Christopher, John and Tonya get a surprise when their ageing father announces he is engaged to be married to a woman he’s never met; by JSP Jacobs.
My older sister, Tonya, calls at 6:30am. I’m just out of the shower, wrapped in a towel.
“Christopher, did you get the text from Dad?” she asks.
I squint at my phone screen, not having yet put my contacts in, and search for notification of a new message. “Does Dad know how to text?”
“It says he’s getting married again,” Tonya says. “It says, in these exact words, ‘I proposed marriage to Edith Joan Callahan of Gainesville, Florida and she accepted.'”
“That woman he’s been talking to on the phone for a month. I told you about her, remember? The retired librarian who’s never been married.”
“No! He’s never even seen her; he has no idea what she looks like. I’ve only heard from him that she likes some of the same weird stuff he does, iridology and pears and whatever, and that she’s a year younger than him. That’s all I know.”
“Seventy-two?” I ask.
“Seventy-three. Hold on. Oh, I have to go. John’s calling. I told him about it, too. I haven’t been able to get Dad to pick up but you should call, maybe he will for you.”
Tonya hangs up. I stand half-blind, half-naked in the last lingering steam of my shower. “Oh, Dad,” I say out loud. “I know you’re lonely, but really?”
Our parents divorced when I was 11, which was 33 years ago. Tonya was 15, John, was 13. But even divorced, Dad was still crazy about Mom and wasn’t shy about vocalizing it – to her or to us. Mom was flattered and even coquettish around him, said she’d love “that handsome little man” forever but that he just wasn’t competent. Which was true. Dad was child-like and, at 5 foot 5 inches, not much larger than one. He tried hard, meant well, but I’m sure had (has) an undiagnosed disorder or two. Back then, he made awful decisions with money – high interest loans, a chicken franchise, multi-level marketing stuff. He also had difficulty concentrating or memorizing, rambling in conversational circles to anyone who would listen, which made keeping the same job longer than a year almost impossible. We moved from city to city, house to house; he was a bus driver, a screen door salesman, a cook, a carpenter, a wrestling coach, a real estate agent. He wasn’t mean, he wasn’t dangerous, but Mom couldn’t raise three children in the life conditions he created. She was the kind of woman who needed taking care of.
She filed for divorce and re-married a big, sweaty man with a Porsche and a catering business who was exceedingly competent. Dad re-married a mean Irish woman with her own house and a banking job, who made all his decisions for him and kept him in line. She was also very competent. Even if they didn’t love their new spouses the way they had loved one another, things were certainly more stable. Tonya, John and I went back and forth between them, mostly without complaint, during weekends and holidays. It didn’t feel wrong, given that most of our friends were in similar situations.
Those sets of parents are the ones I went through my teenaged and adult years with, their lives average, routine by choice, or in Dad’s case by choice of his new wife, up until two years ago when both my step-father and step-mother died within a few months of each other: the competent man of a stroke and the competent woman of an aneurysm. Then Mom and Dad, in their seventies, were suddenly lonely, single people again. They called Tonya, John, or me – or all of us – every night to “just chat,” or ask us questions like how to work the sleep timer on their television remote or what an Uber was. We live within a few hours of each other, in Southern California cities lined up along the freeway, so they also came to visit us, usually without asking. It was a lot, the chatting and visiting, since we all had jobs and children and spouses of our own to care for. But it felt like our necessary burden, slightly easier split three ways.
Sometimes, Mom and Dad would end up staying at one of our houses at the same time, like they did at my house last Christmas. Mom was at the table with my thirteen-year-old daughter, helping to put bows on gifts. Dad was in the kitchen with me, pouring chips into a bowl, weeping as he looked at them:
“Oh, Christopher, isn’t she still just the loveliest thing? What a woman. What a fool I was not to be able to keep her.”
And Mom, aware of Dad’s wet eyes on her, pushing her blonde-gray bob behind her ears, leaning her chin into her hand, going pink in the cheeks like a schoolgirl.
Then Dad showed up to the dinner table that night in his old Army uniform, side cap and everything, sat straight-backed in his chair as if at attention, a half-smile on his face, knowing Mom always used to go weak for him in his uniform, the way she had when they’d first met during his ROTC days. She kept looking sideways at him and had a hard time holding onto her fork.
I let Dad sleep on the couch, put Mom in our bedroom, and Sarah and I slept uncomfortably on the floor of our daughter’s room in sleeping bags.
“Also, what was with the uniform?” Sarah whispered to me, a few minutes after I thought she’d fallen asleep. “How does he still have that and why would he pack it to spend the night at our house?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe he couldn’t find his Santa suit. Merry Christmas?”
