My parents split up when I was about a year old. I don't remember anything about it, obviously. My earliest memory involving my father comes when I was about three: my mother and I were living with my grandparents in Wisconsin, and a Christmas card came back, "Moved, No Forwarding Address." I remember a bit of excitement in the house - and that's it.
My father was a blank space in my life. Of course, I heard all about him from my mother over the years: He was stupid, he couldn't do anything right, he didn't support his family, and he had ugly knees*, which I apparently inherited, or so I was told when I eventually grew up into a mini-skirt wearing teenage girl.
I kept a picture of him up in my room, all those years (forty-one, to be precise) - it has a small hole in the top border from the pushpin I used to attach it to my bulletin board. Here it is:
I often looked at the picture and wondered - in particular, I wondered why I bothered to keep it up. Having a picture of a father isn't the same thing as having a father. But I didn't really want a father. At least, I did not want the kind of father that had been described to me. Still, I looked at the picture and burned the image into my brain. I counted the number of pictures I had of him: nine. Those were the facts that I had that I used to fill the blank space.
Over the years, I got to know my cousins on his side of the family, and I sort of gathered that although his sister was in touch with him to some degree, I had been soundly rejected: No communication was forthcoming. There were lots of possible reasons for this, and none of them good.
I developed my official story: My parents split for some reason, my father disappeared, and although I could look him up and find him if I wanted to, I have chosen not to, because he's clearly trouble and why would I knowingly go seek out trouble? My life is fine the way it is.
So, when he returned into my life a few months ago, I took a very academic approach. Having dealt with my feelings years ago - therapy is a gift you give yourself - I could be emotionally detached and simply deal with the facts: What are they? How do I analyze them and fit them together with the existing facts, as I understand them?
I asked a lot of basic questions at first: Why did you leave? What was the deal with that Christmas card? I was an objective reader of the answers, which oddly enough were consistent - factually - with what I already knew. We traded a lot of emails at first, and sometimes I would ask a question, and he would respond with a rather detailed narrative that lined up perfectly with something else I had been told - but had not yet inquired about or even mentioned to him.
Where the narrative differed was not in substance, but in tone: The stories were not told, by him, defensively or angrily. There was no blame or finger-pointing. I asked for facts and got them - sometimes sadly, and sometimes with great remorse. But for the most part, I felt I was receiving the truth, plainly stated.
Gradually, I moved over to skype, and we had a couple of conversations that way, using webcams (when I could get mine working)** so I could hear the inflections of his voice as he told me things, see the facial expressions and the body language. There were very emotional moments, but actually those were relatively few. What struck me more were very curious moments, like when my husband sat down to introduce himself and, on mentioning he was just back from the store, was asked by my father, "What did you buy me?"
Wait a minute. That's my line.
Or then there was the moment when my father noticed I was drinking from a bottle of Perrier, and held up an identical bottle of Perrier - and then we both launched into the same lecture about why we drink it (because the artificial sweeteners in diet soda will kill you).
Or I could tell you about the time he quoted TS Eliot from memory (I adore Eliot and read The Waste Land to calm myself when I was in labor with my daughter).
He lives outside Los Angeles, and since we were in San Diego last month to visit my in-laws, I was comfortable enough with the situation that I suggested we get together, and invited myself over to his house. We talked a lot, and talked some more, and then he went off to learn about fairy houses from my daughter (there are several good locations at his house, apparently).
I took the opportunity to talk with his wife, a very nice lady who owns as many - possibly more - cookbooks as I do, and she mentioned the baby pictures I had scanned and sent to my father. All those years, I'd had nine pictures, but he'd had none. She was amazed to see these, and observed, "You can just see the love."
I knew at that moment why I'd hung that picture on my bulletin board when I was a child, and why I stuck it in a locket when I was in my teens.
It showed me what I somehow knew, but what nobody around could - or would - tell me: My father did love me.
*Since I know my father reads this blog: sorry to have to tell you this painful truth. I recommend you stop wearing mini-skirts, immediately.
**I just don't understand all these newfangled contraptions, whippersnapper. Get out of my petunias!