People come and go and it usually doesn’t matter. However, it strongly matters in the life of a young girl—indeed, a woman of any age—when Daddy sees a window, flies the coop and, over time, when it looks like he’s alighting again at home but instead dissolves into the sky.
Mom was the first woman I knew whose Daddy flew the coop. She was four and her sister, Madeleine, who had polio, was six. Their Daddy, Frank, disappeared to sail the seven seas as ship’s purser. To make ends meet, the girls’ mother, Beatrice, and her mother, Alice—some say Frank fled to escape Alice’s scorn—boarded together at a rooming house while working ungodly hours. Meanwhile, the girls shuttled from one foster family to another. They were supposed to be served one cup of fresh milk a day, but according to Mom only one family refrained from watering it down. On occasional Sundays, when Beatrice and Alice got a break from their jobs as Irish washer women, they saw the girls and brought milk. Good-hearted Frank sent home 25 cents a week for each of the girls, but squat for Beatrice.
Somehow, Mom’s and Madeline’s seven years of foster care ended. Frank returned to Brooklyn and began working as a movie theater manager. Now and then, the girls got to see him. More often than not, whatever promises he entranced them with never materialized. Still, they got into the movies for free.
Shortly before I was born, Alice kicked the bucket. People say she was hanging on to meet me. From what I can tell, lots of people applauded, at least silently, once Alice was gone. Frank even suggested to Beatrice that they get back together after 25 years apart. By now, the girls had been married for seven years. Beatrice asked Frank, “You going to give me more than 50 cents a week this time?” and the deal was off. The two finally divorced and promptly married more fitting life partners. That at least took the pressure off.
I didn’t see much of Frank growing up. The best thing he ever did was when I was seven and he was working in the Brooklyn Dodgers ticket office, he offered to get me one and only one Dodger autograph. I asked for the Duke of Flatbush (Duke Snider) and he got it for me when I was seven. He also got me and Dad tickets to a Dodgers/Phillies game. Still, he maintained his reputation as a distant tightwad.
Mom never got to spend the time she wanted with him. When he died at 96 Mom was nearly 70 and less than a decade away from a major stroke. When Frank left this life, Mom held onto him. After her stroke, she developed a recurrent delusion that Frank and Madeleine—both long deceased—were coming to pay her a visit, had already come and gone, or had disappointed her again by failing to show up.
Dad told her, “Your father never did anything decent for you his entire life. Why do you think he’s going to do anything now?” Mom told me, “They come all the time, but we can’t let Dad know. He can’t take it.”
It made sense that Mom kept Madeleine close after all their years of foster care shuttling. As for Frank, she was still giving him another second chance.
One day, I asked her how long it would take for Frank to get to heaven. She said, “A long time, considering all the things he did that he shouldn’t’ve, and all the things he should’ve done that he didn’t. That’s why he still roams the earth.”
She couldn’t shake the guy; or, at least, the belief that he was eventually going to do the right thing. On her final Father’s Day, Mom wanted to write greeting cards to the men of the family. On Frank’s card, she wrote that, if he came home, she’d be good. What’s strange is that, in all other matters, her reasoning and memory were essentially sound. Only with respect to Frank and, to a lesser degree, Madeleine, was she delusional.
At one point near the end, Mom said, “I think I saw my mother and father walk down the hall arm in arm. Do you think they’ll finally get back together?” By then, Beatrice had been dead for 23 years and Frank for 16. And after Dad died and I inherited Mom, Dad didn’t haunt Mom the way Frank did. To the contrary, Mom said Dad was a good man with no reason to roam the earth, so he went straight to Heaven. It’s probably more on point to say that over 65 years, including 60 as husband and wife, Dad hadn’t failed her.
For most of her life, I didn’t appreciate that Mom was still desperately seeking her father, but I was naďve, and didn’t know then what I know now. Because Frank wasn’t available, and Mom had a husband who would never disappear, she was constantly seeking a father in other men. She wasn’t necessarily flirting; rather, she found ways to insinuate herself and get closer. She became frighteningly close to her/my music teacher and his mum and dad. In the case of one parish priest, she became close to him, his sisters, and even his mother, whose china cabinet still stands in my living room!
I realize now that I’ve known many women who, like Mom, had failed fathers who were bodily and/or emotionally absent and/or who abused them physically, emotionally, and/or sexually. Like Mom, many of these women were constantly looking for a father. Ironically, I believe many were out to prove it’s impossible to develop healthy, lasting relationships because humans, especially men, are inherently incapable of real closeness and inevitably will disappoint and hurt. For many, seeking relationships repeats the cycle of hopeful meetings and bitter disappearing acts. Mom lucked out and found a man who simply refused to disappear.
Jim Ross resumed creative pursuits in 2015 in hopes of resuscitating his long-neglected right brain after retiring from public health research. He's since published 70 pieces of nonfiction, several poems, and 180 photos in over 75 journals in North America, Europe, and Asia. His publications include 1966, Columbia Journal, Friends Journal, Gravel, Ilanot Review, Kestrel, Lunch Ticket, MAKE, riverbabble, The Atlantic, and Thin Air. One piece led to a role in a soon-to-be-released documentary series supported by PBS/Netflix. He and his wife—parents of two health professionals and grandparents of four little ones—split their time between Maryland and West Virginia.