Bertie was sitting by the front window in her favorite armchair, a relic from the late seventies that she could never seem to part with, sipping a glass of wine. She looked distant, contemplative, and a bit morose. Elise had found her mother in this same state, in this same place, other times growing up. Bertie had called it her “thinking place,” but Elise knew it to be a much sadder place. There was an unspoken weight about the chair that changed Bertie’s larger-than-life personality. She became small, frail, alone. Elise had only caught her mother in the chair a few times, but it had always left an impression on her. The truth was that Bertie sat there most nights, late into the evening after Elise had gone to sleep, thinking. This was her sacred, private life, a life she was not willing to let her daughter in. She knew now, that she could not keep up the façade any longer. Only the truth would set them both free. Bertie sighed deeply and turned toward her daughter who had been watching her from the kitchen.
“Well. Here we are.” Bertie spoke softly.
“Yes.” Elise said, curtly. Bertie examined Elise carefully, searching for something—anything—a sign that they would be alright.
“Would you like to meet your father?” Elise didn’t respond, but slowly walked over to where Bertie was sitting and nodded. Bertie stood up, went to one of the built-in bookshelves and pulled out an old copy of Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” from behind some other art theory books. She opened it and a few things fell from between the pages onto the floor. Elise quickly bent down and picked them up. “He loved this book. The sentimental philosopher in him couldn’t resist a good drama. I’ve never liked Graham Greene, but I gave this a try. Couldn’t finish it.”
“May I read it?” Elise implored, curiously.
“It’s the only thing I have left of him.”
“It’s the only thing I will ever have of him.” Elise countered.
“Very well.” Bertie relented, with a deep sigh. “I suppose I have to let him go, eventually.” She took the items from Elise and picked out one in particular. “This is him.” She held a small black and white picture up to Elise. The lovers in the photo were beautiful, young, and happy. He was looking directly at the camera, a steady, handsome gaze, with kind eyes and a warm close-lipped smile. His hair was light, his face clean-shaven. Bertie was looking at him; it was obvious that she adored him. Her hair was long and wavy, her smile open and resolute. They both knew that they had something special in each other, at that particular moment. The picture truly captured a thousand words. Elise shed a tear, overwhelmed by finally seeing an image of the man she had long dreamt about.
She had always been curious about what her father might have looked like, because she had very little physical resemblance to Bertie. Elise could see herself distinctly in this man’s hair, his smile. It relieved her to know that she was finally one full person that came from two distinct halves. She stared at the picture for a long time, absorbing as much of him into her memory as possible. Bertie rustled through a few other items from the pile that had fallen out of the book.
“What was he like?”
“He was kind. A good, kind man. And he was funny. He could always make me laugh, even in my darkest of moments. He was intelligent. He graduated from Michigan State with a degree in Philosophy. You take after him in almost every way, Lise. That’s why it was always so hard for me to be near you. I was afraid if I held on too tight I would lose you, as I did him. I needed to be free of him. I sought the love of other men—countless men—searching for that same feeling that I had for Jeff. I don’t think I will ever experience that again.”
Elise listened as Bertie talked on and on about her shortcomings as a mother, not caring to hear all the justification she had to offer. Instead, Elise found herself caught thinking about Leon. The same way that Bertie had once felt about Jeff was the same sweeping elation that Elise experienced with Leon. He had been the best of husbands. He had his flaws, like any person, but he genuinely loved her, cherished her, took care of her. She had been too blinded by her own pain and emptiness to see that. She had been so young, so naive, to think that her marriage to Leon could fill the gaping hole in her heart left by the father she never had. She realized now, more than ever, that no one person could ever fill her, could ever shed blinding light into the darkest parts of her heart.
“Where is he buried?” Elise broke in. Bertie seemed startled by the suddenness of the question.
“I found his grave about ten years ago. It’s outside of Grand Rapids.” Elise soaked in that information. She was still upset with Bertie, still unsure if she would ever be able to forgive her, but she was grateful that she finally knew the truth. Elise took the book and other items from Bertie and walked back up to her room, without saying a word. She needed to process this alone. She shut her door behind her, walked to the record player and put an old Chet Baker album on. In the quiet, jazz-infused depths of her childhood hiding place, she slowly began to unpack twenty-seven years of loss in the small collection of pieces left of her father.