Emma stood in the doorway of her father’s den watching out the windows to the acres of rolling grass. The fields seemed to flash from dark green to light-green as the breeze made its way toward the properties edge. Her family’s home was what she thought of as the typical Indiana farm. A large plot of land several miles out of town nestled in between acres of trees and vast fields of corn and beans. From where she stood she could just make out the edge of the property near the road. It was almost hidden from view, but the long stand of oaks that ran the length of the northeast corner defined its edge near the road that dissected the valley.
She focused on her father’s truck there in the drive and then looked at her reflection in the window glass. Emma was a cute thirty-something girl that had tried to forget her Midwest past. She’d moved to New York years ago looking for a different path than the one her small-town life afforded. That morning she had gotten dressed in a pair of jeans and long sleeve shirt that hugged her at her waist. The outfit would have been perfectly fine for a Saturday in the office, but as she tugged at her top she anticipated her mother’s comments about her being too slender.
She turned from the windows and walked over to the far wall that was covered with rows of photos. She could see a thin layer of dust on the glass and as she looked at the numerous shots, there didn’t seem to be a pattern to how her father had placed them. Small photographs of friends and family seemed dwarfed by larger pictures of her father’s prized sunrises. She glanced over to the far side of the office, to her father’s desk. It sat in front of several double-hung windows facing the doorway.
Emma imagined him sitting there; she could see him running his hand through his thick brown hair and motioning to her to come to him, as she and her mother were the only things that could distract him from his work. She sighed loudly as she crossed her arms and left the spot where she stood. The old wooden floors creaked beneath her feet as she shifted her weight. Emma counted her steps as she walked, all the while thinking to herself that the room seemed to have gotten smaller over the years.
As she moved over to the far side of the room, she studied several more pictures there on the wall and then she reached out to one in front of her and adjusted it, so it hung level with the others. Finding one of the few there with her father in it, she began to smirk as she remembered how he had been a consummate artist with his pictures. He relished capturing his subjects at exactly the right moment. But she also remembered how he never enjoyed being the focal point of anyone else’s shots.
That’s what made this picture so special. It had been the result of an ill-placed camera and a mischievous Army friend who knew he hated having his picture taken. The photo showed him sitting atop a bulldozer clearing a landing strip on an island in the South Pacific. He hadn’t even known the picture existed until he developed the film, and when he did find it he had almost thrown it out. Emma had discovered the picture in a box in the attic and secretly framed it. It was up on the wall for days until he finally figured it out. He wanted it taken down once he saw it, but Emma and her mother insisted that it stay.
That photo and one other were all the evidence she knew of from his time in the military. Her mother had told her he had served as an engineer and photographer in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. She said he had been in the Pacific theater for the war where he was dropped into key locations that needed to be quickly developed so they could be used as forward operating bases. Over the years, Emma had asked him about his life during the war, and whenever a report for school would come up, she would ask him for his opinion, but he would never talk about it. Most of the time he would smile and tell her, “Maybe some other time.”
Emma studied his face there in the photo. She reached her finger to her lips, kissing it and pressed it to the picture.
“Love you, Daddy,” she whispered.
Emma turned from the pictures and moved over to her father’s desk. As she neared its edge she ran her hand along it, feeling the nicks and grooves it had received over the years. She moved around behind it, where a large leather chair sat and rested her hands on its tall back. The soft leather still held the sweet and musky scent of his cologne. Emma tugged at the chair, rolling it from under the desk, and plopped down as she settled into the chairs soft leather.
No one had been in the office since he had passed, and now as she looked at his undisturbed work, awaiting his return, she felt a lump in her throat. Emma swallowed hard, settling her heart, and then reached out, grabbing one of the photos directly in front of her.
The black-and-white shot looked like something from one of the local high school sporting events. Even though her father had retired years before, he’d stayed busy taking pictures for the local paper and even teaching the occasional class on the art of photography. She couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t have his camera. Emma flipped the photo over, finding her father’s writing on the back. She studied his words, written there in what he called his “chicken-scratch” handwriting and, as she began to read, she heard the distinct creak of the floor. Emma looked toward the noise to find her mother standing in the doorway. She smiled at the sight of her.
