My two fathers

“I forgive you,” my dying father said.

A week later at his memorial service, as the eulogies droned on, I endured the confused glances from Dad’s friends and acquaintances. No one knew who I was; they had no idea Dad had ever had a family before his current one—even though we’d all lived in the same town for nearly forty years.

Sitting next to Dad’s second family in the funeral home, I thought about what it meant to be a parent.

What had gone through my father’s mind when he left my mother with 18-month and 6-year-old daughters? Even in his anger toward her, how could he so immediately divorce himself from our young lives?

During the drive to the cemetery, I sat in the limo with Dad’s second wife and children. I felt alone, save for my baby daughter whom I clutched in my arms. Looking out the vehicle’s window on that hot July day, I held a different father to my heart, a man who’d totally taken responsibility for my sister and me from the moment he married my mother.

It couldn’t have been easy.

“Don’t touch me!” I yelled the first time my stepfather Paul tried to spank me. “You have no legal right to touch me!”

That defiance presaged years of trouble: Fifth grade—I ditched two weeks of school. Sixth grade—I started sneaking out of the house at night. I was labeled an “underachiever” by the time I was ten. I hung out with hippies, smoked dope before I hit adolescence. This isn’t bragging; I’m merely exposing a fraction of my rebellion to give you an idea of what Paul had to put up with.

And he did it with love, grace and a good dose of stern discipline.

Through the years, a change occurred. Perhaps it was those Sunday morning breakfasts, just the two us, at the restaurant before he went to play golf and I had to go to religious school. Maybe it was when I won those academic awards or wrote the long letters home during my year as an exchange student to France.

Somehow, along the way, the two of us—we mighty adversaries—became dear friends.

My biological father always lingered in the background. I had to see him at least every six months because mother had gotten into the habit of having him provide our free dental care. (Which, btw, left me terrified of dentists until I was 43.) I had this vague idea that I was supposed to love him, but wondered why? He didn’t seem to care about us, didn’t try to be part of our lives.

My young confusion turned into wrath. I hurt my father deliberately at times, excluding him from important moments of my life.

Then I had my first child.

What good was my anger doing anyone?

I decided it was time to stop the nonsense. How could I be a good parent if I carried my past grudges and fury, transmitted them actively, to another generation?

Through both of our efforts, Dad and I finally found a gentle peace. It still had its edges, but most of the time we focused on being compassionate to each other rather than bringing up past pain.

During Dad’s final illness, I was struck by the love my father’s second family had for him. Listening to them talk and joke, watching them change his urine bag and give him sponge baths, it was obvious Dad had embraced his new family as thoroughly as Paul had embraced my sister and me.

It was a seminal realization.

In fairy tales, blended families never work.

In my story, the miracle is that both of my fathers got a second chance. Even more astounding—they succeeded where they’d failed before. And what a blessing for all of us stepchildren that we understood what a gift we’d been given.

Paul was a wonderful father to me.

Dad was a wonderful father to his new family.

Somehow, in these circles, I find comfort.

There is enough love to go around.

Happy Father’s Day.

 

 

26 thoughts on “My two fathers

  1. billie

    Pari, what a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing it – this will be the first Father’s Day w/o mine, and I plan to spend some time remembering him. My teenage years were difficult with him – but later on we came to be close again. I was lucky enough to have a cross country trip with him in my late 20s, which provided long spans of driving with no radio and lots of time to talk and listen to the stories of his childhood and years in the Army and in Korea. It gave me a new look at who he was, outside of being my father – almost like coloring in the rest of the picture of who he was. Amazing how powerful that complete picture is in appreciating a parent.

    Reply
  2. Pari

    Yes, Billie.

    Spending time with my father’s stepchildren — especially during his final months — gave me the insides to the contours that had been all I’d known about him.

    Those months also helped change the colors of all the angry things my mother had instilled in me about the man he was.

    Reply
  3. karen from mentor

    Pari,
    Such a beautiful heartfelt heartwrenching piece.
    June must be the month for deep soul searching. I envy you either father, the stand up step father or the biological one late to the party. Glad you got some kind of peace and closure at the end. Thank you for sharing.
    Karen

    Reply
  4. Jim Winter

    Pari, I can identify with Paul. It’s the same situation I find myself in now, except AJ’s dad shows up when only when he gets in trouble with child support enforcement.

