Collecting dust, the pieces sit on shelves, in old suitcases, in bookcases, in my home, in other’s houses, distant, close to me, in the memories of those who were there and those who heard the stories. The pieces when collected will fit into their spaces in the puzzle that I can’t see yet.
Imagine a puzzle that you can’t see or know what it will look like when you complete it, if you can complete it – if you find all the pieces. The pieces I have, they come to me and I can only collect and hold what I am given.
Sometimes I realize the pieces are within me, and I am pulling them out from my past, a word my mother once said. A Burmese phrase uttered by my father.
I sit and gather what is brought, sent, shared with me. With each piece I realize how much I don’t know, or perhaps how little of what I do know may actually be true. Some pieces inspire me, others rip the scar wide open again. Raw, it bleeds again.
I told her, “the thing is the book as all good, but it is still a book that the only reason I have to write is that my father is dead.” She gives me love and comfort and is a piece in a different puzzle.
My father could have sat down and connected the dots. Told me the stories. I can hear him call my name. I hear his voice. In the desk where I have collected his old camera, his passport, his pictures, there is his scent.
If my father was alive, there would be no puzzle. There would be clarity and family talks on the deck. The things would all fit together, seamlessly like other people’s family histories are passed down. Mine was going to be passed down but it was lost in Asia in 1984 and then in my mother’s vanishing mind.
“What was Burma like Dad?” I could ask him. “Well Jamie,” he would start. And that would be it. Maybe after he mowed the lawn and came in for a sandwich and a beer. Sweating from the summer, he would tell me again of the pythons in the toilets and the monks in the streets, of water festivals and Communists. But this time, I would listen more, harder, this time I would say:
“Hey maybe we should go there together” and we would.
But instead of a father, I have a memory of a life that long ago was lived, cremated and scattered in pieces.
The pieces are scattered between now and 1952. Sixty years ago my father was in Burma and back then, he started scattering the pieces for me to find. Pieces between my father’s two marriages, two lives, and distant shores. There is no cover to the puzzle, there is no place I can look and place the pictures into. There are just pieces. Floating.
My half-brother Stuart emailed me some today.
Stuart lived in Burma with my father and his brother Marshall and his mother, my father’s first wife. When I emailed him about the idea of going back in time, he emailed me back with love support and a few pieces, pictures.
Of the house. The house that drew my father back.
They are old black and white pictures of a house and a moment in time. They are the perfectly perfect pictures of the house I imagined. Imagine a house where your father lived and worked, sixty years ago this year, when he served in Burma in the State Department – imagine that house, I got those pictures emailed to me today.
Stuart also found an old RSVP card, it has the address, 86 Park Road. We can’t, between us, find Park Road on a Google Map of Yangon today but I did find, again, thanks to Google, another piece, a copy of a meeting in Rangoon from 1930 that has one of the Methodists in town also living on Park Road.
I since learned that this house was originally built by Methodists and the address from the 1930 meeting document is just down the street. So maybe my father lived in the Methodist part of town. I am presuming that the names were changed, either after Burmese independence in 1947 or since then but I am thinking I can find the new name when I am there.
I don’t even know if Stuart’s mother is alive and if she would talk to me. I don’t think she is but I am not completely sure.
The numbers are more than 86.
Stuart was 1. Marshall was 5. My father was 30. He was there just 7 years after the end of World War II, so this means he spent 1942 to 1945 in the South Pacific, then back to the US to finish college and go to Fletcher and then to MIT and then back to Asia. 1,2,3.
Eisenhower was President, Nixon was Vice President. 1952. Willie Mays and Joe Dimaggio. Marilyn Monroe. My father would be turning 90 this year if he was still alive.
Was he happy in Burma? Did he love his job? What were the parties he created the RSVP cards for? Is the house still there? Are there Methodists? What is the new street name? Is the center he founded still open? Is his first wife alive?
Does she remember the house on Park Road, with the brick foundation and the ceiling fans and her son celebrating his first birthday on March 28, 1952, sixty years ago this week.
Stuart and I share the same birthday, I was born March 28, 1965 – we are born fourteen years and fourteen years apart on the 28th, to a different mother, same shared father. I was born when Stuart was back in Kansas with his mother and his brother – the house in Burma must have seemed a distant memory even then, one that now he only knows through pictures.
In pictures and on old printed cards to diplomatic parties in a house I now can see; black and white, with towering palm trees. A house I think may be waiting for me, tens of thousands of miles away.
My Aunt Shirley told me they found the house in 1984, that it was still there.
Is it true that my father had to leave quickly leaving things behind as I was told growing up? Why did he have to leave so fast if he did? What caused him to pack up and leave this beautiful house, this wonderfully perfect piece.
To my father, of course, this house was just his home. This picture was taken by my grandfather who came to visit and brought a camera. This house in the picture was not a piece then, it was something to show friends and family.
My grandfather would tell his friends, his colleagues at the University of Michigan, “this is where Jim lives, in Burma. He’s in the State Department.”
Every day at the end of the day, my father went home to this house, to his young wife, his two sons, to this beautiful ornate house, with servants and a cocktail on the deck, on a street with a different name in a city whose name has changed, in a time and a place now gone forever, forever turned into pieces.
Pieces I pick up and hold and look for my father in the shadows. Pieces I twist and turn and try to fit into the puzzle I can’t see.