The holiday cards started coming in around this time last month. I'd gone through dad's directory and contacted as many of his acquaintances as I could, informing them that he'd passed away in June. Still, every time I stopped by to check on things, the mailbox of the old family house in our beloved Rolando neighborhood would be occupied by a few sweet-sad holiday greetings from people who still hadn't heard.
Most of these were from people I didn't know; otherwise I'd have contacted them myself. Then one day one card arrived, penned in a peculiar scrawl. For some reason, dad hadn't kept the name in his directory and for the time being I'd forgotten it anyway, but instantly the card jogged my memory and I knew who it was from.
Like everybody's dad in the era when I grew up, mine was a veteran of WWII. He'd never yet set eyes on Southern California and had no idea what the rest of his life might bring, but in his early twenties he was an Army Air Corps telegraph operator moving through France in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion. Somewhere along the way, he befriended a French kid about a decade younger who was fascinated by the American soldiers and their equipment. He invited dad to have dinner at the family house, and spoke English well enough to make for a pleasant visit. They exchanged addresses and somehow stayed in touch over the years.
I remember the guy. He visited us in San Diego twice, once in the late '50s when he was a student at MIT. I was just a bit of a kid, and the family home was itself a bitty thing on busy College Avenue. He visited again in summer 1968, while he was vacationing with his wife. I was just a clumsy adolescent, but dad had upgraded to a bigger house on a quieter street less than a mile away. I even met the Frenchman for lunch once in 1977. I was stationed in Germany with the army and he was in Frankfurt on business. He seemed a bit impressed to see me emerge from the front of the old I.G. Farben Building, headquarters of U.S. Army V Corps, so distant in many ways from my San Diego upbringing now that I was meeting him for the first time as a fellow adult.
The holiday card he'd sent had a return address, so I mailed one back to him explaining the sad circumstances. Times being what they are, I also did a websearch to see if there was a way to contact him more quickly in the meantime. He'd mentioned in the message on the card that he was now in his late seventies, but doing some charitable work. I found his name under a French organization that seemed to fit, and within 24 hours they replied with a direct email address for him.
Even after considerable experience, I was still not quite sure how to break the news. I explained that dad had passed away at age 90 after a life active and healthy until the final week or so. His reply was emotional, moreso than my experience had prepared me for. For most of a lifetime, they had corresponded periodically, his customary closing being, "Your little brother of France." I'd been idly aware, but not really cognizant, of how important dad had been in this person's life.
I thought of the three times I'd met this fellow at different stages in each of our lives, and of how he described his friendship with my dad through their university studies, their career preparation, their marriages and raising of families. He said it was a story that needed to be told.
So here I try. Dad's long affinity for things French make more sense, and vague memories become clear. The little plastic boat that we used to row around the above-ground pool on College Avenue had been adorned with an inscription that dad said translated from French into "The Little Ordinary Boat." He'd had some bookends in the shape of the Champs Elysee, and as a kid I'd look at the buildings next to the water tower near the corner of College and University, thinking they resembled that structure and that perhaps France was within sight. Afterall, we could travel to Mexico in thirty minutes from our house in San Diego, so why would such a thing seem so preposterous to a preschool kid?
A large map of the world had been pasted to the wall of my room when I was very small, and it always fascinated me. Probably it had a lot to do with my dad's fascination--and perhaps his idealization--for distant places. Perhaps it had something to do with the twenty years or so I would spend living abroad as an adult.
Chance encounters and random circumstances can result in lifelong friendships or determine the subsequent course of a lifetime. Then you come home, sit in the middle of familiar surroundings, and marvel at how it started and the wonder of it all. It makes you feel that, for all the sadness and tragedy and misfortune life can bring, there's a sweetness to it.