“Good morning, Mom”
As she looked at her mother, she couldn’t help but notice her slim frame. The black dress that had fit her only weeks ago now looked to be two sizes too big and the pain in her eyes let her know the toll her father’s passing was taking on her.
Her mother glanced around the room as if she expected someone else to be there and then back to Emma.
“I knew I would find you in here.”
She walked up near the desk and looked down to the various stacks of pictures. Tears filled her eyes.
“He never stopped working, did he?”
Emma bit her lip and looked back to the photos. “He loved his pictures almost more than his sunrises.”
Her mother crossed her arms and cleared her throat. “You’re just like him. Same passion for your work, same…” Her voice trailed off.
Emma sighed and looked back to the picture as she ran her finger over his writing. She and her father had always shared a special connection. Most of it revolved around pictures, and Emma had even gone into photography and journalism in college, but she had found more success through her writing.
During college, she had been chosen for an internship at Time magazine, and after several years of challenging work she had secured a regular position with the magazine. Emma had sworn her father had finagled the position for her somehow, but he would never own up to it. He had been very proud of her success, but she never believed her work was good enough for the accolades she received or the praise he poured over her.
Emma looked up from the pictures expecting her mother to still be looking on, but her attention was on something across the room. She studied her face for a moment and then looked to where her gaze fell.
“Everything okay, Mom?”
She didn’t answer. She only turned from the desk and moved closer to one of the bookshelves on the far wall. Emma watched as she walked over to it, wondering what it was that had captured her attention. Her mother now stood in front of a tall wooden shelf that must have been eight feet tall. She looked up to it as if contemplating its contents.
Emma watched as she reached for a small step stool by the wall and placed it in front of the shelf.
“Mom, let me help you with that.” Emma pushed back from the desk. “You don’t need to be on that stool.”
She looked over to Emma, mustering a smile, and raised her hand. Emma stopped in her tracks and watched as her mother stepped up on the rubber tread on top of the stool. She placed her hands on the shelf in front of her and stretched out every inch of her five-foot-four frame as she reached for a large folder perched on one of the top shelves. Emma anxiously watched as she stood poised to run to her in case she fell.
She watched as her mother grabbed the oversized folder, sliding it closer to the edge and, as she recovered it from its resting place, she pulled it closer to her chest. As she stepped down from the stool, she inhaled deeply. Emma must have been holding her breath while watching her mother, as she exhaled heavily at the relief of seeing her mother back on the ground.
“Mom, what is that? What was so important that you had to get up on that stool? You shouldn’t be climbing up there; you could have fallen.”
Her mother looked to the folder and back to Emma.
“Falling is the least of my worries, Em.”
Emma grumbled under her breath, “yeah I can see that mom.”
Her mother scowled at her.
“Your father put this up there for you.”
Emma looked at the folder and back to her mother.
“For me? Why did Dad put it up there for me?”
Her mother mustered a smile. “I guess you’ll have to open it and find out.”
She walked toward the desk, placing the folder on the corner, and looked into Emma’s eyes.
“He said you would know what to do with it when the time was right.”
She studied her daughter for a moment and then reached out, touching her cheek.
“You have his eyes too.” She looked at Emma for a moment longer. “It’s all there, Em.”
She looked at the folder, almost squinting.
“What’s all there, Mom?”
Tears now streaked down her mother’s cheek.
“His memories.” She shrugged. “Our memories really, our life and, well, all of him; we worked on it for years.” She seemed to gasp for air as tears now flowed freely. Emma stood up wanting to comfort her, but her mother raised her hand again, stopping her.
“No.” She dropped her hand to her side. “You have work to do anyway.”
She paused there for a moment longer and turned for the door. Emma watched as she disappeared around the corner. She wanted to go to her. She took a deep breath as she looked to the doorway. She felt helpless. Every time she tried to comfort her mother, she pushed her away. Emma tried to convince herself it was part of the grieving process, but it still hurt. She let out a big sigh and turned her attention back to the folder.
