We knew it all along, didn’t need a judge to tell us. But maybe he did. Besides, it was a way for me to finally meet him, my dad.
When he walked inside the courtroom that day in 1988, I knew right away that it was him. He was bigger than the man in the photos Mom had shown me. Maybe I recognized him a little, from the photos, from her description of him, from catching a glimpse of him in the ballroom scene of Dr. Zhivago when he was an extra, or from a feeling. His presence was striking, larger than life. And in fact, I’d been waiting for this day for most of mine. Sort of. Although growing up in a single-parent home is more frequent these days, when I was younger, an only child, some people would ask me if I missed not having a dad. My answer was always no. I didn’t know what it was like to have one so how could I miss what I didn’t know?
Mom didn’t want me to have to go on the stand, and frankly I didn’t want to either. So we settled on a small amount he would send me each month, only up to my 18th birthday. I was 17, and there were only nine months left. No back pay. But it was never about the money. It was about meeting him, and about building something, a relationship, or at least coaxing him to own up to his responsibilities, his first child. We weren’t sure what he would be like or if this was the only way to convince him that I was his. For him to finally admit it even though he already knew, had been engaged to my mom, and had chosen to leave once he found out she was pregnant. But at least it was something. Checking out that afternoon, my dad asked the clerk if she thought we looked anything alike. “Spitting image,” she replied. “See, it is true. I really am your daughter,” I thought. Instead, I just smiled.
He told me about his two other daughters, about going to school in Madrid, and some other things. He took us to dinner at what was then Suburban Garden in Alexandria. We ate Shrimp Fettuccine Alfredo with lots of cream and parmesan, and sipped Mateus rosé, the cheap wine he used to drink when he was in Spain. Louisiana drinking laws for minors weren’t as strict in the 80s, and since I was with my parents, it was allowed. Afterward, or maybe before, we saw Good Morning, Vietnam. He had served in the Air Force in Vietnam.
He was often late on his letters, which only heightened my distrust. But that was a difficult year for both of us. I was graduating high school, my grandfather on Mom’s side died, and I’d just met my dad. His wife had breast cancer, my grandfather on his side died, and he’d just met his first daughter. There was a lot of talk about money, but again, that wasn’t what it was all about. I just didn’t want him to stop writing. He signed his letters “I love you, Dad,” promised he’d be the father he never was to me, and told me that he wanted me to meet the rest of his family. But after I turned 18, when he was no longer legally obligated, his letters ceased.
Again, the question, did I miss not having a dad? Maybe then, since I’d met him. Did it affect my trust issues with men? Yes. Did I realize it throughout the years? No. Mom and I found several addresses. But with each letter I sent, I received the same letter back with “Attempted–not known” stamped on the front. I even took a road trip one time, and stopped in Charlotte, NC. That’s the last address I’d had for him. I stopped at a convenience store and looked him up in the phone book. If I found him, I’d call. I didn’t.
After Mom died in 2008, I sent a copy of the obituary to another address I’d found online. But it too came back. I thought I’d found my half-sisters on Facebook one time, but I didn’t dare write to them for fear they’d known nothing about me. If they didn’t, I didn’t want to disturb their comfortable life. Maybe they’d want to know, but maybe they didn’t. It wasn’t worth it. I’d just continue on with life as is.
I love that show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” How fun to travel across the world, mapping out your ancestors, discovering more about the lineage that helped make you you. Other reasons I kept trying to find my dad was to learn more about my ancestry and health background. Enter 23andMe.
November 2017, I decided if I couldn’t get the info from my dad, then I’d just see what 23andMe had to say. Nothing major to report. Lots of second-to-third cousins and beyond. I’m mainly French, German and British, about 2% both Scandinavian and Sub-Saharan African, and have a couple of health traits to look into.
Then one evening in February 2019, I received this:
Calen told me who her great-grandparents were, and it was then that I realized that yes, we were related. Technically, she was my first cousin once-removed, on my dad’s side. I took the night to sleep on it. Would her family have known anything about me? Was I opening something up I couldn’t take back? The next morning I wrote her, telling her it was complicated and explaining who I was. I was afraid she would run, like my dad, but she responded right away.
