Most of the 44 postcards are signed, "Be good. xxoo, Dad." At first, he wrote a card every Saturday, then every other Saturday, affixed a 25 cent stamp, and mailed it off. I received the cards on Wednesdays, something predictable in my confusing new life.
My friend Colie and I moved to New York in a U-Haul six days after graduating from college in North Carolina. I had a job in book publishing, which was far less glamorous than I'd imagined when I told my friends with false modesty, "Oh, me? I'm moving to Manhattan to work for a literary agency."
I rushed to put North Carolina in the rearview mirror, but I was scared. Colie and I shared a bedroom in a Chelsea apartment back when the High Line seemed as likely as a flying car.
I had always called my mother when I felt helpless but my newfound defiance and a NYNEX telephone strike combined to make me turn inward. Toughen up, I told myself. You wanted this.
I knew my father loved me, but wasn't a soft place to land. Intensely private and a world-class worrier, I was more like him than I cared to admit.
He wrote the first postcard on June 10, 1989, a couple of weeks after I arrived in the city. Dad bought it—a Hans Holbein portrait, "Edward VI as a Child (presumably 1538)"—at the National Gallery in D.C. I didn't know it would be the first of many cards.
"Hope all is well in Gotham City," he wrote. "If you have not seen 'Au Revoir Les Enfants,' check it out soon. It is outstanding." He then asked some logistical questions about whether I had looked up a couple of family friends, then this gem, "Don't forget to send me info. on your hospitalization coverage."
He began shopping for specific cards for me, and I came to understand he was using them, in part, to tell me about himself. A card dated August 26, 1989, features a stunning, black-and-white photograph of Amelia Earhart in an elegant fur coat and hat.
"I hear your office will feature postcard decorations. Well, here's one of my favorites," he wrote. "As a boy, I was always intrigued by the Earhart story and wondered if she was stuck on some desert island waiting for rescue." I never knew that about him.
He wrote about the weather, about my mother and sister, about his travels for work. He often recommended movies or reported on books he was reading. Sometimes he wrote in a hurry, and I could sense the concern he felt having me far away. He told me how much he missed me.
Some of the cards told me he remembered me as a child and reminded me of his trademark sense of humor. In February of 1990, he sent a card depicting an antique carousel animal—a rabbit. "Does this remind you of Pullen Park?" he asked. "Remember when you used to be afraid to ride certain animals? Remember whether one was the BUNNY?"
He faithfully sent postcards through August, until I got sick and came home to North Carolina for surgery. I wanted to leave New York after that, and during my final months in the city after my recovery, his cards got less frequent.
When I read back over those 14 months of postcards, I realize they're one of the best gifts I ever received. Unlike today's emails, the cards are in his own hand, the neat, compact cursive that's a testament to his career as an archivist and his lifelong commitment to following rules.
When my daughter, Kate, prepared for an eighth-grade graduation trip last year, her teachers asked her father and me to write letters to her about this rite of passage. I typed mine on my laptop, printed it out and signed it. I didn't think about the 44 postcards from Dad tucked away in a desk drawer.
With only a few years left before I send Kate out into the world, I'll endeavor to try and follow my father's example. "Be good," I'll write, certain that she is one of the best people I've ever known, and making my handwriting convey that certainty.