“You dazzle me,” my father Lee wrote to Flossi Banks in late 1945. “Whenever I look into your green-flecked eyes—mmm, there I go again.”
Such passion, such openness. This man was unrecognizable.
“Should I close this with…’my heart beats like an a-bomb?’”
In response there were a few distant letters from Flossi, the Ivy League lady who raised me and ensured I didn’t flirt, use makeup, or cry too much.
Flipping through the pages, I remembered that I wasn’t actually raised by parents; I was raised by a marriage. And here was its beginnings, archived in a Dell computer box. Now I would understand Lee’s humiliating rages and Flossi’s dismissive hugs, his secrets and hers too. I would understand what glued them together so intractably and invisibly, what made them a unit so distinctly apart from the family they created.
Or maybe not—there was so little from Flossi.
But weirdly, there were lots of letters from a Patsy Duffy. At first, I didn’t see the point of trolling through a young woman’s yearnings for a man who would marry my mother instead. On the other hand, this stranger had fire— “Darling,” Patsy wrote in 1944, well before Flossi appeared in Lee’s life, “I love you so much and miss you once in a while, too. The only time I don’t miss you is when I have a rendezvous with morpheus.”
Separated by World War II—Lee was in Philadelphia, Patsy in Montclair, New Jersey—they wrote frequently. She was flinty, addictive. “My dearest Hammerhead, First of all let me get a little matter settled in which you were wrong and I was right, as usual…”
I loved that, Hammerhead, because he certainly was a hammerhead, and only an immortal would dare say it.
Certainly Flossi never would have.
Maybe Patsy was so irrepressible because she was very nearly Lee’s littermate, having grown up beside him in the fetid Meadowlands, where New York City had been dumping its garbage since 1906. He was 14 when she met him, a dark-haired, intense boy, steeped in secrets: an alcoholic father, a bipolar mother, homeless nights spent in church basements. I can imagine his hot, silent shame, his reluctance to be known wholly, because those feelings persisted into his old age. But it seems Patsy gamely swam alongside his miseries, unabashed. She was earthy and open. She accompanied her doctor-uncle on midnight house calls, and in her letters reported the births and illnesses of neighbors with a frankness that would have made Flossi blush.
(Flossi, who once told me that babies came out of women’s sides through some kind of invisible zipper. )
Sitting on my living room floor, I couldn’t stop reading. Gutsy and joyful, Patsy was prone to giddy episodes of midnight sledding, her brother driving beside her in his jalopy. Now in college, she gloated over her access to cigarettes while Lee, a Navy reservist, was suffering a wartime shortage in Philadelphia. She warmly, foolishly shared. “You’re so sweet to me. [But] in gratitude I shall return one of those seven dollars for “pin” money to be spent however you like, except on WAVES…”
Days later, Patsy discovered that Lee was in fact spending his money on WAVES, young, pretty Navy reservists in white gloves and A-line skirts flooding wartime Philadelphia. He’d also been overheard making fun of Patsy’s lowly state college. But she was undeterred. “Do you miss me and love me an awful lot? You better.”
Are you out of your mind? I groused out loud, because by that time I was talking to her. You should have dumped the hammerhead.
She didn’t. She knew him so well. She knew he frequently pulled intellectual rank, brandishing his near-perfect memory for every person he ever met, every book he ever read. “By the way…I want to show you a letter which you wrote me, something you said is really classic,” she wrote. “Also what the devil does Kreb’s citric cycle mean? Please tell me, you rat.”
Without Google, she couldn’t know Kreb’s cycle describes eight reactions in the mitochondrion.
But she knew Lee. “How is your mother?” she asked, striding into his personal hell, the land of evictions and scandal, the land we daughters never knew about until after his death. All we knew was his uncontrolled moodiness and Flossi’s indifference to his frightening eruptions, which targeted us kids when something—a question about his childhood, a call from his mother, a dog mess in the backyard—set him off.
Now I was seeing a side of him I’d never suspected, a side that allowed infiltration, allowed someone to know his fitful mother, with her catatonic depressions and exuberant sense of play. I was astounded. What a rare, penetrating force Patsy must have been.
I adored her. I was sure she had black eyes and wild hair, and thick thighs like mine. I knew she kept a secret journal and knew how to whistle and had a fondness for racy noir dialogue and feisty ten-year-olds who got kicked out of Girl Scouts. I knew that if I actually knew her, she would love me back.
And Lee— he seemed to love her too. He called her long distance despite wartime rules; he brought gifts every other week. In February he asked her if she fell in love with him again every time he came home. Yes, Patsy said, and every time more completely.
A week later, the letters stopped.
He’d left her, chasing a WAVE. And then he would rove for months, restless, nervous, until he was dazzled by an elegant Katharine Hepburn lookalike who would never probe a secret or skate at sunrise or write a love letter. But when she smiled across a room, a stunning presence wrapped in silk and distance, he saw safe passage.
I wrapped Patsy’s letters with the ribbon he’d tied around them, and wondered why they were here, in my hands, seventy years later.