Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Tale of Four Fathers

A Tale of Four Fathers
By Don Ray

I wrote this sometime in the 1980s or ‘90s but never published it anywhere. Some people don't know about my hobby of tracking down missing people on behalf of friends or family members. At the end, there's a link to a story the Idelle Davidson wrote about for the Los Angeles Times about my antics.

Sandy, Doreen, George and Melinda don’t know each other, but they have a few things in common. They’re all in their early-to-mid 30s, they’re all reasonably well-adjusted, people like them, and all four of them, recently, have been thinking about trying to get in touch with their long-lost fathers. For each, the decision has been difficult and painful.

Sandy and Doreen came to me because they had heard that I’m an investigative reporter who is good at using public records to track down people from years past. Neither had ever known their fathers. George and Melinda knew pretty much where to find their fathers, but both were gun shy because of their last encounters with fathers who were no longer involved in their families because of divorce.

Sandy is a 35-year-old wife and mother of two who, herself, was born out of wedlock — the byproduct of a brief, but intense, racially mixed romance. She told me she felt that her mother had resented her throughout her entire life. She says she spent half her life in white neighborhoods where people treated her as a black, and the other half in black neighborhoods where people hated her for being white. Also, over the years, she said that other family members had convinced her that her natural father wanted nothing to do with her. It was only when her own children’s questions about their missing grandfather became harder and harder to dodge that she decided to ask someone, me, to track down her father. However, she warned me, she did not want to know a thing about him unless he truly wanted to talk with her as well. She was certain, however, that he wouldn’t want that.

Doreen came to me in much the same manner. Her therapist had suggested that she might be able to come to terms with some gnawing feelings about her father if she would only look him up somehow. Doreen’s father had left her mother while she was pregnant with Doreen. Even though she had never known the man, Doreen was fighting feelings of being the victim of betrayal and neglect. She had to find him.

George had been drinking when he last spoke to his father on the phone a decade ago. He suspects that his father had been in the same condition at the time. They fired such harsh words at each other that, probably, both of them were afraid to step again into the line of fire. As more time passed, the fears and anxiety became even more intense. However, when some of George’s problems seemed to be getting more and more difficult to handle, he felt a more intense need to talk with his father. He told me he was able to track down a phone number for his father about two years ago, but he had been afraid to call. He had been carrying the number in his wallet ever since. But now, he finally got up enough courage to call.

Melinda told me that she and her father had had a classic misunderstanding five or six years ago, and her father had ended up feeling hurt. When they talked again, he overreacted so much that she became angry. They had both held onto the anger over the years — and that makes it harder for either to reach out a hand of peace. She knew that he’s in his mid 70s and that, surely, he feels that his family has abandoned him. She wanted to know where he was, but still hadn’t gotten up the courage to call him.

Within a couple of days, I had located Sandy’s father. He had married someone else and had children that he, himself, had raised. He was a successful salesman and a happy grandfather. When we finally made contact, he agreed to give Sandy a one-minute, tape-recorded message. That was all the time he would get to convince her he wants to see her.

“This is your father,” he told her, “and I’d love to get the chance to earn your friendship and respect. I’ll give you the right to yell at me, cuss me, even beat the hell out of me — once. Sandy, thank God you were able to get a hold of me. I’d give anything to see you — even if it was just once.”

When Sandy heard the tape, she called him, asked questions, yelled at him a bit and then cried. She cried tears she’d been holding back for years. Now that they’ve gotten together, there are new problems. She’s opened up a Pandora ’s Box of emotions that involves everyone in her family, and she’s now trying to sort them all out. One thing is for sure, she told me, he’s now a permanent part of her life and family. And, if any other member can’t handle it, she says, then it’s them who can leave.

“He’s not perfect,” she says, “but the man is my father.”

Doreen’s father was a bit more difficult to locate. I was able to determine that her grandfather had died a dozen or so years ago. It was in a copy of the man’s will that I learned that his son — Doreen’s father — had already died. I learned some of the details by tracking down an uncle  Doreen had never met. When I told her that her father had died 20 years earlier, possibly of alcoholism, Doreen didn’t know what to feel. She called me back, however, three days later to say that the information had had some positive effects. Aside from being able to close the book on feelings that he had neglected her, she says she broke the news to her mother. Her mother had also been in pain for two decades because her ex-husband had never called or written. In one way, it was a relief for both Doreen and her mother to know that the man had been unable to contact them — not necessarily unwilling.

George finally decided to take the risk and call his father. They were both more than a little nervous when the conversation began, but before long, the conversion took on a feeling of optimism. They planted the seeds of a new father-son relationship, and made firm plans for a Father’s Day reunion. Even though George’s sister and brother are still unwilling to take the risk, for once, George said, he is doing what was right.

For Melinda, it’s still a mystery. She says she’s going to call her father. “Probably,” she says, “within a couple of days.”

It’s for Melinda that I feel the saddest — sad because I know how long George had said the same thing — that he’d call in a couple of weeks. I feel sad as well because of the pain I felt at the age of ten when my father died. I feel sad because I spent so many years resenting a stepfather who was so willing to be my father, despite his flaws. I’m sad, as well, because he, as well, died — only months after I had accepted him as a father.

To Melinda — and to anyone else who is a phone call away from your father — now’s the time.

Investigative TV Journalist Doubles as a Finder of Lost Persons