Who's Your Daddy?
Who’s Your Daddy?
From a cowboy with a secret obsession to a dad called “Mom,” fathers and children share unexpected and heartfelt stories all about dads.
Guests: Paul Lyons, Louie Ortiz-Fonseca, Chris Davis, Lori Horvitz, Jared Bilski, Rocco Ritorto
Photo: Johanna Austin
Like Father, Like Son?
Edwin Desamour used to share a prison cell with his father. But today, he's created a new legacy for his own sons.
Read the transcript
Jamie J: From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is Commonspace.
You know, there are about 71 million fathers in the US, and that’s just from the latest census data released in 2008. Imagine the wealth of stories and experiences each represents. I was thinking, that as much as we believe we know our fathers, there’s always a part of their lives that remains a mystery. When we’re little, our fathers seem to be perfect – until they’re not. Unraveling those mysteries is at the core of countless poems, films, songs and stories.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: You know Jamie…
Jamie J: That’s WHYY’s Elisabeth Perez Luna.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Just from the stories we hear every day, like those in this program, or the ones we might tell while commiserating over drinks, it’s apparent that not all of us have great relationships with our fathers.
Jamie J: I’m sure a chunk of our audience is gonna agree with that! “Don’t get me started!!!!!” Some fathers are actually examples of what not to be. But like our storyteller, you can find a way learn from the “negative” the “what not to be” to become the father you never had. This is a story about a dad called “mom”.
Louis Ortiz: My father’s name was Luis Alberto Ortiz. My name is Louis Alberto Ortiz, and for years I thought that was the only thing that connected us, because we didn’t have anything else.
And then when he died in August of 1996, I was at his funeral, and I walked up to the casket and I read the plaque. And his name was spelled L-U-I-S. And I said, “Hm. That’s interesting.” So I said “Mom,” who was telling everyone that she was the widow although his new wife was crying in the back. I said, “They spelled his name wrong.” She said, “Oh no. His name is spelled correctly. It’s yours that’s spelled wrong. Because they added an ‘O’ to your name on the birth certificate and walked away.” And I was like, “Do you think that was important to tell me?” And of course as I look back I was like, “Wow. Systems were already at play when I was born to keep me disconnected to my father.
I don’t have any pictures of my father, which means I don’t have any pictures with me with my father. I suppose it should be no surprise that I can no longer picture my father. Sometimes maybe every once in awhile I would try to conjure up his face. But I can’t. I try to remember if he was tall or short. Or maybe he just always fell short of my expectations.
Sometimes, what I do remember is the feeling of paralysis whenever he came around. I would stand still, motionless like a statue. I was unable to speak, I was unable to move. I was afraid to ask him to soothe the pain that his family caused when they called his six-year-old son a faggot. Afraid to tell him that other men were afraid to mentor me because I was too feminine. I was afraid to tell him that I was always too scared to go to barbershops. So I would just stand still and not feel like a statue.
I saw my father periodically growing up and I was never one of those boys who longed for a father. I would watch TV shows and watch other little boys get re-connected with their father and break down, “No it’s too late!” and I’m like, “Child!”
Then in 1994, my mother told me that my father had been diagnosed with AIDS. This was a time before retro-antivirals, so the only hope was that you just didn’t die. Or that you’ll pray. And I remember not knowing how to feel. So two years later my sister called me and said “Daddy is on his deathbed.” She called him ‘Daddy’; I called him “Him”. I still can’t say father. I say it because I have to say it today, but it’s still a very odd word to me. I can call anybody’s Mom ‘Mom’. “Oh she’s like my mom.” I never say, “He’s like my dad.” She said, “Daddy wants to see you. He’s on his deathbed and his last wish is to see you.”
Let me tell you, it’s really, really, weird to be somebody’s last wish. So I remember thinking, “OK. I love a little drama.” So I went to the hospital and I went with a coworker and I remember walking into the room and it was my sisters that he had with other women. They call me their ‘brother.’ I call them ‘them.’ And they were all crying. And his new wife Evelyn was crying. And I had no animosity to them. They were just strangers to me. They were offspring of man who was a stranger to me so I didn’t hate them, I just didn’t know them. But my sister, the one who called me, is my blood sister. She and I have the same mother and father.
