08 April 2010


Until I was 22 years old, I never called anyone Dad. In fact, when I said the word aloud as a kid, it felt weird, like a new word I was supposed to memorize for French class. I cringed like I wasn't pronouncing it correctly...like no one who heard it would understand what I was talking about. "Dad." Gulp, try again. "Dad." Thudding consonants with a short a in the middle. Foreign.

On the first day of kindergarten, I came to realize what an effective social tool this fact could be. Seated at the blue table (bright blue-gingham circle pasted in the center of a cool, smooth wood surface), the assembled kids were offering snippets of their life stories and talking about what their dads did for a living. As always, this irked me. Wait, I thought. Just wait for your chance. And then Warren, at my left, said, "My father is a mechanic."

"I don't have a father," I announced brightly.

Eyes bugged; little voices said, "Huh?" "What?" "You have to have a father!"

"Nope," I said. I savored my big word: "My parents are divorced."

"Oo-ooo-ooh"'s went around the blue table, as divorce was still relatively rare in 1969. My classmates looked at once admiring and wary. I've elicited that facial expression many, many times since. Call it a pioneer's survival skill. Maybe even a badge of honor. It's who I was for years and years: a searching, fatherless child.

Mom tried not to talk about him--and eventually, my stepfather didn't allow her to. Any discussions Mom and I had about my father were furtive and gloomy, and there was never a chance to bring it up again later; each conversation was self-contained, so I had to get my questions in immediately. The factoids I gleaned about his drinking, his anger, and his irresponsibility as a parent were no more enlightening than the National Enquirer. Meanwhile, my stepfather's comments about my father were pretty clear: "That asshole has no right to see you. I'd kick the shit out of him if he came anywhere near here."

I called my stepfather by his first name, because calling him "Dad" would have been like bestowing "Your Highness" on Miss USA; the two just don't equate. He had no clue that, deep in the recesses of my bedroom closet, I hoarded the single photo album that showed my parents together, sometimes even looking happy. My mother had no idea how often I plied the album's yellowing paper pages, onto which scores of black-and-white photos had been rubber-cemented. The album smelled like a lost past, keen and musty. The photos still shone, crisply focused by my father's photographic skill. Rarely, his own image surfaced in there, and I scrutinized it like a detective for signs of similarity to mine. So close to the face in the photo...as if I could start a conversation with it.

We never saw my father's family members; they were cut out of my life before I was old enough to know who they were. I have a gauzy memory of seeing a crowd of them at some event; I recently surmised that it must have been after my paternal grandmother's funeral in New Jersey. Tall, talking adults drifting around a kitchen, far above my bewildered two-year-old head; a screen door and blurry green trees beyond it...pressing my nose up against the screen. I remember watching a cousin playing on a swingset outside, but my tentative attempt to join her was interrupted by a bee scouting the yard. I was outlandishly afraid of bees, so I stayed inside. My father must have been there, but I had no reason to recognize him amongst all the similarly featured Burnses. People spoke loudly as the afternoon dragged on, and I cringed as I always did at adult voices being raised.

So, I was consigned to rummaging in the closet, shooting glances over my shoulder to make sure no one opened my bedroom door. Carefully pulling out the album--Mom actually put these pictures in a nice one, not some cheapo plastic thing. This album had a leathery cover, black, with gold embossed on it. The pages were supple and organized chronologically. Once, I guess Mom figured she would want to look back.

I'm the only one who wanted to look back, as it turned out. Do I look like him? Would I have liked him? ran through my head as I flipped through the precious five pages of pictures where my father appeared (the rest of the album was taken up by baby pictures of my brother, a bonanza of images that dwindled as the marriage listed sideways...and then the album goes to Kodacolor and I'm born. A few pages to cover five years of my life, then...done).

Try as I might, I could never connect the black-and-white pictures with 3-D reality. In them, Dad's smiles and gestures are frozen. He's not a whole person, just miniature moods on film that don't change. (Mostly good moods, when you looked.) And he was young...goofily, affectlessly young. I suspected that I looked like him, but I never had anyone in the room to second me on that. And whenever I asked my maternal grandparents (in the safe haven of Maine), as kindly as they were, they would immediately rush in to reassure me. "No, dahlin', you don't look anything like him. You don't want anything to do with his people. You are just you, that's all, and we are so glad of that."

They wanted me to feel loved and cherished...I don't think they realized I was yearning for them to link me up with the Burnses. And knowing how much they disliked my father (in fact, had never liked him from the first meeting, and continued to compile a list of offenses that would not let any positive feelings creep in)...well, I did not want to challenge them further, forcing them to remember him too vividly.

