(The basis for “A List of Songbirds,” published in Ruminate magazine.)
Men like my father are a dime a dozen. You pass by them many times in a week, but they may as well be invisible.
If you stopped to observe, you’d see them cruising the morning-damp streets before dawn pinks the sky. You’d see them mount behemoth machines and hear the groan of metal on earth, a sound at once modern and ancient. You’d see clouds of dust in summer and clouds from their breath in winter, and cracked hands and reddened eyes that tell of heat and cold all year long. You’d see their machines turn into fossils at the end of the day and the men emerge from them lame and bug-eyed, like astronauts returning to earth. You’d see hardhats and earmuffs and gloves, and the thumping of dust-coated pants and the mussing of sweat-stiffened hair. You’d see them stop for a moment to survey the crater they dug and the earth they moved, before they drive slowly away.
If you wave, you might get a wave back—actually, a half-wave that seems to say, thanks for noticing, and nothing more.
Men like my father are used to being invisible, as am I. But if it is the ordinariness of their work that makes them so, for me it has been my loneliness, the kind that makes people turn away. It’s too naked, like the flesh exposed by a blister. Long ago, I made the mistake of believing that being unseen meant being insignificant. In time I learned I was wrong, because another trait I share with my father is the penchant for digging, though his is of earth and mine is for truth. For twenty years I have excavated layers of history, unearthing family secrets that I might find his long-buried past. In that process I have come to see my father as a maker of place and identity, a modern-day pyramid-builder possessed of the agency to leave a mark and to render—as nearly as human beings can—something of permanence. I would find that the work fit the man and that a life that had seemed ordinary was in fact extraordinary in the ways that most count.
I would find as well a woman who was, in more ways than not, like the father she had grown up to regard with both longing and fear.
My first clear memory of my father, and by clear, I mean untainted by his anger, is that of watching him paint. I was ten, with bangs and pigtails, and he was about thirty-five. It was an overcast damp day, and my mother had gone off with my younger sisters. He donned paint-spattered chinos, put down a drop-cloth, and brought up a stepladder from the basement. Then he arranged a paint pan, bucket, and paintbrushes. I sat on the floor, cross-legged and silent, hoping he would ask me to help. But he didn’t.
Alone with my father, I did not know what to say, and neither, it seemed, did he.
I studied him as he worked: the practiced dipping and tapping of the paintbrush, the cutting-in with a steady hand, the way he barely blinked when paint fell on his face. At thirty-five, he had a full but not fat middle and strong stocky legs. He had a fine fringe of hair from ear to ear, tanned forearms, and capable hands. His was a physicality equally imposing and compelling.
After a long silence, I got up the courage to speak.
“How did you learn to fix things, Dad?” I asked.
“Fix what things,” he answered absently.
“House stuff,” I said. “Like painting. Who taught you?”
“I learned in school, the same as you.”
He had hated reading but loved machines. The paintbrush moved back and forth as he made spare observations about his boyhood in rural Nova Scotia, where I spent a couple of weeks each summer with my doughty white-haired grandmother.
“Why didn’t you become a fisherman?” I asked. “Like Grampy Vic?”
He snorted at the mention of his stepfather’s name.
“How the hell’re you going to fish when you get seasick every time you set foot on a boat?” he asked, as if this were something I already knew. “I used to get sick as a dog.”
But this hadn’t occurred to me. This must be why he came to Massachusetts—because fishing made him seasick. “How old were you when you came here?”
“Seventeen. I was seventeen.”
He continued silently to paint, swish-swish-swish. My nose dripped in the cold.
Suddenly he announced, “Make me a salami sandwich.”
I jumped up and ran. In the kitchen I fumbled for white bread and the Gulden’s brown mustard that he liked. I peeled a few slices of salami from a packet in the fridge and ripped some leaves from a head of lettuce.
“Is that sandwich coming?” he called after a few minutes.
I arranged the meat on the bread, spread what I hoped was the right amount of mustard, chose the least-wilted lettuce, and assembled the sandwich. I cut it in half, wiped a dab of mustard off the plate, and carried it carefully to the living room.
“Just set it down,” he said.
He climbed down the ladder and took a giant bite. He chewed then paused, the masticated meat and bread bulging in his cheek.
I twisted my hands together: had I left something out?
“Is it okay?” I asked. “Does it taste okay?”
He didn’t answer.
“I wonder–” he said, setting down the uneaten sandwich. He climbed back up the ladder and picked at some peeling paint.
“Is it okay, Dad?” I repeated.
“I think there’s one spot…” he said to himself, his voice fading as he went down the basement stairs. “Now where the hell did I put that scraper?”
I wiped my runny nose on the back of my hand and waited. It was soon clear that my father had forgotten about me and his sandwich. I went upstairs and sat by the bedroom window, watching for the headlights that would announce my mother’s return.
In hindsight, my curiosity is remarkable. I persisted with questions about his life despite the fact that the most consistent aspect of my father’s temperament, other than his taciturnity, was explosive rage. Once he heaved a wooden armchair at me because my sisters and I were squabbling. Another time, a quarrel woke him while he sat dozing in front of the television. He chased me around the kitchen table, shoving it so violently that dishes fell off and shattered. He came just short of pinning my eight-year-old body to the wall. He was lightning-quick in going from irritated to enraged, his eyes blazing. When he caught me, he would shake and shake and shake me, all the while shouting, or give a meaty backhand to my face. I was reduced to the basest bodily functions, begging incoherently not to be hit, my pants soaked with pee.
Each time he came at me, it seemed the world was ending.
Sandford is a tiny, hardscrabble fishing village about ten miles north of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, where the ferry from Maine arrives and departs. Photographs of the village populate picture books and postcard racks. A row of tiny houses neat and uniform as baby teeth sits up high on a bluff, broken in each of two places by a clean white steeple. This is the backdrop for a cluster of fishing shacks along the shore. Tourist sites boast that Sandford is home to the world’s smallest drawbridge, a rudimentary red wooden structure that straddles the inlet where fisherman dock their boats. Promotional literature announces that from here you can stand in the evening and watch as the sun sets beyond the Bay of Fundy.
Today you can get to Yarmouth only by boat, and then only from May to October. But in the 1960s, you could travel to Yarmouth by ferry or airplane. One year my aunt and uncle took me across; outfitted in a Nova Scotia-tartan kilt and beret, I watched from the deck as dolphins darted in the froth alongside the boat. Another year we flew to Yarmouth in an airplane not much bigger than a bus. The plane bounced along like a child’s ball until the announcement in unfamiliar seductive French shortly before we landed: “Mesdames and Messieurs: bienvenue à la Nouvelle Écosse.”
Nannie picked us up, driving out of Yarmouth over Rural Route 1—Longfellow’s Evangeline Trail, today the French Shore—through Hebron and Chegoggin and past rolling hills dotted with weathered cottages and herds of cows before turning toward Sandford. Her button-sized two-story cottage overlooked a mile-wide expanse of rutted fields that sloped down to the sea. The first owner had erected three rooms over a crude cellar, and after that my father’s father added on. The house had a cobbled-together feel, older parts preserved within newer parts, like the space for a fold-up ironing board now a shelf sprinkled with porcelain knick-knacks, or a shaving mirror and medicine cabinet intact on a kitchen wall. A door in the dining room opened to a narrow staircase that led to three perennially chilly upstairs bedrooms, heated only by open floor-grates that let up the warm air from the kitchen below. In the basement, my grandmother kept an old-fashioned roller machine that she still used to do laundry, her red rough hands feeding wet clothes through the ringers then toting a heavy basketful outside to the line. Down behind the house was the rickety outhouse stacked with pages from old catalogs and a fenced-in frog-pond where my father had raised chickens and ducks as a boy. Nannie’s backyard was blindingly bright with white sheets snapping on the line against a sunlit ocean that merged with the sky.
Summers in Sandford are now snapshots relegated to memory. The older relatives have died and the young ones have moved away. After her death in 2004, Nannie’s cottage was sold. Within weeks it had burned to the ground, the product of a cell-phone charger crossed with knob-and-tube wiring. Hers was not a house built for the millennium. Years later, as a mother, I would tell my young son about the slow summer weeks I spent in Sandford, berry-picking in hot dry fields, sleeping in an unheated room, using the outdoor privy, and watching Grampy Vic haul his lobster traps. They are the kind of memories I wanted but did not hear from my own father until childhood was long gone and I was old enough to understand how much of a true story does not get told. Many years would pass before I thought to ask him why he left Sandford in the first place, and why he rarely spoke of it. It did not occur to me that an ordinary man like my father could carry the invisible wounds of irrevocable loss.
