Monthly Archives: December 2021

lunch with my old dad – part two

lunch with my old dad – part two

“Your past is just a story, and once you realize this it has no power over you.” – Chuck Palahniuk


In late September I got a message from my sister. She had received an email from Senior. That’s one of the names we called my father because some of us could not bring ourselves to call him Dad. We sometimes called him by his initials but since my brother also had those initials and was a Junior, we called the old man Senior, which is far superior to some of the many other names we have called him over the years.
In his email he said something along the lines of “If you are agreeable, I’d like to come North, to your town to have lunch with you at a place, date and time of your choosing. Please seriously consider it.” We weren’t surprised. It’s what we had been anticipating since his interest in us had ramped back up after his wife’s death a few years ago. My sister said she was considering it but wanted to know my thoughts and wanted to know if I had any interest in going with her. What…are…my…thoughts. Hmmm. I really didn’t know what I felt about it. Curiosity? Anger? Indifference? Seeing him was something I had never thought would happen in my lifetime. Even after he moved to South Carolina I didn’t think it would really happen. I often told my siblings “well I hope someone tells us when he dies.” He has dozens of nieces and nephews. We just hoped when his time came one of them would think to notify his children
I called her the next day and we discussed it. We listed out the pros and cons. All but one of us hadn’t seen him in over forty-five years. The potential for awkwardness was off the charts. We decided to ask our other siblings if they were interested. While we weren’t sure yet what we wanted to do, one thing was certain, no one should do it alone. My youngest sister said she would come. If he bailed on us as he did in Yellowstone, we would at least have a nice lunch together. We started a group chat making jokes that he wouldn’t know who was who and maybe we should wear shirts with our childhood pictures on them to help him sort it out. Or name tags, or shirts with our names, or we could pretend to be each other. Those early conversations before things were set in stone were light and easy. It was fun to joke about what we would say or do because at that point it was still hypothetical.
My brothers declined. The youngest was just six weeks old when my father left. He has no memories and no desire to make any. Our father is a complete and total stranger to him. My stepfather was his dad and that was that. It’s more complicated with my other brother. Two years younger than me, I am not sure what his memories are of our father. My mom claims my father didn’t know how to raise a son. I always found this odd, as he himself was a boy and had a lot of brothers. It was known in the family that my paternal grandmother favored her daughters. She had lingering resentments towards men from abuse she had suffered when she was young. I believe she took it out on her boys, and there were plenty of them. I think my father may have grown up believing that girls were easier to love. Whether he realized it or not he distanced himself from his young son. There is no way at that age my brother could possibly have understood the complexity of what was going on with our very damaged father. He said thanks but no. It would be just us girls.
We decided to meet in the town where I live as it would take two hours off my father’s drive. South Carolina to Virginia is a very long drive for an eighty-year-old man. A day, time and place were chosen, and a plan was set. The conversations with my sisters turned from light and easy to worried and nervous. We had no idea what to expect. Talking about it to my husband one day I said, “What should we talk about?” and my husband joked, “Well, you could ask ‘So, what have you been up to?’” I laughed and said, “well that will take up a good chunk of time.”
I called my Mom. It was important to know that she would be ok with this. She said she wanted us to do whatever our hearts led us to do. She hoped that we would get out of it whatever we needed but of course she would worry. I think her exact words were “I just don’t want him to hurt you again” to which I replied, “we would have to have expectations of him for that to happen.” I reminded her we were not going to let him undo all the great work we had each done in our lifetimes to become the emotionally healthy, well adjusted, accomplished women we are today. We were not the vulnerable little girls he had walked away from so many years ago. I told her that he was the one who should be worried. We are three formidable ladies. Whatever happened or didn’t happen was up to us. If anyone was vulnerable, it would be him.
The morning of our lunch I was very much on edge. My stomach was tied in knots. My heart was pounding. I said more than once “I don’t know if I can do this.” My husband and I got into a dust up about some small thing and I had a reaction that was gigantically out of proportion to the offense. I sat on the side of my bed and cried. Thankfully he knew it had nothing to do with him but rather a release of the stress I was feeling. I am a bit of a control freak (surprise!) and the fear of the unknown was rattling my cage. I am glad I had that minute to sit in my emotions and cry it out. I think it kept me from getting emotional later when we were dropping truth bombs everywhere. When the time came to leave the house, I felt as ready as I could be, which means, not at all.
