“Your father passed away last night.”
Mom phoned to let me know, but there was no emotion in her voice. She delivered the news succinctly.
“Oh.” My response was similarly cool.
He was but a distant memory to her and a complete stranger to me. At twenty-eight years old, I could remember maybe eight or nine times when I’d actually seen the man, eight or nine times when we’d spent any time together. Like when I graduated from college.
“There you are, my beautiful, grown-up daughter, a college graduate!” He exclaimed, beaming. Then he held out his hands, a gesture as if welcoming me back into the fold. “How are you?” His voice lingered on are.
“Fine… good.” My arms hung limply at my sides.
“I’m so proud of you.”
Now you’re proud of me. Where were you before? I feigned gratitude, forcing a wee grin.
“Tell me how you’ve been?” He tried to make pleasant conversation.
It was the same as always. I didn’t have much to say because our lives so rarely converged, there was no way to begin. We were like two plug-and-play dolls, reciting platitudes and polite niceties.
My mother died more than three decades later and though I lived with her for eighteen years, she was also a stranger. Whenever I asked anything about her life, she summarily dismissed me with a retort of “Ancient history. Forget it. What’s done is done.” It’s no wonder that I reacted with so little sentiment when she died. Not only was I not sad, I was relieved. All she ever did was criticize me.
* * *
The first eight years of my life are a blur, a collage of sporadic images: playing princess in my favorite pastel blue organza dress with the ruffle at the bottom; sitting in the front seat of my dad’s jalopy as he let me turn the key to start the engine; waiting for Mom after school in the sweltering heat of Austin, Texas; and chomping on spareribs dripping with thick barbecue sauce at Smokey Joe’s restaurant in Los Angeles, California.
I have no coherent memories until I turned nine. That’s when Mom stopped chasing after my father, which put an end to our vagabond life. We moved into a small one-bedroom apartment in the Castle Heights Apartment Complex on Castle Heights Avenue in west L.A. The place I called home for the next nine years was a depressing hovel devoid of decoration, except for a mirror and the huge painting of my mom when she was in her early twenties. Encased in a gaudy, golden frame, it dominated our tiny living room. The young woman in the picture with neatly coiffed short blond hair and hazel eyes wore an emerald green off-the-shoulder dress that was striking against her porcelain skin. She looked like a queen. For the longest time, I didn’t realize the young woman was my mother.
“Is that really you?” I asked her one day.
“What! You don’t think I was ever that pretty?” she steamed.
Her prettiness wasn’t the issue. Although I had only known her as a redhead, her ski jump nose, prominent chin and high cheekbones were recognizable. Still, the dreamlike quality of the composition caused me to question everything about it. Did she ever own such a dress? Did she sit for an artist? Who was the artist? Where was it done? Why was it done? I never knew. I didn’t care enough to ask. It was her picture and she looked at it often, even had a small light mounted onto its frame, while I was left alone to fight my own battles.
In the 1950s, California was the Golden State and Los Angeles its brightest star with miles of white, sandy beaches and, of course, Hollywood. It was where all the beautiful people lived. My wild, untamed mass of brown hair, dark brown eyes and olive complexion coupled with a pear-shaped body contrasted sharply to the slim, long-legged blond beauties the Beach Boys glorified in their songs. My outer shell wasn’t the only problem. Classmates regularly made fun of me because I spoke with a nasal voice. “Hey Darlene,” they would taunt me, holding their noses. I sought solace in school, where teachers appreciated my individuality. Outside of school, I was a misfit with no siblings, an absentee father and a mother who, when she did pay attention to me, tried to fashion me into a younger version of herself. If I complained, she slapped me. I rebelled by telling everyone I knew that she was crazy and mean.
Meanwhile, I boasted about my dad.
“He never hit me.” I had to have one good parent. Sure, he was a grandpa when I, his fourth daughter, came into the world, but that was a plus. “Children born to older men are smarter than average. Everybody knows that.”
I concocted all sorts of stories about him– that he was the most incredible salesman who had ever lived, that his memory of names and numbers was unparalleled, and that he was overjoyed to be a father again at his advanced age. I was content to live in my make-believe world.
Mom intended to keep it that way and would have had it not been for a fortuitous meeting I had with her old friend a couple of weeks before she died.
“Merle, is that you?” I asked when a thin, severely suntanned shadow of a woman walked into the assisted living center.
