Letter to My Father

by Leyla Mostovoy

Cher Papi,

Je ne suis pas habituee … I am not used to calling you “cher Papi” or writing to you, especially in English, but it will do, since I doubt you are still of this world. You would be past your 100th birthday.

I am writing you to actualize the feeling that in my childhood you might have cared for me, made various gestures to get close to me, all which I might have disregarded because of my allegiance to Mother. She and I had a symbiotic relationship; there was no place for you. She should not have made me the recipient of her secrets, her inner thoughts. A daughter should never become her mother’s best friend. It was not appropriate for me to be told you lied about your economic status in order to marry her. I shouldn’t have known she begged you not to come around to woo her, because she did not approve of your clothing, your whole self. I shouldn’t have been told you promised to change to become the man she would learn to love. Yet after the wedding you showed your true colors: not as a brute or violent man but a passive aggressive one who took revenge upon mother’s initial rejections in a quiet way. All that should have stayed between the two of you. I shouldn’t have been made to take sides, but I was put in that position and I accepted it.

No one is to blame. We each had our reasons, Mother needed to unburden herself to a confidante, sure that her secrets would not be divulged. She chose a young girl who would never wash the family dirty linen in public. I agreed because of mother’s constancy; after all, you were not there for the first two and a half years of my life. At the beginning of WWII you were gone to a work camp built by Turkish authorities friendly with the German govern-ment. You disappeared again when I was five, when Diana was born and there was not enough money to pay the hospital. You took off without leav-ing a forwarding address, and I now realize you would flee whenever you were short of cash. I could not trust you, rely on you. No matter how difficult and demanding mother was, she was always present. I can recall the efforts you made to bond with me, ones I chose to ignore.

You were the only person who gave me a toy: a tank that fired sparkles. You tried to play with me but I refused. Later in life I imagined you bought me such a toy because you wanted your firstborn to be a boy, someone to continue the lineage. A clairvoyant lady told me you had given me the tank so that one day I would know the “one from the other side” whose name began with a Y but was not Yosef/Joseph, my beloved Uncle, but my father Yuda who was watching over me. I think you cared for me, but my heart could not feel it. It was almost as if my mind and my heart did not talk to each other. Maybe in time they would communicate and allow me to feel some connection with you.

When I was in third or fourth grade, you tried to teach me how to solve math problems when I had difficulties with homework. I hated your long and belabored explanations. Just do it and let’s get it over with, I thought to myself, angry and impatient. But you persisted and I disliked you even more. When I broke Diana’s dolls you fixed them without any remonstrances. Alt  hough you were able to repair the torn plastic limbs, the eyes I poked inside rattled in their plastic heads beyond your help. Did I poke those eyes out be-cause I was jealous of my sister, of her connection to you? Whenever you were home, she sat on your lap or stood behind you on your chair and gave you funny hairdos.

You liked to feed your loved ones; you took your time to beat a delicious mousse of butter, egg, sugar and cocoa mother wanted me to have for break-fast when she thought I was too skinny. You made mayonnaise from scratch and I learned to make it from watching you. You bought lakerda, a Turkish delicacy of fish marinated in salt; you skinned and sliced it to perfection. You took us to Ibiz Island to eat grapes right off the vines; you bought cherries that Diana and I gobbled, swallowing the pits so we could eat them faster and you made earrings of the ones that came attached to the stems like twins.  I remember that wonderful birthday Diana and I celebrated on the same day, when you made shadows of animals on the walls to entertain our friends, then showed us a movie about a mouse that gets into the living room of a young woman. When you played it backwards we all laughed and cheered to see the broken vase gather up and become whole, the lady of the house jump down off the couch and the mouse retreat into its hole in the wall. Diana and I always talk about that film. We loved that reverse action.

If only we could have lived life like that. I wonder if I would have behaved differently. I do hope so for your sake and mine. But I do not like the word hope because it has the sense of desperation. After having done everything in our power and finding the problem has no solution, we settle into hope, quiet desperation. At the party I still remember the way you answered when I asked how old I was. Why would I ask you such a question? I am sure I knew. Nonetheless you answered, “You were nine, you are walking on ten, you will be eleven.” Quite philosophical. There is no future without a past.

