Over the Christmas holidays a friend’s little niece told me she sometimes got picked on because she doesn’t have a dad.
This struck me as odd, given that about half of today’s kids grow up without meaningful contact with anything resembling a father. It’s like mocking someone for having brown hair. So I told her that lots of people, myself included, didn’t have dads, and that this so-called “friend” was pretty mean for picking on someone for something they can’t help.
Of course, this also got me to thinking about my own state of Dadlessness, which is actually a state of Double Dadlessness. To explain but briefly, my late adopted father (he died somewhat mysteriously in 1990) was a bad-tempered, mean-spirited alcoholic who cared nothing for my little brother and me, or anyone else. He divorced my mother when I was nine, and I saw him intermittently during my teenage years, until he tried to bully me into having sex with him.
Suffice it to say I have very few memories of him that don’t involve the kind of violence, abuse and neglect that makes seasoned therapists blanch, and I will not subject you to them here.
Faithful readers of Dr Smiter’s Blog will also know, alas, that my adoptive mother wasn’t much of a picnic either (see “Word of the Day: Do-Over” if you’re interested). Aside from having had the poor luck of marrying my father, she was also fighting a losing battle with what is now heroically termed mental illness but which in reality meant that my brother and I lived in a state of more or less permanent uneasy watchfulness down the rabbit hole that was our home.
One morning our mother would be just fine, thanks, and make us poached eggs for breakfast. Then we’d come home from school to find her nearly naked, maybe, staring wildly at us with Marty Feldman eyes and demanding to know if we’d been sneaking into the refrigerator for food again before pulling our hair, say, or whacking us with something heavy. You just never knew, really, and I confess I still don’t.
So it was probably no surprise that when the government of Ontario opened up its adoption records just a hair back in the mid-1980s, I leapt at the chance to apply to meet my “real” parents.
After a bit of wrangling, I did end up meeting my birth mother. We spent about 36 hours together (she lives in the US and, oddly, had booked only an overnight stay here to meet me) and after the initial heady joy of reunion wore off I asked her about my father.
To say I’d touched a nerve would be an understatement — she spoke of him in such vituperative terms that for a time I wondered if my adoptive father was in fact also my birth father. (About a year later I took my life in my hands again and did in fact ask him whether I was his child, and he said No. I’m not sure whether I was relieved or not.)
At any rate, my birth mother told me in no uncertain terms never EVER to ask again about this expletive son of an expletive expletive, and I grudgingly left it at that. Our relationship, such as it was, staggered on for several more years until for whatever reason, she sent me an envelope, encased mysteriously inside another envelope, which contained a folded recipe card on which was printed my alleged father’s name: Craig Reid.
Music fans will know this is the name of one of the Proclaimers, but given that he was born in 1962, he’s more likely to be my brother than my father. (He is not, more’s the pity — think of the free CDs! The concert invites! The holidays in Scotland!)
Over the years I’ve searched for my particular Craig Reid on and off. I put an ad in the London Free Press when I was about 35, which got no response, and the advent of the Internet means I can Google his name ad infinitum when I get the urge. I know he was about 21 and worked at London Life in 1963, the year I was conceived, and I know he was living at the YMCA in that city, meaning he was either not from around there, or not terribly well off. Or something.
I applied for more information about him from the Ontario Adoption Disclosure Registry about 10 years ago and received a tersely worded letter informing me that around the time of my birth, he “denied paternity,” which could mean any number of things, from an actual lawsuit to just having washed his hands of the whole deal, which would have been fairly easy to do given that DNA testing hadn’t been invented yet.
Also, given that my birth mother claims to have phoned him from her hospital bed in the moments after my arrival and screamed “You have a daughter, Asshole!” I can’t imagine he wanted much to do with either of us. It’s also a fact that many men have sown wild oats in their past, and very few of them seek out the Oats in question. This may be the case with my father.
Over the years, well-meaning people have asked me why I don’t simply hire a private detective to track the guy down. As one dear friend put it, “Somewhere out there is a man who might welcome the chance to know you, and to know of your accomplishments, and to call you his daughter.”
This is true, and on crappier days it sometimes makes me cry to think of it. But it’s also true that I am more than a little fearful, having struck out three times in the Parental Unit department, that I might strike out a fourth time. Even when I was searching for my birth mother all those years ago (with only two strikes behind me), I remember concealing my terrible fears behind jokes about being reunited with a 400-pound gap-toothed soap-opera addict in a muumuu who spent her days snacking from an open box of powdered baby donuts. Ha ha. For all I know, my missing father is in prison, or the bastard my birth mother claims he is, or dead. And until I gather up my courage and hire a private investigator, I have no way of knowing.
It should be said here that I also told myself, during my first search back in the 80s, that I didn’t want to “interfere” with my birth mother’s life or make her atone for my catastrophic experience with the adoptive parentals. But I was too young (21) to know, or admit, how much I was fooling myself, how much I craved a Parent. And that’s part of the reason I’m reluctant to hunt down the elusive Mr Reid: much as I tell myself I’d be happy with just a shaky photo of him, taken from behind the wheel of an unmarked car, showing him taking out the garbage, say, or raking the lawn, I know that’s bullshit. It raises the stakes, for everyone.
As a teenager, staggering through life with two very broken and scary adoptive parents, I secretly nursed a vision of my “perfect” birth parents, who bore a suspicious resemblance to Carol and Mike Brady, or maybe Ma and Pa Ingalls. In my fantasies, they wore Irish sweaters, listened to Joni Mitchell, introduced me to all sorts of literature and music, let me take piano and ballet, and took me travelling with them to Europe and Africa. They were just great, and they were of course a variation on the perfect parents almost every other adoptee dreams up at one point or another.
So although Ma Ingalls and Carol Brady are no longer a reality for me (or perhaps because of that), I suppose I want to hang onto my 1970s misty Irish-sweater-wearing version of the Ideal Dad for a while longer.
Although he is, of course, much older now and very likely has a family of his own, he still has the same eyes and ears and curly hair as I do, could still swing me up into the air if he wanted to and call me his “Sunshine,” still reads Dickens and Atwood, and still loves to sit with a glass of wine of an evening and listen to a CD of classical music from his extensive collection while warming his lovely feet by the fire. He would be proud of my writing and my music and my painting and drawing, and of all the things I’ve done with my life, and forgiving of the things I haven’t. He’d be sorry he didn’t meet me sooner, and thankful for the chance to know me in the time we have left. It would be just great.
I’m not sure if it’s better this way, but for now it will have to do.