My Mom did not set out to have a daughter (or sons). Like
most kids on this planet, I was not a planned creation, but rather the physical
manifestation of what happens when two young lovers do what lovers do.
One of my favorite stories about my Mom is a snapshot in my
mind. I wasn’t there; she was only a teenager in this story. She ran away from
home with her guitar, hitchhiking from the rural farm in Cabot, PA where she
grew up and making it all the way to New Castle, PA—about a 40 mile trek. I
don’t remember how it started or why she did it or how it ended (obviously she
didn’t become a famous singer). There may or may not have been a friend with
her. She may or may not have even had a plan.
Those are details that don’t matter in my snapshot. The
picture in my mind was and still is this: A girl, 7th of 8 children
from a big Catholic family is striking out. She is a song; her hair is long and
dark, and slightly wild. With her, she carries a guitar, the clothes on her
back and a hope for something different.
Granted, there is obvious transference on my
part going on in this story. And as with all stories we tell ourselves, I cradle
and polish this story in my mind until it has become a picture of a singular defining
moment. I define my Mom as poetry, as a pure soul, as an eternal girl who seeks
freedom even as a woman. This is how I will try to define myself, but my mirror
is blurry and the pieces of me do not fit this mold. It takes years, joy and
pain to gather your own pieces and accept your condition as beautifully flawed
but uniquely whole.
My Mom is 20 years old when she discovers she is pregnant
with her first child. She has been in a relationship with my biological father since
she was 16. This is 1980. The bra-burning, major movement days of feminism are over,
but the stigma of unwed mothers is still firmly locked in a place of silent
judgment-- especially in rural, predominantly Catholic, farming communities. My
father wants her to abort the fetus.
She chooses to have me. She later will choose to have my
My father goes on to choose another woman and a
non-custodial, non-relationship with his children. This is his choice and one
that I’m still uncertain if he has come to regret.
The Wind; It Blows
The first memory I can recall with clarity is a vision of me
at 3 or maybe 4 years of age. I’m lying underneath a white pine next to the
farmhouse that raised me. The wind is hot and dry. Maybe this memory stands out
because arid gusts are not the norm during a summer in Western Pennsylvania. My
fingers are sifting through warm, tan dirt; my young brain is reaching for the
top of the pine, grasping for understanding: How do the trees make the wind blow?
I recall this memory in later childhood with embarrassment.
Cause and effect is a simple concept; I mentally kick myself for not
understanding something so fundamental.
I don’t remember my father. I don’t remember his face or
when he left us or if he ever held me or my brother in his arms.He left before I could walk, speak or formulate
thoughts about trees and wind.
I do have a Dad. His love for my mother is undeniable. I’m
not sure I understand how our family appears to others (and many will try to
dissect it), but for us it works. He is strict, but caring. Discipline, humor
and a familial sense of belonging make up the foundation of how we all love,
tolerate and survive one another.We are
his rug-rats, my brothers and I, also frequently referred to as “The Gang.” A
common theme that threads its way through our childhood is ripped off of The Three Musketeers: “All for one and
one for all.” We go everywhere together.
My father’s mother has died. She is my paternal grandmother.
I like this adjective, paternal. We attend the viewing of Blanche and I meet my
paternal grandfather. He is propped up against his girlfriend, who has red hair
and yellow skin. His glasses are so thick that his eyes appear as though they
are far away and I think to myself that this poor eye-sight is a part of my
biology. Mental note: Practice touching
eye balls so I am prepared to use contact lenses instead of relying on
As we leave the funeral home, my Mom approaches a tall man
on the porch. She says, “I’m sorry for your loss.” He mumbles something
unintelligible. I realize this man is my father. He will not look at me or my
brother. My heart is pounding; my voice is locked deep inside of me. We leave.
I will confer with my best-friend.
“Are you angry that he left you?” My cousin and best-friend,
7 months my senior, asks me about my father.Her tongue is sticking out the side of her mouth in concentration as she
prepares to launch a raisin into a bottle of grape soda. I’m 12 and she has
just turned 13 this spring.The rain has
brought us indoors and we’re sprawled out on the worn pink carpet of my
shoebox-shaped bedroom. Most of the raisins now litter the floor around the
Faygo bottle.Her question interrupts my
current thought: I wonder if the raisins will rehydrate and become big grapes,
gushing with purple sugar.
Angry? I’m not sure.
