The mildew-scented letters

You know that feeling of being afraid you lost something but the idea that you’ve lost this particular thing is so terrible that you plainly refuse even to entertain the idea that you’ve maybe lost it, and so you just go on in a purgatorial state of not knowing and clinging to an ever-narrowing ray of hope (which narrowing of said ray of hope you can’t even admit to, that it’s narrowing, because that would acknowledge the likelihood that you’ve lost this thing)? Well, get this. I found it.

Yes, I found the not-lost thing – or rather things, plural. These specific not-lost things being: all the cards and letters Dad wrote to me for all my birthdays and Chanukahs and Valentine’s Days pretty much since I was old enough to read.

So what I’m confessing to you at this moment is the fact that, for many years, I was in the dark as to the whereabouts of these letters. Which even to acknowledge here in this Word-doc-soon-to-become-blog-post gives my stomach a queasy weightless feeling. How could I have spent years not knowing where Dad’s letters were? And let’s be clear as to what we're talking about: These letters represented the entire universe’s written documentation of how Dad thought/felt/cared about me. Thus, for the better part of a decade, I lacked such documentation. Which isn’t to say I doubted that Dad loved me. I didn’t; he loved me.

But Dad had different sides to him. There was goofy Dad who wore a polka-dot bowtie or sweatpants with loafers and who went by the family moniker “Binky.” There was also serious Dad who scrawled notes on a yellow legal pad in his office and cared about making a lot of money. And there was Dad who, I think, became invested in the idea that my brother and I would do a particular brand of praiseworthy type of stuff in our lives, like attending nice schools and landing good-sounding jobs and ourselves making a bunch of money.

And I’ve written here about the refracting effects of time on memory. That is, as the years passed, Dad lost some of his multi-dimensionality in the way that I remembered him. I began to think of him less and less as goofy Binky and more and more as serious Dad. I thought of him as having lots of expectations that I was supposed to live up to, without remembering that he had all these different and authentic sides to him.

And, as noted, during that time – as memory refracted and I mostly thought of Dad as exacting – I was not in possession of any paper documentation regarding how he thought/felt/cared about me, because I didn’t have his letters.

The reason for my cluelessness with regards to the letters’ whereabouts had to do with the fact that my Mom moved out of my childhood home circa 2007 while I myself was gallivanting around the American west. I had duly packed away important things for safekeeping beforehand, including a few precious items of Dad’s into a cardboard file box: a lycra tennis shirt that still smelled of his man sweat; a striped button-down into the collar of which the dry cleaners had stamped his name; a pair of orange polka-dot boxers; his leather pocket calendar with silver pen tucked inside. During the last days of Mom’s residence in our old family home, while I was on a road trip in a baby blue Toyota Corolla from Sedona, Arizona, to points west and north, which involved cooking ramen on a camp stove in a Dairy Queen parking lot in the Mojave Desert and sleeping on the side of a highway near Paso Robles, California, my brother was dutifully labeling the outside of that box in large, clear letters (“MATTEA – DAD’S THINGS”). Then he taped the sucker shut. On moving day, the box was transferred to the basement of Mom’s new house and stored in plain sight.

Maybe you’re thinking that any idiot who’d lost a bunch of letters from her deceased father would have a peak into a box clearly marked with her name and the words “DAD’S THINGS.” Didn’t occur to me, though. Reason being some combination of: (1) I was absolutely not admitting that the letters were lost, thus I wasn’t looking for them; (2) if the letters weren’t in that box, then fuck, maybe they were lost, which eventuality I obviously wasn’t going to entertain for more than a nausea-inducing instant; and (3) to me, the label “DAD’S THINGS” indicated that the box contained, well, Dad’s things – aforementioned shirts and boxers, but not handwritten letters that were from him but that were actually mine.

Anyway, Mom recently organized her basement and had it repainted, after which she toured me around the cool subterranean space so that I could affirm her handiwork. And there, on a stainless-steel shelf toward the back, was the box: MATTEA – DAD’S THINGS.