His reply, delivered with downcast eyes, forestalled further questions.
“I wouldn’t give you ten cents for that place,” he pronounced dismissively.
The man who raised my father was a fisherman named Douglas Ripley Smith. I never knew him; he died when my father was barely out of boyhood. “Seeing my father every day was like watching the sun come up,” said my father in one of his rare revelations, his face uncharacteristically soft as he remembered. Doug took him hunting and fishing, and gave him pet rabbits and ducks, and a dog named Snook. Doug could tap-dance and play the bones; Doug was one helluva guy. But Doug also took my father out to the woodshed for lickings with wooden sticks or a leather strap across the back of his bare legs.
My father’s fond memories could not have made less sense to me. His warnings, “You’ll get a lickin’” and “I’ll get the strap” unspooled my guts, as did his direr threats, “I’ll give you a side-winder,” “I’ll spin your head around so fast you won’t know what hit you, mister,” “Your ass’ll be blistered for a week,” or “I’ll tear your hide up good.” I remember the sounds of chair-legs scraping as my father abruptly stood and how my hands instinctively drew up as he backed me into the corner.
“I promise I’ll be good,” I pleaded.
He never seemed to see that I was just a little girl.
As an adult, when I cautiously brought up these incidents, my father professed not to remember them. The memories intruded often when I least expected them; in the car, on the train, or at my desk at work. The father I remembered was not the soft-faced man who spoke so lovingly of Doug Smith. The blue eyes were red with rage and the too-close mouth contorted with anger. The impersonal words, “ass-blistering, strap-licking,” landed with the sting of sharp stones. Each time the memories intruded, I wept—in the car, on the train, or at my desk at work, and sometimes at night as well, when I awoke from dreams so vivid, I was confused to find myself in my own home.
At the age of ten, I was made party to a family secret so dark, I was not to speak of it.
“I’m going to tell you something you’re not supposed to know,” my mother said obliquely one day as she folded laundry. “Nannie’s not your real grandmother. Your father is adopted. But you can’t tell anyone.”
My father’s “real mother,” she said, was my Aunt Regina, a woman of wrought iron, with cold blue eyes and short bluish-gray curls. Aunt Gina, as we called her, was Nannie’s older sister. She and her second husband lived an hour away in New Hampshire in a small house decorated with knick-knacks, china plates, and crushed-velvet easy chairs. Aunt Gina seemed to have not one shred of maternal instinct. “Blunderbuss” was her moniker for me.
“Like a little bull in a china shop,” she crowed as if I wasn’t there. “Watch out the little blunderbuss doesn’t break anything!”
When we visited Aunt Gina and her husband Uncle Dave, there was no hint of impropriety, but I now looked at her in a different light. How could the adults, and more specifically my father, talk and laugh and behave normally around her? My father seemed to like Uncle Dave, an affable guy who liked to fish and hunt. But I still didn’t get it.
I knew even as a child of ten that my mother had breached a boundary, but my curiosity was stronger than my restraint. She answered my questions by telling how, as a boy, my father had overheard adult conversations through the heat-grate in his bedroom. Somehow he learned that Aunt Gina had given him to Nannie to raise. The rest of the story was unscripted.
I knew my father’s childhood bedroom well. Sleeping under a homemade quilt in his old bed, I had listened to the lonely wind in the eaves and the muffled conversations of Nannie and Grampy Vic in the kitchen below. I had reached for the King James Bible, its only book, to flip through familiar illustrations of Daniel in the lion’s den and the Egyptians drowning in the parted seas. But the Bible was a poor remedy for homesickness.
I turned to study the only childhood photograph of my father that I had ever seen. It hung on the wall, a black and white portrait with a painted backdrop of trees and clouds. Judging from the number of missing teeth, my father was about eight years old. He was dressed in knickers with knee-high stockings. He had oversized ears and a cowlick, and the stiff posture of a boy uncomfortable with posing. But the most striking feature of the portrait was the eyes: they were bright with laughter—and they were mine. Holding my hand over the lower half of his face, I could have been looking at my own reflection. “I look like my father,” I told myself. A boy whom I resembled had grown up in that room, slept under those quilts, and heard through a heat-grate that the woman who raised him was not his mother.
I looked at the boy in the portrait and decided that I loved him.
On the brightest afternoons of spring, summer, and fall, my father arrived home from work as dirty and worn out as if he had just emerged from a mine. In winter he arrived dirty and also wet, his blue eyes bluer in a red-cheeked face and water dripping from the end of his nose. Work did not end when he got home. He trimmed hedges, mowed the lawn, shoveled, and cleaned snow off bowed branches to prevent them from breaking. When the frozen ground was too hard to dig, he plowed snow, often at night. Each evening he retreated to the basement to type out billing invoices on a 1915 typewriter and call contractors who owed him money or union buddies who might have a lead on a job. Whatever he earned from March to December had to last through the winter months without a regular paycheck.
In the 1960s and 70s, my father worked on every major Boston landmark: Government Center, the Prudential tower, the Hancock tower, and the Central Artery. He operated backhoes and front-end loaders and excavators as tall as a house. But I saw only a man sacked out in his scratchy green armchair after dinner, the television’s glow flickering over the open cavern of his mouth until my mother roused him, and, grumbling and disoriented, he shuffled up to bed.
When I was fourteen, my parents moved us from the little house in which we had grown up to a five-bedroom Georgian colonial on a wide tree-lined street. The house had its original 1930s-kitchen, crumbling hair-plaster walls, and Depression-era plumbing. For more than two years my father spent evenings, weekends, and winter days ripping out pipes, sanding floors, painting, wall-papering, and laying floor tiles. His hands were perennially ghost-white with paint or caulk or grout, his bald head speckled from the drops that fell, and his mouth set with concentration. The house became a place of classic beauty with warm oak floors and a country-French kitchen, and a yard dotted with young cherry trees and bordered by artfully shaped hedges.
My father’s daily homecoming was House Beautifulmeets the Big Dig. The truck would rumble into the driveway and idle for a moment, then stop; the back door squeaked and slammed. Into the pristine Delft-blue kitchen stepped a man in construction boots, his clothing bearing an odor of machine-oil both familiar and disconcerting. He was often tired, irritable, and ready to do battle over the hose that hadn’t been wound, the bicycle blocking the driveway, or the empty garbage barrels that hadn’t been dragged in.
He would stand in the kitchen and holler, “Melanie, get your ass down here!”, his chronic anger the apparent price for that beautiful house with all its beautiful things.
I hated the suburbs and I hated high school, skipping it as often as I could. It took two buses and a subway train to get to Harvard Square where I could hunt for art posters and records or novels and books of poetry. But I felt out of place in the Coop, the bookstore for chino-clad Ivy Leaguers who seemed always to have perfect hair and shoes, a stark contrast to my loud clogs and ill-fitting dungarees. The head-shop around the corner was more my speed. With its patchouli oil, trade beads, and cheap madras imports, it was a favorite haunt of Hari Krishnas, protestors, druggies, and truants like me.
On one such sunny afternoon I turned a corner on Brattle Street: bam! Straight ahead was a gaping ditch bounded by a chain-link fence. Behind it, a rusty red backhoe chomped the earth, and two dump trucks idled bumper to bumper, their empty beds waiting to be fed the orange dirt.
Before I could think what else to do, my feet carried me forward.
“Dad, Dad!” I yelled, my arms moving like windmills.
I perched at the chain-link fence, jumping and waving until the yellow hard-hat turned. My father’s expression was stern as he pulled a lever and the machine coughed to a halt. That’s when I remembered that I was supposed to be in school.
He jumped from the cab and jogged over.
“I wanted to say hello,” I stammered.
“How’d ya know it was me?”
“’Cause of the red,” I said, knowing that was what he wanted to hear.
“Yeah?” He surprised me with a bright smile. “You don’t see many red backhoes, do ya?”
He asked what I was doing and how I was getting home. But there was no question like, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” and I wondered if the surprise encounter had made him forget.
