My mother handed me an envelope with the number “36” (for my age) in my father’s handwriting. I was relieved to see that she looked eager, as often she was sad this time of year.
Every Christmas since I was 16 my mother and I performed this ritual. My father died before I was born—killed in the Vietnam War—at the very end just as the American troops were withdrawing.
On his last visit home, my father was ecstatic about becoming a dad. My mother said they talked incessantly about what they would do together as a family. Sadly, he anticipated his death. Happily for me, he prepared 30 envelopes for his unborn child to acquaint his offspring with him – just in case. Inside each envelope were two letters – one with a clue that I was to open a week before Christmas and a second I was not to open until I actually solved the clue and was physically at the clue’s location.
From the beginning, I marveled how he could have possibly anticipated how much I enjoy solving puzzles.
The first Christmas is still the most memorable—perhaps because it was the first. Given that I was a busy teenager, my mother scheduled an hour of my time one night about a week before Christmas. We spent the hour discussing my father. Not that we hadn’t done so before, but it turns out that my father really liked Christmas.
My mother talked slowly at first, the pain of loss still showing after 16 years. However, as she started to remember, she grew more eager. “Your father grew up in a small rural town in California. His family was very poor, but somehow they turned the holidays into a time of magic. He wanted to assure the same happy time for you as a way to get to know him. Oh, he was so special, Jillian.” My mother bit her lip hard – one of her many tricks to keep from crying.
When she handed me that first envelope, she slowly shook her head, and I could tell the lip-biting had failed to stop the tears. “Your father asked me to give you one of these envelopes every year. He said that there is a clue in each of them for you to explore. When you do, you will learn something new about him, and get to know who he was.”
As befitting a 16-year-old, the first clue directed me to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The clue said, “Go to the place where you can have fun at the beach, go for rides on the boardwalk, and still have the Cocoanut Grove to explore.” When I figured it out, we drove a few hours and devoted a day at the Boardwalk. The other note in that envelope helped to connect me to him in a way I could not have imagined: “Having fun is an important part of life. And this is a unique place to forget your everyday problems and just laugh and have a great time. I wish I could be there with you, but know that I, too, have been at this Boardwalk and laughed and had a great time.”
I smiled as I remembered the clue for my 21st Christmas, “Rosebud.” He had written that if I were a fan of “Citizen Kane,” I would know immediately where to go. We enjoyed exploring the Hearst Castle. My father had gone there as a youth and daydreamed about what it must have been like to attend one of Marion Davies’ famous Hollywood parties.
I eagerly opened this year’s envelope. I wanted to know where to travel this year to explore one of my father’s most cherished places. I read the clue slowly. Even though all clues referred to sites only in California, it wasn’t as obvious as previous ones. “The point of this location is the convergence of a majestic view of nature heightened by the magnificent structures of man.”
I looked at my mother, puzzled. “I think I’m going to need some help with this one. I’ll check with some friends and let you know as soon as I solve it.”
Does anyone have any suggestions?