date: Mon, Sep 30, 1:35 a.m.
subject: Gratitude (with an invitation!)
Dear Professor Dom,
Six months ago, my twenty year-old daughter, Gabriella, was afraid to leave our house, but I’m writing now to thank you for making your televised classes available at the library because I believe they have saved her life. She prefers not to watch your face, but she loves to hear your voice. When we got the DVD's, she put her father’s old tape cassette player next to the TV and recorded your voice, then carried your voice around the house. At night, she leaves it on her bedside table because you help her get to sleep, which I’m eternally grateful for.
Though Gabriella prefers to listen, I have enjoyed watching. My favorite part is when you yank the purple beret off your head and throw it into the waste basket and pour lighter fluid over it and set it on fire, and then right after that, I love how you put on your welding helmet and say, “Let’s stop dreaming and get to work, people!” (Episode 1). And I laughed when your student-assistant came running out with her fire extinguisher, wearing her safety goggles and toy firefighter’s hat, then engulfed you in smoke while you kept talking. Some people might not approve of your methods, but I get the feeling that you don’t care all that much, which is something else that makes us love you.
Two years ago from next week, Gabriella’s father died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that came out of nowhere. It happened while Gabriella was in her first month at the state university on a full music scholarship. She plays piccolo. Nine months later is when she suffered her nervous collapse. I’ve attached a picture of her with our poodle, Carmen. Behind her is a portrait I painted of her father, Bill, who was a roofer. Over Gabriella’s other shoulder is a portrait I painted of my mother, now confined to a wheelchair. She never complains and constantly prays to the Virgin Mary for all of us to keep getting better. I took up painting when Bill died. I’m no Picasso, but I stopped caring about “the product” when I heard you say “the process” is much more valuable (Episode 2).
Gabriella’s favorite place to listen to you is when she’s sitting on the kitchen floor putting together puzzles. The other day, while she worked on a 2,000 piece puzzle of Cinque Terre, Italy, I heard her laughing (such a rare and beautiful sound!) at this quote you attributed to Erica Jong: “Beware of the man who denounces women writers; his penis is tiny and he cannot spell.” Another day, we both appreciated the quote from Dorothy…I don’t remember her last name…who said, “Fear is a chasm to swallow his (the writer’s) hope.” I also smiled when you said that Jesus said, “In my Father's house there are many mansions.” My other favorite moment is when you interview the young man from Lexington who got out of prison and enrolled in college and then decided to devote himself to helping people (Episode 6). I cried at the end when he gave you a hug and thanked you for being such a good role model for him. And then I laughed when you asked him to loan you twenty dollars.
I’m writing in hopes that you might be interested in meeting Gabriella so you can see for yourself how truly special she is. She loves to learn. She looks up things on Wikipedia about great inventors, scientists, musicians, writers, mathematicians, and dancers, and she is constantly asking me to get her books and music from the library. She loves listening to Cecilia Bartoli, the Italian opera star, and she is obsessed with everything by Puccini and Verdi. I get the idea that she is most drawn to Italians as those she admires, which I’m beginning to think has something to do with a previous life, though I’m normally not one to believe such ideas. She also listens to “classes” on the public access channel (imagine—out of all the channels to choose from) and that is how we first found you, though all we saw at that time was the very end, when you present a diploma and a carrot to your student-assistant who looks very bored, though I’m betting you told her to look that way for comic effect (Episode 15).
Do you know Rosa, the math teacher at the college? Gabriella audited one of her online classes. After that class, Rosa called Gabriella once a week and came by our house for regular visits, always bringing a book or a math-related puzzle or game. She was very generous with her time. On her last visit, she brought some of her own Math-Art pieces, which are these wonderfully detailed drawings of lines and shapes that connect in various patterns that “entertain the eye,” as Rosa says. She gave Gabriella a piece called “Habitat” and helped us hang it on the ceiling over Gabriella’s bed. Gabriella’s confidence soared under Rosa’s tutelage, reaching a peak three weeks ago when she walked out to the mailbox to get the mail. But that came to a crashing halt yesterday, when Rosa called from Madrid to tell us she was taking a year off to travel across Europe before beginning a new job in Montreal. She apologized to Gabriella for not being able to tell her in person that she was moving. Gabriella handed me the phone and went to her room and started crying, leaving me to talk to Rosa. She said she’d divorced her husband and left the country just to get away from him. She said it had been a hard year. I told her I knew something about hard years. Gabriella spent the rest of that day in bed, staring at Rosa’s “Habitat” while she listened to your voice. She did not respond to my voice or my mother’s voice at all, refusing meals, rebuffing every attempt at consolation. I lay on the floor to keep her company while you talked about so many things, like the difference between coherence and unity. One part she kept rewinding was when you played your bongo drums very loudly (and very badly!) just before you talked about dependent clauses and independent clauses and conjunctions and semicolons and how we should use all four sentence types (1. simple, 2. compound, 3. complex, 4. compound-complex) in various sequences so we’ll be “less monotonous-sounding than professors.” She also liked when you talked about using punctuation (or no punctuation) like music notation. She stared at the ceiling and listened like it was the most fascinating thing she’d ever heard. Without your voice to latch onto, I think she’d still be in bed, grieving over Rosa’s departure.
