With this being Fathers Day weekend, I’d like to tell you about the two fathers in my life. No, they are not a couple, but they are the man who was my birth father and the man who is my stepfather. I will talk about the latter man first. He and my mother first met when I was 9 years old and she had been divorced from my birth father just over 6 years or so. They were introduced by Mom’s landlord at the time, who was actually my stepfather’s sister-in-law. Mom and Dad (yes, I do call him Dad, and I’ll tell you why later) hit it off perfectly one night. The first time I saw him, it was early one January morning around 6:30 or so, and I had just awoken to get ready to go to school. The first thing I heard was a strange, deep voice of a man coming from the living room. It turns out he and my mom had long since returned from their date and they had spent the entire night just talking on the couch. When they saw me, he put his hand out and introduced himself; he did the same for my sister when she came out of the bedroom.
As I said, he and my mom hit it of quite well. So well, in fact, that within three months of their meeting, he popped the question (she accepted) and they (and we) moved into a new house together. Five months after that, they officially became husband and wife.
My stepfather could (and does) have a good side, something he was eager to display during his courtship of my mom. However, his ornery side could be on full display at times. Maybe it’s the hard-working, truck-driving, gun-hunting, tobacco-chewing (Yuck!), manly-man attitude he has towards everything. But still, he could get angry and ornery. He could become loud and bellicose. Now, before you ask, he never hit my mom or any of us in anger, though he wasn’t above giving out corporal punishment when us kids did something wrong. I think his grumpy side was just the result of the frustrations he has encountered in life. He could get (and can still get) easily frustrated when things don’t go the way he hoped. He had difficulty dealing with his ex-wife, who could be a battleaxe in her own right. He could get irked over not receiving respect or recognition from his place(s) of employment. He could fret a lot over familial finances…
And Dad had quite a time dealing with his daughter and son from his previous marriage — his son especially, whom I’ll call “Evil Ugly Stepbrother” for the purposes of reference and anonymity. I won’t get into all that Evil Ugly Stepbrother did that frustrated my stepfather, since this post isn’t about him. Suffice it to say, though, that he didn’t deal with authority that well, whether it was living with his mother, living with his father, or dealing with the constabulary. Dad was clearly frustrated over his son’s behavior, and it was clear he feared that I, my sister, or our half-sister would turn out the same way. Simply put, he wanted my sisters and I to be the good seeds his own son wasn’t.
And my sisters and I did turn out fairly normal, for the most part anyway (no details in this space, sorry). But Dad’s frustrations could still get the best of him over the years, getting to a point where he began to be a little too verbally demeaning towards my mom. (Again, I must stress, Dad never physically abused Mom or us children; as cranky as he could be, he stayed above any thoughts of physical abuse.) Mom had enough of the criticisms and divorced from Dad in the fall of 2007 after 28 years of marriage. However, they are on generally good terms; Dad still lives near my mom, my sisters, and his own children, visiting our households for the holidays or other get-togethers big and small.
My stepfather is the most obvious father figure in my life, and that’s the reason I do call him Dad yet and have done so since the day he and my mom married. (My sister called him Dad before that, but that’s neither here nor there.) He wasn’t the first father or father figure in my life, though. Years before she met Dad, Mom briefly dated an old classmate from high school. Ted was a pretty genial person, and I recall it was a pleasure when he visited our house. Ted’s relationship with Mom amicably ended, though, when he accepted a job outside of Wisconsin.
I don’t know whatever happened to Ted, although I’ve seen his name online as living back in Mom’s hometown, where he had been listed as working at their old high school until a few years ago. Speaking of high school, I didn’t realize that Ted was Mom’s classmate until the day of her 20-year high school reunion, when I overheard my sister asking Mom in a conversation, “Do you know if Ted’s going to be at the reunion tonight?” Funny, I guess I should’ve paid more attention to the names in Mom’s old high school yearbooks instead of just marveling over all those old black-and-white photos.
But while Ted served as a positive though unofficial father figure, he was not my birth father. The man who was my biological father first met my mom sometime after she moved to the Chicago area, or so I believe. They married in June 1968 and honeymooned in Wisconsin Dells soon afterward. They welcomed me into the world the following year, with my sister entering the world the year after that.
And if I were to rely solely on my mother as an information source, that would be the end of the story. Outside of keeping some photos from the time they were together in an album, Mom never really wanted to talk about my birth father, other than confirming that they divorced when I was 3 years old. She didn’t want to talk about his side of the family either. For example, when I turned 18 and had just graduated from high school, I received a birthday card and congratulatory wishes in the mail from an aunt and uncle on my birth father’s side. To me at the time, their names were just names on the front of an envelope, strangers whom I had never really heard of. Mom recognized the names, though, and when I asked who they were, she just passively mentioned, “Oh, they’re your aunt and uncle on your father’s side. Your birth father.” She had wondered about them herself, as in “How the hell did they find out where we lived?” But being the mom that she is, she still had me send a courtesy “thank you” note to my aunt and uncle (good manners, of course).
