Excerpt from “Jem” – Brick Wall

A bare bulb illuminated the dark corner of my mother’s basement where leftovers from my childhood were kept. I dug through the stacked boxes of old toys I could never bear to get rid of, baby clothes my mother had saved, and tacky art projects from years of public school. Heat from the furnace warmed the smell of cement and dryer lint, almost masking the faint scent of my step-father’s cigarettes. I pulled what I needed from the stacks and turned off the bulb overhead, leaving only the soft light that came through a tiny ground level window. Palms grimy with dust, I hefted two boxes of photos up the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the living room.

My mother cozied on the love seat next to me as one by one I opened each tattered envelope, exposing the memories to daylight. She oohed and aahed over the still glossy baby pictures of my much younger sister, cooed over the thicker, more faded ones of me.

Looking at old photos makes me emotional; a strange mix of sweet and sad, like longing to hug and kiss someone but only being able to see them distantly through a window. I resisted being drawn into the memories. I wasn’t there to reminisce. I was looking for the newspaper clipping my mother had given me long ago. Over a year of internet searches, staring at the screen until my eyes burned, had not revealed my father to me. If the name of the newspaper was on there, maybe I could find a record that would give more information.

I excavated to the bottom of both boxes and the piles of photos grew around me like a nest. No clipping. I looked underneath the folds of cardboard but there were only torn bits of paper and a dried out, flattened spider. I had kept that clipping since I was a child. So many times I had looked at the small, grainy image of my father and his bandmates – he was the tallest of the three. I had so little of him. My heart palpitated as I looked at the empty boxes and I felt a shaky, hollowness in my chest. I had lost the one thing that could have helped me find him.

The loss made me feel desperate so I turned on my mother. “Did he tell you anything about his family?” I asked, hoping for some forgotten detail that would advance my search. She paused just a moment to consider, and answered “No…” but I kept on.“What about his friends?” They were simple questions but the energy of my need to have them answered was heavy and she could feel it. Still holding photos, her hands dropped to her lap. Her body shifted subtly, weight moving from one hip to the other. She didn’t like talking about this part of her past.

“No… I’m sorry…” she said. “Do you know where he lived?” I kept prying her. “Anything…?” She looked nervous. Maybe she hoped for release from my questions that were pointed and searing. “I’m sorry sweetheart… It wasn’t love, it was the 70’s,” she said as if it explained everything. “I’m so sorry,” she said again, each apology more intent. She was apologizing for her lack of answers but also for the underlying accusation; How could you think I wouldn’t need a father?!

“It’s fine.” I said, but my voice was tight and hard. I wanted her to stop looking at me – to stop apologizing. I was too angry to deal with her need for forgiveness. I felt trapped and suffocated in the over-stuffed love seat. We were close enough to touch but I made sure we didn’t. Her need to release the tension, to connect with me, felt like an invasion. I was stonefaced, rage just below the surface. I could literally feel it radiating off my skin like a burning aura and it repelled her. “I’m so sorry,” she said again, but this time her voice was quiet and strained, almost saying it to herself, her face closing up as if she wanted to shrink and disappear. I had to get out of there. “It’s fine.” I snapped, and turned away to pile the photos back in their boxes. It was my only escape route.

Excerpt from “Jem” – 1970 Something

 

  Sunday parties at the home of Murf and Ellen were a gleeful summer escape. In my memory, theirs was a nearly endless property with an orchard and woods, but everything seems so much larger when you’re small. We children of the party-goers could disappear for hours. Sweaty and dirty we played under the heavy mid-western canopy thick with cricket drone, liberated from the eyes of parents having too much fun to bother with us.

Between the orchard and the backyard was a volleyball court and picnic area where hotdogs and burgers hissed on a brick hearth, and in-season corn roasted in the coals with the husk on until it blackened. Occasionally we’d get hungry enough to stop and stuff our faces with meat filled buns and buttery, sooty corn, and those moments when I lingered at the picnic table are the only times I would notice what the grown ups were doing. I hold flashes in my mind of them hanging around drinking cheap beer and talking; chubby middle-aged Ellen sitting in a folding chair under the electric bug zapper, black haired Henry telling a joke and my step-father who listened, always with a cigarette between his fingers and a slight squint that served as a smoke shield. Others I remember out on the volleyball court and I can still see the way my mother’s poofy, kinky hair, not quite an afro, would bounce all as one piece when she ran up to the net. This picture of her assertiveness and joy on the sandy court contrasts with the idea I’ve always held of her as someone much more timid.