As soon as I walk in everyone starts crying like I’m the long-lost prodigal son. As if I was the one who had walked away from fatherhood. And I remember feeling so weird because it was as if everyone was waiting for this magical moment to happen. And I just didn’t feel anything. He was laying there like life was sucked out of him. He could not even move. And I remember, like, knowing that I had to hug him because if I didn’t, that would make me look cold. And my being gay already made my father’s family look at me really weird. So I didn’t want to be weird and cold. So I remember hugging him but I might as well had been hugging the bed frame. And I remember my sister, who loves drama more than I do, said, “Daddy, do you know who that is?” And he was like, “Yeah. That’s Pee Wee, my son.” And of course, everyone starts crying. And again, I’m just trying to, like, figure out what to do next. Trying to figure out what the dance is. What do little boys do when they see their father dying? What do little boys do when they see their father lying there like a statue?
Years later I will process that moment very differently. And I get enraged at myself that I didn’t take the opportunity to tell him all that I thought because this time he couldn’t run away. Because his body was stiffening already and he was like a statue. And there were so many things that I now want to tell him.
My son doesn’t call me ‘Dad.’ I became a father 14 years ago and he never calls me Dad. When he was one, he used to call me ‘Mom.’ And I never told him to call me Mom and we thought it was the craziest, wackiest thing. And I can remember all the times we would be in the Wal-Mart or Target, because when you become a parent those are places you love…and there was this little black boy just saying, “Mom!” and I’m like, “What?!” And people would see this big bearded guy answering to Mom.
Eventually, he’ll wind up calling me Luis. Now by 14, he still doesn’t call me ‘Dad.’ He calls me ‘Lou.’ And for some people it’s just as crazy as when he used to call me ‘Mom.’ But when he calls me Lou, he calls me from a place that is no more. A place where I was unsure if I was wanted, or wanted out the door.
When he calls me Lou I hear something very different than what other people hear. When he calls me Lou, it is like balm, like healing, like my cure. He’s my reminder that I’m not too feminine. He’s my reminder that I won’t die of AIDS. He’s my reminder that I don’t have to be scared at barbershops. He’s my reminder of everything great that my father walked away from. He’s also my reminder that if my father knew he was walking away from, he would have not have walked away. And it was in that that I found forgiveness. Cause as he grows up, I think now as I’m turning 40 in the next week or so, of all the things I could have done differently. All the times that he wanted to watch shows but I wanted to go to work. Or I wanted to be there for someone else because I wanted him to see me be there for someone else.
So as I navigate this journey of fatherhood and learning to provide myself grace, I’m learning to provide my father’s memory that same grace. And my son thinks the world bends to him. He does. He’s an only child. I’m his father. My ex-partner’s his father. And his birth father’s his father. So he’s being raised by a man who didn’t have a father and now I have a son who has three fathers. I have a son who has three fathers who introduced him to their families. So now my son thinks that every time I introduce him to somebody, that that’s his cousin. He thinks the world bends to him. And as a young bends to him that is what I want him to know. That is what I want him to believe.
But I also know the reality that we live in. I know that the reality is that…as he gets older he’s no longer adorable to some of my friends and some of my family members. Cause he will become a scary black young men to them. And as I try to balance my message of hope, love, and magic to him I try to remind him of what else is out there not to scare him but to prepare him. And now here I stand, a gay man in between a childhood of a young boy who did not have a father to raising a boy who has three fathers and all of the healing and magic that that village has provided for me. Thank you very much.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Louie Ortiz-Fonseca is an Afro-Boricua, or, an Afro Puerto Rican artist, born and raised in Philadelphia. He is the creator of The Gran Varones, a multimedia storytelling project that lifts the voices of gay, queer and trans Latino men.
