The Matchbook Diaries


Summers in high school my father flew us to New York from Texas so he could race his sailboat at the Babylon Yacht Club on Long Island.  He won nearly every single race.  If you win the national championship, get three chevrons on your mainsail.  My father had those three chevrons.  He would saunter up, slightly drunk, to collect silver trophies for all the preliminary races in the summertime.  I loved watching him win.  It was fun, exhilarating.  This was MY dad and he won and won and won.

When I was only two, before their divorce, my mother threw those first place trophies out of the second story window of our house.  They lay in a pile, dented, on the green grass in our back yard.  I liked watching my father get his trophies.  I was profoundly disturbed by my mother’s willingness to break sacred things.  I had no idea, then, just how willing she was.

Later my father kept his trophies on display in his office at Halo, the Miller Beer Distributorship he owned in San Antonio, Texas.  No matter who he married or divorced, the trophies remained constant.  By then when I saw them they had a different impact.  They seemed tawdry and sad, as if they were asserting that my dad was this free wheeling sailor, alive in the cold wind and high seas.  In reality he was a desperate, scared, miserably sad man.

My cousin is still a member of that same yacht club.  From his deathbed my father gave my cousin Sean his raven, a boat my dad named for my mother, Doodle Bug.  My dad never changed the name of his boat.  I discovered that my mother never changed her married name.  She died with my father’s name on her Social Security card; my dad died with her name on his boat.

For the raven national championships it’s bad luck to win the practice race.  No one ever crosses the finish line during the practice race.  One year my dad decided to cross it.  There was a spiritual gasp as he chose to win the practice race.  My dad won every single race in the championship that year, 7 in a row.

My dad believed in winners and losers.  My dad needed his brother to lose.  Every single race my dad won was a race my uncle lost.  In our small family my father was king because he won and my uncle was an outcast because he “lost”.

God doesn’t value winning.  Winning is, in every single respect, in direct contrast to God’s economy.  Winners need losers.  God doesn’t.

I am my cousin’s guest at the yacht club several times during my stay on Long Island as I rescue my mother.  I sat in that same sandbox where Sean and I played and I watch his children play.  I walk my little nieces on the docks and show them how we used to catch blue clawed crabs that hung on the bulkheads.  The bathroom in the clubhouse has that same oil paint smell and I swear the curtains are the same.

My cousin was moving to Australia that year.  He was preparing to rent out his private house where I camped in the basement.  Hence, he had parties and visits from far flung members of our clan who came to say good bye to him.  One night about 10 days before Sean departed the US, he hosted a birthday party for one of his little daughters at the yacht club.  I sat on the deck of the clubhouse and watched the ocean.  My work on Long Island was coming to a close.  Soon I’d drive my mother to Georgia and go home to Qatar.

It was September.  Summer had ended abruptly.  It was cold, windy, and raining that night.  The bay crashed against the shore.  I  showed up for the party but I wanted to leave.  It’s that club.  All I can think of is my dead father and his stupid trophies.

I trotted briskly to the rental car but just as I hit the gravel lot with those same white painted posts with the chain between, I swerved over to the sidewalk.  Tonight, for the first time since childhood, in a chilly, partial sprinkle, I wanted to go on past the swimming pool and have a look at the boat yard.  I’d been watching the giant hoist looming there over the back of the pool, every time I’d been at this club, but I hadn’t had the desire to go see the shipyard.  A dog nearly killed me in a shipyard.  Then I watched a man nearly die in this shipyard.

I was about 6.  I was there for the day.  The electricity of that hoist misfired.  A man had jokingly grasped that hoist hook and electricity ran through the chain into the hook.  The man started wriggling savagely.  I didn’t understand why he didn’t let go.  My uncle ran up to the dangling man and leapt, body slamming him, knocking him off the hoist onto the gravel yard.  My uncle saved his life.  My uncle the loser.  My uncle saved a man.  He did not get a trophy.

My father’s brother is physically strong; during my dad’s life my uncle stepped in to defend his short, weaker, brother.  My dad had bursitis and had a very pronounced limp in high school; he was disabled enough not to have to go to war.  He was also short and a target for bullies, but his brother, my uncle, protected him.   In that boatyard, before I was born, that same hoist was holding the lead centerboard of my father’s boat while they adjusted the housing.  A raven is more than 20 feet long.  The centerboard is a huge, heavy object.   My father’s hands were over the slot where the centerboard slips into the boat when the hoist abruptly let go of that centerboard.  My uncle was there as that centerboard suddenly plunged.  He literally reached out with both arms and grabbed the falling centerboard as it fell through the air, slowing its descent long enough for my father not to lose both of his hands.  My uncle’s strength was staggering, as were his reflexes.  My uncle attended Brown University, as did my father.  They were smart boys.  But they both needed trophies, only one got them, and neither benefitted from that value system.

Later in life my dad tried to rescue his brother fiscally, but the bond between them was complicated, and wound up with my uncle half hating and half admiring my dad.  A few years ago my father’s brother suffered complications from extreme cirrhosis of the liver and was dying.  His girlfriend of 30 years felt he had become too much trouble and dumped him at a hospital in North Carolina, and left for Florida.  A week later, he was dead.

