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I was ten years old when I first learned the truth about my father. The Rutherford B. Hayes Elementary, where I was attending the fourth grade, was planning their annual Father-Daughter Dinner and Dance. It was 1973 when I came home from school on a particularly warm April afternoon and found my mother Janice folding warm towels she had just pulled from the dryer. It was her day off from St. Camillus Hospital, where she worked as a practical nurse. On most days, I got home a half an hour before she did and would watch Ultraman on television until she got home.
I went to the refrigerator, pulled out the bottle of milk and poured it into a glass I’d filled with Nestle Quick. I stirred it, fighting the dusty clumps when my mother looked up and asked me, “How was your day?”
“It was okay,” I took a gulp of the chocolate milk.
“Nothing new?” She snapped a towel in front of her.
“Well, Regina has chicken pox,” I told her. “She won’t be in school for two weeks.”
Regina Sabel had been my best friend since first grade when she and her family moved to Cincinnati from Pennsylvania.
“That’s too bad,” my mother said. “I’m glad you’re through that. That was no fun.”
My mother, being the astute health care professional, actually exposed me to the chicken pox virus on purpose via a neighbor who lived down the street. Even more calculating was that my mother convinced her sister, Sandra, that she should expose her children, Patrick and Laura as well. Once we were all infected we moved into Aunt Sandra’s house for nearly two weeks. We didn’t understand that our mothers were quarantining us together. The three of us kids thought we were just having an extended pajama party, eating ice cream, playing Candyland and Operation, sleeping in our sleeping bags in Aunt Sandra’s living room. It was one of the best times I could remember. I’m not sure Aunt Sandra ever really forgave my mother for that idea. I felt bad for Regina. She was probably all by herself.
“I guess she’s going to miss the Father-Daughter Dance.” I waited for my mother’s reaction.
“That’s next week, isn’t it? Friday? Are you going?” she looked at me quizzically.
“It’s a Father-Daughter Dance, Mom.” Sometimes my mom just didn’t pick up on my clues.
“Of course. Your Uncle Teddy will be happy to take you,” she said, matter-of-factly.
My Uncle Teddy, officially Edward Keane, Jr., was my mother’s younger brother and the token male in my life. It was a role he took on enthusiastically, especially since he didn’t have any children of his own. He lived with his roommate, Barry Archer. It never occurred to me to ask why Uncle Teddy wasn’t married. After all, my mother wasn’t married so it was a non-issue.
The summer before, Uncle Teddy and Barry took me to Coney Island a popular amusement park on the Ohio River. It was originally called Ohio Grove, the Coney Island of the West, but eventually became known simply as Coney Island.
We were standing in line to ride the Racer, the main rollercoaster, and a man in the line next to us glared at my uncle and muttered “Fags.” Then the man looked down at me and said, “Disgusting.” I had never encountered hostility from anyone before and it frightened me. Uncle Teddy just looked straight ahead and ignored the man, but even my young mind knew that whatever the man meant, it had hurt my uncle.
I adored my Uncle Teddy. He was tall and muscular with dark wavy hair and a black bushy mustache. He was one of the kindest humans on earth and I couldn’t understand why a stranger would want to hurt him. After Uncle Teddy and Barry dropped me off at home at the end of the day I asked my mother, “What’s a ‘fag’?”
My mother’s face turned red as she asked, “Where did you hear that?”
“A man at Coney Island,” I replied. “He called Uncle Teddy that.”
My mother sat at the kitchen table and gestured for me to sit. She rubbed her forehead with her hand and looked at me with sad eyes. “Jodi, there are a lot of mean people in the world.” She rubbed her eyes and sighed.
“I don’t understand.”
“I know, honey. It’s hard to explain.”
“Why would that man say something mean to Uncle Teddy?”
My mother bit her lower lip until it blanched. She stood up and went over to the sink and looked out the window into the backyard. “A lot of people believe that everyone should live the same way they do. They feel that living a certain way is wrong.” She stammered and made me feel more confused. I began to regret asking.
