or seven large, flat plastic boxes of indeterminate use. I opened them and found scores upon scores of vitamins. In the refrigerator were various nuts and berries in bags from health food stores, and the racks on the fridge door held twenty Tupperware containers just the right size for a single serving of a meal prepared at a girlfriend’s house.

The countertops were covered with at least two hundred empty containers identical to the ones in the fridge. They obscured the stovetop and reached almost to the bottoms of the cabinets. One small space remained, in front of the microwave.

I leaned in to inspect one of the empty containers. If it was dirty, I wasn’t sure what I would do. Call the Department of Health? It was clean, as were the others.

But these containers were only the most obvious part of a larger problem. No one had cleared the junk out of Dad’s house after my mom left. It wasn’t Mom’s job anymore, of course, and aside from Dad, Sister and me there was no one else to do it. At some level I always figured the job would fall in my lap, but I guess I’d held out hope that someone else would be seized with ambition.

Perhaps, I’d thought, Grandma or one of the girlfriends would open the bathroom cabinets and notice the expired medications and musty barrettes and palmetto bug wings and decide to throw them away. Perhaps Dad would realize that he was no longer in need of three boxes of Flex-i-straws and a jar of peanut butter that went bad in 1982.

Now, standing before the stacks of Tupperware, I had two choices. I could clean out the kitchen cabinets to make room for the containers or I could admit to myself that Dad was going to end up a sad old man surrounded by stacks of newspapers and plastic forks and roaches.

The cabinets beneath the stove yielded: a rusty colander, a dented Little House on the Prairie lunchbox and, inside that, a Peanuts thermos without a lid. There were four or five blackened skillets with the protective coating ripped away. Beneath them lay an attachment to the Cuisinart my mom took when my parents divorced seventeen years before. In the back were two more thermoses: a Garfield and a Holly Hobbie. I found a green glass pitcher that I set aside, intending to ship it to myself in Brooklyn.

In a drawer under the toaster were an old dog collar, ancient hamster pellets in an orange Hertz box, and assorted flea sprays, one of which had leaked onto the 1981 University Baptist Church Membership Directory, so that the back cover stuck to the drawer liner. When I finally pried the directory loose, the remains of a large palmetto bug were permanently attached to the bottom.

Everything smelled mildewed from too many Miami summers, and from time to time I caught a faint whiff of Raid, a reminder of our battles with the hardy roaches of yore.

On the refrigerator, a Happy Mother’s Day calendar I’d made in second grade hung exactly as it had for more than twenty years. It featured a memo pad affixed to a plastic-coated page that I’d decorated with a smiling girl, a tree, the sun, and a house with a smokestack. A curlicue of smoke stretched high above the sun. I tossed the calendar in a trash bag and noted that my hands were sticky. The tips of my fingernails were black.

I left undisturbed the assorted teddy bears and pink bunnies and plastic cows that lined the windowsill, all gifts from my dad’s myriad girlfriends. He wouldn’t notice if any of them were missing, but the girlfriends would.

In the living room was a pile of photographs and memorabilia, including a snapshot of Dad standing with Newt Gingritch at some Republican fundraiser, a baby picture of my sister, and an invitation to my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary.

I could not throw these away, so I moved on to the bathrooms, to deal with dried-out shoe polish, prescriptions dispensed in 1979, and a humidifier that had never, to my knowledge, actually worked.

All through the day I worked, until Max called to say he’d be picking me up for his family’s big dinner.

I stopped, then, and realized I’d filled twelve Hefty bags. As I carried them out to the trash pile, I saw the neighbors’ kids. They stood in their driveways, laughing and showing off their new bicycles and roller blades.

I’d forgotten it was Christmas. When I waved at the children, they did not wave back.

I set the bags beside the street and wondered how my dad would react to the change.