My father texts me a single word, “magnificent,” and my screen fills with violet lasers.
He sends an emoji, a yellow smiley wearing black shades, and my screen fills with balloons.
The last time I visited, I taught him how to create whimsical texts using the latest iPhone flair. Ever since, every text — no matter the topic — fills my screen like magic. On hard days, when I need a smile, I click “replay” and watch as my father’s words explode with fireworks. Although I’m the one who showed him how to use this feature, he’s the reason I find wonder in our exchanges.
As a kid, I never liked to leave my parents for long. I struggled to sleep in a room by myself. I hated to be alone. But at the suggestion of a friend, at age 11 I asked my parents to send me to camp in Maine for two weeks. I wanted the adventure and the outdoors, but almost as soon as my parents agreed, I feared the distance and could not believe what I had asked for. I cried the moment we left the house, and again when we arrived at the camp.
But the very next day, when I was homesick to my core, the postcards began to arrive. My father had started to send them before we even left the Philadelphia area. Each postcard contained no more than two sentences — our dog had eaten an entire pizza, a neighbor had told him a terrible joke — but it was a glance at life back home, a reminder that I was loved. The postcards fueled me, and the daily arrival of their often hilarious and sometimes strange messages became a source of excitement not just for me but also for my cabinmates, who wondered at this father who would send so little so often.
As I returned to the camp, as a camper and then a counselor, and eventually found the courage to attend college out of state, the postcards continued and the drawings began. I’d open an envelope containing a stick-figure rendering of me, in crayon, on my father’s professional stationery, sitting in what he imagined was a freshman writing class. One summer, he assembled photographs of my car, parked at my usual haunts (the high school, Starbucks, my best friend’s house), and mailed them without any words at all. They were a reminder of what I knew, of what I’d always have waiting.
So when I fell in love with a classmate weeks before our college graduation, and I had already accepted jobs at my summer camp and then in Paris, I looked at the example of expressing love that had been set for me.
The day before I left for Maine, I went to the post office and bought 35 blank, prestamped postcards. Clare, my first girlfriend, received all of them that summer: crudely drawn comics of me worrying about homesick campers, tiny Sharpie visions of childhood memories, sketches of the two of us as stick figures sharing adventures. Although I could not be with her, I kept myself close by filling her mailbox and her heart. She hung the postcards around her bedroom; years later, after we moved in together and then married, she stored them in a photo album.
“You don’t have to keep them,” I said, but I understood the urge. I have a box of my father’s postcards I cannot part with either.
These days, my father has mostly switched to texting but continues to send love, news, and encouragement. And I’ve learned to do the same, because even an ordinary hello can burst with confetti. Clare has taken to it, too; some mornings, I find a stick figure taped to the coffeemaker, wishing me a good day. We both know, however, who the real artist is.