It was a few days after my father’s funeral in 2008 when I went downstairs in my house to switch a load of laundry. I was feeling sad about my dad’s death from dementia, wondering how my family would do without him. Then I saw it.
A slender white envelope on the floor near the washing machine. A letter my dad had written me during a troubled time in 1975 when I was a teenager. I’d packed it away years ago inside a cardboard box labeled “treasures.” How did it end up there, just days after we buried him?
I will probably never know, but no matter. As I sat on the basement steps to read it, I could once again feel my father’s concern for his firstborn child — a daughter who could not have been more different from him.
“My dear daughter,” my dad wrote. “At times like these I wish I were a famous poet or author, so that I could more properly communicate my love and concern for you.”
I was almost 12 when my parents called me and my three younger siblings into the living room on the weekend after Thanksgiving in 1972 with the news that they were getting divorced.
My parents rarely argued, but my mother had become restless and unhappy. A Mormon homemaker who married my dad at age 18, she wanted to go to college and experience life beyond our quiet, conservative suburb in Midvale, Utah. My father didn't understand why she was no longer content to look after the home front.
After the house was sold, the family was split up: My mother took custody of my youngest brother and sister and moved into an apartment in central Salt Lake City, while my other brother and I lived with our dad about six blocks away.
We were told the arrangement was so that our father “wouldn't be lonely.” In later years, I learned it was actually because my mom didn't think she could handle us all. While today I understand the rationale behind the decision (four children can be a handful), I felt hurt and abandoned at the time.
My father wasn’t sure how to raise two kids on his own, but he did his best. He’s the one who took me shopping for school clothes and helped me with my homework. Although he wasn’t much of a cook, he could always be counted on to make a mean grilled cheese sandwich.
When my brother and I got us evicted from our apartment for holding raucous table tennis tournaments in our living room after school, our father smiled and said, “Let’s move back to Midvale."
In the summer of 1973, he rented a house in our old neighborhood, and back we went. Still hurting from the divorce and worried that I no longer fit in with my old friends, that summer was an awkward time in my life.
While my dad was away at his life insurance job, I found solace by turning on our black-and-white television and watching the Watergate hearings on PBS. Strangely, I was comforted by the booming voices that spilled from the Kennedy Caucus Room. Witnessing the leader of the free world get taken down on live TV was riveting stuff to a seventh-grader who hoped to become a newspaper reporter.
It wasn’t long before my dad remarried — this time to a woman from our church who lived just around the corner. While I soon grew to love her, I fiercely missed my mother, whom I saw every other weekend.
My middle school years were spent shuffling between two very different households: one that was freewheeling and laid-back, and one where there were rules and high expectations that shouldn’t be questioned.
To cope, I wrote in my journal and began to rebel. I stayed out later than my curfew, refused my father’s demands to go to Sunday school, and changed the spelling of my last name from “Frei” to “Free” to more accurately reflect my persona.
It was at the height of this friction that I came home one night and found the four-page letter on my pillow from my father, marked “personal."
“Yours has not been an easy ‘growing up’ time,” my dad wrote, “and you’ve seen conflicting standards from your parents. I’m not trying to judge anyone or impose my way of life against your wishes, though it may appear so. I want you to have a full and fun teenager time, and merely want to discharge my responsibility to you as a loving father. I do hope you’ll feel free to confide in me about personal problems ...”
I didn’t — we were simply too different. But as I grew older, we grew closer again, and even when my father developed dementia, we still found things to smile about, like the time I “lost” him in the Denver airport on our way to the District of Columbia to visit his sister. And I often sat with my dad on the sofa to flip through old photo albums, hoping they would trigger his memory.
“Cathy! Look!” he’d say, again and again. “That’s you!”
This Father's Day morning, when I hold that letter and read it again, I know I'll smile and brush away a few happy tears as I picture my businesslike father sitting down at his polished oak desk to pour out his thoughts.
“You have many wonderful qualities and talents — please forgive me if it seems I overlook these to constantly remind of weaknesses. I give thanks every day for a lovely daughter and have lots of hope for many happy times together in the few remaining years we’ll be living together. Let’s make the most of them! Love always, Your Dad.”
I think we did, Dad, in our own way. Your letter is proof of it.