In the last year of my parents’ marriage, my dad had an affair. I’ve always known this, my mom has always known this, it was something that we all talked about, in later years: his regret, his remorse, over this thing he had done, its effect on my mother, its effect on our family, the fact that it led to a divorce that nobody wanted and that everybody regretted and that remained the great tragedy (and yet in some ways the great gift; this is a complicated story among many complicated stories, best left for another day) of both my parents’ lives.
He had an affair, and we knew it. But the fact that we knew it, and that we knew he regretted it, did not lessen the emotional blow of finding letters from this woman among his things.
It was my mother who found them, of course. I found the innocuous things, and the bizarre things, the wonderful things – the pipe cleaners, the stash of pot, the robot – yes, the robot – and some terrible things – the suicide note from fifteen years ago, the agonized letters to my sister and I apologizing for his imagined failures as a father – but it was my mother who found these, these love notes from another time and another place, these pages that my father would have least wanted her to see of all his pages, all the pages of his story. We cried together, she and I, after she found them. We cried, and then I said all the right things about how that had been such a brief period, such a blip in a much longer history, and, too, how depressed he had been, what a mistake it was, how he had said so, how he had insisted so, and as I spoke it seemed to me – me, so spooked these days – that the very air rippled with tension and I wondered whether I was saying the right things, the truthful things. Had it been nothing? Had it just been a relationship borne out of his depression, a symptom of other problems, of deeper issues that had nothing to do with love? Or had it been more, something more, even for a moment?
Later, we found pictures of this woman. He had wrapped them in multiples layers of packing paper, and taped them up, tightly, and shoved them in a plastic shopping bag and stashed it at the back of his closet, under a bundle of old clothes, hidden, as though he couldn’t bear to be reminded of them, as though he very much wanted to forget them, but couldn’t bear to throw them away. My mother didn’t look at them. She turned away and said, trash them. Toss them in the dumpster. Trash them. And then she left the room.
I wrapped them back up in their paper and put them back in the shopping bag and tucked them back in the closet. I will trash them later, I thought. With the letters that I had stashed in my pocket. Later.
Later never came.
The pictures are still stashed in that bag, in the closet. I’ve been working around them, packing things away, taking things to Goodwill, sifting and sorting through the stuff of my father’s life. I’ve been working around them, pretending that they aren’t there, because I don’t know what to do with them. Do I throw them away? I can understand totally my mother’s desire that they be thrown away. I would desire that they be thrown away, if I were my mother, if it were the love of my life who had received such letters and retained the pictures of their author. I do desire that they be thrown away, or at least, that childish part of me that wishes to deny that part of my father’s history desires that they be thrown away. But therein is the rub: now that my father is gone (so suddenly gone, so absolutely gone), I recoil at the idea of denying any part of his history, any thing – any word, any image – that forms any part of the history that made him him. I don’t know whether or not he loved that woman. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether or not he loved her. She was part of his life for a short time and for whatever reason he chose to not erase her memory, entirely. So I feel – I think – that I should not erase her memory. For whatever reason. For whatever it’s worth.
So I have these pictures, and these letters, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to keep them, but it feels wrong, somehow, to just throw them away.
I have these pictures, and these letters, and I don’t know what to do.
(What would you do?)