Her generous bosom nearly preceded her. Locking on to those still bountiful breasts, I couldn’t help staring at them. They looked plump and bouncy, not like her face, which had aged considerably. I congratulated myself for having taken better care of myself. Barely a decade older than me, Merle could have been my sister. She had been part of my mom’s life for almost as long as I had, though one would be hard-pressed to call what they shared a friendship or even a good relationship.
“That bitch,” Mom regularly cursed her. “I’ll see her in hell before I have anything to do with her again!”
Their history was filled with heated arguments over money and boyfriends and there were long periods of time when they didn’t speak or see each other. Yet, when the end came, Merle and I were the only two people left in her life. That night we went out to dinner. It was a release from the stress of seeing how much the years and illness had ravaged my mom as well as a chance for us to catch up.
“You know,” I began, anxious to talk even before we sat down at a small table in the back of the restaurant, “I never understood why she didn’t get married again. I mean before Bob, after she and Dad divorced.” I paused, recalling a string of suitors. There was Fred, Bernie, Walt, Irving. “Certainly she had choices.”
Turning away, Merle tried to flag down our waitress.
“Honestly,” I continued, unfazed, “I don’t understand why she was alone for so long. There was a period of… lemme see, some sixteen years from the time they got divorced to when she married Bob. I remember being in third year at the U when she sent me the newspaper clipping announcing her engagement.” I chuckled.
“What’s so funny?”
The waitress appeared at our table. “Can I take your order?”
“Yes.” Merle was ready. “I’ll have the burger, medium rare, no tomato.”
“Just a second,” I stammered, glancing at the menu. “I’ll get the Caesar salad with chicken and a coffee, black.”
Returning to our conversation, I asked, “What were you saying?”
She looked so serious, I didn’t know what to expect.
“I wanted to know why you thought news of your mom’s engagement was so amusing.”
“Oh yeah, that. I was happy that she was getting married again, but the announcement was ridiculous. Really, a middle-aged woman identifying herself as the daughter of so-and-so as if she were a nineteen year old virgin!”
Merle flinched and said nothing.
“You’ve known her like forever. Tell me, what was the big deal?”
“Oh Darlene, you don’t understand, do you?”
“Apparently not… so,” I met her gaze directly, “enlighten me.”
“Can I get you ladies anything else?” the waitress asked as she set our plates on the table.
The two of us shook our heads no and in unison mumbled thank you.
Merle took a bite of her hamburger and then, with the air of an old school marm, she informed me of the way things used to be.
“Listen, times were different when you were a child and they were really different for single women with children. People didn’t have blended families.”
“Boy, that sounds familiar. No man wants another man’s child.” I mimicked my mother’s words. “She must have said that to me a thousand times, but are you telling me that no guy would marry her so long as I was part of the package?” Not waiting for her to answer, I shook my head. “Nah, I don’t believe it. Divorced women with kids often get remarried and they did then, too.”
Leaning back in my chair, I sipped my coffee and thought about how pretty my mother was when I was a little girl.
“Young, too,” I blurted out.
“Sorry, I was just thinking that she wasn’t even in her mid-thirties when they split. She didn’t have to be stuck with raising a kid by herself.”
“Stop it already! Can’t you just let the past be?”
“What’s wrong with talking about the past? Some deep, dark secret?” I mocked her.
Merle lowered her head and spoke so softly, I had to strain to hear her.
“I told her to tell you, that you should know–“
Sitting hunched over in her chair, she wouldn’t even look at me.
“For Christ’s sake, Merle,” I yelled, “what should I know?”
Several people looked up from their meals to see what was going on. When she finally lifted her head and our eyes met again, I saw her tears. Visibly shaken, she put her hands in the air signaling me to stop talking.
“I swore I’d never tell…,” she began tentatively, sobbing, “that I’d keep her secret forever.” Her tears erupted into wails and then a look of sheer terror swept across her face. “She’ll kill me!” she shrieked.
Everyone in the restaurant turned and looked in our direction. Waving them off, I rose quickly, walked over to where Merle was sitting and knelt down beside her.
“Calm down,” I pleaded. “I’m sorry I lost my temper. Please stop crying.” Taking the kleenex I offered, she blew her nose and composed herself. “Sally is dying– she doesn’t have the strength to walk to the bathroom– hardly a woman who’s going to kill you.” I stroked her shoulders. “Don’t you think we’re past secrets?”
“It’s … it’s complicated,” she faltered. “I promised.”
“Not so complicated, Merle. It can’t matter to her now, but if there’s something I should know,” I spoke authoritatively in my best no-nonsense voice, “you need to tell me… now.”