    I proposed to my wife after a very, very short courtship. We’ve been through a lot together as a family, moving to a new house, moving back to the one where AJ grew up, problems with his mostly absent father, Nita’s illness, me having career issues. We all toughed it out together and are a stronger family than even the one I grew up in.

    AJ doesn’t call me dad. He calls me "The Dude" when i’m not around. I like it. It reminds me of THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

    The thing is my brother told me something I took to heart when I started dating Nita. You don’t just become the step-parent just because you married a parent, especially with a teenager. You have to earn the privilege.

    Sounds like Paul earned it.

    Reply
  5. Pari

    Dear Karen,
    I was very lucky that Paul came into my life when he did; I was young enough to really, really need a father and fortunate enough that he stepped up to the responsibility. My sister, who is five years older, had a good relationship with him, but it wasn’t as strong of a parent-child one.

    It took me a long time to realize how important Paul was in my life. I’m just glad I was able to tell him. He died far too young and I miss him still — after thirty years.

    Reply
  6. Pari

    Jim,
    That’s what I’m talking about.

    As far as the name goes, I remember when I was about 12, Paul forgot my allowance one morning. I wrote him a note saying, "What kind of ratfink would abandon his stepdaughter so?"

    He LOVED it because he felt that it indicated that I was starting to accept him. I’ll never forget what he did. He got one of those itty bitty florist’s envelopes and addressed it to me. He’d used at least ten colored pencils to put my name on the front. Inside the note said, "With love from Ratfink."

    I still have that somewhere. It was those small things that built the relationship.

    BTW: My dad was horrid about child support and that was a bitter source of contention between my parents — one that carried over into their talking about each other to us.
    Bad move.

    Reply
  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Pari –

    A beautiful post. My experience was very similar. I sat at my father’s funeral in the back, among people I’d never met before. I listened to a man who couldn’t pronounce my father’s name speak his eulogy. I saw his second family (the one he left my sister and I for) sitting behind a curtain in the "family room." Father’s Day is a mixed blessing for me. I’m still very angry at my father for taking his life, and this was twenty-five years ago. At the same time, Father’s Day means so much to me because my wife and two boys mean so much to me.
    It’s very strange, but I knew the "other" family that you speak of. I would love to be the catalyst that helps you and Hillary grow closer, someday, if that’s at all possible. I bet she would get something out of reading your post.

    Reply
  8. JT Ellison

    Wow. Just… wow. I’ve always known how blessed I am, but sometimes seeing it in black and white really sends it home. My parents are alive, still together, and the rock in my life. Always have been. I’ve never had issues with them. We talk every day, sometimes more than once, or twice, or three times. Your story makes me appreciate them even more.

    Reply
  9. Karen in Ohio

    Pari, you were blessed to have this guy in your life. It’s too bad your dad couldn’t manage to balance both families, but we’re only human.

    Having to choose either/or is a big issue with me, since I divorced when my oldest daughter was three. I remarried eight years later, and the single biggest reason I chose to marry this man was that he got along with, and treated with respect, my daughter. They are still very close, and her son’s favorite relative is a man who is not even related by blood, my husband. But she is also very close to her "real" dad, and I think that’s a very good thing. She needed all the help she could get to make it through her rebellious teenage years, and she came out of it a strong person.

    A family is people who love you, whether they are blood relatives or not. Period.

    Reply
  10. toni mcgee causey

    No fair, Pari, making me cry on a Monday morning. (beautifully written)

    Like JT, I am lucky–I have my parents, they’re together and we’re all very close. They have been rock solid, the foundation of my world.

    I am so glad you had Paul step up. May he always know how much he was appreciated, wherever he is now.

    Reply
  11. Pari

    Stephen,
    I know what you mean about Father’s Day. After I wrote this post, I looked at my husband and out of the blue told him what a wonderful father he is. Our children are so lucky to have him (as am I!).

    As for Hillary, I wouldn’t recommend going down that road. But thank you . . .

    Reply
  12. Pari

    JT,
    I’m so happy for you.

    A huge consolation in my own life is that I’m forging (I hope) really good relationships with my children. Sometimes the "sins" of one generation DON’T have to be passed on to the next.

    Reply
  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    No problem, Pari. I’m always here if you every need a bridge.
    Your post got me thinking about my dad. I’ve been rummaging through the poetry I wrote twenty-five years ago, right after he died. Thank you.