But our spare superficial exchange could not conceal the unmistakable message that I received like a human antenna. My father was humming with pride. There was a powerful and competent air about him, his voice, his face, and his demeanor all seeming to announce,look at me—look what I can do!
I had come upon my father in Harvard Square, the gathering place for Boston’s A-list. Yet the work of one rusty backhoe and a nobody from Nova Scotia had shut down that intersection and driven those loafer-wearers to other walkways.
I felt a warm rush of euphoria. I wanted to yell, “That’s my father, you fuckers!” but I didn’t.
I wanted to hug him, but between us was a chain link fence.
We stood momentarily frozen.
“I gotta get back to the job,” he said jerking a thumb at the dump trucks. “93 North’ll be a parking lot. Tell Mum I’ll be late for supper.”
He waved me off and trotted away.
My father hadn’t himself finished high school, another fact my teen-self did not possess. When I needed homework help, he stumbled through the algebra problems and scratched his head with increasing frustration. Inevitably he gave up. Years later I found two outdated textbooks, one for earth science and another for algebra, in the back of a closet, scribbled with notes in his jagged left-hand script. I asked my mother whose books they were.
“From when your father was studying for his GED,” she said. He had two children under three and a third one on the way. But twice a week he drove back into Boston, evenings, to attend class.
When I asked why the books were stuffed in the closet, she told me he hadn’t ever finished, and when I pressed for the reason, she said it was because he was too tired after work to study.
When it came time for my college applications, my mother spread the financial forms in front of him on the kitchen table, nights after work. The dozens of typed questions he had to fill out must have seemed like counting ants after a day spent excavating a cavernous hole. He didn’t understand the paperwork and refused to disclose his income.
“Why can’t you get a job at the bank?” he asked, observing that the “girls” who worked up there had “a good little setup.”
The girls at the bank got to touch lots of money, which must have seemed to my father like working behind the counter in a candy store. He kept rolled-up wads of cash in his sock-drawer, sometimes in jars but often stuffed inside the socks. I knew this from secretly searching his dresser, the only way I knew to get close enough to touch him. I would creep into the bedroom and slowly pull open the drawers one by one. There was a pocket-watch from his father, an old wallet, and the coiled-up leather belts that had stung my bare legs; and there were jars stuffed with cash.
The first time I encountered a roll of twenty-dollar bills I was confused. Why where they in a sock-drawer instead of the bank? Did he know they were there? Had he forgotten them?
It is kids who keep money stuffed in socks, or in jars, or in piggy-banks, I would realize as an adult, and realize as well that cash in a sock-drawer escapes tax collection. Then, I knew only that I had to find a way out, and college was that way, even if it seemed the province solely of kids whose parents were professionals, like the friends whose fathers were a physicist and a psychiatrist. Kids whose fathers “worked construction” ended up perennial townies who went to high-school reunions year after year and opened savings accounts at the bank where the “girls” had grown into stout middle-aged women who knew all the customers’ names.
I rejected that future for myself. I wanted an education.
Ironically, I was doing exactly what my father had done twenty-five years earlier when he left Nova Scotia at the age of seventeen. Like him, I was rejecting the known for the unknown, with a hope for something better.
Scholarships and student loans would enable me to go to college, first in Vermont and later in Wisconsin, where I finished first a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree. My absence from home would extend into the years that followed, when I moved to Washington, D.C. for a federal job. I told myself I was developing skills and building a career. But I was again following in my father’s footsteps, seeking a geographic cure for grief.
Like his, my own search for a cure was unsuccessful, but unlike his, mine would end when I returned home twenty years after leaving.
My homecoming was preceded by a trip to Sandford to visit Nannie. Grampy Vic had died, and she was living alone in the button-sized cottage. The quaint village now seemed more alluring, particularly when friends reacted enthusiastically to my tales of childhood summers there. But I knew what I would do was far more pedestrian than the whale-watches and bike-tours of which they spoke. I would enjoy Nannie’s homemade brown bread, sleep in an unheated room, walk the shore road to watch the lobster boats come in, and visit with the now-grown friends Emma and Edwina, whom I had played with those many years ago and who had never moved away.
Now I boldly asked Nannie why there were no photographs of my father as a baby.
“Why, my dear, of course there are pictures,” she said. “He’s got a whole baby book.”
This was a surprise, and I immediately asked to see it. But it was in the eaves.
“It’s an old black thing, you know the kind,” she said. “Nannie’ll dig it out for you.” (For reasons that I never understood, she always referred to herself in the third person.)
And then she didn’t dig it out. I waited five days, repeating my request each day, until finally I took it upon myself to find “the old black thing.” I crawled into the eaves the day before I left; within five minutes I had found a box labeled “photographs” among Christmas lights and musty quilts. I pushed the box out of the eaves that had been its home for decades and opened it to find the album sitting right on top.
“Dig out” was an appropriate metaphor: I had uncovered buried treasure. My heart was pounding and my face began to sweat. But I had the presence of mind to slow myself down. I yelled downstairs with muted excitement, “Nannie! You’ll never guess what I found!”
She surprised me a second time by joining me on the floor. The album was so old and dried out that its binding cracked as I turned the pages, shards of dried glue collecting like bits of brown candy. And then there it was, on the third or fourth page, as if it had waited a lifetime for me to find it: a postcard-perfect black-and-white photograph of a baby on a sunlit porch. He was perhaps six months old, clad in a frilly bonnet and reaching with fat little hands for a tiny kitten, its tail raised like a sail as it trotted between his legs.
“He was so tiny,” I wailed, blinded by torrential tears and snot.
“Why are you crying, dear?” my grandmother laughed. “There’s nothing to cry about. He was a very happy baby!”
I was not yet a mother, but I felt like a woman who finds the child she long ago forfeited for adoption.
“Can I have a copy?” I asked, then insisted—as if she didn’t understand the intensity of my desire, “I want a copy!”
In the Christmas boxes from Nova Scotia that year were prints of the baby picture and others of my father as a child. The pictures that lay atop boxes packed with the usual hand-knit woolen mittens and socks had arrived without warning.
When I handed my father a print of the knicker-clad school-boy, a dreamy quality came over his face.
“I remember the day they took this,” he said, with a soft laugh. “I was scratching like crazy. My long-johns were wool. Everything Nan made for me was wool, and I can’t stand the feel of it next to my skin.”
I thought back to the angora dress my maternal grandmother had knit for me to wear on my sixth Easter. The fuzzy white frock that everyone ogled constituted a day-long torture. I fought for an entire year not to have to wear that dress again. No one seemed to believe that a garment so pretty could so horribly itch.
An allergy to wool wasn’t the stuff of legacy-building, but it was an affliction I alone shared with my father, and in this miniscule regard, for a few minutes at Christmas, I felt special.
He had a heart murmur, the doctors had told him when he tried to register for the Vietnam draft. But not until he was in his fifties would my father know about the genetic gift from his biological parents, a defective mitral valve that made his heart leak and sounded like a murmur. He’d had it all his life, but now it was life-threatening.
His first open-heart surgery took place in 1984, when I was away at college. Ten years later, he needed a second operation. I flew home straight from my job in Washington, D.C. and arrived still wearing my A-line dress and pumps. My father picked me up at Logan Airport and stuck a toothpick in his mouth to sustain him through the afternoon traffic.
Even as an adult, I felt the old anxiety that, alone with my father, I would not know what to say. Instead, I offered up a stream of news-bites, including my adopted then-boyfriend’s search for his birth mother.
My father listened silently. It was a blazing hot day and I couldn’t wait to get out of my hosiery, but he said he wanted a cup of coffee. We slipped into a booth at Dunkin’ Donuts, and he let his feet dangle over the end. I noticed for the first time that his ankles were veined and splotchy.
The waitress, who knew him, came right over and filled up two crockery mugs. Then there was a silence like the one in the living room twenty-five years before.
“You’ve lightened up since last time you was home,” he said at last.
“I started jogging,” I said. “It helps with stress.”
“Stress, what the hell stress have you got?” he snorted. “Christ, by the time I was your age, I had a family and a mortgage. Don’t tell meabout stress.”
Even a miniscule detail of my life could evoke disapproval. I bit my lip and said nothing, while he rolled a plastic creamer between his fingers.
“’Course a kid wants to know where he comes from,” he said, looking out the window. His pale eyes were fluid in the bright light. “Take me for example. I’ve often wondered who my real father was, but the guy’s pro’bly dead by now.”