We pulled into the restaurant parking lot and immediately noticed a slightly hunched elderly man entering ahead of us. He walked with a cane and had a life alert necklace around his neck. We watched as he was seated at a table near the window. I motioned to my sisters and waved my open palm towards him, making an “ahh ha, there he is” gesture. My youngest sister immediately said “That’s not him. He is taller. We’ll know him when we see him.” I think on some subconscious level we must have expected a visceral response to seeing him. Maybe we longed for some gut feeling, a buried muscle memory that would tell us he was our daddy. That’s not what happened. We didn’t get the strong physical sense of connection we were subconsciously expecting. What we got was the hostess telling us “that older gentleman is expecting three ladies.” The guy who didn’t look anything like anyone any of us remembered was our dad.
I had prearranged with the restaurant for a semiprivate table and once we were seated, the server brought him over to us. I had picked one of our favorite places and they gave us our privacy and space, only approaching if we waved them over to order food or refill drinks. The first few minutes were an awkward mix of hellos and figuring out seating. We easily slipped into casual small talk about his drive which took significantly longer than planned. He was not familiar with the vagaries of Interstate 95 and the drive had been rough on him. I kept looking at him trying to find a trace of…. oh, I don’t know…the past, myself, something I would recognize. My brother used to look so much like him, the younger him, and now he looked nothing like my brother. What kept going through my mind was “this is a nice old man to whom I feel no connection.” He passed around pictures of his garden, his house, his cats. Through the years he had owned many cats (substitute children if you ask me) and spent a chunk of time telling us their names and peculiarities. He told us about his bowling trophies, missing the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and his other interests. He kept referring to his brother as our Uncle which felt strange because when he left, his family virtually disappeared from our lives. We didn’t just lose him We lost aunts, uncles, cousins, our grandfather. Such was their shame at what he had done that they couldn’t bear to see us, poor fatherless children. What a crock.
We spent a solid hour and a half making small talk and eating lunch. He shared a few memories of when we were children. Unfortunately, his memory wasn’t great, and he got the details mixed up. He also kept calling my sister by the wrong nick name. I could tell each time he said it, it was making her uncomfortable. At one point he asked how my cat Poncho was doing. I said “I have never had a cat named Poncho” so he looked around the table and when my sisters, practically in unison both said “Nope, no cat named Poncho” he seemed confused. He clearly had us mixed up with someone else.
What stood out to me is that he didn’t ask us much about ourselves. He only seemed slightly interested in our lives, our jobs, our families. He mostly seemed intent on telling us everything he could possibly tell us about his life. He brought copies of certificates, licenses, accomplishments. He brought large blurry pictures he had printed on a home printer, the ink smeared from not being allowed to fully dry. He passed around copies of a short story he had written about one of his…you guessed it…cats. He gave us a manuscript of a book he is writing about his father, titled somewhat ironically “Dad.” Apparently my grandfather was beloved in the neighborhood for being a father figure to everyone. My sister says regarding our own father “I guess that apple fell off the tree and rolled away.”
He kept retrieving document after document, picture after picture from his bag and passed them around, each of us glancing at the item and passing it to the next sister. Forty five years of a life spent without us, condensed in to a briefcase and then spread out on the table as if to say “see me.” There were no pictures of his wife, the stepmother we never knew and obviously no pictures of us. He could draw from his bag all day and would come up empty every time when it came to evidence of having us in his life. There was none.
We continued our conversation and he mentioned that he had been sober for 32 years. I quick did the math, realizing that he continued to be a drunk for a good fifteen years after leaving us. I guess he had a lot of things to drink away. He hinted at marriage problems caused by his drinking and said his wife “kicked him in the butt to get some help.” His profession had been in corrections, working with juvenile offenders. It’s what he had been doing when he left and apparently became his lifelong passion. For a time, he even worked as a drug and alcohol counselor to teenagers. It was bittersweet to hear him talk of helping other people’s children while abdicating responsibility for his own. He said that twelve step programs saved his life. He told us he remembered the last words my mother said to him. “You need to leave.” I wanted so badly to say, “I don’t think she meant forever.”