I try angry on to see if it suits me.“I’m not angry,” I tell her with assurance. “I think you have to know a
person to be angry with them.”
To my friends, perhaps the absent father is a curious
novelty. Mostly everyone we know has married parents.Following a quick wedding at St. John’s, St.
Luke’s or with the JP at the County Courthouse, the eldest child usually enters
the family 6 to 7 months later.
My cousin moves on to talking about the boys in her class
and I’m left with a new awareness. It has not occurred to me up to this point
that I am entitled to a feeling of anger or loss regarding my biological
father’s absence.Since early childhood,
I have been approaching the subject of the Missing Parent with a burning sense
of curiosity about his relationship with my Mom and yet a detached level of
expertise in explaining his absence to others.I firmly correct anyone who would refer to this non-custodial parent as
“your dad.” I say, “No, he was my biological father.” I delight in using the
word, “biological.” It makes me feel scientific and worldly. My family is not like yours. We are special.
I store “angry” away and settle back into “curious.” Junior High is on the
horizon and my world is getting bigger.
My grandma (my middle name, LaRue, comes from Grandma) has
albums upon albums of photographs. I revisit them on a regular basis during my
childhood and even into my teen years. She has 17 grandchildren and I observe
naming them, chronologically from oldest to youngest. These are my people; I
know where I fit in the big picture. Lori, April, Sean, Jamie, Scott, Steve,
Jenny, Me, Jessie, Bryan, Nathan, Louis, Chris, D.C., Bob, Nick, Zack. I know
their faces as babies, children and teens. I know their parents’ (my mom’s
siblings) faces as children, teens and adults. I have a lot of people and my
compass will always point here, to these people, to these years on the farm.
I’m poring over an album one day and I light upon a photo
that is new to me. I recognize my Mom; her smile, her hair is unmistakable. The
photo has the 1970’s yellow glow of eternal summer. There is a young man
standing next to her; his hair is full and light blonde and I think he looks
like one of the boys from the Dukes of Hazard, but not as happy. He seems
awkward, but handsome in a familiar way and I feel as though he does not belong
next to her smile. His gaze looks beyond the moment. This photo becomes part of
my narrative; my father, before my time has already moved one foot towards the
door. He was always leaving, always moving and never arriving.
It’s not that my father is ever far away. States do not
separate us, not even a county, and at times not even a mile of country roads.
He and I move along the same routes at different times. Our paths do not cross
often, and never by his own navigation.
It’s a summer day and we are exhausted and content after a
weekend on the river. My mom stops at the local convenience store on the way
home for fuel and bread. My brothers and I wait patiently, too tired to
find anything to bicker about. My mom returns and starts the engine; her anger
is palpable. She explains that she saw our father in the store. She told him
that his kids just learned how to water-ski; maybe he would like to say “hi.”
He told her he was too busy. I look at my brother; his face is a study in
stoicism. My heart is pounding. I feel anxious that this man upset her. I feel some
relief that I am saved from a confrontation of any kind.
Math; it also Blows
My second grade teacher is horrible. He specializes in
shaming children’s behaviors and appearance. “Johnny forgot to comb his hair
today. Please take this comb to the bathroom and don’t return until you look
civilized.” If he catches a child picking her nose, “Oh look at that, Suzy
didn’t you have your breakfast this morning?” The class always dissolves in
giggles and a few sighs of relief from kids who are just glad they’re not up
for public humiliation this time. My strategy is to lay low and exude
perfection at all times.
One day we’re all walking back from the library (my favorite
class!) and Mr. M is pretending to ice-skate down the hall. He has a smug look
on his face as some of the other kids reward him with giggles. I’m the last in
line and he catches me before I walk into the class. “Megan, do you have a
Daddy at home?” I am stunned by the question. I’m not sure how to answer. I have a Dad, but I don’t call him Daddy. I
stare at him blankly. He rephrases the questions, “Does your Mom have a
boyfriend?” Boyfriend? I don’t know. He
is my Dad. My Mom loves him. We are a family. I nod my head dumbly. I have
most likely and unwittingly saved my mom from being asked out by a middle-aged
man with a bad comb-over. I do not have the words at the time to articulate
this feeling, but deep in my heart I have a strong conviction that this man is
Fortunately, the teachers in my school district go on strike
that year. I am saved from further questioning into my family dynamics by Mr.