My pulse was suddenly knocking violently at the sides of my head. He was talking about it, the thing that I wasn’t supposed to know. I didn’t know what to say or do…so I changed the subject.
“Right…so what did you say was the plan for tomorrow?”
He continued to play with the creamer.
“I mean, are we all taking you to the hospital, or just Mom?” It was not the persistence of curiosity. If I was going to deflect, I had to at least try to sound genuine.
He didn’t seem to hear me.
“Someday I’d like to find out who he was. That’d really be something after all these years.” His face had softened, and he chuckled lightly. “When I was a kid my parents had a grocery store, your typical small-town operation. And this guy would come in, not regular, but every now and then–-and he used to pay me a lot of attention. He wasn’t a fisherman. I think he was military. A nice guy–-a real good-looking bastard. I used to wonder if he was my real father.”
I slouched more comfortably in the booth.
“Can’t you ask someone?” I said.
He shook his head no. “I’d like to get a copy of my birth certificate. I’d have to wait until Nannie’s passed on–-she’s been real good to me and I don’t want her to find out. If the guy’s dead, hey–he’s dead. Can’t do anything about it. But I’d still like to know.”
“I get it,” I said slowly. “You just want to know who your father is.”
It was a carefully delivered statement. But he sat up instantly as if—again—he hadn’t heard.
“I want to show you something.”
We got in the truck and drove about a mile, turning into a construction site bounded by a chain link fence. Inside, machines with tires twice the height of a man scooped up mounds of crumbling earth that left a metallic-tasting dust in the air. Immediately I realized that my father had likely planned to visit the construction site all along. It was irresistible, like driving past the house you grew up in to see if the new owners were taking care of it. He approached the gate at a crawl.
“I’m sorry sir, this area is restricted,” said the hard-hatted man.
“Not for me it isn’t,” my father said. He spoke in what my sisters and I called his “construction voice,” a deeper and more authoritative tone reserved for men. “I run that backhoe over there. This is my daughter, in from D.C. I’m taking the day off, and I thought I’d show her around.”
The man stooped to look in the car, then smiled.
“Sure, Smitty, go right on in.”
My father cruised the periphery of the ditch, saluting the workers, all of whom seemed to know him. If his voice had changed, so had his face: the softness was gone, his jaw was now firmly set and the toothpick clamped between his teeth.
I felt late-July sweat trickling under my acetate dress-lining.
“God, Dad, do you really like this kind of work?” I asked. “All the noise and dirt and heat?”
“I wouldn’t do something I didn’t like,” he said as if my question lacked logic, as if people don’t take jobs they dislike. “When I get up in the morning, it’s just as quiet as can be except for the birds. I come over to the job site and work for an hour. Then the canteen pulls up, and I have my coffee. I might shoot the breeze with the guys for a while, but I’m all the time working pretty steady. That backhoe keeps things moving around here–if I don’t work, you might as well send everybody home.”
He pointed to a trio of construction workers guiding a dangling steel girder.
“See that little girl over there, the one with the braid down her back? She’s not much older than you.” He snorted in obvious admiration. “She works damn hard, and at the end of the day she strips down to her skivvies right alongside the other guys in the trailer.”
I worked at a windowless desk job, surrounded by partitions and illuminated by fluorescent light, and I hated it. Could I do what he did and like it? Could I withstand the physical exertion and the constant noise?
“Dad,” I asked impetuously, “do you think I could do this kind of work?”
He turned abruptly and screwed up his face.
“What the hell kind of a question is that?” He and pointed the toothpick at me. “You got too much brains for something like this. You just stay where you are, mister. You got job security.”
It was my second blunder, and I lowered my eyes. His praise of my intelligence didn’t register. I was looking at his other hand, resting between us. Its creases were discolored by grease even though it had been washed.
I realized I could not remember ever having seen his hands wholly clean.
The morning sky was pale and pink when I drove with my youngest sister Stephanie and my parents to the Massachusetts General Hospital. We sat in a waiting room, flipping through tattered magazines, until a nurse came for my father.
“Don’t worry, Princess,” he told Stephanie and stroked her chestnut hair.
Then he hugged my mother.
He hugged me last. It was an awkward dance with arms that bumped and a stiff pat on the back. He began to laugh, but his voice broke and his eyes watered. Then he retreated through the swinging doors and was gone.
It wasn’t until evening that we again saw him. A different nurse led us to a small room with nothing in it but my father on a hospital bed and a table with machines that beeped and hissed. His skin was dirty-gray and his neck was splattered with blood; there were tubes stuffed into his nose and mouth, and his chest rose and fell mechanically. His naked yellow-white feet protruded from under the sheet, and his body shivered violently.
“They had to lower his body temperature to operate,” the nurse explained.
I looked down at the puffy face, the stray matted hairs, and the slack open mouth. Under my palm, the skin on his forehead was oily and cold, like potter’s clay. I thought of the baby picture with the kitten. Had he ever been that small, that delectable, that pure? I slipped my fingers into the inert hand that at one time had seemed vise-like in its grip on my arms as he shook and shook and shook me, yelling all the while.
“Dad,” I whispered.
“Mr. Smith,” the nurse said loudly, “Your wife is here. And your daughters Stephanie and—”
I mouthed my name.
“Melanie,” she continued. “I’d like you to move your fingers a little if you can hear us.”
She waited a minute before asking a second time. The stiff fingers moved almost imperceptibly until the knuckle of my finger was encircled between his fingers and his thumb. But it wasn’t just an obedient gesture. It was an announcement that said, I am still here.
Just as gradually, his fingers relaxed. But their fleeting grip seemed to convey a truth about his very life that he had never expressed in words. He was tenacious. He had hung on. He had survived, against the odds.
With sudden clarity, I understood the importance of unearthing his birth-story, not the story I had been told but the as-yet undisclosed truth. The gesture that joined our hands like links in a chain told me it would be just as important to me as it was to him.
Tears stung my eyes. I knew the operation had been a success and that he was out of danger. But in my mind, I said, “Please don’t go until I have the chance to know you.”
Then I added silently, “I am going to find your father.”
But years went by, and I did not find his father.
One day my mother called with surprising news.
“Some guy emailed us claiming to be your father’s younger brother,” she said. “I looked him up. He has a criminal record.”
She added, “I want a DNA-test,” a kind of validation that couldn’t be easily obtained.
When I Googled the man’s name, I got over a thousand hits. But they and the proposed DNA-test were irrelevant. The man in the photograph could very nearly have been my father’s twin; indeed, they were full brothers. “Chuck” had been adopted in the United States and to our astonishment, had grown up mere miles from where my father had lived after arriving as a teenager.
I burned to meet this uncle, but the former boyfriend-adoptee, now just a friend, urged me to let my father lead the way. An entire year passed before I met Chuck, driving all the way to northern Vermont for that very purpose. A twitch of the curtains as I pulled up told me of his eagerness, and that was all I would remember other than the odd sensation of hugging a man who smelled, sounded, and resembled my father, down to a prominent front tooth and the square thickness of his fingers. He was a playful man, his wife said, who liked to fly airplanes with a grandson and take an impromptu trip to Florida just to fish. There was little of my father’s dark urgency about this man, and I realized that being adopted out of the family may have protected him. Unlike my father, he had not grown up in constant contact with the mother who relinquished him.
The revelation of another brother’s existence prompted a more open conversation about my father’s paternity. I began to believe it might truly be possible to identify their biological father. Genealogical research by Chuck’s wife had confirmed a name I heard before, an Ernie Ellis with whom Aunt Gina had had a relationship in her early twenties. My father had begun to ponder this very question, having heard the name as well. Widowed and living in a nursing home in Florida, Aunt Gina was now in her nineties. There wouldn’t be much time left for questions, so my father drove from Boston to Florida in part to ask them. I heard about the trip after the fact.
“We pulled up to the place and I walked inside, and she was sitting in a chair,” came my father’s lively report. “I says to her, ‘I’m gonna ask you one question, and I want a straight answer. I drove a thousand miles, and I’m not taking any bullshit.’” He pointed an index finger to demonstrate how he had done it. “I said it just like I’m saying it to you.”
My mother raised her eyebrows and nodded to underscore his words.
“It’s true, he did,” she said.
“I says, ‘Are you my mother?’” he continued, “and she said yes.”
