I do not have a father.
I mean, of course, that my “father,” that is, the man whom I share genetic code with, was never in the picture. To say I’ve never met him, I understand, is inaccurate as apparently I had met him a handful of times before the age of two. He’s a non-factor in my life. I’ve tried half-heartedly to “google” him on occasion, with varying degrees of success (I am pretty sure I found his LinkedIn profile, for example), but more out of curiosity than an actual desire to connect.
The thing is, even though my mother was a “single parent,” I did not grow up in a typical “single parent household.” While my mother was still pregnant with me – a recent college graduate in a bad economy, with a degree in human services to boot – she called my grandparents who, without question or complaint, opened their doors – and her former bedroom – to her, and remade another spare room into a nursery. My mother was able to take care of herself and find a job (and later, a career, in her chosen human services field), and not have to worry about providing for me. We lived with them for 15 years.
As a result of this, I look back and realize that I did not, really, grow up in a single parent household. I grew up in a THREE parent household. And, in a society that values two parent households as the ideal for children growing up (which, all things being equal, is not unfounded), having three parents has to be as good, if not better, right?
Well, for me it was. I thrived.
Sure, there were downsides. My grandparents were retired, and though my grandfather had a generous city pension, they were still on a fixed income. Their house was paid off and their bills were modest, but aside from not needing to pay rent my mother’s income was hardly one that allowed for the lavishes that my upper-middle-class peers had. However, I rarely felt sorry for myself in this regard. I worked summers in high school and babysat on the side, but I still didn’t have enough money to go to Spain on the school trip with my friends, or buy myself a car. However, I did have enough money to buy my own school clothes and CDs, which was empowering. Instead of getting a computer in high school, I got the more medically necessary braces and a word processor so I could type my papers. However, this just meant I needed to stay after school to use the computer lab if I wanted to email friends.
When my mother and I did move out, we had “bare bones” cable, which just meant I couldn’t keep up with the latest season of The Real World. It also meant that I had more time to chip away at my English class mandatory reading list, discovering that even as I approached adulthood I still liked to read, that it was not just a childhood fancy.
I grew up listening to band era jazz, which was always playing on the local oldies station in my grandfather’s Caprice Classic when he would pick me up from school. Occasionally, there would be a spare friend or three who I sweet-talked Grandpa into giving a ride home after school, which he did without complaint. My friends all called my grandparents “Grandma and Grandpa” as well. At a certain point, no one thought it odd that there was no “father” in the picture. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and mine was irregular but nevertheless happy.
One of my grandfather’s favorite indulgences was going out for meals. They didn’t have to be expensive meals – he was often as happy with pizza and burgers as he was with surf and turf. (I think, in part, this was because cooking was never my grandmother’s forte, nor is it my mother’s. As I got older, I discovered that I liked a lot more vegetables than I thought I did.) It was a running joke that all I had to do was say some variation of “I’m hungry” within earshot of my grandfather, and we would all load into the car to go to a restaurant. My first grade classmate’s family also enjoyed eating out, and we would often be seated near one another at a small restaurant in town that was among her father’s and my grandfather’s favorites. It got to be a Friday night tradition, to go there for pizza, and Nora and I would play Pac Man while we waited for our food. To this day Nora remains one of my closest friends, and her father, now the city judge in our hometown, officiated my wedding ceremony last fall.
I don’t want to give the impression that everything was sunshine and rainbows, because nothing is. However, at least in regards to my home life, my childhood was a happy one. However, irregular families make some people uncomfortable, and I had an elementary school teacher who mistook my 10-year-old exuberance as “evidence” that I was a “troubled” youth, no doubt because of being born to a “teen mom.” (You’ll note above, my mother is a college graduate, and by this point she had long since found work in her chosen field.) It was the first time I had encountered this kind of prejudice, and was made to feel ashamed that I did not have a “father.” I remember one particular instance where this teacher had me placed in “Banana Splits,” a school-based counseling program for children from broken homes, without my mother’s permission or knowledge. We were asked to draw “graffiti” on card stock and given markers to do so. My peers took their anger out on the card stock, as was intended. Me? Well … I drew sunshine and rainbows. Literally. Because though my family WAS irregular, it was hardly broken.
My grandfather was a World War II veteran and had commissions in the U.S. Navy and later the Merchant Marines. He was my grandmother’s second husband, and he chose not to re-up his commissions in order to come back and marry my grandmother. He spent the rest of his working days on the commuter boats operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – first the Tugboat, and after that was decommissioned, the Staten Island Ferry. Shortly after he retired, our family moved upstate, when I was five. Because of this, I’m sure, summer was his favorite season.
I remember, six years ago, being in the hospital room with him. He was very sick and unable to speak without exerting a lot of effort. He turned to the window, which indicated clouds and rain, and said, “It looks like it’s going to be another lousy summer.” I later learned from my mother that, a few days before, when he had a little more energy, he said he wanted to be here for one more summer.
Memorial Day 2005, like this year, landed on May 30. He died at about 2am. My mother and my uncle were at the hospital, and I went back to my mother’s house to take care of her dog while they waited. Max, who is a large mixed breed, laid next to me on the bed, with his head next to mine on the pillow. He adored Grandpa, too, though all he understood right then was how sad I was. That morning, we called my grandfather’s nephew (who was only 3 years younger than he, and more like a younger brother) to tell him the news. We learned that, after we moved upstate and they no longer lived nearby, they would call each other on Memorial Day to “share a beer” and toast one another and the armed forces. Grandpa never really spoke about what Memorial Day meant to him, but then again he wasn’t one to wax poetic – I get that from my grandmother.
The day of his funeral the sun shined brightly and fiercely, without a cloud in the sky. A summer day that my grandfather would have basked in. His favorite kind.