Tonya and John’s families arrived the next day. The three of us watched Dad watching Mom try on her new scarf, and Mom watching Dad drink his eggnog, and all our kids of assorted sizes running around trying out one another’s new toys and gadgets. We felt the shared weirdness of being sandwiched between caring for the young and old, the sudden responsibility of it all; because wasn’t it just yesterday we were teenagers, sitting together in our basement, the heavy fall of adult feet above us, listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees on high volume, sharing a two-pound bag of Twizzlers, waiting for dates and friends to show up to take us away from our parents and step-parents to the movies or parties?
“I think those two old horndogs are going to get back together,” John said to Tonya and me. “Like, what if?”
Tonya and I thought it would be uncomfortable, but not impossible. Dad still couldn’t be called ‘competent’ exactly, but at least he’d kept his job as a school janitor for a decade, maintained his head full of wavy hair and all his own teeth, inherited the house his last wife had owned. He was something a little more than he’d been.
Then last month, Mom eloped with a man she met at her Friends of the Art Museum meeting, a former state congressman with paper bag skin and a patch of liver spots on top of his balding head, who used a walker because he had a bad hip. He was living off a healthy pension, which bought whatever competency he was lacking physically. When we met him, a few days after their elopement, Tonya had asked what he liked best about Mom. He’d replied, “Oh, she makes a great nurse, and she’s got a little extra in the backside, too.” He then patted Mom on the rear, and Mom giggled, and Tonya looked at her feet; and Dad called me, barely able to choke out the words, “Did you know your mom got married again?”
I guess it was probably then that he started his phone conversations with Edith Joan Callahan of Gainesville, Florida. Her number was given to him by a man at church. “I think you two might get along,” the man had said. Which I know must have meant something like, “She’s kind of weird, you’re kind of weird. Here you go.”
I call Dad on my lunch break which is the same time as his lunch break. He answers on the fourth ring, his voice high-pitched and a little breathless.
“Hello, Christopher? Did you get my good news about Edith Joan Callahan of Gainesville, Florida?”
“I did, Dad. That’s why I’m calling.”
“She said yes. Well, actually she said, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Five times yes! Isn’t that wonderful?”
“I really want it to be, Dad. But Tonya and John and I have some concerns. Like, have you ever seen this woman? Are you planning to move to Florida?”
“Well, I’m trying to get some money together to go down there, but she keeps telling me she isn’t much to look at. And I don’t know, maybe it would be nice to live in Florida? I’m just so happy she said yes.”
Dad talks non-stop for half an hour, tells me all he knows about Edith, including the iridology and the pear connection Tonya had mentioned (Dad was always trying to diagnose us by looking in our eyes, always trying to give us wormy pears off his trees). He tells me how Edith had been a librarian in New York all her life, working in the historical section, until she had retired to Florida in 2010; how kind her voice sounds on the phone, “Like syrup,” he says. “Like a warm jacket.” He keeps calling her Edith Joan Callahan of Gainesville, Florida, as if demonstrating this knowledge of her full name and where she resides makes the fact he’s proposed over the phone to a woman he’s known for a month and hasn’t seen somehow okay.
“And she’s never been married,” he goes on. “She had a man she was in love with, in college. He worked in the library with her. She didn’t get the chance to tell him that she loved him, but she was sure he felt the same, the way he would let his hands touch hers when he’d pass her a stack of books. But then he died in a climbing accident. She never met anyone she liked as much, so she never got married. She’s never even had S-E-X, Christopher. Isn’t that just the most romantic thing?”
By now my lunch break is nearly over. I haven’t eaten and am exhausted from so much listening, not any more convinced that this is a good idea, even if my father has managed to find himself a seventy-three year old virgin. What if she weighs 700 pounds and has a beard? What if she is actually a Russian hacker out to take Dad for what little he has? He is a grown man, kind of, but Tonya, John and I will still have to pick up whatever mess all this could leave. If he loses his house, he’ll have to come live with one of us. If he quits his job, what other place will hire him? He has no retirement fund, and social security is barely more than pocket change. It feels like we are going to have to get in the middle of this somehow.
“Well, Dad, I have to go now, but I’m happy you’re happy. Do I have to call her Mom or can I call her Edith Joan Callahan of Gainesville, Florida?”
“Well, then, ummm, I guess you could call her, uh…”
“I’m kidding, Dad. One of us will call you later. Make sure to eat something.”
“I brought a pear,” he says.
That night, Tonya, John and I get on Zoom to talk about what I’d found out. Our spouses wander in for the first few minutes to wave to one another over our shoulders, give their opinions. They are mostly amused at the situation, think it harmless. Sarah even says it’s adorable.