My last email with my father’s brother I begged him to consider the possibility of God –  I knew he was near death.  I asked him to at least consider the option of apologizing for beating his two sons when they were young, one of them nearly to death.  He sent me back a one line letter telling me I’ll have to atone for the flagrantly wasteful life I’ve lived as the poiled, self-centered child of a rich man.  He died days later.

My father died of his alcoholism too, long before his elder brother, but in my dad’s case he elected to do it from a suite in a hospital.  Many people crowded into the rooms for weeks as my father slowly died, my father playing the host all the way up until the end.  He gave extravagant gifts away.  He continued to tell jokes with swagger.  He sang songs from Camelot.  And I knew, as I always had known, that he was, behind it all, a frightened man, a man who had no idea that his Rolexes, his boats, his houses, his cars, they were not going to make him feel important; these were all as impotent as his trophies.  You can’t eat a trophy like a fucking vitamin pill.  Trophies don’t have magical powers.

I notice the same with religious icons.  People all over the world put up all kinds of symbolic stuff, but there is no power emanating directly from any object.  Faith is the power behind such things.  If that object triggers faith, recalls prayer or connection to God, then it can give you something.  But my dad’s trophies never gave him anything that they did not take back in twice the amount later on.

As I walk to the boat yard I nod at the water fountain.  It’s exactly the one that was there before.  And the lockers with the numbers.  All the same.  The game room where we bought cherry soda that wasn’t very tasty; where we never played ping pong, or even hung out, all still the same.  I enter the boatyard in the wet moonlight and stand there listening.

All of a sudden I know that my father is quite dead, and so is every illusion I once had that he loved me.  He was much too distracted by his compulsions to have time for love.  But oh how I loved him.  I love people who love me too little, or in the wrong fashion.  God does the same thing, so I’m not alone.

I stood there looking up at the boats on their stilts and at that hoist, and listened to the slap of the bay on the dock.  I reveled awhile in the song of the halyards twanging against the aluminum masts.  Then I scurried back to my car, put my head on the steering wheel, and cried.

That night I drove past my grandparent’s house on the way back to the basement apartment.  I parked the car and looked at that house for a very long time.  Only God knows what happened there, to my dad and to his brother.  Something.

That fall, I ordered my days odd and even.  On even days I drive one and a half hours to see my mother in Southampton.  I buy her two rice puddings, two lottery tickets, and a slice of pound cake at the deli.  I sit with her for about two hours.  What helps, as I’m with her, is the way I’m able to put the more pieces back together about who I am, and why I love what I do.

One day as I leave the hospital there is a puddle of fresh vomit glistening in the sunshine.  Every day after that visit, I watch the brown stain dwindle on the sidewalk and I wish I did not know the length of the stain’s life.

After I leave my mother on those days, I head to Montauk, east, about an hour away.  I sort through the wreckage in her house, removing things little by little, until no more fits into my rented SUV.  Joe or Mark help me carry things. Before dark I begin the drive back and eat the uneaten half of whatever deli sandwich I bought earlier.

I walk through my cousin’s neighborhood at night and stare at the trees – where I was living at the time, in Qatar, there aren’t trees.  I befriend a German shepherd down the street whose daddy is a volunteer fireman.  As I sift through mildewed receipts from every year of my mother’s life, I am slapped again with the fact that most of her life was lived utterly divorced from me.

Photographs from my childhood are tucked into every corner of my mother’s house.  There I am, in books, hidden in little tin boxes, in drawers and cupboards. I’m adorable. There is not a single framed photo of myself anywhere, and yet my face is there, just beneath the surface.  She makes large donations to temple in my name, but she uses her maiden name, not my father’s name, as my middle name.  She writes long agonized prayers on slips of paper to cover me in light, to make me free and fly like an angel and she saves every prayer.  She’s never gone a day without thinking of me.

The same was true for me, I never went a day without thinking of her.

We collected exactly the same things.  In a drawer I found a set of Chinese figures she’d purchased, and I had the exact same set that I purchased on the street in Foshan, China where those figures are made.  In her solarium she has unique slices of shells, shells that have been cut like a loaf of bread, just like shells I’d just gotten from artist on Cayman Brac.

During that time, I look at the con artist’s face over and over again in the photos he sent my mother along with his breezy letters, always signed with a disingenuous smiley face and expression of affection.  The woman who helps him wrote hearts on her letters and told my mother that she was “like family”.  The con-woman is very pretty, and the man must be considered attractive, though that was well beyond my ability to imagine.  I want to ruin his life.  But he has done that for me himself.  Revenge would in no way regenerate my mom and me into a daughter and mother who were never apart, who were never lovers.  What would my ruining Dusan’s life do other than compromise me?  Not trophies.  It wouldn’t produce justice.

Justice is not about getting things back.  It’s about not needing things at all.  Justice is not about securing things.  It’s about being fastened to God by love and the truth, and unfastened to the pain in my history-heavy heart that hurts me and others.