Yeah, Mom’s relationship with my birth father was far in the back of her mind. But it came to the forefront about 8 years later, and with that I venture into the reason behind the title of this post. It was twenty years and a couple of weeks or so ago that I received a phone call early one Thursday evening from Mom. She called to tell me that the aunt and uncle that sent me that birthday card 8 years earlier got a hold of her after trying to find her phone number. And the news that my aunt passed on to my mom and passed on to me was this: My birth father had died the previous March, in his sleep of an apparent heart attack.
By this point, my birth father and his existence (or, by then, lack thereof) had been the furthest from my mind, just as it was for Mom; she still harbored that “yeah, whatever” status to him, even in the matter of his passing. The last time Mom recalled seeing him was when I was about 7 years old and he stopped up to my grandparents’ farm when Mom, my sister, and I were visiting. When Dad (our stepfather, that is) formally adopted my sister (though not me; I was already 18+ by then), Mom put in a notice in a Chicago newspaper, a necessary public record formality in case our birth father objected; when there was no response and my sister’s adoption proceeded, Mom still said, “Yeah, whatever.”
What Mom did do, though, was pass along to my sister and I our aunt and uncle’s contact information and phone number. Sis called them up, we talked, and together we arranged a get together in August at their home in the Quad Cities.
It was at that visit to the Quad Cities that our aunt and uncle helped us fill in the details about our birth father’s life (stories, photos, the whole nine yards), beginning with the general reasons as to why his marriage to Mom didn’t last. He could be cranky and belligerent, just like our stepfather could be when he was in an unpleasant mood. Unlike our stepfather, however, he could be abusive — verbally and, at times, physically. Naturally, Mom wouldn’t stand for that anymore and filed for divorce when I was 3 and my sister was 2, moving us back to her home town to be closer to her family (that last part I do remember). Our birth father would stay in Illinois, finding a new girlfriend and working mainly construction or factory jobs, and eventually living out his final days in the far northwestern corner of Illinois.
What was striking is the photos of my stepfather that our aunt and uncle showed us. When he was the same age we were at that time (mid-late 20s), he looked young and tough yet vibrant and happy (the photos Mom still had of him confirmed that). In the pictures of him in his later years, he looked like a totally different person: Older and weathered, sure, but serious, stern, and much more tougher; he looked as if he was the type of man you wouldn’t want to get into a barroom fight with. There was another photo of him that my aunt gave to me, one of when he was 8 years old. The resemblances between him at 8 years old and I at that same age is haunting: We looked almost exactly alike. I still have that picture somewhere in my possession, and I’ll always get chills when taking a look at it.
After the weekend we visited our aunt and uncle, our contact with them (or at least, my contact with them) was limited. We sent each other greeting cards at Christmas, and we scheduled a 2nd visit the following year; I had to withdraw from that visit, tough, as I became very sick that weekend (a bad case of food allergies). The cards and e-mails would eventually drop off, especially after the time my aunt started sending me anti-Obama e-mails (she drinks from the Tea Party’s kool-aid, presumably).
As for keeping my birth father in my mind, well, he’s in the far recesses of my mind, as it is still the case in my mother’s mind in all likelihood. Sometimes I do wonder, though, if he wondered while he was alive about how my sister and I turned out. Would he be impressed by the career and family my sister has produced? Would he be impressed and, hopefully, congratulatory about how Mom turned out after she divorced him?
And what would my birth father think if he were to take a look at me today? Would he look past how shy, scrawny, and unsure I tend to be? Would he be impressed in how I try to keep in check my emotions of fear and fits of annoyance over life’s ups and downs, and that I’m not always perfect in doing so? (Or was it that those emotions rubbed off to me from my stepfather instead?) Would my birth father be disappointed if he discovered that I occasionally dress as a woman? That I present myself in a feminine persona online? That I’m not married, or have the love of my life? That I’m not entirely straight in regards to sexual preference? That in my professional life I am an office drone and not a construction laborer? That I don’t have any recollections of him from my childhood? (That time I mentioned above when he saw us at our grandparents’ farm when I was almost 7? My mom and sister remember that visit, but I have no recollection of it whatsoever.)
And what would I think of how he turned out in his later years, or if he were still alive today? Would the years and his life experiences have changed him from the angry, upset young man he was before? Would his attitude toward life have changed as well? Would his perspective in life have changed after finding new love? Would he have had any hint of sadness from the fact that my sister and I were his only children?
I admit all those thoughts and questions are the furthest from my mind. Perhaps it’s the passage of time, the lack of memories of my birth father, and the experiences of having a regular father figure in my stepfather — my Dad — during my maturing years that will leave my birth father in the back of my mind. I’ll just settle with how my stepfather and my family think of me now. I may not be perfect and I may keep some secrets (and my femme side as Allison) from them, but they are still proud of how I turned out to be: Hard-working professional, somewhat-well-adjusted male, and very proud uncle.
And, yes, my stepfather is generally impressed with how I turned out in life… and the fact that unlike Evil Ugly Stepbrother in his adolescence and early adulthood, I’ve stayed out of trouble. For the record, Evil Ugly Stepbrother has become somewhat well-adjusted in the middle of his own life; he is happily married, with two children, and is actually in part-time business with Dad as creator of duck decoys (simple animatronic ones, in fact).
On this Fathers Day weekend, here’s hoping the father — or fathers — in your life are proud of how you turned out as much as you may be proud of them, despite any shortcomings they may have.