Archives: family

What I would have, should have, could have said to my father before he died


Dear . . .

Sorry, but I just can’t seem to call you Dad. You’re father to me, connected by a set of chromosomes that helped determine the color of my eyes, the line of my lips, the pinch at the end of my nose, as well as countless unknowable things. We’re not bonded by any familial memories that would make me miss you.

Still, I’m sorry I didn’t call you back.

You tried at least three times in the last year to contact me. The second time, I went to answer the phone, saw your name on the caller ID and let it ring through to voicemail. “This is Bob McGaffin calling for Pamela.” No one calls me Pamela but you.

The third time, you spoke with my husband, Mark. He listened to your Bible talk and answered your questions about my mother and me. We were fine, he said. Pam will call you back.

I never did. I didn’t want to suffer through more Bible talk.

On Sept. 27, we got a call from “Steve” at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. He broke the news of your death so gently I felt compelled to inform him you and I weren’t close. Estranged is the word I continue to use, though it’s not quite accurate.  There can’t be distancing or alienation where there was no love to begin with.

You looked like Glenn Ford

Growing up, I kept asking Mom why she married you only to divorce you in short order, before I could know you as a father, before I got a sibling. I really wanted a brother or sister. And a dog, but that’s another story.

You met dancing. You were a good dancer and looked like the actor Glenn Ford. But the main reason Mom married you, she says, is because all her friends were getting married – not a mature reason, she concedes.

She didn’t want to poison any relationship I might develop with you, so she waited until I was older to tell me why your marriage failed. Once that gate opened, the details spilled out: a table knife thrown, a picture destroyed, belittling, jealousy, control.

Mom was pregnant with me when you pushed her down because you resented her going to her own baby shower. When your abuse extended to me — yanking a bottle out of my mouth — Mom knew she had to leave.

To your credit, you accepted the divorce, faithfully paid child support and never forgot my birthday. You visited twice a year, once on my birthday and once over the holidays. We’d sit around the living room – you, your third wife, Marie, my mom, my grandmother and me — and I’d smile, answer questions, maybe play a piece on the piano, all the while counting the minutes until you left so I could breathe again.

I went with you and Marie on two outings that I remember. When I was younger, you tried to impress me by taking me in your big shiny car to a movie followed by a steak dinner at the Black Angus. You made sure I knew just how much money you were spending on me.

The second time, I was in my teens. We went to the Seattle Center and played putt-putt golf. Did you rib me unmercifully about my poor putting skills? I can’t remember. I just recall feeling bruised afterwards, like you’d stomped all over my fragile adolescent ego.

But you were the one with the fragile ego. Having come from an abusive household yourself (Mom told me), maybe this treatment of women was something you grew up with, something you learned. Making women feel small made you feel big. (Much later, you admitted to being a bad husband. Religion, for you, offered redemption as well as salvation.)

“I guess that’s my daughter”

The years passed. I graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Communications/Journalism and eventually became a reporter for the Herald in Everett. A co-worker of yours at Boeing had seen my byline and asked you if I was related.

“I guess that’s my daughter,” you’d said. I only know about this exchange because you related it to my mother in a telephone call.

You were proud, I think, even though it troubled you that I never found God. You tried again and again to enlighten me. You’d call me out of the blue, your rambling, boastful talk peppered with Bible verses. I never appreciated the preaching, but I didn’t have the nerve to tell you to stop. It was your way of showing that you cared.



You also came to my wedding and, some years later, met our first adopted son, Casey, recently arrived from Korea. I know your fourth wife, Lucille, urged you to come see me and meet your grandchild. She tried to bring us closer together. For a while, it worked. But she died, and we soon drifted back to our usual distance.

I’m as much to blame as you, probably more so. We had nothing in common beyond blood. Our conversations were strained. And, much to my husband’s chagrin, I didn’t see the point of forging a fake bond for the sake of inheriting a small portion of your estate. If you left every last penny to the church, so be it.