He sat back proudly, as if he had figured out something that had long stumped him, except that this was not new data. What I later realized was the courage it had taken for him to confront her—this wire-thin, hard-as-nails woman who had loomed so large in his emotional life. For decades the secret had given her power, but in confronting her, he had taken his own power back.
“Did you ask about your father?” I wanted to know.
Aunt Gina had confessed that Ernie Ellis was indeed his father. But my father learned little more than that. He confessed to having held her when she began to cry, though he suggested they were crocodile tears.
“I don’t trust her,” he concluded.
I wondered if he had felt longing, perhaps, or empathy. But I didn’t ask.
He had posed the question in the nick of time, because within months Aunt Gina would die, as had Nannie, the woman who raised him.
The two women with maternal ties to my father were gone; where a mother should be, there was no one. Even with a name, his biological father was a mystery. The only person who was nota mystery was Douglas Ripley Smith, whose story I had managed to elicit from my father in one of our delicate exchanges.
Doug suffered from tuberculosis, which was incurable in the 1950s. Periodically he convalesced in a sanatorium in Kentville, several hours north of Sandford, during which time my grandmother leaned on my father while caring for her daughter Elizabeth, twelve years younger. In the winter of 1955 Doug developed pneumonia, and my grandmother called an ambulance. My father, then sixteen, pressed to be able to ride in the ambulance, but my grandmother made him stay back. Doug died on the way to the hospital, and my father never saw him again.
A copy of Doug Smith’s 1955 obituary told me something of my father’s loss.
Although being in poor health for some time, he bore much to himself. A staunch friend to all who knew him of a genial and pleasant personality, there is no way we can turn but what he will be missed on every hand.
“He bore much to himself” might also describe my young father. Nannie, now a widow with two dependent children, had no means of support. My father dropped out of his senior year of high school to manage his father’s general store, in essence becoming the man of the family when he was barely out of boyhood. A year later Nannie remarried, taking as her husband Doug’s first cousin Vic Smith, the man I later knew as my grandfather. Soon afterwards my father, who disapproved of the hasty marriage, emigrated to the United States. A maternal uncle and aunt took him in, and he got a job in a print shop.
It was difficult for me to absorb this poignant account. I couldn’t imagine a bereaved seventeen-year-old supporting a family, much less leaving his tiny fishing hamlet for an entirely new city in a different country.
“Wasn’t it hard for you?” I asked.
“Damn right it was hard,” my father said. “I stood behind a printer feeding in sheets of paper for eight hours a day. I never felt so depressed in my life.”
A window-view of a busy street replaced a shoreline dotted with colorful fishing boats. He was friendless as well, having left behind Eddy and Roger, the fathers of my childhood friends Cynthia and Edwina and his pals since grade school.
The scenes in his story were vivid in my mind’s eye. I pictured the stricken boy framed by the doorway as the ambulance carried the ailing father into the night; the young man boarding a ferry like the one I had taken so many times, waving goodbye to a tearful mother; and later, the young man staring out a factory window at metallic fenders instead of the ocean. I could see it all, but what I could not imagine was how that ordinary and unschooled boy had coped.
His youth had been carved out by a traumatic loss, and the geographic cure for grief was elusive. At the age of twenty-two, he met my mother—a black-haired Sicilian woman, exotic-looking by Nova Scotia standards, and in an almost mythic repetition of events, she became pregnant. They married and I was born seven months later. By day my father worked as a truck driver, and to make ends meet, as greaser of garbage-truck chassis by night. Supporting his wife and child on seventy-five dollars a week was possible only with books of Green Stamps and an occasional monetary gift from my maternal grandmother.
The image of my father hand-greasing garbage trucks at night stuck with me. I had once wondered if I could work in construction; now I wondered if necessity could drive me to take such a grueling and filthy job. I thought of the babies that came, one after another, until there were four, and the rolls of money in his sock-drawer. The story that began to cohere was almost too painful to contemplate, as was my own self-righteousness and shame. Learning his true parentage had been a trauma, as had losing his beloved father. At a relatively young age he himself became a father. Work was hard, and not working was harder. There was no escape.
It began to sink in: my father was the embodiment of fortitude. Some might use the word resilience, which suggests an elasticity that enables one to bend and stretch with life’s vicissitudes. But my father did not bend. He was like a plough horse that lives for its work and when prompted, pushes into the bridle.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked my two-year-old son Zack.
In 2002, by the age of forty, I had moved back to Boston, gotten married, had a baby, gotten divorced, and returned to graduate school. I entered therapy to heal the wounds of childhood, ashamed that the same woman who could run miles upon miles, beat a man in a hike up a mountain, and study Arabic, economics, and epidemiology could not, through the sheer power of intellect, lay to rest to the demons of old trauma. I was surprised and happy when the experience of motherhood brought some measure of healing.
“I’m gonna be a digger-man!” my son crowed.
The one thing my father had wanted more than any other was his own son. Instead he had four daughters, and none of us had married the kind of man who reveled in coffee-cans heavy with assorted nuts and bolts, the allure of power tools, or the joy of moving tons of earth—in short, a man with whom my father could pal around. Where I had grown up hearing, “You should have been a boy,” I now heard, “When am I going to get a grandson?”
It is perhaps fitting that he learned I was carrying a boy while he was operating an excavator. Three months pregnant, I called the secretary on my father’s job so she could announce the news in front of his buddies.
“I feel like I won the Megabucks,” he had exclaimed with an ear-to-ear grin.
The feeling was mutual: Zack loved his “Papa.” The day he climbed my father’s excavator was the day my father acquired rock-star status. He had let two-year-old Zack touch the enormous bucket and stand atop a tire the height of a man.
“Look at his eyes,” my father said. “They sparkle just like diamonds.”
I would reflect often and poignantly that his adoration of my son gave me a small piece of what I had longed for as a child and continued to long for, as an adult. I couldn’t pass a construction site without my eyes tearing up. Sometimes I stopped to point out machines to Zack, and sometimes, simply to talk to the operators. I proudly told them that my father had worked on the Big Dig, Boston’s project to put the freeway underground. This invariably prompted them to ask his name. But when I told them, they shook their heads; they didn’t know him. The Big Dig had gone to commercial contractors, and my now-aging father worked at smaller local jobs.
I nonetheless took photographs of Caterpillars and John Deeres working on bridges, highways, and buildings: excavators moving earth, cranes lifting piping, and backhoes gouging holes in the dirt. I began to see the men and women who operated them as something more than laborers.
Within a couple years after my son’s birth, his father and I had divorced. I often found myself at my parents’ home, driven by a private loneliness. Instead I told them that Zack missed his grandparents. One evening, we all sat in a local eatery waiting for the check and watching Zack scribble on a paper placemat.
“Sheesh!” my father exclaimed when Zack called his cartoon-dinosaur by its proper name, parasaurolophus. “This kid is really something else. He’ll probably be a doctor someday.”
“Maybe,” I said flatly.
I didn’t want my father to know how badly I needed to hear kind words. I was deep in the grief and shame that follows divorce and worried about what loss of normalcy would mean for Zack.
“Dad, I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” I said carefully. “What was it like for you to lose your father when you were only a kid?”
Over the years, I had posed many questions to my father, but on the surface, those questions were about plumbing or car-parts or home-repair. The radiators were banging or the check-engine light had gone off. Far from superficial, these questions were like security-envelopes with an important communication inside, but the time wasn’t right to open them. The true message was something like, I need you, Dad. There is no one to help me.
The care he gave in answering the questions also held a meaning deeper than his reply: He needed to be needed. He would clear his throat before delivering his answer, and his answers were always transparent, concise, and somehow even poetic.
“What happens if you blow into a straw with your finger over the end? The air can’t escape, that’s right. It’s the same with your pipes—if the valve’s not open, the steam can’t escape. You bleed the pipes and the banging’ll stop.”
Or of my first car, “Lemme ask you this: after you take a shower, do you put your dirty underwear back on? Of course you don’t. You don’t change the oil without changing the filter.”
His explanations were strong medicine. He cut through the fog of messy problems with gold-star common sense. He didn’t become a fisherman because he got seasick. He worked in construction because he liked it. I needed to believe that complicated questions had simple answers and anticipated that he would now share with me some secret strategy that had sustained him through loss.
“What was it like to lose my father?” he repeated in a monotone, removing the toothpick from his mouth. His eyes clouded over and looked away: he was somewhere else, reliving a moment.
