The week my father J. Earl died I smirked like Sarah Palin as I threw away his 13-year collection of George and Laura Bush Christmas cards that had grown like a Republican cancer. I was convinced I’d given the Fox News side of him a thorough Karen Silkwood shower. But God and the dead have a merciless sense of humor. When I opened the mailbox of his Texas home, that smirk was slapped off my face. Out poured a diarrhea of letters from the Republican National Committee, American Conservative Union, the NRA, Tea Party Express, Ted Cruz, Heidi Cruz, pleas from priests and sisters to save the newly-inseminated, and of course the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Oh, and my mother’s—dead for six years—still thriving subscription to Soap Opera Digest.
My father called me Jamie Poo. I called him Daddy Poo. I am junior to his senior, his only child, and like him in many ways with my love of theater, art, and old movies. Daddy Poo, who was born in 1931, more easily accepted my homosexuality than my politics. We both liked to focus on our common interests and let politics remain the red-white-and-blue elephant in the room. On the rare occasions we did get into political fights when I visited from New York City, he’d switch the TV from Fox News to TCM as a truce, and we’d meet on the neutral ground of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies. However, we continued to harbor opposing wishes: he wished I’d start voting Republican and I wished he’d stop. I suppose I finally got my wish, but was the onslaught of mail his ceaseless campaign from the grave?
Before returning to New York, I spent the next few months in Texas settling his estate and trying to winnow the important mail from the conservative junk that arrived in daily droves like anti-LGBT discrimination bills in Southern states: Bishop’s Faith Appeal, Disabled Veterans, Blind Vet’s Association, Catholic Vote, Sacred Heart Monastery, Hon. Newt Gingrich, Easter Seals, Sisters of St. Francis Assisi, Priests for Life (the unborn kind, I assume), and on and on. He gave piddling amounts to almost all of these groups, so it’s no surprise that the mail kept coming like stray cats that knew they’d be fed. It was cathartic to wave good-bye to Hefty bags full of Hillary-hate letters and Obama-scare jeremiads as the garbage truck crushed them into fresh landfill.
Daddy Poo’s junk mail seemed fraught with meaning in the same way that advertisements in another country—the kind of ads we’d barely notice at home, so inured are we to our own surroundings—have the power to define that country and its inhabitants. When I lived in a depressed industrial working-class section of southeast London, there was an ad for Courage beer that loomed heavily across a bridge over desolate train tracks. “Take Courage,” its ominous message read, which I interpreted as, “Get drunk. You’ll need to.”
Visiting Daddy Poo was sometimes like visiting another country. While he clung to the Catholic values and right-wing politics he’d known his entire life living in that same small Texas town, I had shed those ideologies, first to attend a liberal arts university and then to live in the cosmopolitan cities of London and New York. Daddy Poo’s mail with its pleas to feed the children, help the maimed, fund the Republicans, fear the black president, save the unborn, and bankroll the Catholics seemed to define a life of doing the “right” thing based on guilt and fear. If there were a subliminal slogan in the flotsam and jetsam of his mail it was, “Take courage before ‘they’ take over!”
Seven months later I sold his house and shut the door on his mailbox forever. “The mail is done,” I said smugly. Two weeks later a deluge of conservative correspondence arrived with yellow forwarding stickers, and the tiny mail slot of my New York apartment could barely contain it. “It’s following me!” I screamed in horror.
The mailman, once a beacon of postcards and paychecks, became a specter of Republican propaganda. I emptied my mailbox furtively as if it contained an issue of Blueboy instead of what it actually contained: an offer to buy Pat Boone’s new album. Once I accidentally dropped a stack of mail at the feet of one of my many liberal neighbors in the lobby. Did I blush brighter over the envelope emblazoned “Ted Cruz for President,” or the one still claiming Planned Parenthood sells baby parts?
Daddy Poo’s fatty tissue of mail forced me to look at my own. From President Obama: “When all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.” There’s a monthly—not daily—pile up of mail about LGBT and HIV/AIDS rights from Lambda Legal, GMHC, ACLU, AMFAR; requests to renew my annual memberships with NPR, Film Forum, and the Museum of Modern Art; weekly flyers of discount offers to shows like An American In Paris; pre-approved, zero-percent credit card offers; and magazines: The New Yorker, Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, Out, Vanity Fair. Now there are two Vanity Fairs and two Entertainment Weeklys. That’s where Daddy Poo and I overlap.