A neighbor found you  

He’d come to check on you and found you in your bed. A likely heart attack, the Medical Examiner’s Office said. You were 89.

Mark and I went downtown to the ME’s Office collect the few items they’d removed from your house: your keys, about $300 in cash and the watch you were wearing. They described your home as “disorganized and unkempt.”

An understatement. Dishes and containers with food, half consumed, left out to rot and attract vermin (in evidence). Crusty spills on the kitchen floor. A mattress turned dark sinkhole. Everything covered with dust and grime. Even the cobwebs were black.

How could you live like this? Was there no one in your life? Or did you turn them away? A neighbor said you refused medical treatment. What about comfort? Where were the Christian Faith Center and its founder Casey Treat when you needed them? I see they sent you Christmas cards.

Or were you too proud to ask for help? Would you have asked me for help had I bothered to return your calls?

I picked through the piles of papers left on your dining room table next to an unfinished bowl of stew, a box of cereal and some green-tinged milk in a bottle. You’d set aside documents related to insurance, investments and funeral-home arrangements. I also found a faux-leather binder that looked like it contained a will. It was all there, waiting for me.

Did you know you were about to die?

Mark and I took what looked important home with us. Over the next couple of weeks, we also took the Toyota sports-utility vehicle you’d just purchased, a large blue glass vase, a framed photo of you when you were named leader of the Burien Elks Club, a shoebox full of hand-carved slides for Boy Scout neckerchiefs, as well as a banjo and a mandolin.

The instruments were a surprise

I never knew you played. I realize there’s a whole lot I don’t know. What I do know wouldn’t even fill out a decent obituary:

  • born in Topeka, Kansas
  • parents operated a dance hall
  • had a twin sister
  • Boy Scouts leader
  • Member of the Elks Club
  • Voted Republican
  • Owned at least ten Bibles
  • Attended prayer circle at the Highline United Methodist Church in Burien

You donated $600 to this church between June and August.

You left everything else to me.

Mom was the one who suggested I write you this posthumous letter. “Sometimes it helps,” she said, when you have unfinished business and mixed feelings.

So, once more, I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. If we’d talked, I would have told you that my first novel — about a girl struggling with the disappearance of her father – will be published next fall.

You won’t be around for its release, but your estate will help pay for the costs of this book, and, hopefully more to come.

So, thank you .  .  . Dad.  I hope I make you proud.

Your daughter,


Letting go is hard to do: Casey’s started college – Eek!

Preschool poster showcasing Casey

Preschool poster showcasing Casey’s life to that point

Note: This is the first in an occasional series of posts on the empty-nest process.


Mark and I got our eldest off to Western Washington University last Saturday. We assume Casey’s doing okay. He said as much when we tried to talk to him after the big move.

“Can’t talk right now,” he texted the first time I called. “But everything is going good.”

Casey – who we call Casel, Wasel, Case and Wase — is a young man of few words . . . unless he wants or needs something. We had just dropped him off in Bellingham and were on our way to Guemes Island for a night of R&R, when Mark’s cell phone started buzzing.

Casey: Clothes hangers??????

Me: They are in the box with the bed stuff.

C: And wtf did mom take the good towels out of what I packed? (He thought he was texting Mark.)

M: I gave you 3 ½ good towels.

C: New shoes are MIA.

M: Look again. Thought I saw them.

C: Also can’t find flip flops.

M: I know I packed those.

C: Not the other ones …….Check the back (of the van).

M: There are two pairs of slides in that box.

C: Nope.

M: If there’s anything important you need, we can come back tomorrow. . . We will check the back of the van when we can pull off.

C: Found them . . . in the backpack.

M: Good. What about the other stuff?

C: I think so. Disappointed about the towels.

M: Did you find new shoes?

C: Yes

M: And hangers?

C: Yes

M: Good. Call us tonight?