Emma ran her hands over her jeans as if she were warming her legs and patted her thighs. She looked back to the doorway again and wished for a moment she could help her mother find some peace. She sighed heavily and then looked back to the folder, trying to imagine what was inside.
She found the whole situation to be a bit peculiar because her father was not much for fanfare, and the mystery behind the folder made her feel intrigued, but apprehensive at the same time.
She shook her head as she reached for it and then unwound the string on its front that held it shut. As she folded back the top and peered inside, she found what appeared to be three large books. She pulled out the contents, setting the folder to the side, and studied the first book.
It was the size of a large coffee-table book and was made of a heavy reddish-brown paper. It reminded her of something she had seen in a scrapbooking class one of her girlfriends had taken her to. Around the edge, there was a small band of gold inlay that served as a border for the front cover. Near the binding, large brass fasteners were inserted, holding the book and its contents together. In the middle of the cover was a small box with a title written on it in perfect, large, scrolling letters. She read it aloud.
Emma reached up, touching her cheek as she looked at the book. She didn’t open it immediately, as she turned her attention to the two other books. The second one looked much like the first, but on this one was written Guadalcanal. After Emma read the title, she glanced to the picture of her father there on the wall.
She bit her lip and placed the second book aside with the other as she looked to the final one. This book was different from the other two. It looked more like something you would get from a bookstore. On the front of it were hundreds of small photos. Each picture was of young military men in what Emma assumed were World War II uniforms. She read the title of the book, The Lost Stories of World War II.
She flipped the book over, hoping to find a description on the back, but only found more photos. Emma placed it back on the desk and looked at all three manuscripts in front of her. She wasn’t sure what she might find in the pages and, as she looked at the haunting pictures on the final book, a wave of sadness washed over her.
She took a deep breath, settling her heart, and shifted around in the chair. She reached up, opening the large front cover of the first book. Inside she found the pages yellowed with age.
The edges seemed tattered from what appeared to be years of use and exposure to the sun. In the middle of the first page, she could see the edge of a picture covered by an envelope with her name on it. Even though her mother had told her the books were left for her, she was a bit surprised to find her name written there. She picked it up and, as she did, she looked to the picture beneath the envelope.
Emma smiled as a photo of her mother and father on their wedding day looked back at her. Beneath the picture written in her father’s handwriting was an inscription.
For my Elizabeth, without you, I would have been lost forever. November 8, 1952.
Emma studied their photo for a moment and smiled. She could see the happiness on both their faces. She turned her attention back to the envelope. Emma pulled the letter from inside, placing it on the desk. As she unfolded it, she smoothed it so it would lie flat. She began to read.
My Dearest Emma,
I hope this letter finds you well, but considering the circumstances I know this will be a trying time for you. As I write this letter I’m picturing you there, sitting at my desk, reading away. I do have to say that part of me still sees you sitting there as a little girl whose feet barely reach the floor, but I know the young woman and writer is there wondering what all this is about.
Well, Em, there is a lot I wanted to say and should have told you in person, but I was always the guy that was better behind the camera and I was never the best with my words—that was always your area.
I guess if you are reading this letter, my last sunrise has come and gone, and I know you probably have more questions than answers at this point, but I think what you want to know is there in front of you. I know this time will not have been easy on you or my Elizabeth, but as I write this letter I take great comfort in the idea that your strength and love, along with your mother’s, will carry you through.
I want you to know that I was truly blessed to have had you as my daughter and there was never a father prouder than I was of you. If I do have a single regret in this life or the next, it is a selfish one, and it’s that I won’t be there to continue to watch you succeed.
Em, there is so much more I wish I had told you and so much that I wanted to share, but now as my time has passed the best I can do is leave you with my stories. You will find them there in my notes and pictures. My hope is that they may serve to tell you more about who your father was and about a life I know you found to be somewhat of a mystery.
Each of the books I left for you were very special to me, and they were something your mother and I worked on for years. In writing these stories I found great pain at first, but in the end, I believe they helped me find the peace that I sought for so long.
