by James Cowan
Two years after college, in 1968, I became a dad. I wouldn’t know this, though, for two more decades—until I opened an envelope my college alumni office had forwarded to me.
The letter was mailed to them from Huntington, West Virginia.
I’d worked in Huntington after college, in the Job Corps. I had no idea, as I left that city behind, that I‘d have a blood tie there.
After the Job Corps, I entered a Harvard graduate program. I, new to Cambridge and lonely, decided to visit Huntington Job Corps folks who’d moved to Manhattan along with others coming up from West Virginia.
Like the woman who made a beeline for me at the gathering. I’d seen her at parties back in Huntington, with her husband, but never really paid attention. She wasn’t my type. Now she was in my space, hitting on me, saying her marriage was tottering, that she’d been unable to conceive—who had asked? Would I, she wondered, stay overnight with her at her friend’s apartment?
What the hell.
It’s strange how seemingly insignificant choices change your life….and in this case begin another.
The next weekend she came to my family’s camp on Cape Cod. Casual unprotected sex for a day and a night. I never saw her again.
Two months later I got the call. She was expecting. I’d supplied the sperm.
Twenty-four year-old me was old enough to make a baby but socially I still was in prep school. I’d transferred there from the public junior high in my upscale Boston suburb where I was class president, the one who chose the cheerleaders. I dated every weekend until, the following fall, I found myself boarding at the elite school my dad had attended, and decided I would too.
In my hometown of Wellesley I was a hockey star. At Deerfield Academy, not so much. I’d shown up as a sophomore; cliques had established themselves the year before. With only the rare chaperoned dance, the boys-only school seemed sterile. My visits home didn’t coincide with the schedules of my old pals; my coterie drifted out of my reach. I felt sorry for myself but said nothing to my parents. I was where I was supposed to be and that was that.
After prep school, I moved on to the all-male Williams College—a common choice for Deerfield boys. By graduation, I was barely beyond my boarding school mode as I moved to West Virginia to teach at the Job Corps center and then, the next year, went on to grad school.
That’s when I arrived in New York for that party. That’s when I, a kid at heart, found out in short order that a little one was on the way.
My pregnant weekend date had been euphoric on the phone. I, with no idea how to respond, went silent. She said she’d do fine as a single mom, wanted nothing from me, ever. I included a few hundred dollars in the couple of letters I wrote and, it would turn out, she saved. When the infant arrived seven months later, I convinced myself the photo I was sent looked like me, then didn’t.
Mostly, I tried to not think. Two weeks after the birth I was dragging my tail when I met a woman whose gossipy jabber overrode my heavy mood. We moved in together but I never brought up to her—or anyone else—this hiccup in my past.
The next summer I landed a teaching job in Maine, but my new superintendent said an unwed couple wouldn’t find housing in his town. A marriage to my live-in girl friend would deal with that and, I chose to believe, end the incessant squabbles, the breaking up and getting back together, the vagaries of a mercurial relationship. Marriage would move me along the road I was expected to take, to a place where I’d have children who were clearly mine.
Four years after wedding vows were exchanged in my parents’ yard, their phone began ringing in the middle of the night. An inebriated woman was going on about their son’s baby girl. The toddler’s mom needed financial help.
My own mother, a 1935 graduate of Wellesley, was mortified that she might be an out-of-wedlock grandma.
My wife didn’t weigh in. Like all things in our past and present, in the quiet desperation that was our relationship, the complication of an illegitimate baby wasn’t explored. Not really. Lots of babble; little substance. No resolution.
Dad was furious. His attorney-brother set up an appointment at his old Boston firm. I was admonished for ever communicating with this woman—who knew whose baby this was?—then told to have nothing to do with her. Ever.
My parents got an unlisted phone.
I did a fair job ducking responsibility myself. I knew the child’s name—Stacy—but never spoke it in my mind. I knew her birth date; I kept track of her age.
What I didn’t know was if she was mine. Had I been targeted, selected for breeding? Why else was I told right off that her mother couldn’t get pregnant? What about child support? Then I’d go the opposite route. It was a crap-shoot that this baby was my flesh and blood. Who knew who else the mom might have slept with? Wasn’t the husband the logical perp?
Even such self-interested thoughts were rare. I had more high-priority challenges: a bad marriage from the git-go. Seventeen years into it with three sons, my wife was opting out. As I snoozed on the sofa awaiting the service of the divorce complaint, Lois came into my life.
Lo was someone I could talk to, not concerned like everyone else—including me—with outward appearances. When I’d poured out my life story, I hesitated, then included this long-ago interlude.
“You, father to three boys, have a girl?” this wise person chastised me. “A child who has never known you?
