My Father’s Remedy

I came very close to not ruining the wedding. I only wanted to fulfill my obligation to go and then be on my way. Ever since my parents’ divorce, I’d tried hard to be unflappable. I used to think restraint was most important, that I could be a woman who triumphed by refusing the wrong in the world. But I always got swept up in things.

My stepmom cried when her daughter Becca approached the altar and grabbed the hands of her husband-to-be. Of course, Becca looked great: she was young, younger than me, and she was also the bride, but her mom looked almost more stunning. Judy was beginning to wrinkle and pucker in a way that made her beauty feel rare. Her hair was in thick plaits, and her seafoam dress made both her eyes and her tears pop. I guessed that was what happened when your dad remarried out of the tribe: wives could have blue eyes. Women could let themselves cry.

Meanwhile, I wanted to knock over the floor-standing candles and remind everyone what this tiny Californian town had been through five years ago. Instead I placed my hands in my lap. I suppose the congregation took the lush grass outside the windows as some sort of symbolism, proof how life will reemerge from the ash of wildfire. I smiled at Becca’s brother, who sat next to me in the front row like we were siblings, but a seat away, since we were not.

I had only visited Paradise a handful of times. My dad and Judy maintained their new life together as a fantasy, and that was difficult when I was there. I imagined they didn’t invite me because I was a realist; I complained and was critical, so they opted for my absence. The few trips I did take with them were in Vancouver, or Seattle, anywhere but their home. So I was impressed at how charming the wedding venue was, the way they’d arranged the laurels, the hand-built altar. The cross was decorated with lights and eucalyptus, and even the Christian pop from the stereo system was catchy but unobtrusive. If my Jewish father felt out of place in any way, he didn’t show it. But then again, he never showed any kind of it.

Judy ran a small PR company called Another Day in Paradise, which was technically in Magalia two miles north. Picking up pills for her then-husband, she’d met my dad at his pharmacy, after he’d left our hometown of Sacramento and my mom behind. I thought the whole thing was just a mess, but no one ever talked about it. They preferred being happy.

Becca told her fiancé she would be with him like a rock was with the earth, and something else about the sea—or maybe it was the Yangtze, where they met on a cruise—but I got distracted by Becca’s earrings, which I realized were my grandmother’s, who’d died that past year. They were shimmering, crystalline push-backs that dangled to the mid-neck. My great-grandmother had smuggled them to the United States in her bra after her family fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe. My grandma’s will gave them to my father without further instruction.

“I do,” Becca said.

The fiancé talked about wanting to raise a family with Becca, about how his life wasn’t complete until he met her. I know a couple’s story about their first date is almost always fabricated. It was something my mom used to tell me when people got interviewed by the news on TV. We say the things we need to hear until we convince ourselves we’re right. The fiancé said I do, and then he was the husband.

How many fires did those earrings pass through only to be lost here?

The pastor, the groom’s father, waited politely for the kiss. He let them have something they could not take back without longing. They wrapped themselves in each other’s arms, her hands around his neck like a stole, which I had worn because at Jewish weddings you need to cover your shoulders, but the young women attending were all in spaghetti straps and too-high heels, and I was alone, the music crescendoing as they touched their faces and, lip to lip, held dearly. The husband’s hand caught briefly on the thick baubles dangling from Becca’s lobe. How many fires did those earrings pass through only to be lost here? Judy’s mascara clotted against her lids and spiderwebbed under her eyes. My dad put his arm around her, beaming, ignoring how my stares connected what he had given Becca with what he had taken away from me. It must have been a relief, for him, to so cleanly end a whole tradition.


At the reception, Dad thanked me for coming. I nodded, and we hugged. I smelled the coconut of his shampoo, felt the thinning hair on his uncovered crown against my neck. At my bat mitzvah, he had cried in a profound way that made me believe in him. I still had a good relationship with my mother, but losing my father to his new life at times felt worse than his inevitable dying. Maybe, if I walked into his smokescreen, he would welcome me.

He placed his hand on my cheek. I used to think it was a gesture reserved only for me, but as I got older, I realized he did it to everyone. When he lovingly held Becca’s face at the Thanksgiving table for the first time, I left the room. But in that glowing white venue in Paradise, I was comforted by his touch. The way his calluses snagged on my hair, the heft of his palm. He was my only father, and his hand was one that had counted pills and finger-banged married women as well as raised me, and here we were.

“You’re a good sister for being supportive,” he said.

Stepsister, I wanted to say.

Before the ceremony, I posed for pictures. I was touched; I had not expected Becca to want evidence of me, but clearly she had moved on in ways I could not. Dad grinned the whole shoot, seeing us all together. After his wedding to Judy, he’d told me I’d ruined their photos—I was grimacing in the background. Behind me, the dusty trees that remained were skeletal and leafless. The horizon was nearly naked; the town hadn’t grown back yet.

“This is a cool spot,” I told Dad in the reception hall. “It’s really beautiful. Nice work.”

“It was all Becca and Judy. I just agree and get to enjoy it.”

I was still too livid to mention the earrings, and I hated thinking I was the daughter who caused scenes. I wanted to skirt by and be considered pleasant, to ignore my misgivings until they weren’t true anymore, which is I suspect what he wanted too.

“We brought the eucalyptus in from Judy’s garden.”

“It’s gorgeous—”

“And the laurels too. Listen—will you stay for our breakfast tomorrow morning? I’d like the family to be together.”

“Of course,” I said too quickly.

But I wanted to know: What family?