“They can be like a sun, words. They can do for the heart what light can for a field.”
—St. John of the Cross
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About Jennifer Read HawthorneMeeting My Father
November 5, 2015

My father was killed six weeks before I was born. He was on his way home from his job at the Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge when a truck driver ran a red light and hit the motor scooter he was driving. He died instantly.

It was November 5, 1947, and every year on this date, I think of him and feel the pain of not having asked my mother more about him while she was alive. But two things have happened in recent years that revealed much.

The first occurred several years ago when my traditional acknowledgment of the November 5 anniversary was accompanied by a momentary longing: I wish I could have heard his voice. I promptly forgot about it, but weeks later, the day after Christmas, a present arrived from one of my father’s brothers. It wasn’t the artist’s proof print that my artist uncle usually sent at the holidays, rather it was a CD with a note enclosed and my uncle’s admonition to “Stop! Do not open until you’ve listened to this CD!”

Curious, I put the CD into the player and heard a male quartet singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Why is Uncle Bill sending me a CD of a bunch of men singing old songs? I thought—then broke off mid-thought as I realized I was hearing my father’s voice.

The enclosed note explained that my father had made the recording with three other soldiers at Fort Knox, Kentucky and sent it home to himself in a preprinted cover that said, “A Personally Recorded Message for You.” It went on to tell me his was the baritone—a voice that stood out easily and left me weeping.

The second incident happened last October, when I attended my cousin’s wedding in Tennessee (she’s the daughter of my father’s youngest brother). The night before I was to travel, I was searching for an old photo of my father and mother on their wedding day to show my uncles when I came across a thick envelope containing a dozen or so letters. I vaguely remembered receiving the letters many years ago, but for some reason, I had never read them. I pulled them out one by one and began reading. They were letters my father had written to his best friend while away in the army, starting in 1945.

The postmarks read Fort Knox, Budapest, Vienna. The handwriting was elegant, with perfectly rounded loops barely able to contain his enthusiasm. His letters leaned left, as did his thoughts—a liberal smattering of no-holds-barred FUN!!! shouted the exclamation points. He wrote of girls and weekend passes and entrepreneurial black-market thrills carried out with the help of his friend back home (until his CO discovered their shenanigans). His letters were all about being nineteen, in the U.S. Army, in Europe, and the “swell British girl” he’d met. And suddenly it’s June, 1946—they’re engaged—and in December they will marry in London, said the last letter. And marry my mother he did.

I looked at my father’s letters, the perfect hand that seemed to say everything was in order, like the lines on these pages, which six decades later would reach across time like strands of DNA to introduce me to my father.

P.S. And his best friend—the man to whom those letters were written? My mother married him when I was eighteen months old, and he adopted me. My biological father would have written ten exclamation points after that one!