The story goes like this: My mother was the bartender at his favorite watering hole. He was married with three kids. They hooked up a few times, that led to a few more times, then more times, and eventually who could keep track. My mom loved him, and to hear her tell it, he loved her too, but you know, not enough to be with her. People knew about the affair. People at the bar knew. My mom’s friends knew, his friends knew, his wife knew, but still things kept going like that for years. I don’t know the specifics. I don’t know what he said when she told him she was pregnant with me, a 36-year-old, single mother of three knocked up with her married boyfriend’s baby in a small Catholic, midwestern town in the 1980s. I’m sure it didn’t go over well.
It’s tough to be the kid of a single mom. It’s tough to watch the father/daughter dances pass you by. To pretend that you are happy to make Father’s Day cards for your mother at school, after all, isn’t she my mom and my dad? It’s tough to see this man, the man who fathered me, day after day because my mom moved us into his neighborhood. It’s tough to watch your mother love someone so much, who just treats her like a pile of heaping trash (when he didn’t need her).
Then there is the stigma in the community. Adults knew who my father was. People mentioned his name to me on the street. In fact, I first learned his name from one of my mom’s friends. “Oh you know that old Ralph, your mom still loves him,” then laughter. I laughed too, even though I had no idea what or who I was laughing about.
Once when I was too young for my feet to touch the floorboard of the car, my mother drove me up to the IGA on 10th Avenue. It was a hot sticky day and we didn’t have air conditioning in the car so my skin was stuck to the seats and I was angry. Then, out of nowhere she points to a group of men working in the parking lot. They were all wearing construction hats and vests. One of the men, a tall, dark-haired man started walking over to our car.
“That’s your daddy,” my mom said. “That’s Ralph.”
For the first time in my life I remember getting a rush of excitement over the word “Daddy”. I had never heard it in relation to me before. I was the girl who didn’t have a daddy. As he made his slow, measured walk to our car I thought, for the first time, that my life was about to change. I thought this man, my daddy, was coming to us like he had promised. I thought we would do father and daughter things. That he would teach me to ride my bike, where my sister had failed, or teach me how catch a pop-fly. I thought we would go to the movies together on hot afternoons, and that we would eat around the dinner table like I had seem other families do. For the first time in my life, I was excited at the prospect of “Daddy”.
He made it to the car, as I was unsticking my legs from the seats and smoothing out my shirt. I wanted to look nice for him. He leaned into the car on my mother’s side, they said some things in a whisper, then he came to my side. He bent down, my face plastered with a huge smile, and he smiled back. He said, “Hi there, Missy.” And I thought my heart would explode. I was as happy as I had ever been.
That was the last time I would talk to my father, until the day after my 16th birthday when his name popped up on our caller id. I grabbed the phone and lurched into a tyraid. I called him a motherfucker. Cause he was. And an asshole. Cause he was. And a host of other names, ending with “Don’t ever call my house again, she doesn’t want to talk to you!” Only, I was wrong. She did still want to talk to him. Here they were all these years later, his kids long-since grown and out of the house with kids of their own, him still very married to his wife, and he was still calling her.
Well, to be fair, three out of four of his kids were grown and out of the house. His last kid was an angsty teenager with a bone to pick with him. But the time never came. In fact, I didn’t talk to him ever again. My mother did, to be sure. Years later, after his wife died, they hung out again. He was an old man by then, enjoying the solace of having lived a long life, surrounded by his kids and grandkids. Well, most of them.
My son was two years old when the man who fathered me died. My mother called me on the phone from 300 miles away. She told me that he died. I wasn’t sure what she was expecting from me. I’m not sure that she was expecting anything, possibly just informing me of his death, either way I said, “Hmm. That sucks.” Cause it did, for her.
For me, it was a relief. For me it was the end to having to worry about things. To having to make lists of things I wanted to say to him if I ever ran into him on the street. The end to ever having to wonder if he was proud of me, if he knew my accomplishments. Would he be happy to know that I am a grown woman with a wonderful husband who loves his child? Would he be happy to know that his grandson is gifted and enjoyed mathematics and technology? And is kind and humble? Would he be happy to know that I am smart? That I have earned a masters degree? That I strive to put the emotions and feelings of others before my own? Would he be happy to know that I turned out nothing like him, in spite of him?
It doesn’t matter anymore. Because for the first time in my life I have realized that the kind of man he was, the kind of man who lives a life of lies and deceit. The kind of man who fathers a child then runs from his responsibility, the kind of man that is exactly 50% to blame for all of it, but puts 100% of the blame and burden on his mistress, is not the kind of man that I care to impress any longer.
My mom used to whisper to me, “He is the one missing out, Missy,” and I never believed her. I always believed instead that I was missing something because I didn’t have a dad, but now I see that she was right. Now I see what I have accomplished in my life without him, and I am grateful for being the kid without a dad. Grateful for the lessons it taught me. For the conversations it provoked. I am grateful that I had someone in the back of my mind to do better than. If nothing else, I strive every day to be a better human than he was.
PS… I forgive you Ralph. You can rest in peace now.