I always wondered where most of my looks came from, because I don’t look that much like my mom.
I’d heard all kinds of stories about him, and used to imagine what it would be like if he were around. His head was so big they had to special order his hat at the mine, my mother would tell me, they used to call him ‘buffalo head’ and he was a black belt in karate.
He never remembered my birthday, except once when I turned eight and got a card in the mail from him. Well, he almost remembered. The date he’d written in the card was three days late. His memory must’ve been really bad, because he always forgot to pay the child support, too. Ten long years and not a penny.
The last time I’d seen him I was two years old and eating peach flavoured yogurt. He and my mother were embroiled in a brawl that landed her with two black eyes and a broken ankle. She said she was leaving. He made my sister and I sit on his knee and choose with which parent we wanted to live. I was never able to stomach peach yogurt again.
As the years passed I learned why I was so afraid of Chucky from Child’s Play; he thought it was funny to put my head in the dark attic and tell me “Chucky’s gonna getcha!” I learned my feet looked just like his. I learned he used to work in the mines as an engineer and hated when my mom put a jumpy snake in his lunchbox. He was rumoured to be the best piano player in cowboy boots anybody had ever seen. I learned he always broke his word, that we shouldn’t get our hopes up for those “daddy promises.”
My mom told me stories of the things he used to do to her and how convinced she was that he had once plotted her murder. He was thwarted by a passing hiker. I believed her at first but then wondered if she was just angry because he wasn’t the husband he should’ve been. You were supposed to be a twin, she’d say. None of his brothers pay child support. They all do this. Maybe he wasn’t paying, to punish my sister and I for choosing to live with Mom. He had two new children now, maybe they were more important. What did he need us for, anyway?
At the age of fifteen I finally got to meet this man, the myth, the legend. He really did have a buffalo head. He really did wear cowboy boots. He looked so much like me. I wondered how many of the other things were true.
One of the first things he said to me after thirteen years of being a stranger, was “I should’ve killed your mom when I had the chance.” I was stunned. We ate pancakes at IHOP and went to the mall. He spent money on me. He saw I had a three-month-old baby, yet he pinched my sides and said, “You need to lose that weight.”
After enduring rants about how my mom just wanted to mooch off him and the government, and diatribes of how amazing he was and how much better my life would’ve been if only I’d got to live with him all these years instead, still I agreed to keep in contact with him. He was a smart man, and some of the things he said could be pretty convincing. But so many other things were so critical.
He said he’d pay for a landline phone so he could have a number to reach me. He said he’d call, but after the first week he never did. He emailed me for a while but his emails were like conversing with Jekyll and Hyde. I never knew what to expect.
Finally I said I couldn’t take it anymore, that there were two sides to every story and then the truth. I was sick of being in the middle of the tug-of-war between his accusations and my mother’s defence, and my mother’s accusations and his angry backlash.
He called me a “whore” and a “slut” for having a child so young. I was “going to be a welfare slob just like [my] mom” and he wanted nothing to do with me.
A year passed, I moved to Utah to live with my sister. He promised to help support me and my son, saying how glad he was I was finally getting away from my mom. “I guess you’re kind of my responsibility too,” he’d said. But it was another daddy promise. And after an argument where I’d defended my sister’s boyfriend (who is a good man) he told my sister he wanted her, “but not bozo and not bitch.”
I tried to enrol myself in high school there to finish my junior year. Without a custodial parent to sign papers, I’d be charged $5,000 to be able to finish. “You’re telling me, a teenage mother who is trying to defy the odds against her, that I need to be wealthy just to get a high school diploma? Where do you think I’m going to get five thousand dollars?” The one thing I wanted, to beat the statistics, shot down in one phone call.
