When I graduated from high school, my parents hosted a party; it was a an elegant, lavish affair attended by friends and family – it was held two days after the ceremony in my mother’s garden. Actually, the adults in attendance mingled in the garden, the graduates held court pool-side. My parents gave me a red Ferrari, which was my second car; the first was a blue Mercedes 450SL, which I had received on my sixteenth birthday – that first car too had been given to me during the course of a tasteful yet lavish party.
A week after graduation, my parents and I attended Paul’s graduation party. West Haven is a world apart from Greenwich. Paul’s mother, who was an excellent cook, had worked for days preparing traditional Italian fare, and the small backyard was festive with table cloths and balloons in our school colors. There were no white-gloved waiters, no five course dinner, no over-the-top gifts; just Paul’s family celebrating his accomplishment with him. It was simple, but it was beautiful too.
Paul was so embarrassed when my parents accepted his mother’s invitation, and he was visibly nervous when we arrived. My mother hugged and kissed him, my father shook his hand and then enveloped him in a warm embrace; I smiled at him with delight, but I was as nervous as he was. The afternoon was warm, the food was delicious, and the stories told by Paul’s aunts and uncles were hilarious.
As the party wore on, and evening set in, my father took Paul aside and handed him an envelope – Paul’s graduation gift from my parents. I didn’t find out what that envelope contained until later, because about that time Paul’s father arrived at the party.
He was filled with rage; drunk and foul-mouthed – angry because he hadn’t been invited to the party. He hadn’t seen Paul in almost four years, and Paul hadn’t missed him. He was an abusive parent, but even more so an abusive husband.
Paul’s family tried to placate his father, tried to soothe and calm, but it impossible; through tears, Paul asked my father to take me home. The ride from West Haven to Greenwich was deadly silent.
I played the piano that night, for what must have been hours. When my father came into my room to say good night, he asked me if I wanted to talk – and I did, but I didn’t know what to say, so he held me and said, “You and Paul come from different worlds, Libby. If the differences were only financial, it wouldn’t matter, but you’ve seen today that it is far deeper than money. He needs your friendship, but your life will always bewilder him; he needs your kindness, but never your love. And I don’t want you ever to go to his house again – promise me.”
I looked up at my father – the wisest man I had ever known, and knew he was right.
“I promise. What was in the envelope you gave to Paul?”
“I care about Paul, and he has incredible potential; your mother and I gave him a copy of the check we sent to Harvard – we will be paying Paul’s college tuition.”
The next morning, Paul came to the door during breakfast. Martin, our butler, showed him into the dining room, and my mother gasped audibly when she saw him; he was a mess – still in the clothes from the party the night before, but they were torn; he had a black eye and it was obvious he hadn’t slept.
I got up to go to him, but my father said, “No, Elizabeth.” Then he looked at my mother and asked her to take me and give them the room.
A few minutes later, my father came to me and told me he was going out with Paul, and not to worry, everything was going to be fine.
When he got home late that night, my father told me that Paul’s father had come back to the house after all of their family had gone home, and he had beaten Paul’s mother badly – she was in the hospital. Paul had tried to stop his father, and this is why he had looked as he had when I saw him that morning – for trying to help his mother, Paul’s father had beaten him too.
I found out some time later that my father had paid the hospital bills for Paul’s mother, and had taken Paul to stay with my uncle Colin in Rhode Island. Paul hadn’t wanted to stay with us because he told my father he couldn’t face me after all I had seen.
My father and I left for Italy a few days later, and Paul ended up spending the summer working for my family’s law firm’s Rhode Island office with my Uncle Colin.
When late August arrived, I move to New Haven and Paul moved to Cambridge; we never discussed what happened the night of his graduation party. Not ever.
During my daughter’s spring break, she was here and helping me go through some containers I had found stored in the very back, upper-most shelf of a storage closet in one of the hallways. In one of the smaller boxes we found the Commencement program for my high school graduation, a hand written copy of my valedictory address, the cards I had been given by family members and special friends all neatly tied together with a silk ribbon – obviously my mother’s doing, and a few photos of the parties and ceremonies marking the occasion, including my party, and Paul’s.
I’ve never really known how much to tell my daughter about her father. Her older brothers know almost everything, her younger brothers – far too young to understand what happened between Paul and I – have been spared most of the trauma, but my daughter was neither old enough for full discretionary disclosure, nor young enough to be spared all the pain and drama that enveloped our family during the events marking the last turbulent years of her father’s life. I have always been completely honest with my children, about everything, but I’ve also taken a cautious approach, never giving them more than they could handle and process in the moment given their age and level of emotional maturity.
G’s relationship with her father became quite complicated prior to his death. And today, in her memory, it remains so. For all intents and purposes, John is her father; she calls him dad, she seeks his advice, hugs and kisses him good night when she is home, and he goes into the city and meets her for lunch – just the two of them, at least twice a month. It is a beautiful relationship.
But that box containing what remains of Paul’s and my graduation left G questioning and wanting to understand her father, and why – why about many, many things.
She isn’t a child anymore, but I’m still not sure how much she is ready for.
West Haven is still a world apart from Greenwich.