Here & Now‘s Celeste Headlee speaks with Judy Bolton-Fasman about her new book, “Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets,” which chronicles the author’s journey to find out more about her Cuban-born mother and accountant father.
By Judy Bolton-Fasman
There is a Jewish saying that an uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter from God—a letter that must surely contain the secrets of the universe.
The only letters I received that muggy summer when I stayed on the non-air-conditioned side of the 92nd Street Y were from my father, usually cheery cards (“Well, hello over there!”), or thin sheets of yellow legal pad paper with bits of curmudgeonly wisdom designed to steer my focus away from my recent heartbreak: “You’re a smart kid—you can do this! You can finish that darn thesis! Don’t let all that time and money be for naught!”
This time was different. In my mail was an unusually thick envelope that bore the return address of my father’s Hartford office. I knew he had more on his mind than usual that summer, and the heavily taped envelope with too much postage signaled as much. It came on the heels of another letter he had sent, his more typical one-page kind, telling me, “I shall no longer pay the reservation fee at your school.”
During the summer of 1985, I commuted on the Madison Avenue bus to the computer lab at Columbia, where I struggled to finish a collection of short stories for my MFA. It was also the summer my heart shattered into a million jagged pieces when my boyfriend vanished, as if our eight years together had never happened. My loneliness—or, as my father put it, “lonesomeness”—not only saddened him; it magnified his own feeling of aloneness in the world.
My father was not one for phone calls. After the initial “How are you’s,” he was all breathing and silence, so he had taken to writing me a couple of times a week. His postscript was always the same: “Write to me at the office. I don’t want your mother to know that we’re corresponding.” We both knew my mother would be wildly suspicious were she not included in our correspondence.
While my father was a reluctant talker under the best of circumstances, he was a formal, old-fashioned writer who used words like “shan’t” and “cheers” and “salutations.” He always signed his cards and notes to me, “Your Father.” Love was not in his vocabulary.
Did he love me? I knew he worried about me. I was the sensitive first-born daughter who was the frequent target of her mother’s hair-trigger moods. His worry was love. But I sensed this latest correspondence, massive as it was, would reflect that he was older, more tired, and showing more overt signs of his Parkinson’s disease. He had already grumbled that my mother “was getting more difficult to tolerate,” finally defeating him with her relative youth—she was seventeen years younger—and with her epic tantrums and fiercely won economic independence.
This time, I was sure he would dispense with his bonhomie, his homespun wisdom, his greetings and salutations, and finally tell me all that I had been yearning to know since my earliest days.
I carried the large envelope carefully to my room as if it were fragile. Addressed in my father’s now shaky print, it felt substantial. Weighty. Was it an opus of his life? A compilation of regrets? A decision to divorce my mother at last, along with a laundry list of her failures, her denunciations? Whatever it was, it called for a private place in which to read it.
As I went up the elevator, I trembled with the recognition of yet another possibility—that it contained a suicide note. The letters of my father’s hand-printing, once so tall and commanding, had lately begun to droop. My father’s printing had been his forte, his identity, and his imprint on the world. It announced that he was a serious, meticulous, determined man. I had always loved and saluted the stalwart letters he formed—one and the same on birthday cards, valentines, and now in the letters he sent me—in honor of the Navy man he once was. But the last time I was home,
I noticed that his left arm shook and he walked with a shuffle. “Leave me alone,” he muttered whenever I asked how he was feeling.
What if this letter contained my father’s final confession? What if it was a compendium of his trastiendas—the word my Cuban mother had adapted as a more resonant way to describe secrets. According to her, every person carries at least one trastienda from a place in the heart where such secrets thrill the day and deepen the night. Perhaps these trastiendas were more like dark thoughts that had been in the cobwebbed corners of his mind? Once I knew about these trastiendas, would it make me like Icarus, flying too close to the sun and dropping from the sky? Would it be like opening Pandora’s jar—or, as it was later mistranslated, her box—of woes and releasing them to the world? Reading about my father’s troubles in his hand might make them my own. I was afraid to know everything about him. And yet I was too curious to leave his secrets alone.
