Distances

Non-Fiction

Sofia Smith

            “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.”
― Robert Hass, Praise

            Everson, WA July 2015

            As I unpack a storage bin labeled “CHILDHOOD,” one artifact at a time, I construct a fortress around myself on my bedroom floor. I sort my life story into categories: stuffed animals, elementary school projects, drawings, photographs, cassette tapes, pairs of glasses, baby clothes, cards and letters. I pull a three-ring binder onto my lap. Its plastic sleeve pages archive my father’s letters from Finland. Ever since I immigrated to the United States with my mother and stepfather in 1989, a distance of 4,667 miles has separated me from my father. On approximately 4,667 separate occasions, I have wondered about the troublesome matter of who my father really is.

             The letters, all written in Finnish, begin with the greeting “Hei Sofia.” Letters from the 1990’s display my father’s handwritten script in heavy black felt marker. He crafted each letter large enough for his only daughter, the girl with the broken eyes, to read without straining. The ink bled faded duplicates of text in the empty spaces between lines of writing—a result of being folded and tucked away in an envelope for a decade and a half. I hold the paper against the light, trying to decipher hidden messages in the bleed marks. “I love you. I’m proud of you. I miss you.” My eyes deceive me, creating phantom words.

            Helsinki, Finland July 2014

            On the morning of July 1, 2014, I drag my carry-on luggage off an American Airlines Boeing 767 at the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, thirteen years since my last visit to Finland. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee drifts past me. My first whiff of Helsinki, emanating from a Starbucks kiosk, serves as déjà vu. There had been a Starbucks near my departure gate in Seattle, some 24 hours prior to my arrival, but this Starbucks feels completely out of place. A realization that Finland will never again be the Finland programmed into my mind by memories tinted with childhood naiveté.

            As I emerge from customs and baggage claim into the waiting area, I scan the crowd for my father. A frail gentleman with my father’s voice calls my name. In a fog of disbelief, I hug the withered man my father has become. With his arms around me, weak and hesitant, I am afraid that he might disintegrate in my embrace. My eyes catch the tremor in his hand that had not been there when I last saw him. He attempts a greeting in labored English, but I assure him that I still understand Finnish, even if the words that tumble off my tongue are clumsy.

            Everson, WA July 2015

            My father’s letters function as matter-of-fact reports of the current events in the lives of my Finnish relatives. His writing style as a newspaper journalist bleeds into even his most personal correspondence. He always portrays the role of observer instead of participant. A letter dated March 31, 1998 details my cousin Anna’s wedding festivities—the bridal gown, the curious groom whose father was not invited, the dancing my father did not join. He tells me that he detects fall in the air. Mornings are already noticeably cooler.

            I wonder what type of commentary my father might have reported about my wedding, if he had been in attendance. I realized long ago that my father would never visit me in my American home. I came to this conclusion by gathering evidence of past behavior — the time he missed my mother’s graduation from nursing school when they were still married; the sudden and urgent errands that always seemed to arise when company was coming over, causing him to leave home and miss the visit; his absence on the day my mother gave birth to me, alone, in a hospital in Rauma. If he missed these milestones in Finland, how could I expect him to travel 4,667 miles to visit his ex-wife, her husband and all their friends?

            Helsinki, Finland July 2014

             I sit in the passenger seat of my father’s Audi, with my luggage crammed into the trunk, as he navigates a construction zone adjacent to the airport. Our destination is his apartment in the Kruununhaka neighborhood of Helsinki. With our shared anxieties circulating through the vehicle’s ventilation system, conversation is sparse, awkward to say the least. During suffocating breaks of silence I look out the window. I scan my surroundings for those familiar landmarks of the city. I’m distracted by all the things that do not belong in my concept of Helsinki— the Toys-R-Us sign at a shopping center, the SUBWAY restaurant on the corner of a street, the BURGER KING sign on the Central Railway Station building. The question of whether or not you can go home again manifests itself.

