“Letters From My Father” *

May 21, 2012

Breakfast was over by 8:30 because our guests had to get on the road for a day of driving and sightseeing on their way back home. They were only here for an overnight stay. But we had talked on the porch last night and again over breakfast, with the shared stories tasting sweet and savory, like the basil-flavored ice cream on top of their strawberries. The talk flowed easily, as it often does with strangers sitting together at a B&B. But it is not that way always, especially in families.

“Letters From My Father,” one of the short pieces of fiction in A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, the 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner written by Robert Olen Butler, tells one of these stiff, stifled stories so common in family relationships. Told by a young teen-aged Vietnamese girl, living in Lake Charles, Louisiana, recently reunited with her American father after spending her entire childhood in her native country, it is a story of loss lifted out of letters.

I look through the letters my father sent to me in Saigon and I find this: ‘Dear Fran. How are you? I wish you and your mother were here with me. The weather here is pretty cold this time of year. I bet you would like the cold weather.’….

Today there are no clouds in the sky. What did that have to do with me?….

Last night I found a package of letters in a footlocker that belongs to my father. It is in the storage shack in the back of our house here in America….copies he kept of letters he sent trying to get us out of Vietnam. I look through …and I find this: ‘What is this crap that you’re trying to give me now? It has been nine years, seven months, and fifteen days since I last saw my daughter, my own flesh-and-blood daughter.’

This is an angry voice, a voice with feeling….

…Not everyone can say what they feel…Not everyone can look at a camera and make their face do what it has to do to show a feeling. But years of flat words…these are hard things to forget. So I’ve been sitting all morning today in the shack behind our house, out here with the tree roaches and the carpenter ants and the smell of mildew and rotting wood and I am sweating so hard that it’s dripping off my nose and chin. There are many letters in my lap. In one of them to the U.S. government my father says: ‘If this was a ____ white woman, a Russian ballet dancer and her daughter, you people would have them on a plane in twenty-four hours. This is my wife and my daughter. My daughter is so beautiful you can put her face on your dimes and quarters and no one could ever make change again in your ____ country without stopping and saying, Oh my God, what a beautiful face.’

…I know my father will be here soon. The lawn mower is over there in the corner and this morning he got up and said that it was going to be hot today, that there were no clouds in the sky and he was going to have to mow the lawn. When he opens the door, I will let him see me here, and I will ask him to talk to me like in these letters, like when he was so angry with some stranger that he knew what to say.

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