    Reply
  14. Pari

    Karen,
    I agree wholeheartedly with your last statement: "A family is people who love you, whether they are blood relatives or not. Period."

    Beautiful.

    When I wrote the phrase "enough love to go around" it alluded to the fact that we often put ourselves in this strange emotional straight jackets — the either-or syndrome. The situation in my own life wasn’t improved by parents who carried their anger toward each other long after the divorce and wanted US to pick/to show singular loyalty.

    Again, this is a very bad move, a very bad thing (though it’s understandable) to do to children.

    Reply
  15. Pari

    Toni,
    Thank you. I’m glad I finally made YOU cry. <g>

    And thank you for that beautiful wish re: Paul. It truly touched my heart.

    Reply
  16. Pari

    Stephen,
    I’m not sure what I was hoping to achieve through this post, but your addendum made me very happy.

    If my words remind people to be grateful for what they DO have, then it’s done quite a bit.

    Reply
  17. Louise Ure

    What a story and memory, Pari. I can imagine how hard that life was for all three of you … you, your father and Paul. But I hope your father’s "I forgive you" final comment worked both ways. It sounds like he had some forgiveness-asking to do as well.

    Reply
  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    A beautiful post, and more than anything I’m so glad you broke that cycle. Sometimes family reject us and it cuts far deeper than a friend moving in another direction.

    I’ve always found, though, that you can choose your friends. Your family you’re kinda stuck with.

    Reply
  19. Pari

    I think you’re right, Louise.

    I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if Paul had lived longer or if my father had come to our understanding earlier . . . but those thoughts are for my fiction writing rather than reality.

    I take the good lessons as I best I can and try to translate those learned into being a loving parent to my own children.

    Reply
  20. Pari

    Zoe,
    You sound like you understand first-hand about some of the things I raised here.

    Family is family. I’m thinking right now of that poor young man, Eric Von Brunn whose father shot the guard at the Holocaust Museum. What a burden he carries now.

    Reply
  21. Karen in Ohio

    Pari, you’re so right. Petty jealousy has caused more issues with split families than perhaps anything else. Why can’t a child love both parents equally? The more the merrier, I say.

    When my daughter got married she involved every single family member in the wedding, including all five of her parents (!), her half-sisters, and her stepsiblings from her dad’s two other marriages. It was truly a celebration of love, and the fact that her dad’s third wife still looks right through me without acknowledging my existence? Well, we make allowances for dumbasses, too.

    Reply
  22. Tammy Cravit

    What a beautiful post, Pari! You’ve brought up issues I’m abundantly aware of in my own family — I’ve chosen, after 35 years, to forgive my father for his past mistakes. He, on the other hand, isn’t able to forgive his father for the deeds he committed long ago — and without going too deeply into family secrets and scandals, I can’t blame him for that decision. I think the most profound realization I’ve come to in adulthood is that my parents were, when I was young, just like I am now — a flawed, imperfect human being trying as best I can to build a career, create a life for myself, and raise a family. I know I have made mistakes with my own daughter, and through the lens of those mistakes I can more readily recognize and forgive my parents’ human frailties.

    — Tammy (who’s finishing up the first 1/4 of school for her paralegal certificate, and has hence been absent from the ‘Rati for far too long.)

    Reply
  23. Pari

    Karen,
    You crack me up.

    I was much less generous with my own father and the wedding. I didn’t include him on my wedding invite because I felt like I would’ve included Paul had he lived — and that my dad hadn’t "earned" the right. That’s one example of how I hurt him. I’m certainly not proud of it.

    Reply
  24. Pari

    Tammy,
    Great to see you here again! Congrats on that first 1/4.

    Yes. Our parents — and we — are flawed. That’s how I’ve come to terms with many of my past upsets. I look at who I am today or at those other periods in my life and can find compassion. Frankly, I am SO grateful not to have had children young. Even though the trade off is being an older parent now, I shudder to think of what I would’ve done to my kids back then.

    Reply
  25. Jill James

    What a wonderful post about forgiveness and blended families.

    From the moment I married and gave my daughter a stepfather he was determined that we were a family. The favorite saying in our house was, "The only steps in this house are the ones leading up to the front door."

    Reply
  26. Pari

    Jill,
    Thank you.

    I love that expression.

    One of the things nowadays is that many parents are much more aware about how their actions impact their children. In the early 1960s, I don’t believe that was as much of a concern. Divorce was uncommon then. Few people had experience with the impact of broken and blended families.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.