I don’t remember interacting with the adults much, only this one time that’s etched in my memory. Night had fallen with the party in full swing. Bugs flew frantic flight paths beneath the bright volleyball court lights, and the loud voices and gesturing of drinking grown-ups animated what should have been quiet darkness. I had to ask my step-father for something – a momentary interruption in our escape from each other – but instead of calling him by name as I had always done, I called him “Dad”. He paused and looked at me for a moment from behind his wire rimmed glasses. There was an awkwardness because that was not who we were – we didn’t share that kind of sentiment for each other. To this day, I’m not sure why I said it. It could be that part of me wanted to feel like the other kids; to feel normal, and those normal kids all had fathers. It could be that I had heard them say the word so much, it just slipped out, unbidden. It might have provoked something in him, but his only comment was that I just wanted to be like the other kids. It’s telling that he didn’t assume it was from any desire to be closer to him, which was correct. We walked away from each other that night without saying another word about it, and I never called him by anything other than his name again.

***

  The first time I remember asking about my father, I was around twelve or thirteen. We had left our town in Ohio, a place where there were just as many black kids as white, where the air was heavy with moisture, and grass grew without the aid of sprinklers. We moved to a small farm town in Idaho, where the only black kid for miles was my friend Troy, the first boy I ever kissed. This place was arid, and the only thing that grew without aid was sagebrush. Maybe being uprooted from my home to this alien and sterile place provoked the need to know where I came from. I don’t know.

“Who is my father?” I asked my mother who was sitting next to me on my twin bed. Though her face is hazy in the memory, the feel of the green shag carpet under our feet is still vivid. Smelling of dust and decaying fibers, it was an eyesore and so out of place in my girly room. Scott was the name she gave, and that he was a musician from Tennessee. It was all she could tell me. She had saved a newspaper clipping of the band he was in when they met, and a photo, cut from a poster she took from the hotel where they played. I think maybe she told me he was a nice person but I don’t remember anything else, and I didn’t ask her about him again. For years, I just kept the idea of him tucked away somewhere.

Excerpt from “Jem” – The Magic Window

 

  “Oh my god” I say, without meaning to. I drag the two photos side by side to compare. One is a copy of the photo my mother gave me – labeled ‘bio.dad’ on my computer. The other is the college graduation photo I’ve just found. Both were probably taken within a year of each other, and both are of the same man – or at least I think they are. Doubt still clings to me as I examine the identical eyes, lips, and chin of both photos. Did that really just happen? Did I actually just find my father? After 43 years of mystery, my brain is struggling with this massive shift.

I call downstairs to David but the house is silent. He must be in his office with a client so I send him an urgent text. My mind is whirling and I’m walking in circles by the time he comes up the stairs. I need him to confirm I’m not crazy – that this really is him. He hunches over and peers into the soft blue glow of the computer screen, but my excitement turns to annoyance as soon as he begins speaking. He’s decided to be helpful by blathering on and on about military style facial identification, oblivious to my irritation. So you see here… look at the ear, and the way it curves around, blah blah blah…

“Are you kidding me??!! I don’t need to be wowed by your expertise right now!!! Just tell me it looks like him before I lose my fucking mind!!!”

I’m only screaming on the inside. In reality, I form a more polite request and get the confirmation I need. He hugs me sweetly, but is strangely non-chalante – it’s one of his Asperger-ish quirks. He rarely shows excitement about anything. It’s maddening – especially at Christmas.

He returns to work and I’m left alone, freaking out more with each passing minute. Still pacing around the room, I text my oldest daughter and tell her I’ve found her grandfather. Of course she wonders what the hell I’m on about. She already has a grandfather on her Dad’s side and knows exactly where he is. Her response is just as unsatisfying as David’s. As I try to clear the confusion with frantic fingers jabbing the telephone, my middle child calls from a friend’s house where she’s spent the night. I breathlessly answer and tell her the news. The most excitable of my three children, she explodes with teenage glee as she relays the information to her friend. Both their voices ring in gratifying enthusiasm on the other end of the line.

I need to tell my siblings (or half siblings, as other people would call them). But most of all, I need to tell to my brother. He was given up for adoption before I was born and I didn’t meet him until I was 19. He’s the only one who will understand what this means to me. I open a chat box, type in the news, then haunt Facebook impatiently until my brother’s response appears. He’s skeptical. “How can you be sure?”, he asks, so I attach the two photos and click ENTER. This response is immediate. “OMG. You found him”.

I tell him my father is a musician just like me, and that I look like my grandmother. He reminisces about when we met for the first time, and the chat box trail grows long with our excited back and forth. Of course he wants to know if I’m going to contact my father – it’s what everyone is asking. “No, I’m not ready for that”, I say. But the truth is, I’m dying to know him.

My youngest daughter wakes and I tell her the news. My two younger children lost their father when they were little, and I watch her reaction closely as we look through my father’s Facebook page together. She’s now seeing all the photos I’ve already pored over. She clicks on a video, and for 47 seconds we’re transported through this little magic window. We see him play with his dogs, laugh with his wife, and hear how he speaks. We are spellbound. He doesn’t know his daughter and grand-daughter are watching him. He doesn’t even know we exist. My daughter looks up at me, eyes wide and face lit with awe – still trying to process all this. “Oh my god mom…” she says. “That’s your DAD!”