She nodded. “OK, you’re right. It’s time.” A second later, the long-forbidden words, the burden she’d held for so long, came barreling out of her mouth: “Your father never married your mother.” Heaving a huge sigh of relief, her formidable chest dropped.
My reaction was less pronounced. “Huh.”
* * *
Being illegitimate doesn’t carry the stigma it once did, I counseled myself. Who would care or even know what the word means? It doesn’t change who I am or what I’ve accomplished in my life. Yet, I couldn’t understand how I didn’t know about this before. Did my Aunt Loraine know? Did my cousins know? And Mom’s brothers and their wives? Did they know? Certainly, Grandma Bobbie Katie knew. Were they all sworn to secrecy?
Memories flooded my consciousness as I thought back to the countless times I spent at my grandmother’s house. I knew every nook and cranny of the place, every knick-knack and treasure of hers, from the porcelain figurines to the hand-painted pieces of china to the intricately crocheted lace doilies on the dressers. I had also studied in great detail the wedding pictures of Mom’s sister and three brothers that blanketed Bobbie Katie’s long hallway of fame. The brides looked so beautiful in their long white dresses, the trains of which were gathered like a giant bouquet in front of them. I never questioned why there was no picture of my mother’s wedding on that wall, never even thought about it, consciously at least. There was no picture of me either, though there were pictures of the other grandchildren.
I had always believed the story that Mom told. She divorced my dad when I was five because he was a pathological liar (her words). There was no reason for me to doubt her despite having no memory of ever seeing my father in our house or seeing him dressed in anything other than a suit. I believed Mom when she told me that Bobbie Katie was a spiteful old woman who was insanely jealous of her, a characterization that was harder for me to accept because my grandmother had always been nice to me. But, they weren’t nice to each other, constantly screaming and fighting. I didn’t ask why they argued so much or what they were fighting about, though I often heard words like whore and slut.
In one evening, everything I thought I knew about my parents had been turned on its head. She was the bad one. He would have stayed with us if she hadn’t been so hard to live with. She caused him to leave– my father, the man I idolized, the parent I most resembled in looks and personality. We were Siamese twins, she used to say, “like two peas in a pod.”
“Tell me about him,” I begged her on multiple occasions.
I’d get a dribble or two. “He referred to himself as a litvak and I think his father was a rabbi.” Those juicy tidbits just heightened my desire to learn more, but Mom was done being the purveyor of information. Changing her tone, she asked, “Why do you want to know about him anyway?” Before I could answer, she delivered a blow I’ll never forget. “Mark loved me so much, he had nothing left for you.”
I refused to believe it. He loves me, of course he loves me, he’s my dad. I never blamed him for staying away or not calling because the few times he did phone and tried to talk to me, Mother was right there, hovering. “Tell him we need money.” He resorted to sending us an occasional postcard from some exotic place he visited or a Christmas card. I recall one that praised Mom for raising ‘a wonderful girl.’ After I left home, I wrote him, convinced that we could finally have a relationship without my mom in the picture. For my efforts, I received a total of two letters. The first, when I was eighteen, congratulated me on getting accepted to UCLA. The second, which I received ten years later, offered an apology for not attending my wedding and closed with the promise that we would get together soon. He died shortly thereafter.
His passing was a non-event. I’d moved on with my life and gave no thought to him until my mother was on her deathbed. It was only then when I was a middle-aged woman that I learned of their affair and recalled her words from decades past: Mark loved me so much, he had nothing left for you. Words that were once so powerful no longer hurt me because I understood that love wasn’t part of the equation. Rather, it was the lack of love that relegated us to second family status. Shame did the rest. It drove a wedge between Mom and me that lasted a lifetime.
“They did the best they could,” my cousin Nancy commiserated from the position of her own dysfunctional upbringing.
I wasn’t willing to let them off so easily. It took a long while before I could take the empathetic leap to see things from my parents’ point of view, not to condone the decisions they made, but not to condemn them either. They were survivors –Dad from the pogroms of Russia and Mom from the grinding poverty of the Chicago slums. I wish I had known them while they were alive. I wish there hadn’t been so many secrets and lies– but this is not a sad story. Learning the circumstances surrounding my birth helped me accept the past and live the rest of my life, free from bitterness and old resentments.
Darlene Patrick has always loved languages and creative expression, but didn’t start writing seriously until she was in her fifties. Now it is a passion along with studying French, struggling with knit patterns and spoiling her two very vocal Norwegian Forest cats. She shares her household with them and her encouraging husband on Vancouver Island.