I opened it. Not because I was looking for the letters (how many times do I have to tell you? They weren’t lost). No, I opened the box because I wanted to see Dad’s things. Which makes perfect sense when you consider that I apparently hadn’t looked at them since 2007.

There, right on top, was a sturdy, translucent plastic bag that contained the letters. They now smelled faintly of mildew, having spent nearly a decade in Mom’s moist basement. But they were otherwise intact. Also in the box was the lycra tennis shirt, though the scent of Dad’s man sweat had faded, and the tie he wore to my high-school graduation, among other things.

I didn’t read any of the letters right then. I didn’t even make a big deal about finding them, since they were never lost. I just tucked the bag under my arm and took it home. And the following evening, sitting on my couch in my underwear, I opened the bag and arranged the letters across the coffee table.

“I love you more than a million mountains.”

“All you have to do is be you.”

I read them all again.

And then I just sat there, on my couch in my underwear, and marinated in the universe of written documentation of how Dad thought/felt/cared about me.

“Slow down, smell the roses.”

I'm your Number One fan.

“Slow down and have FUN.”

“My wish for you is that you see yourself as gloriously as I see you.”

My wish for you is that you see yourself as gloriously as I see you.

I stared at that one, at the words scratched in black ink across a faintly striped sheet of stationary. This one wasn’t only a message of what Dad felt about me. It was also a missive from him to my subconscious.

See yourself as gloriously as I do.

He knew I had a tendency to be tough on myself. What he didn’t know was that he would soon die and that my toughness-on-myself would latch onto a hazy idea that he, Dad, expected certain things of me and, moreover, that I would inconveniently misplace his letters for practically a decade whilst often beating myself up for not living up to that hazy idea of what he (or I?) expected of me/myself.

My wish for you is that you see yourself as gloriously as I see you.

Gingerly I held the letter away from my person so the teardrops didn’t moisten it. Then I tucked it between the pages of a notebook, and went to the frame shop.

Seven days in Mississippi

In 1949, a man by the name of Frank Espada refused to move to the back of the bus.

He was on furlough from basic training in the Air Force in Texas, and was passing through Mississippi on his way to see his family in New York. His refusal to heed the racist admonishment led to his arrest. Then he had to appear before a judge.

“Boy, how many days you have on that furlough?” the judge asked.

“Ten days,” said Espada.

The judge calculated how much travel time Espada would need to return to duty, and then sentenced him to one week in jail. Much later, Espada would come to refer to those seven days in jail as some of the best days of his life  because that was when he decided what he would do with the rest of his life. Evidence below.

Frank Espada became a photographer, photojournalist, activist, community organizer, and teacher, and is perhaps best known for his masterful work The Puerto Rican DiasporaHe passed away on February 16, 2014, and left behind a family bereaved at his absence.

March on Washington, August 28, 1963

March on Washington, August 28, 1963

“Freedom Now,” school boycott demonstration, February 3, 1964

“Freedom Now,” school boycott demonstration, February 3, 1964

East New York Action, early 1960s

East New York Action, early 1960s

“Man With Flag,” Solidarity Day Demonstration, Washington, DC, September 19, 1981

“Man With Flag,” Solidarity Day Demonstration, Washington, DC, September 19, 1981

“Jewish Currents,” school boycott demonstration, February 3, 1964

“Jewish Currents,” school boycott demonstration, February 3, 1964

Malcolm X, after speaking at the school boycott demonstration

Malcolm X, after speaking at the school boycott demonstration


Espada’s son Jason wrote to me to describe the devastation of losing his father, who became ill and perished in the space of a weekend. Jason and I talked about grief, about the urgency and importance in 2016 of his father’s historic activism and photography, and about the ways in which the tender humanity of loss enlivens our commitment to justice for our fellow human beings.

It is with humility and deep gratitude to the Espada family that I share the photographs above. See more of his work at Frank Espada Photography and the Frank Espada Galleries.