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, my sister said “Well part of the reason I wanted to meet today was so that we could ask you some medical history questions. We don’t know any medical history on your side of the family.” To his credit, he answered, fully listing off the various things that each of his siblings had died of. This one had a heart attack. That one had a stroke. He casually mentioned the number of prescription medications he takes, and my other sister said, “That’s a lot of pills, what are they for?” We spent 10 minutes or so listening to him reciting “Well this pill is for that and that pill is for this, etc. “He described a health concern that he and I share but I kept my mouth shut. My medical situation is none of his business, reminding myself that he is a literal stranger.
Once we had cracked open the door to asking real questions, my sister kicked the door down and went all in. It was beautiful. “What I want to know is why after all this time did you want to meet us now?” Not going to lie, I don’t remember exactly what he said…something about being lonely, getting older, wanting us to put our eyes on each other before he dies.” I was just so proud of my sister opening herself up like that. She had many other tough questions and to his credit our father sat quietly, staring at his hands, occasionally nodding his head. He took it all in.
As if we were passing an imaginary talking stick, I took up where she left off. I told him I wasn’t sure he exactly understood how tough it had been for us. I candidly shared some examples of our destitution. I was trying to figure out what to say next when a thought came to me. “I am familiar with twelve-step programs” I said. “Correct me if I’m wrong but one of the steps of the program is to make amends to those who have been harmed by your addiction. If you’ve been sober for 32 years, where are our amends?” “Why weren’t we numbers one through five on that list?” He sat in stunned silence. My sisters, a little stunned themselves, made nods of their heads in silent agreement. The apologies and I’m sorry’s should have come many, many years before. I told him we did realize that meeting with us took a great deal of courage. It had to have been hard to sit there and take it all in. My other sister picked up the thread and said probably the truest thing we shared with him that day. “I feel bad for you” she said. “We are really great people, fantastic people and you missed out on having us in your life.”
A lot of questions were asked and answered. He tried to be open. We tried to be kind. There were a few tears, there was a lot of honesty. Looking back now, a week removed, I think the honesty was the most beautiful part. The exact details of what was said aren’t necessary to share. Those of us who were there know what was said and how we felt, and that’s all that matters.
After two and a half hours, I asked a server to take our picture and we wrapped things up. We had plans back at my house with my daughter, some grandkids and pizza. We were dying to leave so we could start talking about WHAT…JUST…HAPPENED. We said our goodbyes and he hugged us, saying “It was nice to see you” and “Stay in touch” to each one of us. I can’t describe how I felt when it was over. It was surreal. We had a lot to unpack.
It’s been a week and I’m still unpacking it. I can’t stop saying “he was a nice old man but I didn’t feel a connection.” I’ve done some reading in the past several weeks about the long term affects of parental abandonment. Typical reactions can include anxiety, PTSD, trust and relationship issues, disordered eating, and addiction. It’s a lot. Several of those hit really close to home. Some experts consider parental abandonment a form of child abuse. I’d like to think at this point in my life I’ve moved past it. I try very hard not to let it define me which is somewhat ironic because by sharing my story I bring attention to it. I guess it’s all part of the process. In January I start training to be a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) I will be working with teenagers who have been removed from their homes or are placed under a protective order due to either abuse or neglect. I am not an expert on anything, but I hope that my experiences in life can help me relate to a teenager in trauma. I won’t have to bullshit that I know what it’s like to be let down by a parent. I know.
A few days after our lunch my sister got an email from Senior telling her he got home ok. The trip had exhausted him. He said our meeting went as he expected. He said, “It was all about emotions, you girls (ladies) had something to say, and I needed to listen whether I liked it or not.” I found it condescending. I got the feeling that listening to our hurt feelings would be a one-time deal. In thinking about how I want to move forward, I realized that he would reap the greater benefit of me opening the door and letting him in to my life. I am still looking for the value add. I’m on the fence about it. I am also ok with whatever each of my siblings decides to do about him. We’ve all got to live our own lives and do what feels right to us. Right now, putting it on the back burner and seeing what happens is what feels right for me. My birthday is in three months, so maybe I’ll get flowers with a card that says Love Dad. And if that happens, I’ll write back and say thank you because my mother raised me to have manners, and I’ll sign that card Love Felicia and Poncho, because, if he can’t take a joke, we are definitely not related.