Comb-Over. Unfortunately, I’m supposed to learn multiplication this year and get
ready for long division in 3rd grade.
My Dad takes it upon himself to drill me on times tables
that summer. Every night, the dinner table is a cause of great anxiety for me.
He is a Mathematical drill sergeant, a cobra who strikes quickly. I begin to
recognize his body language. I see the question forming on his eye-brows before
it can reach his lips. I shove a giant piece of meatloaf in my mouth before he
can draw his weapon, “Blondie, what’s 7 times 8?!” I chew with exaggeration.
Supper time decorum can’t possibly allow me to answer while I have food in my
We continue this math dance for years.
I’m in 8th grade and my dad is attempting to help
me with my Geometry homework. I am frustrated beyond words and I am practically
in tears. “I CAN’T do this,” I sob. Usually my crying causes my Dad great
confusion and some distress. You would think after years of raising a female
faucet, he would get used to the tears, but he is a man and men see the leaking
thing as the problem that must be fixed. Stop the tears, problem fixed.
But this time, my tears have accompanied the dreaded phrase,
Now he is frustrated. “Don’t ever tell me you ‘Can’t.’ I
don’t want that word to be part of your vocabulary. Always keep trying. As long
as you always try, I will never be disappointed.”
He is relentless in his quest for Math to not defeat me. He
drives me to early morning Peer Tutoring at the High School twice a week and
does spot checks on my homework. We make it through Trigonometry together with
a C-average. Calculus is not an option my senior year and I gladly take
Consumer’s Math and dive into an extra Literature class.
It’s the beginning of my senior year of high school. I’m
walking down the long, dusty farm lane by myself since both my brothers have
sport activities after school. I hear the buzz of my Dad’s jeep and feel
thankful for the reprieve from walking through more dust in my new shoes. I
jump in the passenger seat and he tosses an envelope to me, “This came for
you.” I don’t recognize the bubbly print, but tear into it. There are two
insurance cards and a hand-written note in the same bubble letters:
Here is your and your brothers
insurance cards from your Dad. He talks about you often but never wanted to
cause problems between your parents. He would like to see you if you want.
Your Dad’s Fiance,
I stare at the letter in shock. We’re cresting the hill and
I stare out over the fields. I’m not sure why, but I decide to read the letter
out loud. My Dad, usually confident and not one to hold back opinions no matter
how unpopular, clears his throat. “Well, your Mom and I always said you and Nathan,
well that it’s up to you. You have to do what is right for you.”
I ponder this.
“No.” I say it firmly. “I’m almost 18 years old. Why now?
And it’s not even him writing to me. It’s some woman who writes like a 10-year
old. Besides, I have a Dad.”My face is
burning with fury, the nerve of him to issue a second-hand invitation for
himself into my life and behave as though it is really all my choice. I toss
the cards in my backpack and crumple the letter in my fist.
Social Media: Lost
I hear nothing from my father’s camp for years. I graduate
college. I date. I get my heart broken; I break hearts. I find a job, meet a
special guy, get engaged, get married, leave a job, get a new job, lose my
grandma, battle Depression, get a dog and make it to my thirties all without
hearing from my father.
This is not to say that I don’t think about him. He does not
cross my mind on a daily basis. Other people find a way to put him there from
time to time.
When my Grandmother is dying in Hospice, one of my Mom’s
friends comes to visit. Out of the blue, she tells me, “I saw your father. He’s
I stare at her in a daze of confusion and exhaustion. I say,
His absence must also be acknowledged at all appointments
with Doctors. Medical History, Father’s Side. I write: Unknown. (What I want to
write: Disappeared. Not sure if I too may disappear. Have not yet experienced
any symptoms of magical powers such as ability to make oneself disappear).
It’s late evening, the summer of 2012. I am catching up on
Facebook emails when I notice the “Other” folder. I have never noticed this
folder until now. There are two emails. The first is from a random man in California who
wants to meet me. “Perv”, I mutter. Delete.
The second email is from another name I don’t recognize, a
woman. I open the email:
I know you don't know me, but, I am with
your dad, ------ -------. We would love to get to know you, if you want, please
I stare at the monitor in shock. When I regain my senses, I
do what any self-respecting social media user would do. I creep her Facebook
Her privacy settings are fairly low (c’mon Baby Boomers, get
it together and learn how to use those settings!) She is pretty, petite and has
a kind face. He is bald. Well, duh, I already knew that thanks to my Mom’s
informative friend. There is a baby in the photos. It turns out the baby is her
grandson. My father is holding the baby in another photo. I’m beginning to feel
my skin crawl as blood rushes up my neck to my face. The anger surprises me. I race up the stairs to find my husband and I start shouting nonsense. He can’t
keep up and is looking at me like I have completely lost my mind.