Jamie J: I’m Jamie J of First Person Arts, and this is Commonspace. And today we’re bringing you stories about our fathers and dads…or as they say around the world:
(Sound collage of the word “father” in languages from around the world)
Jamie J: Yep, this is all about fathers - OUR fathers - as people who have their own private lives, desires, and conflicts, outside of the role of dad. Here’s David Crabb telling us a story about discovering his dad’s secret side.
David Crabb: When I was young, when I was a little closeted gay 14 year old in San Antonio, Texas, I liked a very specific sort of song. Songs by the likes of people like Rick Astley, Taylor Dayne, and Pebbles. These were songs that had certain things in common. They were devoid of any organic instrumentation...at all. There was a few things that made them up. There was a drum machine. It generally went like [drum machine sound]. There was generally a synth hit, which is the sound that went [synth sound] and then there was a big sweaty woman in the background being like, “Aw yeah feel the night-time. Sweat! Music! Woo!” That was my jam. That was my s***. I needed it at all times.
Now, my dad liked really different music from me. My dad, Larry, was born in San Antonio, Texas. He was a good ole boy. He wore trucker hats, pearl button cowboy shirts, and he liked Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, that kind of stuff. And if you were to see him standing next to me in my hyper-colored shirt and my bleached bangs and my cargo shorts looking sort of like a chubby lesbian who worked at a water park you would be like, “Wow these two people are really different from each other.”
Needless to say, my Dad really supported all my interests that I had as a kid. And I had a lot of them. I wanted to be an architect and then I wanted to be a designer and then I wanted to play a musical instrument and then I thought I was going to be a singer. I’ll always remember once I took that aptitude test that you have to take in school and the guidance told my mother, “David has a very complex internal life.” And my mom smiled, she just loved that because it was eccentric and even I knew, I was like, “That means I have too many hobbies!” But I did and at any point whenever I wanted to do something new my dad was always there with the credit card like, “How much money does the f***ing saxophone cost?” You know, just like ready to help me out.
Now at this point I guess I was about 13 years old, and I had a new interest. Do you guys remember the show Silver Spoons with Ricky Schroder? Yeah? I loved that show. I loved Rick Schroder, I loved the mansion, I loved the choo-choo, I loved his ethnic friend, Alfonso. I loved everything about that show. And I thought, you know, I could make a show like that. I want to make a show like that. And for my birthday I want a video camera. And my Dad took out the credit card and he bought me—because video cameras back then were like $8,000 and they were the size of an industrial toaster. They were just these giant VHS nightmares. And he bought me this video camera and I was so excited and the first day I got it I took it out, I was going to make this complex science fiction movie—alone, because I had no friends. Um…and like I literally had a flying saucer I made of marker on poster board on like a meter stick that I would hold and film—it was a nightmare. I tried to film this thing all day and I came home and I was so pissed and I threw the camera in the back of the closet and I said, “Screw that!”
And then it hit me. I don’t want to make Silver Spoons. The only great part of that experience I liked was the acting. I want to be Ricky Schroder and I immediately told my mother, “Mom, I want to take an acting class.” So she signed me up for the John Casablanca School of Acting and Modeling Class. It was very ritzy. It was in a strip mall between a TCBY and an H&R Block. And I started my youth acting class doing some really complex work from like “Facts of Life.” Things like that. Now as I’m taking this class, I tell my dad, “Dad, I really didn’t like the video camera. I’m really sorry.” And he’s just pissed off because this is just another thing that I was gonna do that I’ve now just sort of forgotten about and moved on.