Lunch with my old dad – part one

Lunch with my old dad – part one

“A happy childhood is the worst possible preparation for life.” – Kinky Friedman


When I was nine years old, on a day very near Christmas, my father loaded the last of his belongings into the car and gathered his children to say goodbye. I don’t recall if we stood stairstep in age order but most likely we did as pictures from that time often showed us oldest to youngest, sister, sister, brother, sister, brother in the order of our birth. I was the oldest. The youngest barely six weeks. Did he say goodbye to the baby? I can’t remember. Most likely he didn’t as my mother at the time clung to my brother as if he were the giver of life and not the other way around. My father was moving out. My mother had had enough of his drunken antics and cruel insults. After he spent his Christmas bonus on drink and who knows what else, (it wasn’t gifts for his children) she gave him an ultimatum. If you don’t stop drinking you should leave. It’s not what she wanted. She wanted him to choose us. He didn’t.

There were probably tears, his or ours I can’t exactly say but most likely his. My mother says in the weeks after he left she had to stop taking us to visit our paternal grandfather because the old man would sob the entire time, grieving over his son leaving these five grandchildren fatherless. My grandfather would eventually die from complications of alcoholism. Like my grandfather, my father was overly emotional, given to easy crying, and periods of melancholy and depression. My mother remembers he would sit in a darkened room, play his guitar and sing along to the Neil Diamond song “I Am I Said” with tears running down his face. You should listen to the lyrics sometime. They are gut wrenching. He was born at the tail end of 13 children. By the time he came along the love and money were in short supply and he suffered from lack of both. He fulfilled his Irish catholic duty by marrying a nice catholic girl and having four children in quick succession. My mother was more German than Irish but that could be forgiven. It was 1964 when they married and having a family was a good way to keep yourself from getting sent to Vietnam. My mother was young and beautiful. She was solidly upper middle class and was out of his league. He was handsome, charming and he needed her desperately. For a young woman, with her own self esteem issues he was irresistible. Her parents had reservations. He seemed a bit aimless with no solid plan for the future, but they paid for a wedding were tried to be supportive. I was born exactly nine months later. 

My grandparents were right to worry. He was often unemployed, and he was often drunk. Fueled by deeply rooted generational alcoholism and feeling stuck in the wrong life, he convinced himself that we would be better off without him.  His affair broke my mother’s heart and eventually he left us. The loss nearly broke my poor mother in half. Her sadness was so wide and deep that had it not been for the neediness of a newborn she might possibly have never gotten up. If my memory is correct, there were a few attempts at weekend fathering. I have a blurry memory of an awkward visit to the apartment he shared with his girlfriend. My sister saw a red high heel pump on the floor of his bedroom and thought to herself “That is so weird. Why would that be there?” There was a breakfast at IHOP which I remembered because we were much too poor to ever eat in restaurants. I was fascinated by all the syrup choices, finally settling on blueberry. There was a trip to an arcade, a movie and ice cream, all the typical divorced dad weekend activities. But time with us was time away from his new girlfriend and probably more difficult, it was time he had to be sober, which in those days was not easy for him. Eventually but not unexpectedly the visits, calls and contact dwindled into nothingness and he was gone. Through the years I would sometimes hear a Neil Diamond song or see some other random thing that would remind me of him, and a memory would surface. I’d push it back down, return it to the place in my mind for things too painful to think about. When I try to conjure childhood memories now it’s images from pictures that I see.  Familiar photographs have replaced my actual memories of him. I cannot find anything three dimensional no matter how hard I try. He had become a face in old pictures and a song I once knew.

For my family, my mother, her four stunned children and newborn baby, his leaving thrust us into immediate poverty, homelessness, food insecurity, and trauma. Unbeknownst to my mother we were months behind on rent and there was very little food in the cabinets or money in the bank. One day a letter arrived from my father. It contained a partial child support payment with the promise to send more when he could. My sister says “I remember this very clearly because I sat at the kitchen table and watched our mother fall apart. It was the most traumatizing moment of my childhood. She sobbed over the phone to multiple people that her children would starve.” She was twenty nine years old and had never written a check or driven a car. 