Zack continued to scribble through a protracted and painful silence.
“It was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” he said finally, avoiding my eyes. “The day my father died was the day I lost my best friend. I cried non-stop for three days.”
I studied my father’s face. Who was this man, speaking with such directness, naming a loss and the feeling that came with it? And describing his own father as best friend—words that told of an adoring love of which he had never before spoken?
Clearly there was much to him that I had not understood.
“I was depressed for a good couple of years after he died. A thing like that messes with your head,” he continued. “A thing like that’s a big shock to your system.”
He was describing trauma, an event so disruptive and unexpected that it temporarily alters consciousness. This was how my therapist explained it. But I didn’t have to be a therapist to know what my father was saying, or to understand with sudden clarity that the earliest and deepest wounds carve into us a repository that comes to hold all subsequent hurts. I took in my father’s flushed face and taut mouth, the big arms rigidly bent at the elbows, and the eyes that couldn’t meet mine, and I could literally seehis emotional armor.
I could see as well the adolescent boy who picked it up inside the grown man who didn’t know he could put it down. And I suffered with him.
Did I learn more about my father’s paternity? Yes, I did, and I found his siblings —a brother and a sister—as well, but not before decades had passed, and Ernie Ellis had long ago died. I had gotten remarried and again divorced, taken a college teaching job, experienced custody travails, financial loss, and depression. And then, in 2014 at the age of fifty-two, unexpectedly I met a lovely man and for the first time in my life, fell truly in love. When John proposed eighteen months later, I joyfully said yes. A month later he came down with a cough, and two months more brought a diagnosis of inoperable stomach cancer. Palliative chemotherapy could slow but not cure the cancer. My genteel blue-eyed husband died in 2016, less than five months after I married him.
A month before his death, in a temporary reprieve from illness, John and my father had painted the back wall of our house, and I listened as they conversed. What surprised me was my father’s reflexive kindness, but more than that, even, how every step of the job was a negotiation engineered to pay deference to my husband. What kind of brush did John think my father should use; why didn’t John tell him the best way he could help? Unlike that chilly day decades before, the work of painting was the substance of a gentle and loving discourse that knit together these two men, my father and my beloved husband.
I was astonished.
That winter, three months after my husband’s death and with grief sharper than it had been in the numb days immediately afterwards, I drove to my father’s house to deliver two fleece-lined wool hats. I knew that, my own grief notwithstanding, my father was grieving as well. He had recently been diagnosed with a congestive heart and early dementia, and I wanted him to have a keepsake from the man he deeply admired; hence, the hats. While I was there I told him about my planned hiking trip to Nova Scotia in a few months.
The daughter of his childhood friend Eddy knew about my trip. She had emailed me to say that her father was planning a vacation in the States; perhaps we could reunite the two old friends? But instead of being happy about the visit, my eighty-year-old father became enraged, jabbing at me with his finger and shouting that I was making plans behind his back.
“I can’t be chauffeuring people around to go sight-seeing,” he yelled. “I got important things to do.”
I was stunned, but more critical, I couldn’t absorb his anger, laid open as I was by grief. I grew white-hot with fury. Perhaps he was suffering from mental confusion. But he also had extended periods of clarity and would realize at some subsequent point that he had mistreated me. He needed to know that.
“While you’re in the bathroom taking your meds,” I called as I slammed out the front door, “I suggest you take that gigantic stick out of your ass!”
Four decades behind schedule, I had at last truly left home, just as my father had done almost sixty years before. It was another experience we shared: abrupt departures fueled by anger, the indelible stamp of the twin childhood experiences of loss and shame. We would not speak to or see one another for nearly eighteen months. I holed up in my house and attended to my grief, writing once or twice that I was not letting him off the hook for his belligerence. I expected an apology.
He never apologized, but I did receive two messages in that long stretch of solitude. One was to wish me a merry Christmas; another was to ask about the squirrels in my eaves that I had recently posted about on Facebook.
“Squirrels will chew your wires all to hell,” he warned in the message. “Let me know how you make out.”
This was the familiar balm of common sense. I knew the messages were the closest thing to a mea culpahe would offer, but I didn’t care. I had never heard my father say he was sorry for anything. If he could not say it to me after the death of my husband, when would he ever be able to do it?
I refused to budge.
The winter was long and exacting, with heavy snow that bent the paper birches around my house practically to the ground and two consecutive bouts of flu that left me so sick I was unable to leave my bed for days. I stewed in my own sweat and fell in and out of feverish dreams. I did not ask for help. It was the winter in which I learned what I was made of. I had retreated deep into the cavern of grief to wrestle it on my own, a task possibly on par with crawling in the cold crevice under garbage trucks to slather them with black grease night after night—the job that enabled my father to feed and shelter an infant daughter.
How had I come to be so constituted? Why did I prefer to dive into difficult stuff rather than avoid it? What made me a woman who systematically rose to the hard way, the steep climb? My inwardness, I decided, was evidence that my father and I were similarly constituted.
Somewhere in the year that followed, a new question gelled and became something of an obsession. Was his youth—of which he had so rarely spoken—as significant to him as mine was to me?
Good old common sense suggested the answer was yes: childhood represents our earliest lessons in what it means to be human.
It was partly with that question in mind that in late May 2017, I headed north for a sixteen-day hiking trip through the maritime provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. I wanted to go where the landscape dwarfed me and I could situate my grief against a larger horizon. I did not foresee that by traveling to my father’s birthplace, I was also situating my very life in the landscape of a larger legacy, and that, just as the thrusting rocks of Cape Breton would reassure me of my insignificance, the age-old story I encountered would similarly reframe my childhood—and his.
Starting in Acadia National Park in Maine, I wended my way north to Calais and crossed into New Brunswick. I hiked along the Bay of Fundy then continued into Nova Scotia, venturing further north to Cape Breton Island where I slept in a wind-whipped tree-cocoon at Ingonish Beach. After that I headed south to the Cape Blomidon headland and Grand Pré, the Acadian settlement from which hundreds of French settlers were uprooted and expelled centuries earlier. Travelling still further south, I embarked on the French Shore, eventually arriving at the home of my Uncle Wayne and his new wife, Arlene.
Uncle Wayne was not really my uncle; he was my father’s first cousin, but in deference to his age I called him uncle. He greeted me with a bear hug and was soon calling me “Mel,” a nickname I reserved for closest friends. With a bushy mustache and bright blue eyes, he had a look of merriment about him. But when the conversation turned to family matters—children, marriage, and death—a note of melancholy crept in. Uncle Wayne had lost not only his first wife but a daughter who committed suicide. His own father had died before he was born, and his mother—the youngest sister of Nannie and Aunt Gina—was also gone. But there remained a twinkle in his eye, and an exuberant love for his daughters and grandchildren and for Arlene. Loss had not embittered him. The nights I lay in his guest bedroom, I imagined that he was my father.
Two things of note happened while I was with Uncle Wayne. The first was that he took me to the family graveyard in Argyle Sound. There I saw headstones with the names of my father’s grandparents and uncles and aunts. But I also saw the overgrown fields where, according to Uncle Wayne, as children he and my father had picked blueberries.
“Nan had a business,” he said, referring to my great-grandmother Annabelle Frost, a taciturn woman I had known as a child. “One day when we had picked loads of berries, I asked her to take some and make me a pie. She said yes, then handed me a basket and told me to go back out and pick some more. ‘Then I’ll make you a pie,’ she said.”
I could imagine Nan saying this; she had been steely and no-nonsense, often quipping that children should be “seen and not heard.” But I knew from my father that Nan’s grandchildren felt loved. Uncle Wayne showed me the little house where he and my father had slept on a feather-stuffed mattress in an unheated bedroom. He affirmed my father’s memory that, in the days before refrigeration, Nan had kept eggs and butter in a basket lowered into a well to keep them cool. He showed me Frost Island, named after Nan’s forebears, a rocky mound for sheep-grazing that could be reached only by boat. My father had run in these fields, rowed across the ocean, and gathered berries under the blazing Acadian sun—all before he was seventeen.
