A Letter to Papa on the Cape

Cape Cod Life  /  June 2020 / ,

Writer: Sarah Mirabile

We received this lovely letter from a young woman who is currently living in Switzerland with her husband. We thought her thoughtful memories of times together captured the emotions associated with being separated from those we love in these strange times.

Dear Papa,

Celebrations are in order; this letter comes with cheer. Next week you’ll turn ninety! I wish you the happiest of birthdays this year. Ninety spins around the sun, that’s some impressive math. Nine decades, 4,693 weeks, and—get this—47,335,428 minutes. By the time I came into the picture, lots of those days had passed into experiences. You had become a husband, father and grandfather. You’d joined the Navy, run a business and traveled across the Atlantic. After decades of waiting, your Red Sox had even broken the Curse of the Bambino! Although I joined the story late, there’s one thing I’m sure about: I am your first granddaughter who joined the family by marriage. I met your grandson when we were teenagers, back in the early 2000s. There is that picture of him in your living room down on the Cape, with bleached-blonde curls from summers spent swimming. That’s the guy I fell for at seventeen. But, it wasn’t until six years ago that you and I first met.

It was a scorching hot week when we came to Cape Cod, where your street has a name like a pirate’s lair. I was promised big waves, Sundae School ice cream and the lively company of Grandma and Papa. As we pulled in, past the pines, I felt a small pit of nerves. This was the first time I was meeting any of Jared’s extended family. But the woods were comforting, in that summer camp kind of way, with canoes lined up as neat and colorful as a box of crayons. When we rang the bell, Grandma came out with hugs, kisses and sandwiches. Minutes before she’d called to take our lunch orders (an expert move I copy on my better days). Then we were ushered to the porch, where you sat cross-legged with the paper. The scene would play out again on many visits throughout the following summers.

The first thing I noticed was the care you put into your appearance. Your gray hair was combed back, as smooth as any nightly news anchor. Your outfit was well matched, from the crisp, blue polo down to your high white socks. I’d later learn about your career in the garment industry in Boston and New York City. My second impression, I think, was even more significant. I was wowed by your energy on such a sleepy-hot Sunday (there I was a little groggy after the four-hour drive from Westchester). You talked about the Patriots (“the best”), the political tides (you volunteered at the polls every year), and the latest shows on Broadway (had we seen The Waitress yet?) Not to mention your ideas for the week ahead. Did we plan on biking to the National Seashore? Did we know about the JFK museum? As we sipped ice water, you asked just enough questions to make me feel part of the conversation.

Since that first summer, we’ve visited together in Boston and New York as well. For your 85th birthday in Boston we went to Quincy Market and the Prudential Center. There was Thanksgiving at Jeffrey and Suzanne’s with so many relatives we needed two turkeys. That was the year Jared proposed just a few weeks beforehand. A beautiful ring for a beautiful bride, you said. We also cheered the Yankees in the Bronx on that September day last year, when the cast of Fiddler on the Roof sang the national anthem in Yiddish. In New York for the holidays, you’ve told me about Jewish customs less familiar to me. Your pride reflects your strong sense of the importance of place, the importance of tradition. I felt that same sense when you signed as a witness to our ketubah ceremony at our wedding. And before we moved to Switzerland, you drove three hours to make our party. My mom said afterwards, that Norman is so charming.

So before I sign off, let’s loop back to where we started. It has been during time spent on the Cape that I think I’ve learned most from you, usually over black coffee and morning bagels. Yours with cream cheese, mine with peanut butter and blueberries. You’ll name the places to eat where the crowds aren’t bad. You know the shortcut to Hyannis, so we can window shop before dinner. And as for Sea Gull Beach, it’s one of your favorites, but remember to sit by the dunes to avoid sand swirls from the wind.

These days it seems everyone starts off with “now more than ever.” But at the risk of the cliché, I’ll go ahead and say it. Now more than ever—with such uncertainty in the world from the virus and the economy–we should remind those we love what they’ve taught us and how special they are. And when better than your ninetieth birthday to reflect on the influence you’ve had on me? After all, you’ve shown me there are few things in life a mystery novel can’t fix.

Thank you, Papa, for all you are, and all you’ve shared with us. Happiest of birthdays to you, with love and hugs from Switzerland.

In kindness, Sarah

*Papa turned 90 on April 2nd, 2020. He celebrated with his children, grandchildren and grandchildren-in-law on Zoom.

For more memories of Cape Cod Summers, check out other stories about the Cape of yesteryear, including Cape Cod LIFE founder Brian Shortsleeve’s nephew’s piece on his family memories in Craigville. And Cindi Crain looks back on her treasured memories, as well as her mother’s and grandmother’s, thanks to her mother’s book about the family’s 100 years in Craigville.

Sarah Mirabile