One week into the new school year, I tried a new approach. The don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach. I called a different high school. They told me yes, come down today, it’s already started… in fact, you’re a week late. Bring a parent to sign the forms. I told my dad, “You’ve done nothing for me my entire life. If you do nothing else, please just come and pretend you have custody of me and just sign these papers so I can finish school. Please.” He said I didn’t need a diploma, I could just do what he did and get a GED and a scholarship for the mining program at the U of U. I insisted I just wanted to finish high school. He told me I was stupid, but he went with me and signed the papers anyway.
A few weeks into it they called me to the office. They’d found out I was living with my sister and my baby. They knew I didn’t really have a parent there with me. I thought I would be in trouble, but they had nothing but respect for me and wanted to offer some support. This came in the form of a mentor and a few phone calls to my old school. My old school sent revised transcripts to show what grades I would have had when I left three-quarters of the way through my junior year, and together the new counsellor and I calculated how many more credits I needed to graduate. If I failed even one, I’d miss out on that diploma.
In the time I’d been pregnant my freshman year, given birth in my sophomore year, and been a mother my junior year, I’d worked so hard to get the best grades I could. During the second year I taught myself my lessons at home. I had to omit some extra “elective” classes which took out that room for error. Now even with college-level Pre-calculus and Physics on the roster, I had to keep that ball rolling. It wasn’t about just finishing for me, it was about finishing with flying colours. I had something to prove.
The end of the year came. I’d scored 26 out of 36 on the national Aptitude Competency Test. I’d achieved a 3.8 out of 4.0 Grade Point Average. I’d written two essays and won the Accepting the Challenge of Excellence award on the national level from the National Exchange Club. With that scholarship and some founder’s scholarships I earned by my ACT and GPA scores, I was accepted to Westminster College, my college of choice, due to start that fall.
But now it was graduation day. And all I wanted was that picture everyone gets to have at the end of the ceremony, smiling with their family and their diploma in hand, adorned in their cap and gown. My reward to myself for making it to the finish line despite every challenge set before me, a sunny picture of me and my son together with the piece of paper that said YOUR STATISTICS CAN SHOVE IT in my grasp.
My son to came to the ceremony with me; I had asked my friend if she would watch him. I begged my dad to come. He insisted he had more important things to do. I pleaded, I told him it was important to me. He reluctantly agreed. Thinking it would be better than to force my young friend to keep this toddler quiet during the ceremony, I asked my dad to sit with him instead. He did, or at least he said he did.
The ceremony ended and there were all the graduates with their families taking places on the lawn and getting out their cameras. I trekked up one hill and down the next, around the front and then around the back. I couldn’t see my son or my dad anywhere. I called to find out where he was so we could get that picture; He said he’d seen me cross the stage and then he left. I was devastated. I’d worked so hard for several years with this exact moment, this treasure, in mind. I trusted him, and he let me down. I should’ve known better. Just another daddy promise.
A short time after, his mother came to town for a visit. I was invited to dinner to meet this woman for the first time. She was cold and I didn’t like her. He was extra jolly, but maybe that was just another twenty-one ounce glass of straight whiskey taking hold. He bragged about his cooking skills, bragged about his more important kids and their piano lessons, and then put his arm around me.
“Guess what my daughter did? My daughter got into Westminster just like you, Ma. She gets those brains from her dad.”
Finally he claimed me, and it was nothing like I’d ever hoped or imagined. I hated it. I hated him. I hated all the things he’d ever promised and failed to produce, his daddy promises, and all the words he’d ever said, and his arm around me.
This was my accomplishment, and he was using it to pat himself on the back.
I was angry at him for a long time. But instead of being angry, I choose to be thankful; It helped make me who I am and realise how much I don’t need his acceptance…
I claim me. And because of this man, I claim the son of this slut that much more. I am there for every performance. I am there for every graduation. And I’ll take photos of every. damn. one.
At one point I thought his greatest gift to me was signing the papers to get me back into school, but now I think his greatest gift was showing me how not to be a
parent person. I have wisdom and resolve and determination far beyond my years. And I don’t have to wonder where I got that, because for this, there is no question.