While on our tour, I made a perfunctory stop at a records office and left the name of Nan’s mother, whom family lore suggested was Acadian and Mi’kmaq. I wanted to confirm or debunk this notion, and in time I would receive confirmation that both were true. But the more important story seemed to reside in the very landscape itself: I began to understand how place makes a person. I looked out over the dense marsh grass and scrubby pines, and little houses that resembled scattered Monopoly pieces. The landscape was in some ways harsh and unyielding, but my father’s people had found a way to survive here, of necessity to preserve berries and sew quilts and knit beautiful woolens like those I had received in an annual Christmas box from Nannie.
Survival was the legacy of the French Shore.
Two days before I left, Uncle Wayne got in his pickup truck with Sadie the dog and drove to Cook’s Beach, a rocky peninsula south of town where he kept a shanty. He donned his waders and I, my old hiking boots, and we disappeared into the fog to dig clams.
We dug for three hours. Our deep silence was a deep presence that forged a bond. Afterwards Arlene joined us and we sat under blankets, shucking the clams under an impossibly blue sky. I felt a sense of quiet joy and peace, the first since my husband’s death, and a sense of belonging to this place and in particular to my father’s people.
It was on the strength of this bond that the necessary course slowly became evident. I wrote to Uncle Wayne almost a year after my trip. I apologized if what I was about to ask him angered him, but I had reached a point where I could no longer keep secrets. I wanted to know if he had any knowledge of my father’s heritage, a secret whose keeping had exacted a high price, not only from my father but from me. I told him I did not want to contact anyone; I just needed to know who I came from.
That was it.
Uncle Wayne’s call came at seven o’clock on a Sunday morning. He was not angry, he said; he knew I had reached an age where such knowledge was important. The name of my father’s father was indeed Ernie Ellis, a man who had sustained a fairly lengthy relationship with my Aunt Gina but, inexplicably, chose not to marry her. It was easy to understand how, given attitudes in 1930s rural Nova Scotia, an unmarried woman might relinquish her child.
“We can’t blame people for what they did back then,” Uncle Wayne said gently. “We don’t know what their lives were like.”
That I had always known that Aunt Gina was my grandmother did not surprise him. In fact, everyone in their small village knew except the person who most deserved to know: my father.
“It must’ve been hard for him, carrying all that by himself while growing up,” Uncle Wayne said.
He said my father had living siblings: a brother Lawrence who remained in Yarmouth, and a sister Rosemarie who had married into a prosperous French fishing family. While he talked, I opened my laptop and looked up the names. I found both, though there was more about the woman than the man. There were two photographs on a genealogy website: one of Rosemarie on her wedding day and another shortly after, posed against the shoreline with her new husband. Two features of her photographs struck me: the dates, which suggested she had come of age around the same time as my father, and her bone structure. With high cheekbones and square planes, Rosemarie’s face was not unlike his—or my own.
I had always known I resembled my father. But now I was looking at a womanwhom I resembled—one who looked happy. She had a prosperous union with a man whose business website described him as “as good, hardworking, and honest a man as you’ll find.” She and my father had a common paternity, but hers was sanctioned by marriage and his was not. I might be reading too much into a photograph, but illegitimacy had cast a life-altering pall over my father that I did not read in her face.
I tearfully thanked my uncle, then sat quietly to absorb this new knowledge. Meanwhile, a bit more internet research yielded children and grandchildren of my father’s siblings. I had imagined the “good side” of the family as extraordinary, a counter-note to our dysfunction. I found, however, that they all looked like completely regular people. There were Facebook photographs of dirt-bikes and slain deer, and fishing boats and weddings and ice hockey. Scrutinizing these curated moments of their lives, I thought perhaps I might see evidence of triumph against the odds, but if it existed, it wasn’t on social media.
Then it dawned on me that perhaps I was searching for “extraordinary” on the wrong side of the ocean: perhaps the extraordinary part was what unfolded not there, but here.
I mulled this as well.
“Are you going to tell Dad?” my sister Jennifer asked when at last I broke my silence. “And are you going to contact his siblings?”
I had no desire to push my way into the world of strangers, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to tell our father. I did not have the requisite elasticity for the push-pull of more conflict.
“I don’t think knowing all this will make an eighty-one-year-old man feel good,” Jennifer said bluntly, “and if you don’t intend to tell him, then what was the point of finding out?”
What was the point of finding out? I pondered this question on long walks in the woods near my home in a Boston suburb, along Nova Scotia bluffs, and while holed up in a cabin on the Newfoundland coast, where in May 2018 I traveled to write and hike and reflect on the epic story of which I am part. Two years after my husband died, eighteen months after yelling at my father, and a year after seeing Uncle Wayne, I had again found myself pushing northward. Wanderlust is the word for this urge, an almost inexplicable yearning to seek places unknown.
When I was a child, my father and mother often packed us into the car for long desultory drives to New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, during which we not infrequently found ourselves stuck on rutted dirt roads that led deep into the woods. Often these were logging roads, and more than once, getting out without a flat tire seemed doubtful. But I now think of those drives as a kind of wanderlust on my father’s part, a yearning to outrun or perhaps run toward something significant; I am not sure which. But I feel the same way.
It was during my hiking trip to Newfoundland—a gigantic pile of rocks, really, bearing a thin layer of topsoil—that I came to an understanding of my father. What clings to the rocks there is the sparest but toughest vegetation—moss, lichens, marsh grass, and scrubby pines. To live there, you have to be like that plant life—tenacious, able to withstand cold and salt, content with a beautiful but harsh and exacting landscape. To leave there, you also have to be strong: lichens do not peel easily off rock. Either way, if you belong to that corner of the world, you are made of stern stuff.
Nova Scotia is a similar place. Life there requires fortitude. Leaving requires fortitude as well, and when such a place is all you have ever known, you have to be possessed of either hubris or fear—the certainty that you will survive risks or the fear that staying will crush you. I don’t know which my father possessed; perhaps both. Either way, a teenaged boy grieving the recent death of his beloved father boarded a boat that took him away from home and deposited him in an unfamiliar place where he learned and excelled at a trade, made a new home, and raised a family.
My father is the product of all that came before him—and I am in part the product of my father.
In truth, I realized, we are all the product of stories that have been created by us but more importantly forus, stories we tell and retell about who we are and where we come from. When families tell untrue stories, lies and secrets take on an unearned and inauthentic power that shackles us to shame. When there is no story, when families prohibit truth-telling, we are cut off from part of ourselves. This is why the quest for self-knowledge demands that we are undaunted. When we understand both the visible and invisible forces that shaped us, we can to some extent reshape ourselves. The process of self-discovery—of truth-seeking—is an excavation of sorts, the kind of work my father did nearly every day for over fifty years.
I may never truly know why my father chose to direct his rage and aggression at me. Finding his biological family did not deliver a neatly packaged explanation for his behavior. But knowing who he is—and is not—enabled me to better know myself. In the process of digging, I bore witness to my own yearning to live a richer and more loving life, one in which I respond to that which calls me, rather than run from that which I fear.
I found, up in Newfoundland, amidst the rocks of ages, that I was called to forgiveness.
The day after I returned, I called my father. It was early enough in the morning that only he would be up and that I could speak with him privately.
He did not seem surprised to hear from me and noted the photograph of the Newfie moose that had stepped out in front of my car at dawn, posted on my Facebook page. He had been following my trip that way, I knew, and I had posted the moose specifically for him. But I didn’t tell him that. Instead I said that I loved Newfoundland and hoped to return. Then I paused.
“I have some information about your biological family,” I said.
I told him about the living brother and sister; later I would find evidence of another brother, no longer alive. I shared that his father Ernie Ellis was a Roman Catholic and largely Acadian, a fact that ran counter to our belief that we were strictly of English and Scottish heritage, and Protestant. Ernie had married his wife Rosa the year after my father was born to Gina; his wife bore his second son a year later, followed by a Rosemarie and Lawrence. Somewhere in there, Ernie and Gina reignited their affair, because Gina bore yet another son—Chuck, the man who had reached out to my father. But I noted that, more startling to me than the facts I had gathered, was the strength of the family resemblance. In the time since talking to my uncle, I had located multiple photographs of my father’s brothers. In their handsome brows, strong noses, and prominent chins I saw my own facial features—and my father’s as well.
My father was an Ellis, and so was I.
“It is weird to look at the face of a stranger,” I said, “and know they are your family.”
My father emitted a low sound that translated into something like, “You don’t say.”
“That is really something,” he said at last. “To know all this after all these years.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “I was worried you wouldn’t want to know. Jennifer seemed to think that the news would upset you and that I shouldn’t share it.”