She sat back down and looked at me intently. “Many people think that a man should only be with a woman. But there are some men in the world, like Uncle Teddy, who are happier being with another man.” She sat upright in the chair. “Do you understand?” Her brow furrowed as she bit her lip again.
“Not really.” I was intrigued, yet more uncomfortable.
“Your Uncle Teddy loves Barry, just like Grandma loves Grandpa and Aunt Sandra loves Uncle Ken.” She paused to gauge my reaction.
“And some people think that’s wrong,” my mother continued. “They call them names and sometimes hurt them.”
“I wish I knew. They believe what they’re taught and they never question whether it’s really right or wrong. Love is never wrong.” She stroked the top of my head.
I stared into my chocolate milk and a let out a sigh, a little louder than I’d planned.
My mother placed the last neatly folded towel on the terrycloth stack, rested her hands on it and looked at me. “Okay, I’m sorry,” she came over to me and stroked my head. “But things are better this way. Trust me. Someday you’ll understand.”
“Someday?” I cried. “What about now?” I could feel the tears well up in my eyes. “Why can’t I understand now?”
“It’s complicated, Jodi. I promise I’ll explain it to you when you’re older.”
Something rose up in me and I did something I’d never done before. I yelled at my mother. “Why don’t I have a father?” My voice was so shrill and loud that it even scared me.
My outburst must have been expected since my mother didn’t seem startled. She simply turned to face me and I saw that her eyes were red and watery. “You do have a father, Jodi. He’s just not here.”
“Where is he?” My heart was pounding, not only from my own rage, but because I felt like a floodgate had been open and I wasn’t sure I could control the waters that were crashing into the room. Suddenly I had so many questions.
“I don’t know,” she said quietly. Her eyes squeezed tightly as if to blind herself from visions she didn’t want to face. “I never wanted to hurt you, baby, but…” Her voice trailed off.
“But what?” I demanded.
“But I didn’t want to give you up. Even though people told me it would be for the best, I could never do that.” The words were rapid fire from her mouth.
I was feeling confused. Give me up? Nothing was making sense to me. Give me up to what?
She sat in the kitchen chair beside me, put her head in her hand and rubbed her eyes. “You’re right. You have a right to know. I was just hoping it would be much later.” She raised her head up and brushed a strand of blonde hair that had fallen. “I guess it was too much to hope that you’d never ask about him.” She laughed slightly to herself. “I need something to drink.” She jumped up from the chair, took a bottle of Tab from the refrigerator and pried off the cap with an opener she found after rummaging nervously through the kitchen drawer. She took a long drink right from the bottle, something I’d never seen her do before. She always drank it from a tall glass filled with ice. “Do you want some more chocolate milk?” she asked me as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
My mother looked at me wearily and sighed. She had to know that I was going to eventually ask about my father, but I almost felt guilty for putting her in this position. It wasn’t my fault she was in this situation. I had nothing to do with it. I was just a product of her decision. For a long time it was just my belief that I didn’t have a father because that is what I was told. “Some very well adjusted people didn’t have fathers, Jodi, like Leonardo Da Vinci and Lawrence of Arabia!”
But I was no Leonardo Da Vinci and I wasn’t showing any signs of turning into him. When other kids would ask me about my father I would tell them he died in Vietnam when I was a baby, but I knew that wasn’t true. Sometimes I think it was easier for my mother to be seen as a war widow instead of a woman who’d been abandoned. The fantasy that my father was a war hero was growing thin and I wanted the truth.
“I haven’t seen or spoken to your father since before you were born, Jodi," my mother began. "I have no idea where he is.”
I didn’t say anything. I just stared into the bottom of my glass where wet powdered chocolate had settled as I listened to my mother.