Em, I’ve never been brave enough to share these with anyone else other than your mother, and I struggled with the ghosts of war for years, but now in my death I am free, free of the pain and free from the memories that made me less of the father and less of the man I wanted to be.
These stories are yours now and you may do with them what you will, but remember, in these pages, you will find me, you will find your mother and you will find a history of a life, that if not for my sweet Elizabeth, would have been lost to me altogether.
Em, when I wrote this letter I wasn’t sure how this would all turn out, but I think you will know what to do with all of this when the time is right. And remember, I love you, I am proud of the person you have come to be, and if by chance you do need me, I am always with you and never further than the sunrise.
Your loving father,
Emma looked up from the pages.
“Damn it, Dad.”
She exhaled, trying to release the pain in her heart. She started to laugh in frustration as she turned her attention from the letter and looked out the window to the fields. She heard her father’s voice as she mulled the letter over in her mind. Emma watched once again as the wind rolled across the grass. She wiped her eyes and turned and looked back to the books.
Part of her wanted to walk out of her father’s office, go get in her car and drive as if she could run away from all that was facing her, but she knew her place was right there, behind the desk. She ran her hand through her hair and squared the book up in front of her. She let out a big sigh and turned the page.
On the next page, she found one of her father’s prized sunrise shots along with several sheets of handwritten notes. She picked them up, studied the photo for a moment and looked at the words written on the first page.
Emma turned the first page over, finding more pages written in beautiful script. She placed the pages in front of her on the desk and began to read.
It was late summer in 1950 when Joe pulled his truck on top of the hill at the back of his family’s farm. He could make out the tree-filled valley in front of him through the darkness. He reached for the Contex 35mm camera that lay on the seat next to him and stepped from the truck. He took a deep breath of the crisp morning air. The sweet smells of the maple trees in the woods around him filled his lungs. He glanced to the horizon; the thin clouds in the distance were beginning to turn light pinks and oranges as the sun made its way into the sky.
As Emma read the first words she found herself to be very distant from his writing. It was as if she was editing some project that had come across her desk, some article by someone she barely knew. She wasn’t sure why she had done this at first.
Part of her thought it was natural for her to distance herself from the work she read. She felt it allowed her to maintain her objectivity, but as she read her father’s writing she felt guilty for having treated it like it was written by someone she didn’t know.
Emma sighed heavily again. She reached up, rubbing her brow, and as she did she heard a distinct chirp from her phone in her pocket. Her cell reception at the farm was anything but great so she was surprised by the welcome interruption. She turned her attention from his notes and her thoughts.
Emma leaned back, crossing one arm under the other as she brought the phone up and clicked the power button. The email icon refreshed and showed a red number thirty-two next to it. She tapped the screen, opening her mail, and glanced at several of the subject lines. She scrolled down through the messages, but she didn’t open them as she really didn’t want to hear from anyone from the city.
Over the past few months, things back home had become very difficult, and Emma felt that she had lost her way in her writing and her relationship. Things with her longtime fiancé, Steven, who her mother swore was perfect for her, had been pretty rocky and it seemed that their days were filled with more drama than joy.
Steven was to have made the trip home with her, but when she left New York, she told him she didn’t want him to come. When she’d left him alone in the city she felt very distant from him, but now as she thought of him she felt she’d almost been cruel. Everything seemed to have come to a head with her father passing and now, as she sat there, she felt more alone than ever.
Over the years, Emma had developed a pretty good method for dealing with stress—or running away from it, as Steven had suggested. This usually involved long hours in the office pouring herself into her work and now, as she sat there at her father’s desk, she scoffed as she, for a moment, believed that Steven might have been right. She looked at the folders, gritted her teeth and brushed her hair behind her ears.
She began to laugh as she thought of how her father had planned this moment. She couldn’t run away; she didn’t have her work or her office to hide in. Her phone and internet reception was terrible, and he’d known she would be left there with her thoughts and his notes.
She put the phone down on the desk and reached up, rubbing her neck. She cleared her throat and looked across the room to her father’s picture.
“Alright, Dad, you win.”
She picked up the pages again, taking a deep breath, and began to read.
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