My Father Was a Helper
Linda "mini" Robin

My Father was a helper.  Something I knew nothing of until his death last month. A secret kept from me, his only daughter. A daughter he shared everything with. Or so I thought....
The shop, Franklin's Produce, where I spent many a weekend helping my father needed to be readied for the realtor. With mother gone these many years and I having my own career it was up to me to close out the remainder of his life time of love. And love it he did. This shop was his happy place. He left our modest home every morning with a smile to return to his place of joy and contentment. Nearly every weekend since my mother passed away when I was five I had joined him there, working along side him, sharing his happy times, his love. It was with a heavy heart that I unlocked the door to the shop today. It felt so cold, so empty, so lonely, so devoid of the happiness I had always found there. I had come to go through the ledger books, bank records, and any personal items kept in the shop.  As I opened the safe and pulled out his ledgers I found a series of journals hidden behind them.
Journals? I had no idea my father kept a journal. Twenty two of them, carefully hidden behind a sliding door in the back of the safe. One for each year he owned the shop. His personal thoughts and feelings laid down and kept safe from prying eyes, hidden behind a locked door. Should I read them? Did I have the right to delve into my father's personal thoughts?  My fingers shook as I held the first journal, lovingly caressing the hard leather cover. I cradled the first journal close to my heart, breathing in the scent of age and fine leather. The decision was reached, a decision that came from my heart. Yes, I would read them. In them I hoped to find words of love for me, memories of my mother, memories to lighten my heart and help ease the pain of his passing.  Little did I know I was embarking on a journey of discovery, a discovery that would change my life forever. I sat down behind the desk in my father's large leather chair with legs curled up underneath me and opened the first journal.  Words jumped out at me, written in my father's bold script.

  "Today I left my safe place, my place of healing in the world Below with my new bride, who was heavy with child, to venture forth into the world Above and begin my life as a helper."
A helper?  Below?  Above?  My curiosity urged me to continue.
   "My life was a series of traumatic events, too numerous to put down on paper.  Events that led me in a downward spiral until my spirit was broken. It was when I hit rock bottom and I was to the point of giving up on life that a helper found me. Alana found me in the park late that fateful night, straight razor in hand. Hands that trembled as I placed the sharp edge against my right wrist, ready to end it all." 
 Pausing I felt a shiver run down my spine. I never knew my father to be anything but happy, secure, filled with hope and love.  My mother a helper? That strange term again. She found my father ready to commit suicide? My heart lurched in my chest. Tears welled in my eyes as I continued to read.
  "Alana sat beside me on that lonely bench and asked me why I would choose to give up on life when there were so many wonders yet to experience. I remember staring at her lovely, angelic face. Eyes a deep rich brown, doe eyes, holding me captive. She touched my hand and moved it slowly away from my wrist, never taking her eyes off of mine as she gently pried the razor from my fingers. Then her melodious voice asked if I would like to go to a place where love abounded and my heart and mind could heal. A place of safety. A place where I would never feel alone or unloved ever again. She asked me to accompany her into her world, Below."
 Below? There was that word again. My Mother came from Below?  Below where? She had always been a private person, holding a secret within her heart. I knew this even as a young child. I also knew that her past was a mystery that she would never reveal to me, reveal to anyone. But I also knew it was a happy past. Her eyes sparked with remembrance of happy times whenever I asked about her past. Shaking myself out of my memories I continued onward into my father's past.
  "Alana's hand held mine as she guided me into her world, through a drainage culvert at the south end of Central Park to a massive steel door. One of the many doorways to Below, she informed me. She tripped the lever, opening the heavy door. After we moved inside she stopped and upon the tripping of another lever the doorway closed, sealing off the world Above that I was ready to leave behind. She took a small length of pipe out of her pocket, tapping out a message in some form of code on the pipes that ran along the tunnel wall. She listened to an answering tapping, then smiled at me and taking my hand again led me onward, along many concrete encased tunnels, into brick tunnels, downward, ever downward, through carved rock tunnels leading into many man made caves I would later learn were called chambers. We walked for miles it seemed, past many strangely dressed people of all ages, even small children, all radiating an air of happiness and contentment.  She led me into a large chamber filled with many books and large antique furniture. Candles were lit on every surface, casting a feeling of light and warmth. She stopped in front of a massive desk to stand facing a man whose countenance spoke of command. He was the patriarch of the tunnel world Below, Father, as he was called by all."

