The Matchbook Diaries


Summers in high school my father and I would fly New York from Texas so my father could race his sailboat at the Babylon Yacht Club on Long Island.  He won nearly every single race.  If you win the national championship, you get to have three chevrons on your mainsail.  My father always had those three chevrons on his sail.  He would saunter up, slightly drunk, to collect silver trophies for all the preliminary races in the summertime.

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.  Later he 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.

My cousin is a member of that same yacht club.  On his deathbed my father gave my cousin Sean his raven, a boat my dad named for my mother, Doodle Bug.  He 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.

For the raven national championships, during the practice race, it’s bad luck to win the practice race.  No one ever crosses the finish line.  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.

I am my cousin’s guest at the yacht club several times during my stay on Long Island as I rescue my mother.  I sit in that same sandbox where he and I played and 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 is moving to Australia.  He will rent out the house where I am camped in the basement.  Hence, he has parties and visits from far flung members of our clan.  One night about 10 days before he departs the US, my cousin hosts a birthday party for one of his little daughters at the yacht club.  I sit on the deck of the clubhouse and watch the ocean.

It’s September.  Summer ended abruptly.  It’s cold, windy, and raining.  The bay is crashing against the shore.  I’ve  shown up for the party but now I want to leave.  I trot briskly to the rental car but just as I hit the gravel lot with those same white painted posts with the chain between, I swerve over to the sidewalk.  Tonight, for the first time since childhood, in a chilly, partial sprinkle, I think I’ll go on past the swimming pool and have a look at the boat yard.  I’ve been watching the giant hoist looming there over the back of the pool, every time I’ve been at this club, but I haven’t had the desire to go see the shipyard.

When I was about 6 the electricity of that hoist misfired.  One day a man grasped that hoist hook and somehow there was electricity running 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 father’s brother is physically strong; during my dad’s life my uncle stepped in to defend his short, weaker, brother.  Later my dad tried to rescue his big 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 that same uncle suffered complications from extreme cirrhosis of the liver.  His girlfriend of 30 years dumped him at a hospital in North Carolina, and left for Florida.  A week later, he was dead.  No matter how you measure success, my father’s family falls short.

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.  He literally reached out with both arms and grabbed the falling centerboard as it plunged through the air, halting its decent 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.  How people can be endowed with massive talent and opportunity and live so poorly is a terrible wonder.

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 sends me back a one line letter telling me I’ll have to atone for the flagrantly wasteful life I’ve lived.  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.

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.