My mother gave birth to me three days before her own 23rd birthday. It must have been difficult to be a young unwed mother in the 1960s but with the assistance, love and support of her family, she somehow managed. When I was almost two, she became pregnant again. In October 1968, she gave birth to a second daughter, my sister Amy (See 13/50 “Amy” July 19, 2015), whom she immediately gave up for adoption to a loving family. The following September, just eleven months later, my mother gave birth my half-brother Jeffrey. His father — my step-father — is the first and last man my mother would marry.
For a while, things felt sort of stable. We were a blended family in the 1970s, not unlike the Brady Bunch in our own way, minus the cool house, the housekeeper and the white collar income. After a few years however, the situation at home deteriorated and my mother, my younger brother and I moved out. Then we moved back in. Then we moved out again for good. And although breaking our home apart was for the best, my family was, as they say down south, “a hot mess."
Sometime before I turned ten years old, I learned that my step-father was in fact, not my biological father. Of course he wasn’t. Had I given it a bit of thought, I would have known that. I was born before he and my mother ever met, but as a young child, you don’t remember or understand these things the way an older child would.
When we lived in the Green House on the Hill (See 1/50 July 7, 2015) my real father was never spoken of, and until my mother’s divorce I don’t think I even knew his name.
After we had moved out of the green house permanently, my mother still told me very little about my father. She told me his name was Pete, that he lived in Pennsylvania and that he was married with a step-daughter and a young daughter of his own.
I wondered how she knew these things but I didn't dare ask. Did they speak during those years? If so, what were their conversations about? Did he ask about me? Did she tell him about our life? One thing I know for sure is that I never once heard my mother speak ill of Pete or of our situation.
She did tell me that during her marriage, my step-father had made her burn all her photos of my father. I found it shocking, not only that a person would demand such a thing, but that she would have complied. Comply she did, however she managed to save two black and white photos from destruction by hiding them between the pages of a book. The images, taken in the early 1960s, are of a tall handsome young Navy man with whole his life ahead of him. Those two photos now belong to me.
As I grew older, I became intrigued by the idea that I had an entire family I had never met. The summer I turned 18, my mother wrote down a telephone number, saying it was what I needed to contact Pete whenever I felt ready. Contacting him had never occurred to me, but I knew my mother would not do it for me. If I wanted it, I had to be the one to make it happen. It was a big decision for a young girl to make, but I knew I would regret it later if I didn’t.
I was as nervous as I had ever been about anything before. What would we talk about? Would he want to see me? Was he nice? Would I look like him? These questions, which I had never before pondered more than briefly, suddenly seemed important.
I don’t remember the day I made the call. I just remember the call. With trembling fingers and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, I dialed the telephone number my mother had given me. A woman answered.
“May I speak to Pete please?"
Moments later, I heard my father’s voice for the first time.
I wish I could recall the exact conversation but it’s only a blur, the memory muddled by nerves, adrenaline and the uncertainty of taking such a risk. We arranged to meet for lunch. I remember the restaurant feeling dark inside, in the way pubs seem to capture and hold the night within their walls, even on the brightest days.
Over lunch, we discussed his life, my life, his family, my family and the circumstances that had brought us together. To say it was initially awkward for both of us would be an understatement, but it was a start. It was also the first time I saw a picture of his daughter Nicole, my younger half-sister. An adorable, dark-haired girl of nine, she looked out at me from within the white borders of tiny grade-school photo. I searched to find a glimpse of my face in hers and I wondered if she would ever come to know the older sister she didn’t even know she had.
My lunch meeting with Pete ended three hours after it began, and with neither of us knowing when or if we would meet again.
We did meet a few more times over the years. and about eighteen months ago we began emailing on a fairly regular basis, which keeps us current on life and personal events. At some point -- I don't remember exactly when -- Nicole learned of my existence. I would say I can't imagine how she felt, but I can. Remember that I learned about my sister Amy when I was in my late 30s, so I know Nicole must have been just as surprised, shocked and maybe even angry to learn about me.
As a child, I sometimes looked at others who had happy, healthy father-daughter relationships, and wished I knew how that felt. My cousin Heidi deeply loved and admired her father. My friend Lisa and her father Winston are very close. I have untold numbers of girlfriends who think their Daddy hung the moon and I’m glad for them all. My friends John and Dan are both wonderful fathers to their own daughters.
My story is different from theirs and that’s okay.
Long ago I accepted that I’ll never have the kind of father-daughter relationship that my girlfriends have with their fathers or that my male friends have with their little girls, and that’s okay too. This life experience from childhood forward has been uniquely mine. It's been an exercise in learning, growth, acceptance and choice. Has it had its challenges? Of course. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a situation that happened. I didn't create it and its future is out of my hands.
Last Christmas I flew to Pennsylvania to see my family. While I was there, I arranged to meet with Pete and Nicole face to face. It would be my fourth time seeing him and my first time meeting her.
The three of us met at a local favorite spot of theirs, we shared a delicious dinner, exchanged stories, looked at old family photographs and got reacquainted. It was easy and comfortable and I believe we all came away better for the experience.
It’s been a blessing to continue to get to know both my father and my sister through email and Facebook. I enjoy their writings, seeing the happenings of their lives and looking at photos of an extended family that perhaps I’ll someday meet.
I especially like that Facebook allows me to observe their relationship from the wings. I like that I can see how close they are to one another. It’s clear he loves her deeply and she adores him in return. It makes me happy that I'm the first born child of a man I like and respect, a man of character and a man capable of such great love.
My relationship with Pete and Nicole is admittedly late in coming, it may not be the norm and it may seem odd to many. The way I see it, I have two choices. I can either lean in to these new relationships with love and optimism, or turn away in anger and sadness over years and opportunities lost.
If someone surprised you with a carrot cake for your birthday would you be disappointed that it wasn’t chocolate? If someone gave you a beautiful bouquet of white roses would you be annoyed because they weren’t red? I hope you wouldn't and I won’t either.
I choose to lean in with love and optimism, because what’s important to me is not when it all began, but ultimately where it’s going.