Photograph by Elsa Lichman
Dusk fell. Our mother called from the house. We pretended, even to each other, that we didn’t hear her. We paused only to nibble at the blobs of matted snow that caked on our mittens.
“Come inside, girls,” she called again.
“Mother,” my sister answered back, “Can’t you see we’re playing?”
“Right this minute,” she said, the signal that there would be no more stalling.
We went inside. Already snow had drifted against the front door, making it hard to open. Mother was looking through the kitchen drawers for candles, just in case, and suddenly, there he was — Daddy — stamping his feet on the flagstone landing. He was home early from the office. Snowflakes glistened on the shoulders of his overcoat and on the brim of his dove gray fedora.
He tossed his briefcase on the kitchen counter, scooped me up in his arms, and twirled me around.
“In my considered opinion,” he said, “The occasion calls for some hot chocolate. I vote that we walk to the Eldorado Pharmacy. What do you say?” The Eldorado was the local drug store where I stopped after school to read Archie comics and spend my allowance on chocolate sundaes at the soda counter.
“I do, Daddy, I do, I do, I do. I want to go,” Carol said.
“Me, too, me, too,” I said.
“Herbert,” my mother said, “it’s snowing pretty hard. There must be at least a foot of it out there.”
“Nonsense!” he said.
My father didn’t usually talk like that. Usually he said things like, “In the final analysis,” and “Now see here, young lady, let’s not get carried away.”
My father was a lawyer, a man of steady habits. He was mild-mannered, cautious, and formal. Every morning he ate a soft-boiled egg with toast and made nasal sounds of recognition at Carol and me over the ragged edge of the newspaper. Then he went to his office in a big white marble bank building in downtown Bridgeport. He bought cigarettes each day from the man who ran the smoke shop in the lobby. “I’ll take a pack of Par-li-a-ments,” he’d say, pronouncing every syllable.
Usually, it wasn’t until dinnertime that my sister and I got his attention. Sometime between the V-8 juice appetizer and dessert, our father would lean back in his chair and, rocking slightly back and forth, pose a problem for us to solve. Most often it was about a case he had at the office. One I remember in particular involved a fire in a warehouse.
“A new client came in to see me yesterday. His warehouse had burned to the ground. He wanted me to handle the legal aspects of the matter,” Daddy said. “Which of you girls can tell me the very first question I had to ask him before I could analyze the problem intelligently?”
“You asked him if he had insurance,” I answered in an ardent little rush of words.
Wrong. I am wrong, but he smiles encouragement.
My sister tries. “What is the value of the destroyed merchandise?”
She is wrong. Oh, good, she is wrong.
“Was anybody hurt in the fire?” I ask, but that, too, is wrong. I want more tries, but Daddy lands the chair back on all fours and brings the contest to an end.
“I asked him whether or not the fire were accidental.”
When I look back on these sudden-death quizzes that filled me with such panic and yearning, I see them now for what they were: a father preening for his adoring daughters and his daughters competing in a heady, perilous game of their own making, “Who will be the apple of Daddy’s eye?” The competition for his favor never ceased. Neither of us could afford to lose.
When I was a child, I willed myself to remember certain especially important events, even as they were occurring. “You are going to remember this always,” I’d say to myself over and over in solemn, hypnotic tones: The first time I swam all by myself across the pond in my itchy woolen bathing suit, toward my mother’s outstretched arms; the moment I finally succeeded in making a raucous, honking noise blowing on a piece of grass, and how it made my lips feel tickly. I was so intent upon the capture and preservation of these special times that when I recall them, I even remember myself remembering. Of all these essential moments, the one I cherish most is the night that my father and I went walking in a snowstorm. Still, as scrupulous as I was, I did not consider what happens to truth when memory is mixed with desire. In fact, so profound was our competition, that I disappeared all memory of my sister that night convincing myself that she simply wasn’t there.
The night of the blizzard, Daddy got carried away. We would skip dinner. We would drink hot chocolate and ruin our appetites. It was a special occasion, defying reason. While I pulled on my boots, Daddy tucked his pant legs inside his galoshes, and buckled them up. We plunged into the night, kicking snow, and lifting our faces to the flakes. We stuck out our tongues. We noticed how the snow had collected into precarious burdens on the boughs of trees and telephone lines.
Daddy and I were the only two people in the Eldorado that night, except for the man behind the counter. We sat side by side on the drug store stools. While he ordered, I twirled.
“One hot chocolate with whipped cream for me, and another with a marshmallow for the young lady. Make that two marshmallows,” he said, shooting me a devil-may-care look.
On the way back home, Daddy and I made up a club, the Snickleberries. At first no one else could join, but later we decided it wouldn’t be fair to leave out Carol so we agreed that she could be in it. I would be Snick #1 and Carol would be Snick #2.
Suddenly Daddy noticed that the snow was very deep, so deep that I was sinking in way past my knees. I saw a look of panic cross my father’s face before he reached for me, grabbed me under the arms and hoisted me in one smooth move onto his shoulders. I lurched back dangerously and hugged him hard around his head to keep from falling backwards. He reached up to steady me, and then rested his hands on my knees. He walked in long, slow steps like the times he danced me on his shoes. I let go of his head. He let go of my knees. Ta Da! We were like famous acrobats. All the way home we glided silently and smoothly through the white world. I was the bride. He was the groom.
Last week I visited my sister in New Jersey. She’s 88. I’m 85. We don’t see one another often, but when we do, we invariably talk about our parents and what it was like when we were children. Daddy is our favorite subject.
“Do you remember the really big snowstorm?” Carol asked.
“Vividly,” I replied.
“I was ten, so you must have been around seven,” Carol said. “Daddy and I walked through the snow to the Eldorado that night. You were too little. Mother wouldn’t let you go.”
“No,” I said with perfect confidence. “That’s not right. I went. You weren’t there. You probably had to do your homework.”
“No,” she said. “I went. You weren’t there.”
“And we had hot chocolate,” I said.
“With extra marshmallows,” she added.
“That was when Daddy and I made up the Snickleberry club,” I said.
“I suppose,” said Carol, “you think you were Snick #1 and I was only Snick #2.”
In Georgette Unis’ Watercolors in the Desk Drawer, the world is rendered in intricate detail, lush as the pigments on an artist’s palette. Family, nature, politics, and art circumscribe the arc of a life where “time bends / the chronometer” and “leaves do not grow / in the winter soil of philosophies / but rather along the arteries / of unfortunates.” Whether tracking an ancestral immigrant childhood or the results of the most recent election, Unis is attuned to the shifting world, where memories pulled from the desk drawer of recollection reinvent and reinvigorate the landscape.
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