“I was seventeen and had a job as a car hop at a drive-in restaurant. Your father and a couple of his friends pulled up in a pink convertible. A Buick, I think it was.” Her eyes were glassy as she looked into the air at a distant phantom. “He was a college student. He had dark brown curly hair and hazel eyes, but what I noticed the most was his smile.” She blushed. “He flirted with me and I was smitten. She shrugged. “What can I say?”
I shifted in my chair and must have given her an odd look because she said, “Well, maybe you’re too young to understand that. She laughed. “But you will,” she promised.
The tension was broken by the front door opening and a familiar voice shouting, “Hello? Anybody home?”
“In the kitchen!” my mother replied to my Uncle Teddy.
Uncle Teddy sauntered into the kitchen, wearing a pair of bell bottom jeans and a fringed black T-shirt with a big yellow smiley face on it. When he saw us sitting together in the kitchen, obviously in a serious mode, his mustache drooped. “Uh, oh, what’s up? Who died?”
Mom stood up and put her arms around his brawny shoulders. “No one, Teddy. Jodi and I were just talking.” She paused. “About her father.”
Uncle Teddy dropped into one of the kitchen chairs with a quiet thud. “Oh, hell,” he said, giving me a weak smile. “Didn’t mean to interrupt, JoJo.” Teddy had given me that nickname when I was a baby.
“That’s okay, Uncle Teddy.” I threw my arms around him. “I’m glad you came over.”
His mustache curled into a big smile. “I just dropped by to tell you two the great news!” He put his hands in the air. “Barry got accepted with the ballet company!”
Barry had studied ballet at the Conservatory of Music where he met my Uncle Teddy, while my uncle was working part-time building theater sets for the college.
My mother reached down and hugged her brother again. “That is wonderful! I’m so happy for him—and for you,” she told him.
Uncle Teddy reached over and placed his massive soft hand over mine. “JoJo, just remember, no matter what, your mother loves you very much. And so do Barry and I. A real family should be made up of the people who love you. If you have that you have everything, no matter what anyone else says. You couldn’t ask for a better family than us Keanes. Do you understand?” His brown eyes bore into mine.
I nodded that I understood.
He ran his hand over my head and stood up. “Other people can be cruel,” he told me. “It doesn’t mean they’re right.” He turned to my mother. “I should get going,” he said. “Are we on for pizza night on Thursday?”
I nodded enthusiastically. Every Thursday night the four of us went to Shakey’s Pizza.
“Good luck,” I heard him say to my mom. “Call me later.” I heard the front door close and then the pop-pop sound of Uncle Teddy’s VW Beetle head down the road.
“Your Uncle is right, Jodi. What’s important is that you have a family who loves you. A lot of kids have a mom and a dad, but it doesn’t mean their life is ideal. Does that make sense? You don’t always know what’s happening on the inside when all you can see is outward appearances.”
“Is this something I’m going to better understand when I’m older, too?” I asked.
She laughed. “I hope you understand before that,” she said.
“But I still want to know about my dad,” I told her.
She cringed, more obviously than she realized. “All I can really tell you is that he came into my life and went out of my life.”
“That’s it?” I cried. “What was his name? Can you even tell me his name?” I asked, desperately.
Tears welled up in my mother’s eyes and she looked up at the ceiling. After a deep breath she said, “Tony. His name was Tony.”
“Tony? Tony what?” I demanded.
“That’s the funny…well not funny, but strange, part. I never knew his last name,” she said softly.
This is a very nice sample. Just a little wordy here and there. By wordy, I mean too much information where such could easily be assumed. For example "I went to the refrigerator, pulled out the bottle of milk and poured it into a glass I’d filled with Nestle Quick." could be just as good -> I went into the kitchen and made myself a glass of chocolate milk. <- Milk is always kept in a refrigerator and how she made it is irrelevant to the story. Plus is sounds like there was little room for the milk in the glass filled with chocolate anyway. haha
Good luck with this. It sounds very tender.