Okay, so it only took me 31 years to get to anger. Maybe it’s
because I know so many wonderful kids who also have an MIA father. I see the
confusion and hurt that they experience. I see my friends as they struggle as
single Moms or with blended families. Now that I’m in my thirties, I am finally in a
place where I can look back on my childhood with some distance, as an observer.
I reach a state of calm and go back to the email. I realize
that it’s almost 6 months old. I think she/they have been waiting 6 months, what’s
a little more time. So I write back:
I need some time to process this. I'm 31
years old and I don't know him. He doesn't know me. I'm not sure what to think.
I mean, why now? I guess it would mean more if he contacted me himself. Does
that make sense?
She tells me this makes perfect sense to her. I know I don’t
owe her anything, but I am grateful that she understands and is patient.
After a couple days of meditation and conversations with loved
ones, I send her a heartfelt, but direct message to give to my father. I let
him know that I am open to communication. I make clear that I already have a
Dad and I expect that he will respect my Dad’s place in my life.
This is not an easy decision to come to. I try to weigh pros
and cons. I try to imagine why he may possibly want to enter my life at this
point (Does he need a kidney?) I think about how my family would react, but
push this thought away. This is my decision. A conversation I have with another woman who
does not know her father actually plays the biggest role in my decision. She tells
me that when she was in her twenties, her father contacted her after a lifetime
of absence. She told him to hit the road. He died not too long after that and
she has lived with her rejection of him as her only regret in life.
This makes sense to me. I have lived a life without regrets.
Why start now? I owe him nothing. Maybe he can give me something else besides “Unknown”
to write next to “Medical History: Father’s Side.”
It has been over a year since I sent that message to my
Father’s girlfriend. He has not called.
I have corresponded with his girlfriend, who is a very kind
woman facing a difficult road: bone cancer. I only know her on Facebook, but my
heart aches for her. I am not sure if her diagnosis has influenced his decision
to not make contact with me.
I do know this: He has never attempted to contact me or my
brother on his own. There has always been a woman in the middle of the correspondence.
I make judgments in my head about these
women. I know the type; they see a broken man and they want to fix him. Or
maybe it’s just that they love him and but they don’t love that one part about
him. The part where he has kids out there he doesn’t know.
Sometimes I draw conclusions about him based on
circumstantial evidence and behavior. I have Depression. He has a brother who
took his own life. The Depression must come from his side. Maybe he is
Depressed? Maybe he copes by using alcohol?
People I barely know have told me that he is a bad person.
This I cannot believe. There are very few “bad” people in the world. We all
have struggles. We all make mistakes. We all make poor decisions. We all try to
do the best we can with what we’re given.
I used to think that if I could know him that some
mysterious part of me would be revealed to myself. Is some part of me
irrevocably damaged because we share biology? Has his absence created a
subtraction in me? Math has never been my strong subject. Everything is up for
debate; black and white is only an illusion people allow themselves so that their
world is easier to grasp.
Conclusions are also
This is what I do know. I made it. I have a lot of people in
my life who love me and made me the person that I am today.
To my Mom and Dad: I want you to know that you did more than
good. I am your “clay.” I am shaped by your loving hands and I have love to
give because of you.
To single parents and blended families, just keep going.
You’re doing it already.
To those who would look upon a fatherless or motherless
child with pity. Don’t. Do not look at this child as less; he has already had a
subtraction in his life, do not take more away from him. Give her your respect,
your love and your expectation of greatness. Let her meet those expectations
and exceed them.
To children of absent parents: your parent’s absence is
beyond your control. Their absence may be part of your fabric, but it’s not
everything. You are already 100% you. I hope you have people in your life who
love you and cherish you. Even if it’s one parent, one grandfather or special
aunt; this is your foundation. Learn from them. Plant yourself in their love and
nourish your hopes and dreams with their devotion.
To the parents who have left and to my own Father: I don’t
know what has happened in your life that has pushed you away from your
children. I am thankful that I have not had similar experiences. I am sorry for