After my parents separated, weeks before my high school graduation, I stayed with my father. Daddy’s little girl.
Daddy at work in his office, about 1978
Daddy at work in his office, about 1978
He was many years older than my mother and seemed more needy. My mother was leaving him. We had lost our big colonial four-bedroom house in the combined financial and marital crash of 1983. Plus, it was cheaper to stay with him and start college locally. Besides, I had no solid plans for my life, just big crazy audacious dreams.
My father and I had to live together more closely in a rented condo. I was finding some of his personal habits excruciatingly annoying: he chewed his peanut butter sandwiches too loud. He smoked a pipe and the living room was constantly thick with cherry tobacco. We had to share a bathroom and he didn’t like my girl things sitting around, particularly my hand-washed bras, which seemed to embarrass him. “Put away your, things,” he’d call them, “O.K.?”
After several months of separation, I went to visit my mother who had moved to another state. She loved to talk about all the wrongs he had done her, and I indulged her. I complained about how I couldn’t really “see him in me.” I remember looking at my hands, fingers spread wide, as I repeated it. “ I don’t see how he and I are actually related.”
The wedding photo that portended doom
My mother pulled me dramatically aside into another room; to shield our voices from my younger brother, a struggling, pizza-faced pre-teen living with her in a small grungy apartment.
“I’ve always wanted to tell you, but he didn’t want me to, so I never did. But I’m going to tell you now. He isn’t your real father.”
“What?” I thought she was crazy, or just kidding. “What else are these insane people trying to throw at me?” I was graced with extraordinarily bizarre parents.
“He had a vasectomy with his previous wife. He tried to have it reversed, but it didn’t work. He couldn’t have children. But I wanted you kids so much! We went to a clinic at the university and got a sperm donor. You are a product of artificial insemination. Your brother is, too.”
“So we’re only half-related?”
“Yes. But don’t tell him, okay? He’s got enough to deal with right now, with his stomach problems all the bullying at school. I’ll tell him later. And please, don’t tell your father that I told you.”
Suddenly, my strange relationship with my father made a little bit more sense. He had been like a teacher to me, a mentor, but somehow, always distant.
It was a burden, the secret of knowing, while he did not know that I knew. What did it mean, “Your father is not your biological father?” Did I not inherit his notable intelligence? His impressive family lineage? His kind and compassionate nature? His elegance and good taste? Could it be that he had taught me some of these things, all those years in our big white house, with our money and our free time, when it seemed we had the world in our hands?
Would it have been different if I had known my "real" biological father? What did it mean that my biological parents were never attracted to each other, never actually physically together? Could that explain the deep internal split I sometimes felt? Was I somehow...less than fully human? It weighed on me, slowly and deeply.
A few years passed, and I found my way to a new city and a new college with a little more direction. I went back to visit my Dad, and he invited me for dinner at a lady friend’s place. I liked her, but it was strange to be the child from the “other” family, one that had no place, no memories in this house. He was obviously enjoying his time with her: there were signs, like a shaving kit in the bathroom, that he was regularly spending the night.
After dinner, my father and I sat on her porch, watching a lovely late summer sunset. We discussed how school was going (okay), and how much help I was going to need to keep going for the next semester (he helped me out financially, but not the whole thing...I got loans, worked, and received a few merit scholarships, too), I told him I had something personal I wanted to discuss.
The truth is, I couldn’t really let go of us not being a family anymore. I could see I was losing my daddy to this woman and her family. Even today, I am still holding on to what I thought we were...what I thought we were supposed to become...
Trying very hard to have a normal and happy holiday
“Mom told me, you know. About the artificial insemination.”
He started to fidget, as he would do when nervous, or cornered, or angry. He very rarely raised his voice, or showed any temper at all.
“Oh, yes. That.” He said, pursing his lips. “Well, you know, I had an operation. I couldn’t have children.”
“Yes, I know.” At least this part corroborated with what mother had said.
I suspected both my parents of lying to me, covering up some secret affair, which would have been messier and disappointingly pedestrian. At their worst moments, they sugar-coated the truth to make themselves look better. Which is why I’m often too direct for people, and can’t stand to be kept in the dark. Why I look for hidden truths, even when there aren’t any there.
“My first wife, she was afraid of children. Not of them—children. I mean, afraid of having them. I did it to try to help the marriage.”
“That's very kind of you,” I said. That was the way we talked: very civil, like formal academic discourse. I knew very little about his first marriage, except that she was a librarian.
There was a long pause. He clearly did not want either of us to go into any more detail.
He drew his pipe out of his jacket pocket and put it in his mouth, but there was no tobacco, no familiar lighter fluid smell, and no sharp quick metal sound of a classic Zippo opening up. He had given up smoking for his new girlfriend, but he had not given up the comfort of holding the pipe.
I eventually broke the silence.
“I’ve thought about it a lot. And...it doesn’t matter. You’re still my Daddy,” and I reached over and patted his knee, and he placed his hand over mine, relaxing a bit with a warm, glowing grin.
I wanted him to say something about always being his daughter, but for some reason, he refrained. We both watched the purple orange clouds, drifting slowly over the schoolyard across the street together for some time.
My father, the man who raised me, lived to be 82 years old. I keep his ashes in a funky piece of pottery on a great big bookshelf between the books he published and the books he loved.
The Doctor's last ID photo
In all those years, we never discussed artificial insemination again.
He was, and will always be, my Daddy.