Happy Birthday, Dad

Happy Birthday Dad.

You would have been 75. I feel your presence constantly, but more so around your birthday. Is it because you died before your time and before we had made peace?

There have been some uncanny coincidences in the last few weeks. A mention in USA Today, a call about one of your horses being inducted into a hall of fame. Then, I’ve worked with a man for 20 years, and over drinks a few weeks ago, I learned that he was once an engineer at WABC in 1980, just a few months after you were fired. He worked in the same studio, with the same engineers and disc jockeys that you once worked with. It was the same studio I once spent my Friday and Saturday nights in, coloring in my coloring book while you worked. This colleague and I swapped pictures, and I was a child again. I cried with a longing that I normally keep tightly tucked away.

He connected me with another engineer, Mike, one of your favorites, and my favorite too because he was always so nice to us kids. Mike spoke of the time Michelle, age five, went to school in her pajamas, before you got custody of us. I called you at work, while on the air, upset that Mom let this happen, frustrated that I hadn’t been able to take care of my sister. I was only ten myself, and I left for school before she did, before I could be sure she was dressed.

How were you able to take my call, then return to the mic to introduce the next song, and still sound upbeat?

A few months later, you got sole custody of us, marking the beginning of the time that I consider our family’s golden years.

So I have to wonder: is this what you do in heaven? Do you remember the good times and send messages to be sure the living remember them too? You don’t need to, Dad. I have always held those memories close in my heart, because those were the years when you were at your finest. Life was crazy, and crappy things happened, but you were there for me.

The same was not true when you became the famous sportscaster. I only wish you could have been both.

Had you lived to your 75th birthday, retired, and lived at a slower pace, would you have come to your senses and made peace? Or would fear and pride keep us divided?

I like to think we would have reconciled. I would have baked you a cake—probably Magaha apple cake—one of your favorites, and the same cake that I now bake for my own children on their birthdays.

 

Is Hope a Dangerous Thing?

I hate movies like The Bucket List, Last Song, or Peace Love and Misunderstanding that promise a happy ending to being disowned. In real life, there is no reconciliation, most of the time anyway. Actually, I’ve only seen the Bucket List, long before my father died, when I was still filled with hope, a hope that survived for more than 20 years. It was that hope that kept my heart open and spirit alive.

But then my father died, with no warning to me and certainly no reconciliation. His sudden death nearly destroyed me and everything I believed about him . . . about love.

There are some that would say that I was wrong to have hoped for a happy ending. If I hadn’t deluded myself about my father, then I would not have been so devastated. Are they right? Sometimes I think they are. I could have hardened myself 20 years ago and been spared a lot of pain. But I think that would have changed me as a person, as a mother.

My father had it in him to love and to forgive. It was his choice to hold a grudge. It was his choice to ignore the patterns of his past and of our family. It would have been difficult for him to reach out to me, and I can understand he would have been afraid of the pain. Would his daughter still love him after all that cruelty? Certainly there would have been consequences with his wife, my stepmother. But these were his choices. He could have chosen differently.

So I think I was right to hope, and I would never tell a person estranged from their family to give up.
I think those Hollywood happy endings are rare, very rare, but I have sometimes seen them. Consider this:

  • My grandfather reconciled with my aunt, who had been disowned for more than 20 years. Pop was dying, and it took a lot of lobbying from another aunt to bring peace.
  • A reader on this blog whose father disowned her brothers has reached out to them after decades. I hope her father will not maker her choose.
  • My nephew sent my daughter a facebook friend request … a nephew through my brother who has not spoken to me in 20 years.

So perhaps the healing happens in the next generation. I will remain forever hopeful. It's dangerous, I know.

 

Disowned, Disinherited, Estranged: What’s the Difference?

I was watching Grey’s Anatomy last night, when Callie said her mother almost disowned her for being gay. Disowned. People like to use the word loosely, but for me, it’s a term I don’t use lightly. It’s a condition I wish on no one. Gay or not. Murderer or not. Pregnant or not. Drug abuser or not.

Callie might have said her mother was mad or that they were “estranged” for awhile, but disowned is forever. Webster defines disown as “to refuse to claim or accept as one’s own.” When my father gave interviews, he would say he had only two children, not acknowledging I was his daughter. In his obituary, I am not listed as a survivor, but that was my stepmother’s doing. I’m not clear what my father’s dying wish was. Did he want me so permanently and publicly disowned?

To disinherit someone is slightly different. To disinherit is to cut them out of your will. Parents may disinherit a child regardless of whether or not they were on speaking terms. Money is often used for power, trying to force a child to do something. I blame fame and money, in part, on my family’s downfall. The year that we were closest was the year my father lost his job. I can accept being disinherited as I think of it as blood money. Being disowned is harder. Love has always been a more powerful motivator for me than money. So my father withheld both.

“Estranged” is another one of those terms. Webster defines to estrange as “to alienate the affections of or to make hostile or unsympathetic.” A parent may not talk to an estranged child or vice versa. They may not visit in person but at least they acknowledge one another exist. I think there is a lot of estrangement out there, more than disowning, but it’s often temporary. Maybe the estrangement lasts months, maybe years. My father and I were estranged for more than 20 years. It goes hand-in-hand with disowning.

I continue to be estranged from my brother and sister. Their choice, not mine. I couldn’t say for sure if they too have disowned me. Do they acknowledge they have a sister? Probably not, because then they’d have to explain our situation. A story that can’t be explained, that can’t be justified. It's better to keep me a secret.

 

 

 

 

Where do you visit a loved one when there is no grave?

My father died Christmas Eve 2009. He was cremated. I do not know where his ashes are. My step mother would not want me to know. My Dad was raised a Catholic and once read the Sunday sermons at mass, but he was not a practicing Catholic at the end of his life. I don’t believe a person’s spirit stays in one place, but I would have liked a place to lay flowers and to sit and talk with him.

Instead, I visit our 3 homes in Northern New Jersey, the places where we were once were so happy as a family.  I start at the home where we first lived when my Dad got custody of us in 1976. The house looks the same, with the boardwalk to the front door. I study the yard to the side of the house, where he taught me how to throw a softball. I ring the doorbell to ask permission to walk around back, but instead, the present home owner invites me in.

He is my age and says his family is fourth generation from the town, Oakland, New Jersey. I walk up the stairs to the family room. Some things have changed (the hardwood floors). Some things have stayed the same (the mirrors my father hung on the cathedral ceiling). We walk onto the back deck that has since been rebuilt. I look into the back yard where my brother and step mother once crawled with our cat’s bell, trying to catch our mean neighbor. We think the neighbor hit our cat with a baseball bat. I share this story with the present owner, and he laughs. The nasty neighbors are still there, and he’s had his own run-ins with them.

I didn’t know if the neighbor on the other side would still live there, but I baked him cookies just in case. His wife, deceased 10 years at least, had once taught me how to soften the butter when making chocolate chip cookies. Her cookies were the best. I still follow her technique, and my children do the same. I see him outside, and I step over the little rock wall that I had once stumbled over when I was 12.

He remembers our family. He remembers my brother, who had once been his son’s best friend. He knows my Dad passed away. We laugh about the party my brother once had when Dad was at work. The woods were littered with beer cans. My Dad got mad at our neighbor for not having noticed, for not having stopped it somehow.

It felt good to remember those times. It felt good to visit a place where my Dad was just my Dad and not somebody famous. It felt good to talk to someone who remembered I was his daughter.