For me, his leaving forced me into premature adulthood and responsibilities beyond my years. By the time I was ten or eleven I was babysitting my siblings and cooking meals. By age fourteen I was working at an Italian Beef sandwich shop to help feed the family. If you have never eaten an authentic Chicago Italian Beef sandwich, well, I feel sorry for you. I was in a program where I only took core subjects and then left school to go to work. I worked the legal maximum number of hours I was allowed to work for my age and I signed my check over to my mother to buy groceries and whatever else we needed. I illegally worked extra hours on a second time card and was paid in cash. My mother didn’t take the cash, either because she wanted me to have something for myself or because she didn’t know about it, I don’t remember. Sometimes I bought myself a record, at the shop across the street, but more often than not I would spend it on shoes or a toy for one of my siblings.  A year later my fourteen year old sister also started working. With both of us girls contributing, my mother’s minimum wage job, housing assistance, help from family and friends and the literal kindness of strangers we survived. There were times we ate day old bread for dinner or didn’t eat dinner at all, but we got by. I think we all had a touch of PTSD from the abandonment but I do have happy memories from that time. We did the things children do. We played, we fought, we cried, we laughed. My mother made sure we still had a childhood rich in the things that mattered, family, friends and plenty of love.

Once our struggles for food, shelter and stability were over I became a rebellious, moody, promiscuous teenager. I craved the attention of boys. I liked the confidence drinking beer gave me. I stayed out past curfew.  I cared more about my job than school. My mother and I often butted heads about things and when my step father came in to the picture when I was almost seventeen, I couldn’t wait to graduate and get out of the house. Mom still carries a lot of guilt about how fast we had to grow up and how rough we had it. We tell her it wasn’t her fault but I don’t think she believes that. Mother’s have masters degrees in feeling guilty about something. Sometimes I think it would have been less traumatic in the long run if he had died. I know that sounds horrible but at least I could have told myself he didn’t leave on purpose. I remember my fourth grade teacher approaching me right after he left and telling me she knew that things were “tough at home and I could talk to her anytime. ” I was mortified and ashamed. Who told her? “No they aren’t. Things are fine.” I replied, “Everything is fine.” then I buried my face in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book and did my best to hide my tears.

Over the years there were huge, long chunks of time we heard nothing from him. He didn’t pay child support; he stayed under the radar and kept his exact whereabouts mostly unknown. Occasionally I would get a card signed “Love, Dad” if he happened to have our address. Often, he did not and we rarely had his. That “Love, Dad” really irritated us. It irritates us still. The cards never said anything more, never asked about our lives, and they certainly never included any birthday cash. I think he assumed that by calling himself “Dad” he remained tethered to us by some paternal thread. When in fact, the tether he did create is between his five children, each of us unsure of how to process our feelings for him or understand why he still called himself our Dad. I may not talk to my brothers and my sisters as much as I should, we are all busy adults with full lives, but I love them.  The shared experience of our childhood bonded us. We are trench buddies.

Our sweet mother never talked trash about my father which so often happens in divorces these days.  She would answer our questions honestly, but we were in survival mode. Dwelling on the past was a luxury we couldn’t afford and what was the point anyway? He wasn’t coming back. He moved to Seattle for a job. It felt like he moved as far away from us as he could get without falling off the map. He was a thing that had existed in our life and then he didn’t. For him, I am sure we were frozen in time as the children we once were, never growing any older, never having any problems, just joyful happy children. We did grow up though, we had families and careers, we became fully formed humans and rarely gave him much thought.

When my youngest sister was seventeen, she told my mother and stepfather that for graduation she wanted a trip to see our father.  Several years before, we had moved from the Midwest to the suburbs of Washington DC. We missed having our grandmother, our aunts, uncles and cousins nearby. She was curious about our father. She was only six when he left. Who among us can remember much from being six. My stepfather paid for her plane ticket and hotel room. God bless his soul he was a good man. The trip was a disaster.  Our father was aloof and distant.  He treated my sister like a tourist, wanting to show her around but was unwilling to engage in any meaningful conversation.  He refused to let her meet his wife. He had married his girlfriend, the secretary from work who offered him an escape from a life that overwhelmed him. My sister came home from Seattle feeling defeated and wishing she had just gone back to Chicago to visit people she knew already loved her. Her hope for a relationship with him ended in disappointment. He had rejected her once more often than the rest of us, and two times too many.