Can you hear the pleading in that last message? He didn’t call. Mark and I returned to Seattle the following day, fingers crossed that he would manage to survive the next two weeks with disappointing towels.

So passed a stressful milestone, possibly more stressful for me than for him. I just about lost it last Thursday, the day I had set aside to go shopping with him for the rest of his college supplies. No amount of nudging could get him out of the basement and away from his computer game, so I finally told him he was on his own.

To his credit, he got it done, using his own money to order from Amazon everything he needed (and some things he didn’t). Second-day delivery, of course. He now has enough No. 2 pencils to last through graduate school. Or maybe he could set up a little business at Delta, the residence hall he shares with 114 others. (And yes, that was the name of the fraternity in Animal House.)

I shouldn’t worry so much. For now, he seems to be surviving without us nagging him to get up and out the door. His first test was an actual test: a math-placement exam bright and early Monday morning. He didn’t sleep through it. He didn’t forget to register for classes the next day. He didn’t sign up for Basket Weaving 101 (I don’t think there is such a class at Western).

As I write this, he’s hopefully in his History 104 class, learning about America after the Civil War. He’s also taking Economic 101 (markets and society) and Math 112 (functions and algebraic methods). He had the good sense to register for classes starting no earlier than 10 a.m.

(Mark interjects: But Casey has not opened his financial account at Western, something that would allow us to transfer our state’s GET funds, his housing allowance and other fees to his chosen school.  Sigh . . . you can lead a child to debt-free education but you can’t make him . . .)

At some point, I just have to trust that his fledgling wings will carry him. He’s a smart kid who has, for the most part, steered clear of trouble. Knock on wood.

Still a little more communication would be nice, something beyond the one- and two-word answers he gave us when we finally did speak with him Wednesday night. What I’d give for an adjective or two, if only to be assured that he does, in fact, feel.

Okay. That’s not fair. I know he feels. He fawns over his dog, Ben, and has been known to say to us, “I love you, too.”

He has a secret sentimental side. I saw evidence of it cleaning out his bedroom. You can learn a lot about a person by the things they choose to keep.casey-box

I was careful to pack away in a box anything that wasn’t obvious trash. This included a stuffed bear he’s had since he arrived from Korea, a  fifth-grade book report he labored over, a framed photograph of Ken Griffey, Jr. (when he was still a Mariner), a preschool poster showcasing his life, and a note with distinctly female handwriting that says, “You are nice thanks for lending me a stats book one time.”

So, there is a human in there.

Casey, if you’re reading this, I’m having a little fun here. You know I love you to pieces and wish you all the best at Western. Please remember to brush your teeth.

Next up: Reclaiming the space.

The things they left behind



The teenage protagonist in my novel begins her search for the truth by going through her mother’s closet. Ida hopes to find out something about her missing father, but instead turns up a box of baby things, including a memory book and a fancy blue dress her mother sewed for her.

Seeing these special things again gives her a little thrill. She’s grieving and takes comfort in the familiar. Yet the scene is probably more revealing of the mother, Christine’s character. What she chose to keep, after a massive purging of the house, is evidence of her love.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things we save and why. Off and on for the last two weeks, I’ve been cleaning out my own mother’s house following her move to a retirement home.

Having long outlived her parents, sister and two brothers, my mother inherited the house and all its contents, including more than three generations’ worth of letters, photos, documents, memorabilia, bric-a-brac and just plain junk.

Now that she’s moved out, the final clean-out falls to me, her only child, and my husband, Mark, who generously volunteered to help.

Every day of going through drawers and cabinets, garment bags and boxes has turned up a new find, another oddity, though nothing as dramatic as the family secret Ida eventually uncovers. (You’ll have to read the book.)

Sorting through the things my relatives left behind brings their stories and personalities into better focus. Some of the weirder items they chose to keep had me running to my mother with questions. She’s more than eager to tell me what she knows, but even she can’t explain the pretty Avon gift box with the single bullet rattling around inside.

