e-mail us


A father’s heart returns to a daughter


Reaching the end of a speech that bored even me, I sit down feeling useless, tired of my own voice, disconnected. A few people come up to talk, and I fight the urge to argue with their compliments. “Thank you,” I say, wincing. “Thank you for saying so.”

A young man is about to engage me in a debate about the death of the print medium when an older woman steps forward, standing a little closer than anybody else. “My name’s Peg,” she said. “I knew your dad.”

Chairs stop scraping in the background, papers stop shuffling, the young man’s nasal voice vanishes into thin air. All I can hear is Peg’s slightly hoarse, kind voice. “I worked with him at the ad agency,” she continues. “He was quite a guy.”

Something I’ve always wanted to believe. My father dropped dead of a heart attack -- on the golf course, of all places -- when I was 9 months old, too young to connect strong, cradling arms and a rough wool lap with character traits. Then, when my mom left their white-frame house in Webster Groves, Mo., for a studio apartment, the movers lost the cardboard box packed with photos and love letters.

My mom didn’t want them anyway; she was busy trying to forget two happy long-awaited years of marriage and to raise me alone. Never one to dwell on the past, she wiped away the memories like a professor furiously erasing a failed equation. By the time I was old enough to demand stories of my father, she had to stop and think.

She could always muster a few anecdotes, but her voice had a vague, dreamy, far off quality that left me wondering whether it all really happened. Maybe there were never any photos at all. Maybe my father never existed. Over the years it came to matter less and less. People would ask how I’d lost my dad, and I’d give an often rehearsed, bare-bones chronology, my own voice a little vague.

Now I’m 39, 10 years older than my mom was when he died, and a woman named Peg is telling me stories.

“One day,” she bubbles, “I was on deadline, working furiously, and your dad shows up in the doorway holding this ridiculous floppy-eared pink bunny. Huge, clutched to his stomach. ‘Isn’t this great?’ he kept saying. ‘I can’t wait to see her face.’ I tried to tell him I didn’t have time to talk, but he had to play the music box for me, and waggle the bunny’s ears, and finally I just had to stop working and tell him it was wonderful, you’d love it.”

I’m nodding along like an idiot, wanting a dead man to know how much I loved a bunny I can’t even remember.

“Anyway, I heard you were here and I just had to tell you that story,” she finishes, hugs me and moves away into the crowd. Turning back to the anxious young man, I blithely reassure him that print is very much alive. Lousy speech forgotten, I’m as giddy as a teenager whose crush just asked her out. “He loved me,” I keep thinking. “He really did love me.”

This is, of course, something I have been told for years. But the ridiculous floppy-eared bunny has made it real. A silly act of kindness has collapsed 38 long years like a Slinky, bringing my dead father close.

A few weeks later, my husband came home from the film “Gladiator” quoting a favorite line -- something like, “What we do in life echoes through the ages” -- and I thought again of the bunny.

I’m sure my hard-driving father never dreamt, when he snuck out of some executive meeting to head for the toy store, that his sweet foolishness would stick in a coworker’s mind for nearly four decades. He could have let his secretary place the order or at least retained his dignity by swaddling the pink plush in a discreet brown bag. Instead, he opened his heart, and the consequences traveled through time to reassure a daughter long grown.

If this is karma, I’ll take it.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000