“Has anyone Googled her yet?” Tonya says.
“Not yet. Just a second.” I share my screen, open a new tab and type her name in the search bar. No social media profiles come up, just a single image, black and white, of her bent over a desk with an open book. It’s from 1979, attached to the Rochester Public Library website. The description reads, Edith Joan Callahan, Historical Division, Retired. In the photo, her hair is dark, pulled back on the sides with combs. She’s wearing a long calico-print dress. Her nose is sharp but not unpleasant. “Well, at least she is, or was, real.”
“You’re his favorite, Christopher,” Tonya says. “I’ll pay for the tickets if you’ll just fly down to Florida with him and see this woman. Make sure she’s not a murderer.”
“Me?” I say. “You’re a better judge of character than I am, Tonya. You were the first one he told about her. Or what about you, John? You’re better at, I don’t know, skateboarding.”
John says, “Damn straight I am, and if this problem could be solved by my wicked kick flip from thirty years ago, I would for sure be your dude. But right now, I don’t have any paid time off left at work.”
“And I’ve got final exams to give,” Tonya says. “I’ll put the money in your PayPal tonight. Just get the tickets.”
The soonest flight I can get from LAX to Jacksonville leaves the following Wednesday and returns Friday. I figure two days is enough for whatever we’re trying to accomplish. There are no seats available next to each other so I sit in row 5, by the window, and Dad sits a seat away, across the aisle. When he isn’t getting up to use the bathroom, which is a lot, he keeps trying to strike up a conversation with the woman next to him who is ringed in a neck pillow, obviously attempting to sleep. I lean forward, wave my hands to get Dad’s attention, put my finger to my lips to indicate “shush.” He nods and instead pushes the button for the stewardess and begins asking her questions about Gainesville.
“Would you mind trading seats with my dad?” I ask the man next to me. “It looks like he really needs someone to talk to.
“Totally understand,” says the man. “I can’t get mine to take off his Trump hat.”
We land in Florida just before 10pm. Outside, the night air is thick and hot, vapor rising from pavement still wet with the last of a passing rainstorm. My shirt immediately goes damp and clings to my stomach.
“Isn’t that something?” Dad says, “Feels like pea soup!”
Gainesville is 80 miles away, so I rent a car and check us into a nearby Motel 6, tell Dad we’ll make the drive in the morning. In the room, I turn the AC on high, sit on the bed, and start the parade through television channels. Dad takes the bag of peanuts he’d been given on the plane out of his pocket and begins to eat them as he looks out the third-story window.
“Look down there,” he says. “The pool is still open. There’s some people in the hot tub. I haven’t been swimming in ages.”
“Did you bring swimming trunks?”
“No. But I can see a Wal-Mart across the street. How about we walk over and I’ll buy a pair, and buy a pair for you too. My treat.”
I don’t really feel like swimming but I’m not tired either, my body still on California time. I might as well sit by the pool and look around at whatever part of Jacksonville this is we’re in, so I could say, if anyone ever asked, that I’d been to Florida.
Dad goes into the Wal-Mart dressing room with a pair of men’s size small swimming trunks he picked off the rack. When he steps out to show me, which I hadn’t asked him to do, I can see that, even with the string waist cinched tight, they still slip down his hips enough they’ll come off in the water. I really don’t need to be dealing with naked Dad in the pool tonight. So I go to the children’s section, bring him a pair of boys size 14 trunks – white with neon-colored pineapples. They fit. He loves them. He keeps them on, pulls the tags off to pay for them.
“What about a ring, Dad?” I ask as we walk back across the street. He’s carrying a bag full of the khakis and underwear he’d been wearing. “Did you mail her a ring to go with the phone proposal?”
“Well, no. I thought about that, even asked her ring size. But she says it’s hard to know because she has a little web between her middle finger and her ring finger, so she’s never worn a ring there before.”
“She has webbed fingers?” This whole thing just keeps getting more, more.
“No, just that one web. I think. I’ll take her with me to pick out a ring and she can wear it on whatever finger she wants.”
Poolside, he removes his shirt. His skin hangs on his skeleton like melted wax, the gray hair across his chest the texture of steel wool. The couple he’d seen in the hot tub from our window doesn’t look happy to have us join their late-night party, look like they may have been trying to do something more than just sit in the hot tub. They get out, bodies steaming with heat, and go back into the motel, their footprints evaporating behind them. Instead of using the stairs, Dad jumps in, forms a clumsy cannonball, splashing water onto my shoes and pants. The smell of chlorine is everywhere. He comes to the surface and whoops.