This might seem like a weird question since we’ve never met (but you never know without asking, right?), but we were wondering if you would be interested in attending Gabriella’s birthday party this October 10 (a birthday she shares with Giuseppe Verdi, b. 1813 in Le Roncole, Italy), at 6 p.m. I’ll make her favorite dish, Eggplant Parmesan, a specialty of mine, my secret being to select the most purple eggplants completely free of bruises and to add roasted garlic and caramelized onions and dry bread crumbs, and to salt, dry, and drain each piece prior to cooking; this removes the bitterness and causes the eggplant slices to “sweat,” which reduces the water content and results in less oil absorption. If you don’t like eggplant, I can modify.
You probably get many requests like this from strangers who have certain ideas about you because you’re on television, but my invitation has nothing to do with wanting to “rub elbows” with the famous. After all: “Fame means that millions of people have the wrong idea of who you are” (Erica Jong, Episode 15). Frankly, I think meeting Gabriella could do you some good, Dr. Dom. I have a secret. I’ve seen you in the grocery store, and it always shocks me to see how sad you look while you’re trying to pick out the right cantaloupe. (Helpful hint: try sniffing them to see if you get a sweet flowery-type smell, then squeeze them to make sure they’re not rock-hard, look for a golden/orange type color on the rind, then give it a knock to check for a “dull thud.” If they’re all too green, get one and leave it on the counter a few days, but make sure it’s not too soft, which means it’s overripe). I’ve seen you slink around the store with your head down and shoulders sagging from some kind of sorrow you don’t want to burden your viewers with. But you always perk up in the checkout line. You smile at the cashier and say something that makes him/her smile, along with the bagboy/girl. Then you walk slowly across the parking lot, get in your old Toyota (identical to what my husband drove, btw!) and go home to your upstairs apartment which is always dark because you turn on the light and close the curtains, which makes me think you must be very lonely.
Please don’t misunderstand: I’m no stalker. I only know where you live because it happens to be in the same direction I take home from the grocery store, but please believe me: I have been very careful to respect your privacy and I have no intention of invading it. Maybe I’m completely wrong, but I think that someone with your gifts for being such an inspiration to so many people might also benefit from being shown some appreciation every once in a blue moon. If you could see Gabriella’s face while she is listening to you, it would recharge your enthusiasm and renew your sense of purpose for doing the good work you do, which maybe is something you don’t get to hear too often.
I suppose I’m not doing so well with being “concise,” which is what you say good writers are good at (Episode 14). I apologize for any grammatical errors or improper language usage. I have written this letter carefully and painstakingly over several days with countless revisions and I have proofread it many times, but I am no professional like you, and I feel like I should send this now because to keep piddling would just be another form of procrastination, right? But please don’t feel any pressure. If we don’t hear from you, it’s perfectly fine. Really. I just wanted you to know that you have already made a very dramatic difference!
Very truly yours,
p.s. Even a phone call would cheer up Gabriella. Every time the phone rings, her eyes light up thinking it might be Rosa, but it’s usually just a doctor’s office calling to confirm one of her appointments or one of my mother’s appointments or now, one of my own appointments as I’m having some tests to see about chest pains and flagging energy. When Gabriella discovers it’s not Rosa, her eyes go dark again. But then she turns to your voice and brightens up with life. It’s a remarkable thing to witness.
Matt Cashion won the 2015 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in fiction for his story collection Last Words of the Holy Ghost (judged by Lee K. Abbott), to be published fall, 2015 (UNT Press). He is also the author of a novel, How the Sun Shines on Noise, and his second novel, Our 13th Divorce, will be published spring, 2016 (Livingston). Born in North Wilkesboro, NC, he grew up in Brunswick, GA, earned an MFA at the University of Oregon and is now Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (mattcashion.com).