And that is what I am trying to understand: my past with you, our relationship, the one I always minimized as not consequential until it became more demanding and wanted to be looked at. For a long time I did not believe you meant anything to me, but you did and you do. I want to understand it so the little time I have left here is better lived. I do not want to be that puppet pulled by the strings of abandonment. I suffered when you left over and over again and for the last time on November 10, 1961 in Sao Paulo after my one year of marriage to Manu. Maybe if I could have felt your caring connection for me I would not have experienced life like a puppet and have seen abandonment in many situations. A friend forgets to call back, my husband is late for dinner, catastrophe. I shall never hear from her or maybe never see him ever again.

You and I have a photo, I believe the only one of us together, at the airport in 1956 when I left Istanbul at fifteen to go to school in Tel Aviv. We are standing side by side, with a faint smile directed at the camera. I am almost as tall as you are, both of us in tweed suits, yours is gray, mine blue. Your straight Greek nose and thin lips are contrasted by your pear shaped body. Besides the flowers you gave me an unusual parting gift, a blue eye liner. Were you acknowledging me as a burgeoning woman? I used that pencil sparingly until there was nothing left, until it disappeared the way you did. My friend Ellen, my mentor in New York and the one who made sure I got a driver’s license and went for my GED and the ACE program in Queens College, insisted it was time to buy some new American style make up at Bloomingdale’s. I never attached any sentiments to that eye liner until I began talking about you to my therapist. You also bought me a platinum, pearl and diamond ring because I promised to stop biting my nails. I do not know where it is. Another loss! In 1957 you agreed to take me along on a three month trip to Israel and Europe when you should have gone alone with Mother, probably the only time you two could have been on your own and had the chance to solve your problems.

In 1960 you disappeared again. Months later, in a letter, you asked mother to sell the apartment in Tel Aviv and join you in Sao Paulo. Once settled there, you wanted me to find my way around Sao Paulo without being driven by you so I could become independent. I was angry at you because I saw your suggestion as another rejection, just the way I was furious when you wanted me to understand how to solve math problems. When Manu, an auto electrician, came to Sao Paulo to marry me you wanted to open a repair shop with him. “I told Manu, I will not be caught in the middle of a family drama. If you do something wrong, Father will tell Mother who will then tell me to talk to you.” How could I be sure you would stick around if the business did not flourish?

When in 1966 Manu got permission to enter the United States legally because the quota for blue collar workers had opened, he decided to leave as soon as possible for the promised land. I was reluctant to leave mother behind. “You must follow your husband,” she said. “You belong with him.” From your hiding place you sent word that you wanted to see us—Manu, our two and a half year old son, Dov, and me, before we left for New York, and Diana before she left for Istanbul. In many ways I am like you. I go to sleep very early and wake up before sunrise. You wrote illegal letters in lemon ink to Switzerland to transfer money for your clients. I write down my memories, dreams and thoughts. I am pretty good with math but find life problems hard to solve. That you were unable to teach me since you had no clue yourself. I am good with languages, just like you, who spoke French, Armenian, Greek, some German and a bit of English. When mother put both of us on a diet, I was sent to Azade Hanim, personal trainer, and you were made to eat boiled carrots. Yet both of us ended up visiting pastry shops when out of mother’s sight. You never lost the weight, while I found a way to satisfy both my cravings and mother. I became bulimic. Both you and I lied to mother when in 1959 I went to the Rowal, a café at Dizengoff, to smoke a cigarette in her cigarette holder, making believe I was Marlene Dietrich, and you passed by in your 1959 pistachio Chevrolet, cruising alone instead of looking for a job.

Last night I had a dream about a French word, lacher. Although I knew its meaning (not fully), I could not translate it. I tried to give examples, put it in a sentence, but no one could understand. At the end of the dream someone was speaking and used the word abandonment and suddenly it came to me: yes, it means abandonment. We can also say it means quitter, to leave. When I woke up I realized I had made a mistake. Lacher, the verb, means to let go. Lache, the noun, means coward. I still see you as the coward who let me go, did not fight for me, ran away when life became too complex, too messy within the confines of family bonds, responsibilities, demands. In my mind I know you must have cared for me. But my heart can not feel it. It is almost as if my mind and heart do not talk to each other. Maybe in time I will no longer fear the ache in my head and heart and they will communicate and allow me to feel some connection with you.


 Although English was not my first language for over half my life, I think, write and dream in English. This makes me feel at home as I have never felt in Turkey, Israel or Brazil.