One thing that I have learned over my life is that families are strange entities. They come in all shapes and sizes, and how they get put together are easily as varied. Some people want enormous school-of-fish size familes, and others are families of one. There is no one correct size.
This past summer, I was able to get a little reacquainted with some families that I have always felt a part of, or at least on very good terms with. Ed’s family and his growing up fast boys … R.J’s family … one just getting started, and one just entering high school. When my friend Beth got married, I didn’t lose a friend, I ended up gaining another! Just this past weekend, I got to visit with Tom’s family. The kids are getting big, and are pretty smart!
My family has a pretty checkered past. For one, my mother’s father (my grandfather, whom I knew and loved) I knew divorced my mom’s biological mother when she was about 5. My mom knew little about her. My grandfather had been having an affair with the oman who was to become my grandmother. The two divorced when I was in high school, and he lived with us for a while. Strangely, he dated my father’s mother for a time … it reached a point where we had to start wondering about the two of them getting married, and my mom and dad becoming step-siblings to each other (I would also have become my own cousin … it was enough to make time travel make sense!)
My mom has recently become very interested in learning about her biological mother who gave her up, and allowed my grandfather to have full custody of her. In my mom’s mind, “How could a mother ever so willingly give up a child?” My mom and her older sister have recently gotten some information from a long lost relative. Among the things my mom got were her baby pictures (my mom had never seen pictures of herself much younger than 6 or 7), and her baby books … turns out she was born at the University of Chicago (nice to know that one member of the family got admitted there) … there were even early instructions from the doctor written on 1940 perscription pads.
That takes me to the stranger thing that has happened of late.
Yesterday (Saturday) we were invited to Pepper’s place for a Day-Before-Labor-Day barbecue. A lot of my brother-in-law’s family was there, and they are now (like us) going through the morning of the loss of their father who died less than a month ago.
My sister told me that she had something to say to me … but wasn’t sure that I would want to hear it. I told her that I was going to find out anyway. My brother told her it would be a mistake, but my mom approved said discussion.
My sister told me that she recently ran into someone that I had once known. I rattled off some old names from high school. Even one or two old colleagues from my early teaching days.
Nope … turns out she met my biological father.
Most of my close friends know that my recently deceased dad was not my biological father. My mom separated from my bio-father when I was 6 months old. After they were divorced, he still had visitation rights which he sporadically used. My parents told me he was an uncle. The whole time (unbeknownst to me), my parents were trying to get him to pay unpaid child support (despite the facat that he was working). My dad was also trying to adopt me. Only recently did I learn that my parents’ attorney (the same attorney who I hired to buy my condo) gave them good advice to apply gentle legal pressure. They kept taking him to court until the judge finally threatened him with “pay up or jail”. He gave up, and authorized the adoption, giving up all rights to me. I remember, in second grade, going downtown to the courthouse and going before the judge (I remember seeing old Chicago TV news reporter Bob Petty reacording a news story in the hallway … that was the first time I ever saw someone from TV). I remember the judge questioning me …”do I know what is happening” … “do you know who this uncle guy really is” (my parents had told me as a precondition of the adoption) … “was I OK with this”. I said yes, and the rest was history.
End of historic segway. I am still a little fuzzy on all of the details here.
I asked my sister how she knew that she had met my bio-father, and not some random person with the same name?
Apparently, my sister had ,through some method, been introduced to his wife (amazingly, the very woman he was dating after he divorced my mom … they have been married a long time). She hadn’t brought this up because she figured there was no telling how I might react. She asked a casual acquaintance if her husband was there, and they said yes. My sister thought she spotted him (her words: a spitting image of me), and sent a friend over to ask him his name. The friend did, and managed to point out my sister as teh person who had sent her over to ask. When he approached my sister, Pepper told him who she was.
Pepper relayed to me that he was embarrassed, but he acknowledged that it was probably only a matter of time before he ran into my mom or someone from the family, given the small world of the South Side. He then proceeded to tell my sister what a great man my father had been, and that he had been wrong for how he treated my mom, and for the fights he had with my dad (mainly over his sporadic use of visitation and the adoption). My sister said he paused, and then noted that I had just celebrated my most recent birthday. He knew my age and the date. My sister was impressed that he had the all memorized. He kind of wondered if things had been different. My brother-in-law, kind of jumped on him a bit … told me that I had had a great life … was successful, and happy. I’m not sure either is totally right, but I understand what my brother-in-law was doing. He said he was glad things turned out the way they did, and that because of what he did, he would live with a hole in his heart the rest of his life. He thanked them and then left.
My sister said that his wife had encouraged him for many years to seek me out, but that he never had.
I’ll admit this was pretty far down the list of things I thought we would be talking about this weekend. My sister wasn’t sure how I would take this, but thought I deserved the truth.
I was glad she told me. I for one had come to terms with this a long time ago. I harbor no hatred or ill-will … I barely remember him, and I don’t pretend to have all of the details. He was 21. I know when I was 21, I made a lot of mistakes. I’m glad I didn’t make any that had the possibility of ruining anyone’s life. At the same time, I am happy with what I have, and don’t think it is in my best interest to start any relationships. He has to live with the choices he made, and unlike a lot of people in that situation, he can look back, and realize that things probably worked out for the best, even if it didn’t work out the best for him. For all of my dad’s faults (and he had a lot of them), I had a roof that never leaked, food on the table at every meal, and a great education that gave me the opportunity to do something that I not only truly love, but I would like to think makes small improvements to society.
Besides, had things turned out differently, would I have been as pushed to pursue my education? Would I have ever met the friends I met that I sit in debt to? Would I be in this job, working with great kids and colleagues?
A lot of people say they are grateful for what they have, but I have had, from time-to-time, really had to consider what the alternative would have been. I’m grateful for the events having played out the way they did.
On a side note, it should be noted that this meeting happened in a biker bar. to be fair, it was for some kind of charity benefit, but apparently, my bio-father is in fact a member of some kind of biker gang. So, I now have further South Side street cred to strike fear in the soft hearts of the north siders. To quote Carl Spackler “So I’ve got that going for me.”