“You,” she pointed a finger, “ have to find her.”
Before Lo, the voices in my life had been silent or negative. Now here was someone seeing a half full glass. I stared at her, realized I’d never even thought it through, not that way, not the way a grown-up would. With no warning, I began to cry, two decades worth of tears.
I got to work hunting for this maybe-child-of-mine. Once on the scent, I envisioned what I might find. Was she in college? An honor student? I dreamt of her as I contacted hospitals, got my hands on a birth certificate. The mother’s husband, not I, was listed as father.
I ordered a Huntington phone book and started calling everyone with his rather common name. I had a couple of leads going when the letter arrived, forwarded by my college.
Twenty-year-old Stacy Elizabeth had found me first.
I was thankful I’d been searching too.
My daughter, raised alone, had been told by her mother—who after unsuccessful attempts finally overdosed when Stacy was sixteen—that her father was dead.
Yet, now, the man listed as her father on her birth certificate had shown up on her doorstep saying, “I’m your dad.”
A confused Stacy went to her godparents who’d taken her under their wing after her mom’s suicide. They explained her mother’s ex-husband was indeed alive—he’d had been in prison all these years.
“But,” they told her, “he’s not your father.”
“Well,” she said in her West Virginia drawl, hands on her hips, “who is?”
“Terry Cowan. From Massachusetts.” They didn’t know my real name, only the nickname. They had my long-ago letters, signed Terry. In one, I’d talked about my Williams reunion.
When contacted, my cagey alumni office agreed to forward an envelope if they had me in their roster. Noncommittal.
The night the letter arrived, I called Stacy and had the best conversation of my life. We talked until our ears were numb and we both were drained.
Lo and I, by now married, flew to Huntington. I brought a teddy bear along, just in case. When Stacy walked down a hallway toward us, I heard Lo suck air. It was clear we were related. I, an educator, had until then believed in nurture over nature. Along with looks, we laugh at identical weird things; we cross our arms, stand the same way. We both answer with two unh huhs.
We both love peonies.
That said, Stacy and I underwent what then was cutting-edge DNA sequencing—for her mother’s sister and her godparents. I might be a flash in the pan, there one day and disappearing the next. Again.
Before leaving town, we visited Stacy’s mom’s grave. As I lay peonies on her stone, I told Gloria I now was there for our child.
Legally Stacy and I had no bond. To fix that, when she came to Maine where Lo and I lived, we adopted her. Now, instead of her mother’s ex-husband’s name on her birth certificate, mine was there, where it should have been all along. We remember that event each year—Stacy Day—with a gift. On that first Stacy Day our peony blossomed.
When our daughter left for West Virginia, she took a Maine coon cat she dubbed Emery for the judge presiding over the hearing.
Stacy’s integration in my life transmogrified into a final schism between me and my father. He bought into my ex-wife’s insistence that my three sons not commingle with their half-sister. They’d be forever traumatized. What about Stacy?
Dad refused to meet his granddaughter even as he berated me for turning my back on her all these years. The lawyer-scenario had slipped his mind.
He did send Stacy a wedding gift as I, father of the bride, walked her down the aisle. The roles of the mom were filled by both her godmother and her adoptive mother—Lo. My two youngest sons attended that ceremony although my oldest, deprived of his lifelong position as my first born, cancelled at the last minute.
I recently overheard Stacy describe my oldest son as her brother. He and she spent a Seattle weekend together when schedules overlapped. It’s working out.
As for Stacy and me, so much is gone that can never be retrieved. She had a chaotic childhood with an unstable mother. A dad would have helped. Stacy’s not one to blame her mom’s problems or my absence for her own foibles; she takes responsibility for the person she is. In that way, she’s more of an adult than I was for a long time as I saw myself as a victim, rather than her father.
She does carry a romanticized view of her mother and me, can’t imagine her husband walking away in such a situation. Maybe that’s so, it’s hard to say.
As the emotions surface, shake down and settle, one thing is sure. Lo and I are Grampy and Grandma to our daughter’s kids. We flew to Kentucky for Parker’s calm birth. Like me, her Cowan cousins and now her own offspring, Stacy tends to not feel pain. Parker’s younger sister Caitlyn Elizabeth is the blond-haired picture of my sister Betsy.
After Caitlyn’s arrival, Stacy began calling me Terry, not Dad. It hurt but who was I to demand daughterly fidelity? When I was ill—she and her half-brothers shared information after Lo called one of them with reports—I became Dad again, at least until I was out of the woods. On Father’s Day, Stacy sent me a flowery tie; she always wanted to have a father to give one to when she growing up. Whatever the heck she chooses to call me, she has one now.