The year I graduated from high school the family took a multi week, cross country car trip out west to attend a family reunion in Montana, visit friends in Utah and Colorado and see all the sites on the way there and back. We were seven people, driving across the country in a station wagon in June and July. I am quite certain that I had a bad attitude before we had even pulled out of our suburban Virginia driveway. In some families, they would still not be talking to one another as a consequence of a trip like this. My mother, ever kind hearted, thought how sad it would be to be that close to my father and not give him the chance to see his children. She got his contact information from one of his many siblings and reached out to him. They arranged a meet up. We were to wait for him at the main lodge in Yellowstone National Park on an arranged day and time. When the appointed day and time arrived, our parents dropped us off at the Lodge and then parked in the vicinity to keep a distant eye on things. The five of us sat on the front porch of that lodge for hours. He never showed. When we arrived home from the trip there was a post card from him mailed from within the park. He claimed to have not been able to find us. We believe he drove past, saw us sitting there and lost his courage. Who knows what happened. My mother’s heart broke. She believed that she had let him hurt us again. She vowed to never let that happen again. After that fiasco, the trip felt like it would never end.  I was eighteen, I missed my boyfriend and friends.  I was anxious to start my post graduation life. I had had enough of “family togetherness.” I wanted to go home. I look unhappy in a lot of the pictures taken on this trip. Being stood up for a date with good ‘ole dad was just the icing on the cake. 

My life took a fast forward not long after our trek out west.  I got married a year later, had a baby right away, another after just eleven months (Irish twins) and my third when I was just twenty six.  I was in the thick of child rearing and trying to keep our heads above water.  There was very little contact between my father and I going both ways for many, many years. My marriage was as happy as it could be for having been just barely out of my teens and pregnant at the onset.  We did our best despite growing apart over the years. Who knows what you’re going to want in a partner when you’re nineteen years old? We did raise three really great kids though and I’m proud of us for that.  When our messy divorce finally came in 2002 I found myself in dire straights. I had a job I loved as an assistant in an elementary school library but the pay was terrible. My ex paid child support but it barely covered the mortgage. I needed money. I had pawned my wedding ring and borrowed to the point of embarrassment from my parents. I felt desperate.  At my lowest, I wrote my father and demanded that he help me. I thickly smeared guilt and obligation all over the letter. A few weeks later I received a letter back with two cashier’s checks totaling around $1,000. I can’t remember the exact amount but it certainly was not a drop in the bucket considering all the years of back child support he had never paid. The card included a note that pretty much said “Don’t ask again. This is all there is.” I thanked him and we easily resumed ignoring one another. Radio silence from him was comfortable and familiar. We went on this way for a very long time.

And then, a few years ago, his wife died.  They were married for 40 plus years and then she died, and something changed. Blame it on loneliness, old age, remorse, or a sudden desire to get right with God….we don’t really know but suddenly there he was.  He started sending birthday flowers, Christmas cards, small checks, copies of life insurance policies with us as the beneficiaries.  He made my sister the executor of his will. He moved to South Carolina to live near his sole remaining brother. We panicked. What did this mean? What does he want? What is our legal and moral responsibility towards him? Does he want us to take care of him when he gets old? Will he show up at my door? How is Mom going to feel about this? We joked about how short the distance is between South Carolina and Virginia and that he would show up at my house before he showed up at their houses further north. We didn’t need a dad. Our stepfather had filled that role nicely. We didn’t trust it. It felt suspicious. An escalating worry started to form about why he was ‘coming back around’. We might not have needed him but maybe there was some reason he needed us and that’s what worried me. Then, as if right on cue, I got a text message from my sister. “He wants to meet.” I wasn’t surprised. We saw it coming from a mile away. We knew eventually that it would happen. What we had to figure out was what we wanted to do about it.