She suspects it may have belonged to her brother, Tommy. I never met my Uncle Tommy, but here’s what I found out about him:

He liked to tease the family’s pet ducks, Donald and Dolly, but he was always sweet to my mother, his kid sister.

He loved all things military and collected WWII memorabilia, including pins, insignias and, yes, bullets. I tried but couldn’t find a large shell I remember from my childhood. It was at least five inches long and an inch thick, and heavy. My mom thinks it may have been inside a chest of drawers she sold.

Ironically, it was a bullet that killed my uncle. Mom doesn’t want me spilling the details, but it wasn’t war related.

Though violent and untimely, Tommy’s death wasn’t as obviously tragic as Donny’s. My mother’s younger brother never made it into adulthood. He was only six when a friend dared him to walk out on thin ice.

The blurry photo of him that my mother kept on her mantle shows a wild-haired, grinning boy in motion (hence the blur).

“He was the sweetest kid,” she says.

Of the four children, Mom’s older sister, Jean, seemed the most blessed. She was smart (according to the school report cards my grandmother stashed away) and such a talented artist and seamstress that she might have been a successful clothing designer. But she went to work for Boeing, along with her husband, and poured her creative energies into lavish holiday get-togethers.

Upstairs, in a box of old Christmas stuff, I found what I believe to be her handiwork: a brandy snifter made into a Santa Claus candy dish. The lid is a Styrofoam head with cotton beard and red felt hat dangling a jingle bell. It looks a little worse for wear, but I’m saving it to remember what Christmas used to be like.

When my aunt died at age 49 from cancer, I think she took my childhood love of the holiday with her.

My grandmother could be as sour and reclusive as my aunt was sunny and sociable. Losing your husband (at 50 to pneumonia) and three of your four children will do that to a person.

The woman I called “Nana” helped raise me after my mom divorced my dad. She was often angry — not at me, but at the world of money-hungry men, particularly in the Church and what she called “the medical establishment”.

My husband found a typed, four-page letter addressed simply to “Gentlemen” that blames the nation’s ills on Catholic leaders, “the legislature”, the AMA (American Medical Association) and anyone who would oppose birth control and death with dignity. She describes the latter as “putting (people with no quality of life) mercifully to sleep.”

“Who wrote this?” Mark asked. “It’s like an early feminist manifesto.”

That would be my nana. All the relatives knew not to mention religion or doctors around her. Today, as I scan her letter (I couldn’t read it all), I’m reminded of how incredibly strong, smart and somewhat exhausting she could be.

She did have a tender side, though, as evidenced by all the letters and cards from others that she tucked away. Boxes and boxes of them. Photographs, too. Today’s over-sharing, social-media generation has nothing on my grandmother.

Among the snapshots she kept is one of a familiar-looking girl, skinny and knob-kneed – “delicate” someone once called my mother — yet she’s the only one to make it into old age. At 80, the survivor’s guilt weighs on her still.

I pick up an early photo of her with a group of friends. They appear not to have a care in the world. Could this be the same woman who saved more than four decades’ worth of bank statements?

After years of living alone, battling depression and anxiety, my mother’s finally in a place where her social, playful side can come out again. She says she sometimes feels like she’s on vacation.

I’m happy she’s happier. Her house was in the process of falling down around her, yet she was loath to leave it — not resistant, just scared. Change has never been easy for her, and this was a BIG change.

Truth be told, the process of moving my mother and cleaning out her house hasn’t been that bad . . . well, except for all those glass jars filled with dead spiders in the basement. . . Why my grandmother saved those, I’ll never know.

I need to give my mother credit for getting rid of a lot of stuff before I had to. What she could have purged but didn’t were my (bad) arts and crafts projects, early newspaper articles, prom dress, graduation gown, and multiple photos of me being bathed in the kitchen sink. I was bald. My ears stuck out. I looked like Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz movie (see my first blog post), but I was loved . . . am loved.

What do the things you’ve kept say about you? Please comment below!