Trastienda is a Spanish noun that literally means a storage room in the back of a warehouse; I imagine it as a place to stash broken dreams. It is like the small storage room in the basement of my childhood home where orphaned books and bygone art projects were—as my father would say, with his penchant for tried-and-true expressions—put out to pasture.
This letter might be telling me that my father no longer had dreams to comfort him. After all, a trastienda is a dark, dank place, and this letter carried a whiff of that because no one’s trastiendas were more hidden away than those of my parents. If my father were to confess his, surely it would be in a missive as large and securely bound as this one.
Secrets had always saturated the air in the house. They rustled in drawers, were stashed in closets, often alluded to yet never spoken. I felt them, stumbled over them. “Secreticos, secreticos, secreticos,” my mother said—a dire, if vague, warning.
There was one more possibility for my father’s letter. He may have meant it to function as a Letter of Last Resort—a note the British prime minister writes out four times for each Royal Navy submarine carrying Trident nuclear missiles. My father, a former United States Naval officer and admirer of Winston Churchill, would certainly relate to the concept. The prime minister personally seals the Letter of Last Resort. The only person thereafter allowed to open it is the commander of one of the four submarines, and only following a nuclear attack on Great Britain in which the prime minister and second-in-command are already confirmed dead. The letter contains the prime minister’s instructions on what to do going forward: retaliate and risk more lives, or leave intact whatever humanity has survived.
My father respected a chain of command. In our particular chain, I was his survivor; I was the commander of the family warship should all else fail. Perhaps he intended for me to open his letter and know his trastiendas when the time was right, and perhaps that time was now.
In my room, the red light on my answering machine throbbed, insistent. I thought for a moment it might be the ex-boyfriend, come to beg forgiveness. I hit play.
“Listen,” came my father’s voice, which had become low and gravelly from the Parkinson’s, “I sent you a letter that should have arrived today. I hope to God you’re hearing this before you open it. Do not read it. In fact, I need you to burn it.”
His voice had the same underlying panic as when he would come home from his accountant’s job and take me aside to whisper: “What kind of mood is your mother in?” The answer was never good.
Burn it? But this was the letter I had been waiting for. The confession. The explanation. The spilling of all the secrets that had shrouded my childhood. The key, the clue. The one final piece of the puzzle. Burn it?
I held my father’s letter up to the fluorescent light to catch a faint glimpse of its contents. All I saw was the X-ray outline of folded, lined sheets full of scribbling—the crabbed, crowded letters another sign of Parkinson’s.
Back when Harold Bolton was stronger and more intense, his was the terrifying voice on the other side of the bathroom door shouting: “Navy shower! Rinse. Turn the water off. Soap up. Rinse again. Too much water goes to waste in this house!” Naked, shivering, embarrassed, I did as he commanded. When it came to my father, obedience had always prevailed.
But it was more than obedience that brought me, reluctantly, to the battered gray metal desk in my room, where I took out a lighter, a vestige of a smoking habit I had mostly kicked. I had flicked the same lighter on and off a few months before when I burned pages of my journal; I couldn’t stand the possibility that someone might read about my neediness, my depression, my own thoughts of suicide.
That afternoon in my nine-by-eleven-foot room, fear doused the curiosity vested in me by my name: Judy Bolton, Girl Detective. I would not solve this one last mystery, the greatest mystery of my life, after all.
I placed the lighter close to the envelope, until the blue-rimmed orange flame caught a small, flattened corner. From there, the fire spread quickly. This was my summer of constant panic, and now anxiety pushed me to set my father’s words aflame. No apartment, no degree, no boyfriend. No answers. If I opened the envelope, I would come face to face with secrets I was still too afraid to learn. I was years away from understanding that I could work purposefully, deliberately, against the ataque de nervios that was always lurking. Like my mother, I felt as if I were a nerve away from a complete breakdown.
In the end, I destroyed the divine trastiendas I was sure were in that letter—trastiendas that had the power to crack open the sky. I dropped the burning letter, sealed and intact, into the metal garbage can, and watched it disintegrate into ash. A raised bald-eagle stamp remained distinct and resolute until it was finally a different, unrecognizable form of matter.
Excerpted from ASYLUM: A Memoir Of Family Secrets by Judy Bolton-Fasman. Copyright © 2021. Available from Mandel Vilar Press.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.