“What do mean, not share it?” he exclaimed. “Of course I want to know!” Then I heard some clicks, as if he were covering the receiver; his voice became muffled. “I’m glad to know the truth of the matter, and I’m grateful to you, to be able to have answers to my questions before I die.”
I knew that, alone in his basement bathroom, my eighty-one-year-old father was brokenly crying.
“I was glad to do it.” I paused to collect my thoughts. “I know you think I have been hard on you over the past couple of years. But I want you to know that I get it—I get what you did. You were no more than a boy when you left Nova Scotia, and you came here and made a life. I have been angry at you for a long time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect you—I do.”
I again heard clicking sounds and muffled sniffles.
“I did my best,” he said. “I worked hard to keep a roof over my head. And I’m proud of that.”
“You should be. You weren’t much older than Zack, and you didn’t have a father to guide you. It took real courage to do what you did.” I wanted to give him the chance to recover, so I said, “I have pages and pages of family history I want to give you, along with photographs.”
“Jeezus, that’s really something,” he said again, with the same reverential tone in which he had often spoken about my young son. “You probably know more about me than anybody.”
“Yes,” I said slowly, “I think I do.”
My father was no longer invisible, and now, neither was I.
But the story didn’t end there. A year later, my father’s adoption file was unsealed. I had learned about a law that allowed adoptees to open their files, provided both birth parents were deceased. I had tracked down Aunt Regina’s death certificate—no small feat, since she had changed her name to Regena—and sent it off to Nova Scotia. The wheels of the provincial bureaucracy moved slowly, and I had to follow up three or four times, in writing and on the telephone. The woman who answered said my father’s name was on a waiting list with two-hundred others, and she didn’t know when she would get to it.
I was pacing in the hallway at work, but I didn’t care if students saw me cry. I said my father was unwell and that he couldn’t wait indefinitely. I asked her please—please—to bump his name to the top. I followed up with an email including a photograph of my father in knickers and knee-socks. Perhaps seeing him would make a difference.
It did. On a Saturday night in March 2019, I got a call from my father.
“A big envelope came from Nova Scotia today,” he said.
Early Sunday morning, I drove to his house to wade through its contents, pages and pages of Xeroxed seventy-three-year-old social-worker notes. His biological father was never named. “The family wishes to keep it a secret,” said the report. The gift of the file was what it said about Doug Smith.
Mr. Smith seems very much attached to Garth. He is a short man with a rugged complexion, very healthy in appearance, and a very hard worker. The child seemed very much devoted to him and followed him around a great deal.
“You really loved your dad,” I said.
“I did.” My father leaned in close. “My mother would look out the window—remember that telescope over the sink? She would look for my father’s boat coming in. And I–”
I began instantly to sob, and so did my father. I reached for his arm and held on.
“He used to take me between his legs in the Whippet,” he continued, struggling to smile despite tears. He dreamy eyes told me that he was there, in the front seat with his father, as he spoke. “He would work the foot pedals, and I would get to turn the wheel—that big wooden wheel.”
“Why are you crying?” my mother asked me. “That’s not a sad memory, him running to his father.”
Running to his father wasn’t. But the softness on my father’s face broke my heart. It was a happy memory of the only man he had ever loved, and lost.
“It still bothers me,” he said finally, “that I never got to say goodbye.”
That was when I realized the adoption file’s significance. Decades after that first promise in a hospital room, I had indeed found my father’s father.
“You didn’t get to say goodbye then,” I said, “but you can say goodbye now. You can tell Doug Smith how much he meant to you.”
My father stood to gaze out the window. Then he grew quiet. Perhaps he was silently communing with the father who had abruptly departed this earth so long ago. Or perhaps he was lost in an old man’s reverie about childhood, its days spent running along a wind-swept bluff overlooking the ocean.
“I’m tired,” he said finally.
I was tired too. Our decades-long journey was over.
It is supremely ironic that the man who for so long lacked a story about his birth is himself a born storyteller, a talent I didn’t appreciate until I was well into my forties. He has a perfect sense of timing, something I wondered—along with his mechanical skills—where he had learned. I am always struck by the quality of innocence that comes through in the delicate emotions that surface in his face: he virtually twinkles, seeming to lose himself in a tale, entering it in order to share it. That is why telling tales is not easily taught. Imagination is in-born or learned at someone’s knee. It is my father’s quintessentially Nova Scotian feature.
One Christmas, Jennifer and I sat with my father by a late-evening fire. Earlier that day, each family member had spoken in turn before dinner, sharing an appreciation or a favorite memory in lieu of a formal grace. When my turn came I told the assembled grandchildren that if they stood on Boston Common and turned 360 degrees, they would see their grandfather’s handiwork in every direction.
Prompted by this offering, my father now eagerly embarked on stories about Boston “before your time.”
“I had a boss from Winchester—” (Stephanie lived in Winchester) he began, “and this guy was a real pain in the ass. It was January, and when I got off at the station, I would walk through the hospital because it was warm.”
He leaned forward and squinted.
“I get there one day, just coming daylight, go out through the sliders, and this guy, the superintendent, is waiting to open the gate so I can go in and warm up the machine. I look down the street to my right, and here comes a black chick. I would say she’s forty years old, maybe forty-five, nice looking girl—big, probably five-ten—and she walks right up to me. She says, ‘Hey man, what are you doing?’”
He shook his head.
“I says, ‘Can’t you see what I’m doing? I got my lunch bag, and I’m waiting for my boss to open the gate so I can get in there and start my machine.’” He paused for effect. “She says, ‘Do you want to get laid?’ ‘No, I don’t want to get laid,’ I says, ‘I’m going to work.’ She says, ‘C’mon, c’mon’–” he stopped to chuckle, “and what do you think she did? She had a full-length fur coat on, and she whipped it open. She didn’t have one stitch of clothing on, not even underwear!”
I forgot myself and howled with laughter.
Jennifer was nonplussed. “Okay, so she’s nude, but what did you do?”
“I says to myself, ‘Jeezus Christ, I’m on my way to work, I ain’t got time for this foolishness.’” He slapped his leg. “So I tell her, ‘You see the guy over there unlocking the gate? It’s cold and his hands are freezing, and he can’t get the gate open. Just wait a minute, and when he gets the gate open, you walk up to him and say, ‘I’m looking for some action.’”
“So you punted her on to your boss,” Jennifer said evenly. “You pimped her.”
I howled again.
“How else was I gonna get rid of her? She walked up to him, and she whipped it open on him, too!”
My feet were flailing as I held my sides.
“You should have seen him—he was all bent out of shape,” he continued. “He says to me, ‘Can you imagine these hookers roaming around come daylight, no clothes on and it’s cold enough to freeze the ass off a skunk?’”
My sister seemed always to be studying our father as if he were a puzzle. Her lips now twitched to conceal a smile.
“I says to him, ‘Times are tough, they’re looking for a few bucks,’ and that was the end of that episode.” But he wasn’t finished. “I had a lot of things happen like that. I was excavating a basement over in Roxbury, near the city hospital, and there was a duplex next to the job. The boss come out and told me that I could put all the dirt along the backside of this building.
“When I was excavating, I had a mound of dirt about fifty feet high”—he motioned with his hand—“and I didn’t realize the dirt from the pile was going over the top and rolling down a hill, going right up to the back doors of this house. But there was nobody in it as far as we knew. So I got all done, closed up for the day, got on the train, and when I got home, the phone rang.”
He paused for effect.
“I pick up the phone, I hear, ‘You gotta go back into Harrison Avenue right away.’ ‘What’s going on?’ I ask. ‘Why do I have to go back into Harrison Avenue right away?’”
He frowned and stared at each of us in turn before continuing.
“‘Well,’ the boss says, ‘you piled all this dirt that you excavated, and half of it is up against the side of this building,’ he says. ‘There are four or five Chinese hookers in there, and they can’t get out!’”
I was laughing so hard my stomach hurt.
“This ain’t bullshit!” he said, as if my laughter signaled disbelief. “I’m telling you what really happened. I had to go back in there, and at that time of the year it was pitch-dark. We had to put up spotlights—they had two guys watching me—and I had to pull all the dirt back from the building so they could let the Chinese hookers out.”
The story revealed not only narrative talent, but longed-for playfulness.
It is a welcome legacy.