Mattie’s father had been relatively absent for the majority of her adult life. Aside from obligatory visits during the holidays and an occasional phone call once every few months, they didn’t communicate. What was shared between them were often small updates about Mattie’s life which weren’t met with enthusiasm. As if speaking with a client, her father doled out short affirmations that made her feel like she was being schmoozed and swindled out of something. Every once in a while, he would proffer some sort of advice that he probably felt would make her feel heard or supported, but he never asked her what she wanted or why. He seemed to always be listening with one ear in the conversation and one ear focusing on whatever was in front of him. More than once, Mattie found herself feeling like a task item on a list that needed to be checked off. Their relationship was hollow. She didn’t know him and he didn’t know her and the worst part was that, no matter how many times she tried to convince herself otherwise, she knew that some part of her would always want him to give her a modicum of attention.
He elected to check himself out of Mattie and Anna’s life before their mom got sick. When she was young, it seemed like they were happy, but perception isn’t always reality. For twelve-year-old Mattie, hearing that her parents wouldn’t be together anymore was devastating. It had always seemed that the two would be a happy pair forever.
Visiting their dad had been the hardest for Mattie. She could sense even then that he wasn’t the same person that she had believed him to be prior to the divorce. Quickly, she knew that something was different, but couldn’t quite figure out what. A couple of years into court-ordered visits, holidays and birthdays in two places, and constantly feeling like a chore to her dad, Mattie and her sister were introduced to their future step family.
“Matilda. Annabelle. This is Joey and his mom, Patty.” Mattie mutely held out her hand to Patty for a handshake and awkwardly waved at Joey, an eight-year-old boy with green glasses and long, blonde hair. Anna, now twelve, stood next to her sister, smiling brightly.
“Hi! It’s nice to meet you!” Anna said and moved forward to hug Patty. Mattie had to keep herself from reaching forward to pull her little sister back. Hugging this woman was an act of treason. They were nowhere near the point where that kind of behavior would be considered acceptable. Her father must have seen the restraint etched into his oldest daughter’s face because when she looked up, he was staring at her disapprovingly. Over the years, Mattie became pretty used to that look and was accustomed to receiving it when she saw her family during the holiday season. Joey never seemed to be on the receiving end of those looks. She supposed it was because she didn’t pursue what her father considered to be a secure career and instead followed a passion. Or maybe it was because her father had always wanted a son.
Either way, she was lucky that her stepmom and step brother were not all that bad. They certainly weren’t close with Mattie, but she felt okay being around them and they were decent enough to her and her sister. The contempt that she felt toward that family had less to do with her step relations and more to do with her father’s choosing them before his own daughters. On many occasions, Mattie and Anna were runners up for which events he would attend. If Mattie had a softball game in high school on the same night as one of Joey’s karate matches, it was a safe bet that her dad would be with his stepson. It got to the point where Mattie stopped expecting that he would show up and, when he did at her high school and college graduations, she had to control her excitement and remind herself that this was one of those mandatory events that parents go to for their children. At each one, he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and murmured that he was proud of her, briefly reminding her of a time when he would scoop her up into his arms and give her a bear hug, telling her how much he loved her.
For all of these reasons, Mattie was always thrown when her dad’s contact details would light up her cell phone’s screen. Every time, it took her a moment to register what was happening and she had to remind herself how to use a phone. This time was certainly no exception and she stared, dumbfounded at the ringing block. Right before it would have gone to voicemail, she picked up her phone and took the call.
“What’s going on?”
“Not too much. Just wanted to chat.”
“Oh?” Mattie asked, “About what?”
“How are you?”
“I’m...doing well, Dad. Busy with work.”
“Yeah. Another 40 years of that to look forward to,” he said, finishing with a light laugh.
“Look, Matilda, I want to talk to you about your sister’s engagement.”
Mattie closed her eyes and took a breath, counting to five. She let the breath out on another five count before speaking, “What about it?”
“Have you spoken to her about next steps?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I’m thinking about things your mother would have otherwise done if she were…here.” He finished quietly. Mattie’s father had not been one to speak about her mother’s death through the years. Mattie had suspected that it was because he might have never really cared for her in the first place, but part of her also believed that he had experienced pain as well when she passed.
“Matilda, you know more about this that I do. You make cakes for these things for God’s sake.”
“Dad, I don’t know where you’re going with this.”
“I want to give her money.”
“Uhm, alright. Shouldn’t you be talking to Anna about this?” Mattie asked.
“I will, but I want you to know how much so that you’re able to help.”
“Dad, Anna and I haven’t even spoken about the details yet. She just dropped this on me a week and a half ago and we haven’t really spoken since.”
She heard her dad sigh into the receiver before speaking, “you need to speak to your sister, Matilda. You two only have each other.” Mattie noted how he conveniently excluded himself from a supportive role. “Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Good. So, as you know I have been fortunate enough to be successful in my line of work and have taken time to invest in property over the years,” he began. Mattie nodded along, as if he would see that she was actively listening. “Well, I sold a few of the smaller properties to put money away for you, your sister, and Joey.”
“What?” Mattie had always figured that Joey would get something from her father and that Anna might as well, but she never anticipated being included in that.
“Yes. I sold off some of my property a few years ago, anticipating that one of you three would likely be getting married and Patty and I wanted to be able to contribute.”
“Matilda, I want to give your sister $20,000.”
“Oh my God.”
“Of course, I have the same for you and Joey, but I will hold onto that until either of you need it.”
Mattie took a moment to process this. She couldn’t believe that he would be this generous at all. Her eyes were wide as saucers as she stared at the kitchen wall in her apartment. She felt faint and found that she needed to sit down. It took a moment, but her brain began to function again and she started to process this information in a more logical way.
“Dad, they barely know each other. Are you really okay giving them that much when this might not work out?”
“That’s not for us to decide,” Mattie’s father said sounding impatient. “We need to allow them to figure this out. Besides, Chris seems like a nice guy.”
“Have you met him?” Mattie felt her palms begin to sweat as she waited for an answer.
“Yes. A few times.”
“How many times is a “few times”?”
“I’m not sure, Matilda. I haven’t been counting. He has been over a few times for dinner to get to know us,” she felt like her head was spinning as she absorbed this information. Her father continued, “I have to get going. Are you able to help your sister with this?”
“Thank you.” He hung up the line without telling her that he loved her and she put the phone down slowly. During their entire conversation, she had been standing next to the counter, but somewhere around being told how much money her father would be offering to her sister, she had found a seat at the table. She drummed her fingers and thought about what he said. Selfishly, she considered the amount of money that he had set aside for her and wondered if he would let her have it if she wasn’t planning to get married. That wasn’t necessarily a future she had seen for herself and she didn’t know if the day would ever come. Although she had built a decent life, she never felt a compulsion to commit to anyone. Sure, it would be nice, but it certainly wasn’t required. Mattie was happy to be her own support unit; she didn’t need someone else to lean on.
Her thoughts drifted back to her sister and she got up to make some tea. While waiting for the kettle to boil, she picked out a chamomile and lavender blend that she loved to drink when she was feeling a little anxious. Based on her conversation, it seemed like Anna may have taken time to introduce her father to her fiance and that they had developed some sort of relationship. Suddenly, Mattie felt a stranger to her sister and wondered again where things might have gone wrong. It was obvious that Mattie would only have one option moving forward and as she poured boiling water over the tea in her mug, she resigned herself to calling her sister.