We continued emailing for several days, and then she connected me with her dad, my first cousin, Chip. I had a first cousin! In fact, I have two. My uncle on Mom’s side never married or had children. Chip and I began having phone conversations lasting up to three hours. And I don’t even like talking on the phone. But with him, it was so natural.
Less than three months later, Calen and Chip drove the 12-hour trek from Missouri to visit me for a couple of days. This was getting real. I showed them around the area a bit – went to a crawfish boil, to eat oysters, to a music festival, around Jungle Gardens – but one afternoon we took a break to talk about family. He brought photos. I showed him the letters my dad wrote to me. Unfortunately, my dad died a little over a year ago. I teared up thinking about how he’d abandoned me before I was born, again when I was 17, and somehow again by dying so soon before I’d connected with his side of the family. But how could I know everything he was struggling with, mentally and physically? At the end of his life, he’d developed quite a few health problems, some maybe contracted from Agent Orange in Vietnam. I wonder if he had any regrets about not having reconnected with me. But even if I didn’t get to see him again, I have my cousins now, and that is pretty special. And I forgive him.
I haven’t connected with my half-sisters yet. It’s complicated. And I still don’t know if they want to know me or not. I hope so. I also have nephews and nieces. I’m an aunt! And I have another uncle and an aunt. Again, I don’t know if I’ll get to meet any of them, but it would be nice. And hopefully one day soon I’ll visit Chip, Calen, and Calen’s brother Ian in Missouri. My family was always Mom, Nana, Pawpaw, and Uncle Johnny, until it wasn’t. And then I began connecting with Mom’s cousins in Tennessee and California, whom I love dearly. And now, my dad’s side. And here I was thinking I would maybe soon be the last one in my crew. Sometimes life has a way of answering questions you don’t even realize you’re asking.
Not only did Chip and Calen bring me new family ties and ancestry information, but also our grandmother’s martini and brandy glasses. I now know where I get my love for martinis. I recently made an incredible cauliflower soup, taken from the French magazine Madame Figaro, and ate it out of one of her glasses. I hope she doesn’t mind. I also made a dirty martini with a side of nuts in her beautiful snail serving dish. So maybe that will balance it out.
The concept of family is interesting. What is it supposed to be? Is there a norm? How do people make peace with their roots, instead of running away from them? Are we the sum of our ancestral connections? What if tragedy hits within our tight-knit family and we are forced to find a balance between love and hate, sadness and laughter? What if we choose, or life chooses for us, not to procreate? At what stage of the whole process do we become parents? And if some choose to pretend their offspring don’t exist, are they still considered parents? What if we’re closer with our friends and they become our family? What if our cousins feel more like brosins or sissins, cousins but technically not brothers and sisters? It’s all about choice, really. It’s up to us to choose our own path, right?
Life’s surprises aren’t always very happy, but reliable in the fact that they bring change. It’s up to us to find a way to make peace with that and continue living. As far as we know, it’s the only life we have, and it’s too short at that. Despite the tragedies, I am beyond thankful for the family I had, have, and may have in the future. You can’t ask for more than that. xo
Cauliflower Cream with Caviar
|1 lb./500 g cauliflower|
½ liter hot chicken bouillon
½ cup/1 dl heavy cream
2 pinches of curry (I used a tiny spoon of curry paste.)
Salt and pepper
50g caviar (Original recipe mentions this twice. I’m thinking it was either a misprint or they meant to put some in the soup for pureeing. I didn’t do that, but did have a few slivers of lox I threw in for good measure.)
Olive oil (I used avocado oil.)
|Pull the cauliflower apart into small florets. Add to hot bouillon and let sit for |
about 15 minutes, until very tender. Purée florets and bouillon in a food processor or blender. Add the cream, curry, salt, and pepper, and mix for an additional minute. Pour into martini glasses or other shallow dish. Top with a spoonful of caviar and dot with olive oil. Enjoy.