A world below Central Park? Filled with people? A community all living below the city? I was stunned, my mind returning to the many Sunday walks taken with my parents in
that very park. They always seemed to be off in a world of their own even though each held my hands, sometimes swinging me between them. Now I understood why. They were traveling those tunnels in their minds while we walked above them. I had to know more.
  "My life in the tunnels was at first a bit daunting. I had withdrawn into myself but Alana and all of the community members worked diligently to pull me back into the world of the living. Slowly I began to heal as I worked daily beside them, ate with them in the community dinning hall, danced with them in the Great Hall, listened to music and poetry, watched plays, and attended the nightly story hour in Father's study. Slowly, I became whole again. The deep tear in my heart healed. I learned to have hope and feel love again. A love not only for my fellow man but a stronger love, the love of a lifetime, love for my soul mate, my Alana. In my third year Below Alana and I married, joined in a joining ceremony, as the union of couples was called Below."
So that is why mother and father always got that dreamy look when I asked them to tell me about their wedding. She would always say "Kaitlin we were joined by the heart." Joined, in a joining ceremony?  Was their marriage legal? More secrets. Did I really know my parents at all?
  "In my forth year in the tunnels Alana told me a secret. A secret that was once again life altering for me, for us.  Alana was with child. We were going to be parents. I had healed and it was time for decisions. Time to move on. Time to return to the world Above. I wanted our child to know the world Above.  Alana and I discussed this at length. We agreed that I would keep a journal that upon our deaths our child would have access to the knowledge of the tunnel world Below. A knowledge she may never need but would be available to her should her life call her to a time where she was in need of healing, in need of a safe place. At the next community council meeting we asked for help. The community sprang to life and found a helper who was their prime source of fresh produce and was ready to retire and move to Florida to be with his son and grandchildren.  Fortune blessed Alana and me. We moved Above and took over the shop. For the first several years we lived above the shop with our precious daughter, Kaitlin, before buying our own small house a few blocks away in a quiet neighborhood."
I smiled, remembering living above the shop. Cramped quarters, lean but happy times. No yard to play in outside so the shop became my playground. Later a small but pleasant home provided the yard filled with sunshine and my playground changed during the week. My weekend playground was still in the shop. I loved those times best of all.
The journals, year by year, told the story of why such a successful shop only seemed to turn a minimum profit.  The shopís produce and her parents love of giving back to the community Below helped support and continue the dream of a better life, feeding its many inhabitants. They told of the shopís basement access into the Tunnels. The pipe code used to communicate through out the world Below. Told of the many friends Below, Father the patriarch and doctor, Vincent the protector and teacher, Cullen the carpenter, Winslow the blacksmith, Mouse and his gizmos and raccoon Arthur, Jamie and her security system, William who ruled over the kitchen, Rebecca the candle-maker, Sarah the seamstress, Elizabeth and her Painted Tunnels, Narcissa the voodoo priestess, Kanin the stone mason, and Mary the midwife and mother to them all. His journals told of the many lost souls who found the tunnels and made their home below the city streets, of the children, abused or abandoned, who found shelter, learning, and love within those stone tunnels and chambers.  They told of an intricate system from the education of the children in the basics as well as literature and music, of the security that kept their secret place safe, of the foraging for cast off items from Above that furnished their bodies and chambers, of the helper network that supplied them with food and medicines, their barter system that provided money for the children who chose to move Above and go to college, and many other aspects that made this world Below continue to thrive.
Picking up this last yearís journal I steadied myself to read the final words left behind by my father. These words were directed to me. Written not to finish a story but to tell me his final wishes. Wishes not safe in the hands of Father's lawyer. Secret wishes.
  "Kaitlin, my darling Daughter. My time is drawing near. I feel it. It is almost time for me to be rejoined with your mother, my beloved, my Alana.  Grieve not for me for I am going home. Home to the arms of the woman I love and the tunnel community Below that saved me and gave me life. Our spirits will mingle there in our home, never forgotten, in peace and serenity for an eternity.  Kaitlin, I ask that you to keep the shop. Keep it open and running. Keep it safe. I know I am asking you to change your life as you know it. The world Below needs you as it has needed me these past twenty two years.  Help them. Become a helper. See that they survive and thrive with the bounty of our goods.  Help me to help them keep the dream alive. They need you just as I and your mother needed them."
Tears fell freely from my eyes. My mind filled with many jumbled thoughts and emotions, sad and happy. My heart was filled with love for the sacrifices of both of my parents, filled with the love they gave to me and to everyone they came in contact with. Gratitude that I came from two such loving, caring, giving individuals. Wiping the tears away I read the final instructions that would change my life.
  "Go into the basement, there is a hidden door behind the boxes marked with a 'B' in the South corner, go down the ladder into the tunnel Below, use the pipes and tap out the message at the bottom of this page and wait.  Someone will come to you. Tell them who you are and give them this enclosed letter to Father, tell them you will wait for a reply. Soon someone will come for you and lead you Below to Father. Kaitlin, this is the secret I know you have sensed in both your mother and I through the years.  A secret that must be kept so that others may survive. A secret that brought your mother and I much joy. I am trusting you to find that joy, to live that joy, and to pass it along to your children someday. Let our family leave a legacy of helpers.  I am proud to trust you with our secret and know you will pass it along when your time comes. Make us proud, my child. I love you Kaitlin, I will always love you."
As I turned the page out fell a sealed envelope with the single word "Father" written in my fatherís bold script. I held the letter to my heart for a moment before closing the journal and replacing it along with the others in the safe.
I knew what I had to do. I would honor my father's wishes, knowing they were also my mother's. Uncurling my cramped legs from beneath me I descended the stairs into the
basement, through the door to the tunnel Below and began my life anew.
Today I became a helper like my mother and father before me.