At this point in my road trip stories, my father has become an integral character. With your permission I will share a bit about him here. It’s a tedious and meandering tale that I will endeavor to abridge, lest you get lost or nod off.
Back in the 1950’s my father met and married a beautiful woman a few years his senior. He had recently graduated from the Philadelphia Museum School and Penn with a degree in fine art. He was an amazingly talented artist, quick-witted intelligent fellow and slightly lost soul.
Shortly after he married, he and his lovely bride produced a beautiful daughter, then two years after that, another. And everything was great for a while.
Then as he was working as an art director at a local advertising agency, a stunning red head 14 years his junior was hired as a secretary. There were sparks.
Madmen is based on facts.
He was smitten, she was flattered. They had classical music in common. He was a great appreciator, she a concert harpist and capable pianist. This, and old fashioned lust would be the author of the rest of their story.
She would not sleep with him. He was a married man after all.
He was in need of a distraction, his wife had recently suffered through a bout of cancer. He was having a difficult time reconciling a mastectomy. His young paramour knew nothing of this.
They would have drinks, flirt, kiss a little.
It was all too much. She had to leave. She packed up what belongings she had and moved to Washington DC. It was just past her 21st birthday.
He was undeterred. He wrote letters – one of which I retrieved from the trash, both torn halves – prose really. A month would pass then he would travel to DC with his older brother. They would meet again. She would give into passion. He would return to Pennsylvania.
A seed was planted that became me.
He left his family in Pennsylvania and moved in with my mother less than 2 months before I was born. He stayed forever after that.
As a child we would visit his parents in Harrisburg. Once or twice there were two girls there that were somehow family, yet I knew they were not cousins. It was unclear how I might be related to them. The younger of the two was often with my cousin Jill. They were 6 years older than me and super cool. The older one was rarely around.
Over the years I began to understand that I had half-sisters but I didn’t completely grasp the concept. My father never talked about having other daughters, another wife, and we were never formally, or even informally, introduced. No one talked about it. It remained a mystery.
I would uncover much later that my father had never divorced his first wife. He had never married my mother. My grandparents, probably assuming this was some sort of temporary bout of insanity, chose not to address it all. They simply loved their grand children.
Nearly 9 years after my birth, my brother was introduced the family. Every ounce of love and nurturing my father could muster was now pointed in the male child’s direction.
I began to understand the dysfunction of the man I called dad. He could not fully love more than one person at a time.
In the attic of our townhouse there was a filing cabinet. Always the curious sort, I picked through it one day. In the bottom drawer were the rudimentary drawings of a child – not mine or my brothers. There were a few photographs of two little girls together; in front of a house, by a Christmas tree, with him. I found a card with original artwork on the front and a happy birthday message inside from the oldest one now in art school herself.
The younger daughter visited our home once. She brought a friend but did not stay. Just stopped by from Pennsylvania perhaps. I was probably 12. Awkward.
As an adult I become curious about my sisters. What were they like? What were they doing? But at the time I had a need for secrecy, I didn’t want them to know I was interested, so I found out little.
At my father’s funeral a little over 10 years ago, the younger of the two sisters and her mother drove down from Pennsylvania. His first wife, with just one breast, had outlived him. We chatted briefly, cordially, without strain or acrimony, but also without connection. The other sister felt she had let our father go long ago. She did not need to attend. I got it. Completely.
After that we all connected on Facebook. I’m not sure who found who but we all “liked” one another, including my brother.
This trip to Pennsylvania has helped to heal something that none of us probably want to concede. It’s not all better, we may never truly be sisters, but we have more of each other’s blood running through us than any other people on the planet.
My father’s DNA was powerful. He was a gifted artist, a talented photographer and a quick, brilliant mind. He was very funny with a lethal sarcastic wit. My oldest sister is a gifted artist with a degree in fine art, who now owns a yoga studio. The younger of the two sisters has her degree in photography and owns a dance studio. I have a degree in graphic design and interior design, altough all I ever wanted to do as a young adult was dance on Broadway. I now own a yoga studio, take photos and write, sometimes even for money. My brother has a degree in graphic design and works as a creative director at an agency in California. We share his sense of humor with softened edges. The tenuous threads of his DNA bind us together along the same path.
In truth he was much more than a sperm donor to me as a child. We rode bikes together, he encouraged me to draw. I remember climbing into bed between my parents to practice reading, then later, my multiplication tables. He took my mother and I on great vacations and day trips – perhaps influencing my need to move about the world. He was present in my life. Even after my brother was born.
I have to believe, and I hope I am right, that he was there for his girls when they were young too. They were eight and six when he left – tough ages to lose a parent – but I know he loved them. He loved all of us, even both wives. Running away and avoidance was just his way of handling things. Another trait we all also acquired in varying degrees.
At the time of his death, he and my mother had been apart 20 years. He was living alone within walking distance of his beloved adopted city, Washington DC. When my brother and I went to his apartment to do whatever you do when someone dies, we were greeted by a self-portrait he had been working on. On the walls above his sofa were photos of all of us. As we went through drawers and boxes, I found my mothers hospital bracelet from when I was born, home movies of my sisters and locks of hair that could have belonged to any of us.
Yes, he loved us, the only way he knew how.