What does junk mail say about a person? It’s not all I am, but it’s certainly some of who I am: a Broadway musical-loving, liberal, gay writer with credit card issues and a strong interest in celebrity culture. What does Daddy Poo’s mail say about him? He was a Catholic, conservative, veteran, senior citizen with a strong interest in celebrity culture.
I’m old enough that I still receive real mail—fun mail—and a fair amount of cards at Christmas. My best friend Mr. Parker sends vintage postcards almost weekly, always written in his instantly recognizable upright script of fountain pen blue ink. Another friend, DCC, sends me newspaper clippings in colored envelopes beautifully franked with color-coordinated vintage stamps. The clippings are peppered with bitchy annotations written in his highly stylized calligraphy to which I make additional acerbic annotations in my cacography of orange felt-tip ink and mail them back to him.
But there’s one sender of fun mail missing: Daddy Poo. Now that I’m receiving all of his mail, I’m no longer receiving mail from him. He’d routinely send me clippings with his comments written in blue ballpoint ink on square, yellow Post-its in his fine Catholic-boy script that had morphed into the shaky spook house letters of his octogenarian hand. Regarding an article about a bestselling author who was scheduled to give a lecture, he wrote: “Jamie Poo: This will be you someday soon.” He was referring to the then eminent publication of my first book. He never saw that someday.
I sighed as I looked at the yellow forwarding stickers on the envelopes addressed to Daddy Poo at his Texas address but overflowing in my New York mail slot. “Calm down,” I said to myself. “Once the mail forwarding window expires, the mail will stop.” As much as I hated the junk mail, I was also worried about its cessation. It had become a perverse way to stay connected to Daddy Pooevery day.
“Dear J. Earl, Congratulations on your recent move!”
I whimpered when I saw that the envelope had been mailed to Daddy Poo at my address sans forwarding sticker. Either the conservatives were in serious denial about his death, or Daddy Poo’s Republican ghost had taken up residence in my mailbox.
I began carrying Daddy Poo’s mail upstairs to my apartment, rather than throwing it away in the lobby garbage can. “They have to be stopped!” I said out loud with Norma Rae passion. Like a mad man I maniacally scribbled on each envelope with a red, felt-tip marker: “RETURN TO SENDER!” “DECEASED. DEAD!” “CAN NO LONGER VOTE OR GIVE MONEY.”
My common-law husband, Michael, asked, “ Do you think that will work?”
“I don’t know, but I have to try.” I read out loud the Priests for Life headline on one envelope: “‘Late-term abortions are provided more widely than media reporting.’” “Really?” I asked Michael. “I mean, who is actually having late-term abortions?”
“Procrastinators?” he deadpanned.
A week later the mail was even thicker as my red-inked “return to sender” envelopes sat in my slot like proud carrier pigeons come home. Because of its special postage rate, junk mail can’t be returned. Daddy Poo’s mail became the bottomless salad at the Olive Garden.
I refused defeat and continued my crusade. I called every single organization and politely, but firmly, demanded they cease mailing the deceased and remove Daddy Poo from their lists. I was as relentless as a Republican senator trying to overturn Obamacare.
After a month of these Sisyphean calls, each of which could last up to five minutes, my work started to suffer, I missed meals, I forgot to bathe, and yet I’d barely made a dent. My eyes darting across the dining table littered with Daddy Poo’s postal assault, I said in a deranged whisper, “The mail is winning.”
I was close to giving up the ghost, so to speak, when a nice conservative Christian lady from the American Bible Society pointed out that my individual calls were as effective as using postage stamps to plug holes in the Titanic. She informed me that I could make a one-stop shop and register his name online with a service that removes dead people from mailing lists.
“Thank God!” I exclaimed.
“Please do,” she said.
By Christmas, almost a year after Daddy Poo’s death, his mail started to dry up. “I think it’s finally over,” I said with moist eyes. After I opened my junk mail, I moved on to the fun stuff: holiday cards from friends near and far. I gleefully sliced open the last one, a large envelope bursting with the promise of a deluxe Christmas card. Out popped a photo of a heterosexual couple in front of a giant Christmas tree. The man in his red tie wore a monkey-mischievous grin. The woman in a green dress with pearls had the lobotomized gaze of a Stepford Wife. The greeting read: “To Mr. J. Earl Brickhouse, with best wishes, George and Laura Bush.” My letter opener in one hand, George and Laura in the other, I howled with laughter at the portrait of Daddy Poo that used to hang in his study and now hangs in mine and cried, “Merry Christmas, Daddy Poo!”
Jamie Brickhouse is a writer and performer in New York, the author of Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir of Booze, Sex, and My Mother, a two-time Moth StorySLAM champion, and a Literary Death Match winner.