I did come upon one other fragment of my father's life. The third drawer in my bedroom dresser was stuffed with papers and documents: the legalese story of my family's life. (In a three-room apartment, no one truly has a room or even a dresser to herself.) Left to my own devices, I adored pawing through that drawer, even then showing signs of a budding obsession with genealogy. Awkwardly shoved into the space was a folded stack of photostatic copies (dimly grey, shiny, smelly pre-Xeroxes). Mom must have copied these pages in some office setting, probably before I was born. They were poems--a meticulous, lofty manuscript. The faint typewriterly words seethed with anger and intellectual disdain. My father was a poet. This revelation came to me after my own writer's voice had made itself known, rendering the discovery ever more magical. For years, I puzzled over his works, which were denser than T.S. Eliot in places, positively Joycean in others. I had no idea what this man was ranting on about, but he was difficult to cleave to; his casually dropped Gaelic and classical references were not exactly bread to Gretel. It was not until high school that I could begin to decipher the verse-heavy, word-laden works. Quickie summary: that residual anger my mom was carting around about him? He flung his own back at her, fueled by a wounded youth and penchant for infidelity. This poetry, even as it became more comprehensible, still left me at sea.

Some years later, the fall after I graduated from college, my mom called me--I lived in Maine full time by then. She said, completely apropos of nothing, "Do you want to speak to your father?"

For a bewildered second I thought she was about to hand the phone to him or something--after all, the stepfather was long gone. But, no, she had decided to track his number down because I was an adult now, and it was up to me what I went and did with it. This was pre-Internet--it's a miracle she found him at all. In California, no less. (And what a classic Mom thing to do: practical, emotionless, just thrusting the ball at me: here.) Shall I define mind-blown for you? Mom's question pretty much clinches it. I practically swayed. To this day I can still picture the room I was in as I clutched the phone and let Mom's deed fully dawn on me, breaking across my mental shore in waves.

I might have waited one night before I made the fateful phone call...maybe. Despite my terrified nerves, uncertainties bubbling in my brain, wild imaginings about how wrong this could go...I punched in the numbers Mom gave me. He came to the phone immediately and I swear to you, I knew his voice. The man of poetic, liquored fury had been domesticated and sobered by his third wife, and was now a wry, productive eighth-grade English teacher (talk about penance!). Thus began a relationship that closed so many books, opened my mind, and made me whole. Also, it placed into my mouth a word I had always deserved: Dad. And in his mouth, a word that made a girl of me: "Sweetheart."

We called each other weekly and wrote epic letters to bring each other up to speed on lives that had never intersected. We exchanged pictures--expanding my visions of him a hundred times over, and giving him something tangible of his daughter. Peter was new in my life then, and Dad wholeheartedly approved. This had not been the case with all of my relatives, who warmed to my eventual spouse a little more slowly. Dad knew personally how the right person could alter the course of your life, leading you to better choices and happier days (and nights). Not for nothing did my own sobriety coincide with all of these events.

After five years of phone calls and the aforementioned barrage of correspondence, we finally met in 1992. I was pregnant with a son, and Dad had just been diagnosed with cancer. Being together in-person was suddenly urgent--and how fortunate, indeed, that I could make the trip, as it was the first and last time we ever spent time together. Dad's treatments had just begun, and he was vigorous and engaged by my visit. For my part, I tried to adjust to the alien landscape of Los Angeles in February, and hugged this man as often as I could. Our stomachs--mine swelled with six months of fetus, and his swelled with 56 years of living--would bump, and we'd giggle. We spent hours tucked into plaid-cushioned chairs across from one another, talking, comparing notes, absorbing. Every night, I puttered in his kitchen and made dinner Reifsnyder-style, since his treatments mandated extra nutrition.

One afternoon, Dad told me about the day of my birth, and that may have meant more to me than anything else he said in our time together, because it was vivid and true and connected me to him as never before.

It was the day after the Beatles had arrived in New York City, and Manhattan was swirling with screaming hordes and bemused journalists. The city winter cold was charged with an undeniable cultural electricity. Meanwhile, in a delivery room on the Upper West Side, my father's head swirled with a vicious red-wine hangover, the result of a Friday night house party my parents had hosted. The hospital staff insisted he wear a surgical mask while he watched Mom give birth to me; now, the wine fumes steamed from his mouth up to his nose, recycling, fueling the hangover. Still, he hung in there and witnessed my emergence, gamely.

Joy glimmered into the pain when Mom's female obstetrician displayed me to Dad immediately after my delivery, flawed and bloodied and human, his daughter. Dr. Ammann had allowed Dad to bypass the smoke-choked waiting room, the soundproof glass, the tightly blanketed infant in nurse's arms and the empty congratulations. This was rarely done in that era--I know Dad must have really wanted to be there. Perhaps we even bonded, in the parlance of latter-day infant researchers. Did his eyes--bleary above the mask line, but proud--meet my steady newborn gaze, that deceptive moment of lucidity before the long first nap sets in? Did he reach for me? Enraptured by his words, I forgot to ask him.

I had been conceived in a spirit of detente between my parents, I was told. A one-last-try for the marriage, an upswell of love and loving. But despite that auspicious beginning in the delivery room, Dad was out of my life within weeks. Vanished. By his own confused, conflicted, alcoholic choice. And my family unit sealed up behind him, to stanch the pain.

Had I never found Dad and gotten to know him, I know I would never have become fully adult. Some part of me would have stayed girl...a keening, unanswered invitation. Robert Leo McAllister Burns: I look like him, I laugh like him, and I write like him. It's my pride and distinction to call him Dad.