…. suddenly about ten years ago at age 86, I was going through the contents of the house prior to selling it when I came across an old wooden box containing some letters.
These letters had been stored away in the attic a half-century before by my father, who had, himself died, about five years previously, at age 94.
I grew up in that house, and when I was a boy, I used to go up to the attic, especially on rainy days. I liked the sound that the rain made on the tin roof. It gave me a safe, secure feeling to sit there, all alone, amid the old trunks and suitcases and rocking chairs and lamps that didn’t work, perfectly dry, as the thunder and lightning raged outside, and the rain beat down on the metal shingles just a foot or two over my little dry head.
When I was a child, I remember seeing that box. It was old and wooden and said “UNDERWOOD” on its side in big black letters. It was very heavy. I always assumed it had an old typewriter in it, so I left it alone. Anyway, it was nailed shut.
My mother’s mother had had the house built seventy-five years earlier, using the $5,000 insurance money she had received when her own husband had died suddenly at age 39. My mother had lived in that house since she was ten years old and she and my father had lived there as a married couple for over fifty years. Apparently the box had been nailed shut for most of that time. But now my grandmother, and then my father, followed by my mother, were all gone and I was fifty-three and I was going to sell that house.
The time had come to clean out the house and open that old box.
Instead of an old typewriter, the box contained books and letters and photographs of beaming young women whose frozen photographic smiles remained hidden for fifty years. The box held my father’s personal diaries going back to 1934.
It was nice to see what an active social life my father had led prior to marrying my mother. From the letters and photographs in that box, it would seem he had been quite popular with the ladies.
I picked up one of the letters. It was robin’s egg blue and addressed to my father in Florida. It was mailed Special Delivery from Savannah, Georgia and dated about seven years or so after their wedding day. It was in my mother’s distinctive handwriting. She was several months pregnant with me when she wrote it. She began “Dear Bill”…..
After telling him where she was and where she had been staying since arriving back in Savannah, and that she had been locked out and that she had a flat tire on the car, she said she had visited his old friend and roommate, the doctor, who had examined her and found her to be a “healthy young woman,” and asked her to convey his “Congratulations”.
In the doctor’s opinion there was a “four out of five chance the baby was his,” and anyway, abortion was illegal and “he couldn’t tell my mother how many hundred women had come to him following their illegal abortions and had to have operation after operation, removing various organs, until they were left just a “hunk of meat” unquote.
My mother wrote to my father that he could believe that information if he wanted to, and wanted to know, based on that information, whether or not he wanted her to come back. She wrote that she had no intention of being made into a “cripple” or of living life “unwanted”. She said she would rather be dead and would “do something” if he would not take her back.
I was an only child and my parents had been married for eight plus years by the time I was born. My mother had been nineteen years old at the time she and my father were married and he 32. It seems reasonable that they would have had hundreds of opportunities to engage in certain activities which could conceivably result in the birth of a baby or babies years before I came along.
But I was their first, their last and their only.
It’s true that my father had told me once when I was a boy that he had been sick with Undulent Fever when he was a young man but I never connected this admission with his ability to father a child. He told me that he had gotten Undulent Fever from drinking raw milk in a milkshake as we happened to drive past the place where it supposedly happened.
The only effect this had on me was to make me wary of unpasteurized milk, which was of no concern to me whatsoever since we didn’t live on a farm.
Not long after discovering the letter I attended a family event at which my deceased mother’s older sister was present. Sitting next to my 90-year old aunt, I told her about the letter and asked her if she thought it possible that my father wasn’t really my father. “Oh, we all knew that Bill was sterile!”, was her response. Not wanting to believe this, I thought to myself, “…surely she is in the process of losing her mind”.
One of the problems of getting older is, with each passing year, there are fewer and fewer people around who can answer questions about things that may have happened many years before. There is genetic testing available that could determine with a large degree of certainty whether or not my father was really my father or whether he was merely a man who I called my father, who acted like my father, and who most people assumed was my father.
Even though he did take my mother back and there are photographs of my father and mother with me– and my father looks happy, now after all these years, I still can’t help but wonder whether when he looked at me as I was a baby, or as I was growing up, or ten thousand other times– and whether or not he wondered if I was his biological child, or someone else’s.
I have to admit I never thought I looked very much like him. And if pressed to do so, I would not describe my parents’ relationship as especially affectionate toward one another.
There always seemed to be some tension.
I put it down to my father’s stubbornness and the age difference between the two of them. I’ll admit to having felt loved as a child and my father and mother were nice enough to me– and my father never said anything particularly unkind concerning my lineage, but he was a different person when my mother wasn’t around. When he was around her, he was a more reserved person, almost as if being his true self would land him in some sort of hot water.
On trips to visit his mother and his sister and nieces he seemed a much happier person.
Was he my father? What is the truth? Does it really matter? What does it mean to be someone’s father? Did he love me any less if he had doubts that I was his biological child? How did that affect me and my own development? When he looked at me, did he see reflections of himself or someone else?
One thing I do know for sure, whether or not my father really was my father, or not, because my mother became pregnant with me, and they stayed together, he got a chance to be someone’s father.
And being someone’s father– or someone’s mother—for that matter, is one of the greatest joys in life.