“You’re missing out, Christopher! The water is so warm.”
I sit down on one of the worn lounge chairs, its yellowed plastic slats gone slack, and text Sarah to let her know we arrived safely. I also send a photo of Dad in the blue-lit water, breast-stroking circles in the shallow end. “It’s almost midnight. Dad wanted to swim,” I caption.
She replies back: “Don’t let him drown. Call me before you go to bed.”
I send the same picture and text to Tonya and John who give me similar responses about him not drowning. Dad is now working the backstroke, throwing his arms like water wheels. “Take it easy, Dad,” I call. “Don’t drown.”
I used to think, at this point in life, I might be helping my parents look for retirement villages or Medicare plans, not dealing with two sets of young lovers – Mom and the congressman, Dad and the librarian. Not supervising my father swimming around a pool in boy-sized swimming trunks the way he used to sit and supervise me at the city pool, put sunscreen across my back, help me up the diving board, towel my hair dry.
It is what it is, I think, repeating the phrase Sarah always uses when life finds a way to deliver different things than we expect. Sweet, resilient, steady Sarah who I probably would have flown across the country for, too, if she hadn’t lived just a few miles away. Instead, I wrote her poetry and learned to make some kind of complicated Danish almond cake she said her grandmother used to make. I even folded 212 paper cranes when she told me that if I folded a thousand, the Japanese believed I could make a wish of the gods. After 212, she said yes to my proposal, so I guess I got the attention of some less-demanding deity.
I pull up Google Maps on my phone to check the route between here and Gainesville, see what time we should leave in the morning.
“Hey, Dad, do you have Edith’s address?”
He swims up near me, hangs on the edge of the pool by his forearms, his chin dripping water onto the pebbled cement. “Not yet. I thought I’d ask for it when I called her tomorrow, so I could surprise her.”
“You didn’t tell her we were coming?”
“Nope.” Dad smiles, “I thought it would be fun like this.”
“Great,” I say. “I hope she likes surprises.” What more can I say? It’s probably my fault for not making sure my father’s long-distance fiancé of five days knew we were on our way to her. Dad swims off, clearly pleased with his choice. I’m sure this is how Mom must have felt, all those years of surprises, Dad always delivering the news of some new life upheaval with his arms outstretched, his lubberly optimistic grin. Like the time Mom was running a day care in our house, and movers showed up one Thursday afternoon to load our things and take us to the new house dad had bought without telling any of us because he wanted us to be surprised. Nothing was packed. Dad was still at work. There were babies and toddlers everywhere. Surprise!
After his swim, back in our room, Dad climbs into bed and falls asleep immediately, his hair still damp, the bottoms of his feet wrinkled with moisture, tipped on his side with his arm thrown across some imaginary body. I get a blanket from the top of the closet and pull it over him.
The next morning, we eat our free continental breakfast in the lobby. Dad, still wearing his pineapple swim trunks and a faded “#1 Grandpa” t-shirt Tanya gifted him years ago. In front of him, a waffle, covered in applesauce, cut it into toddler-sized bites. He’s filled a small glass with straight cream meant for coffee, thinking it was milk. Now, he’s pushing the bites around his plate without eating them.
“Are you nervous?” I ask.
“Boy, am I ever! I’m just waiting for 9 o’clock, then I’ll call her. Should I tell her I’m here or should I ask for her address and show up on her doorstep?”
“This is your show, Dad. I’m just driving the car and taking notes.”
“Well, I don’t think I could ever beat how I proposed to your mother. She was one of the witches in Macbeth, at the community theater. On opening night, I hid inside the cauldron and when she started ‘Boil, boil, toil and trouble,’ I stuck my hand straight up with a ring in it. She didn’t even see me inside there. It scared her so bad she fell backwards. Wasn’t that a great surprise?”
I’d heard the story before, pictured cauldron-sized Dad, Mom in green face paint with a prosthetic hook nose and stick-on warts. She’d said yes even though it seemed like she knew what she was getting herself into.
There was only one question Tonya and John told me I had to ask Dad before I took him to Gainesville, one we had all asked him in some form already but which he really hadn’t answered directly. Like he didn’t know the answer, or didn’t want to tell us.
“I wouldn’t be doing my filial duty if I didn’t ask why the rush, Dad? Why not have her fly out to California, court her a bit, let her meet us, then sit across the dinner table and read each other’s retinal constitutions or whatever it is you do, and then talk about marriage?”