            ***

            I last visited Finland in 2001 as a newlywed, towing my American husband through a homeland where the currency was still the Finnish mark instead of the Euro, where the only American fast food chain around was McDonald’s, (which had been there since my childhood) and the only store that could be found in an American mall and a Finnish shopping center was THE BODY SHOP. But I had also been a younger version of myself, one who was able to translate between Finnish and English with ease, who believed that my marriage would last forever, and that the Finland of my childhood would somehow be preserved in a vacuum, impervious to change.

            ***

            Except for his outside appearance, the shell of an old man, my father has been preserved. In fact, I suspect that he was born old on the inside and his exterior is just now catching up. My mother used to say that he was born wanting to be his father.

            Everson, WA July 2015

            I reach for more concrete evidence that my father loves me. I flip through a book of paintings he compiled for me as a Christmas present in 2009. Glued to the pages of an artist’s notebook, his postcard-sized watercolor collection of inanimate objects reveals little of the man who painted them. The notebook inventories his material life — a chair, a houseplant, a Finnish designer vase. Carefully meditated brush strokes in shades of melancholy on a stark white background. Finally, on one of the last pages I rediscover a self-portrait. He constructed an image of himself in tones of gray and brown, very two-dimensional in nature. This arrangement of paint blotches only echoes the sadness ever-present in his gaze.

            Helsinki, Finland July 2014

            All I hear in my father’s apartment is the ticking of the alarm clock by my bed and the scribble of my pen as I write about the first day. Even the tick tock is intrusive in the fortress of silence my father calls home. The wall behind me must be about twenty feet tall and stretch at least twenty feet from the door to the window. Floor to ceiling, corner to corner, every inch is covered with books, neatly shelved in alphabetical order by author. The wall of knowledge hushes at the sound of my pen on paper. Even the electronics refuse to hum to the tune of white noise. I am drowning in the soundtrack of absence.

            Everson, WA November 2015

            I pull the tape player I bought at Value Village out of my shopping bag and plug it into the closest outlet. The label on the cassette I grab is no longer legible, but I believe it once read “HYVÄÄ JOULUA,” a mixtape of Finnish Christmas music recorded by my father. Probably a decade since I’ve used a cassette player, I fumble and readjust until the tape clicks into place. Only the hum of the furnace and the ticking of the clock fill my room, which now reminds me of Helsinki all over again. My stomach tightens in knots of anticipation. A neighborhood dog barks. I inhale a boost of courage into my lungs and press the PLAY button. Static fills the silent crevices of the room, and I push STOP before my father’s voice interrupts. Closing my eyes, I press PLAY once more. “Hei Sofia,” my father’s voice greets me from decades ago, just like his letters. As if reading one of his letters aloud, he delivers holiday greetings from Finland in a few brief sentences before the music begins. The rest I know by heart.

            Taivassalo, Finland July 2014

            At the Meller family’s summer cabin in Taivassalo, my stepmom, half-brother and I play Trivial Pursuit after dinner. We play our trademark Finglish edition, with certain Finnish questions translated into English and answers accepted in both languages. We laugh in the light of the summer night as my father retreats into solitude once more. He drinks empty comfort as he sketches and paints, perhaps listening to the ruckus we create on the porch. When I was a child, my father might have joined us in competition. Now, it seems he is too weary for so much social interaction, even with his own family.

            Everson, WA November 2015

            I imagine my father recording on the tape from the old record player. I find some small comfort in knowing that the record will skip at “sleep in heavenly-heavenly peace” as the Delta Rhythm Boys sing their rendition of “Silent Night.” As a child I listened to the tape so many times that I convinced myself the song was meant to be performed that way. He sits at the table in front of the wall of knowledge. He pulls out the pipe tobacco from the inside pocket of his sweater. He packs the scent of earthy sweetness into his pipe and lights it. He pours another glass of wine. He rehearses his greetings in his mind, every word carefully selected.

            As the Christmas music reaches its conclusion, the player stops turning and clicks off. I sit in silence once more. I must somehow accept that my father’s language for “I love you” isn’t literal. His “I love you’s” are recorded in code on old cassettes, painted in watercolors and written in invisible ink between the lines of text in his letters.



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