Dad suddenly seemed to notice his applesauced waffle, began forking bites into his mouth. I waited. He slowly drained his glass of coffee creamer. I waited. Finally, he released a long sigh and said, “I just want to be someone’s hero for once. I mean your mother, bless her, rendered me useless – and I probably was, but then I spent more than twenty years being henpecked in my second marriage. I’d like to be a knight in shining armor for a change. Your mom isn’t alone and I don’t want to be alone and I don’t think Edith Joan Callahan wants to be alone. Can’t you just let me save her?” He looked down at his empty plate, his hands flat on the table on either side of it. As if he’d just made a confession to me and was awaiting his penance.
I remember Mom telling me how, one year of their marriage, he wanted to start a wilderness camp for troubled teens. He tried to get her to move into a shack in the middle of the woods with a single light bulb and no running water. Tonya was two, John was a baby. It was ridiculous. But he couldn’t see that. He didn’t see a shack; he told her he would “make it a castle.” And I knew this fantasy would outweigh whatever logic I could try coaxing him towards. It isn’t going to matter to him what Edith Joan Callahan of Gainesville, Florida looks like, or smells like, or if she has a fin-hand. He’s going to save her from her life alone, and she’s going to save him. So, in his mind, it’s worth it. He gets to rescue the hermitess librarian, and he gets to feel like he has some power in his life again. And really, don’t we all want to prove people wrong?
“Alright, Dad. I think I get it. I’ll try to convince Tonya and John. Go call and get her address.”
Smiling with all his still-his-own-teeth showing, he goes back up to the room to get his phone while I stay behind, drinking my juice, looking out at the view of Wal-Mart behind ripples of morning heat. After twenty minutes, he still hasn’t returned. I take the elevator up to our floor, key open the door, and there he is – sitting at the edge of the bed, gripping his head in his hands, his slight back shaking, and his phone next to him.
“Dad, what’s wrong? What happened?”
I bend down on one knee in front of him, lift him by his shoulders which feel like two tangerines in my hands. The wrinkles beneath his eyes fill with tears.
“Marriage is off, Christopher.”
“She said I shouldn’t have come. She said she must have just been caught up in the excitement when she said yes, but that she can’t betray the memory of the man she loved. The one who died in the climbing accident. Even though she does enjoy talking on the phone with me and hopes we can keep that up.”
How does one console their elderly parent who’s just had his heart broken? They don’t teach you this in middle-age adult books. I’m pretty sure Tonya and John would tell me my idea was the worst, but it’s all I can come up with:
“Do you want to go anyway?” I say. “To Gainesville? We can just look around, and maybe you could invite Edith to go have ice cream or something. As friends?”
Dad leans into me – crumples, really – and sort of wipes his nose against my shirt; then sits up and smoothes his hair back into place. He looks deflated. He whispers, “Yes, please. I want to do that.”
We check out, load our suitcases into the trunk of the rented car, and turn left towards the I-10 West. I wait for Dad to perk up and start into some story I would have heard before, but he just looks out at the passing clusters of brown shopping malls interspersed with palm trees, his jaw tight, the grind of our tires on asphalt the only sound. When rain starts up, a soft but steady downpour, he uses his finger to trace the horizontal tracks the drops make against the window.
I always thought I’d wanted a father who was less talkative, less of a joke, more studious, one who wore wool cardigans and gave me investment advice, but this sample of Dad without his simple enduring expectation of happiness, of life’s steady providence is too much to take.
“Hey, Dad, keep an eye out for a J.C. Penney or someplace you like to shop. I think we should stop and get you a new suit. Maybe seersucker. Something a real Florida gentleman would wear. Do you think Edith would like that?”
Dad looks into his lap, at the neon pineapples, as if just realizing what he was wearing. “Well, I haven’t had a new suit in I don’t know how long.”
“And how about we stop at a barbershop, too? Get you a haircut and a shave, a nice slap on the neck?”
Dad seems to be catching onto my idea, his eyes visibly brightening like something straight out of one of his iridology books. “And maybe we could get some roses and some of those pears that are wrapped in gold foil?”
I picture my dad, standing on Edith’s Gainesville porch, his gifts in hand, smelling of spiced orange hair tonic, a straw boater hat on his head like a barber shop quartet member (yes, my fantasy version of him now includes a straw boater hat). And Edith will throw her arms around him and say she’d changed her mind, lament that she nearly let this dear sweet man go, and she’ll forget all about what’s-his-name-dead-climber guy because what could he offer that wasn’t right in front of her?
“Sure, Dad,” I say. “Whatever it takes to win her back.”
“Whatever it takes,” he repeats, in solidarity, an understanding between two men that love, with all its quantities of power, deserves every clumsy effort we can throw at it.