Now my Dad at that time worked on the road. He lived out of a Winnebago as a fiber-optic technician and he would drive all around down South and I’d see him like one week out of every month. And at this point in my life this amazing thing had just happened where he had been travelling through Georgia and he met this woman name Jeong. And Jeong was a Korean lady and to me this was the most exotic and exciting thing that had ever happened to me in my life. The idea that I could have a step-mom who was a real life Asian lady was amazing to me as a little white boy growing up in San Antonio, Texas in the early eighties, right? Now, I had a very limited exposure to Asian culture at this point in my life. There was one Asian girl in my school; there was a woman named Van who died my Mom’s hair in the mall; and there was that show Kung Fu with David Carradine. And because I sort of had A.D.D I lost the thread that he wasn’t supposed to be Asian. I didn’t get that he was white. I was like, “who isn’t Asian if that’s an Asian man?” It was very confusing to me; do you know what I mean? So that was my exposure, so I had this very sort of like, simple view of what Asian culture was. And I would have these daydreams on what my dad and Jeong would be doing on their trips and I would just imagine that, you know, Jeong would make him dumplings and serve them on a plate with lychee blossoms and then my dad would be wearing a white linen robe trimming Bonsai trees in a garden. And then, as the sunset in the East they would recline under bamboo chimes and he would lovingly bind her feet. Now I know that this is horrible…this is horrible, but this was how limited my exposure was to cultures outside of white Caucasian, Southern people.
Now, as I was sort of developing this complex internal fantasy about my future step-mom my dad came home for a trip and said, “You know what son? You’re not using that camera. If you can give me that video camera I’m gonna take it on the road, I’m gonna take vacation with Jeong and I can film it! And even though she lives far away you never met her, I can come back and we can watch the tape and you can kind of get to know her that way!” And I was like, “That’s awesome. Do it!”
So my Dad took the video camera; went on a trip with Jeong. I continued my John Casablanca classes doing really advanced scene-work for things like Charles in Charge and Kate and Ally. And, my dad went on the trip he was gone a few weeks, he came back, he gave me back the camera, we had dinner together, after a few days it was time for him to hit the road. So my dad leaves, hits the road, and later that night he calls me. And he says, “Hi D.J.! Um…you know, I don’t know how to start this really. I know you’re my son but I like to think of you as a friend. I would like to think that even though you’re much younger and I’m much older that you would consider me someone that you trust and whose word you honor. And I did the damnedest thing. I left a video in that video camera I returned to you and I would really appreciate it, son, if you don’t watch it.” Now, I’m telling my Dad I’m not going to watch it as I’m pulling the phone cord through three rooms of my mom and I’s apartment. I’m reaching in the closet like “curiosity!” I am going to watch that video, I’m going to watch it so intensely, I can’t even imagine what my dad is trying to keep from me.
Finally, I get off the phone. I take out the video and I sit down in front of the television. My mom is still gone working at the mall. And I put it in the VCR and as I put it in the VCR I do have a moment, even at 11 years old, when I realize there’s certain things you can’t undo psychologically. There are things in this world that cannot be unseen. And nonetheless, I reach out and press play.
We open on a hotel room. Tracking static. Tracking static. The camera is on the little table between the two beds facing the bureau and the mirror. And then my dad strolls out in full regalia. He is wearing a ten gallon cowboy hat, and a pearl button cowboy shirt, tight Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots and then, with more vim and vigor than I’ve ever seen him do anything, he proceeds to belt out this song: (sings) “Mama’s don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. How you doin’ pretty little thing? Good to see you here.” My dad sings this song and he’s gesturing to throw pillows like they’re real people being like, “How you doing pretty little thing? Where y’all out from?” Like he’s on the main stage of the rodeo and he’s going nuts and I have never seen my dad act like this at any point in my life. He’s sings and sings and sings and winks. He takes out a tooth pick at some point and starts to pick his teeth like a good ole boy and then slowly as the song ends, it ends in the way that all country songs end with a [twang sound] and then he poses. He does a little pose for the camera, and he runs forward and turns off the video camera.
Now I know it’s very weird thing I just described to you. It’s probably a little bit weirder than what you thought I was going to say. Because it’s just vulnerable. Do you know what I mean? I watched the video and I thought it was interesting because I didn’t realize that my Dad maybe also had a very complex internal life. A few days later I returned the video, and it was like a weird drug deal like “Hey. What’s up? Just—[mumbling]” “I’m good, man, I’m good.” It was like that, and we did not discuss it.
Now many years have gone by and this funny thing has happened. My dad Larry, he retired a few years back. He had worked a very, very long time on the road. And I don’t know what a lot of people do when they retire. They really get into online gaming or perfect their sun-tea recipe; I don’t know what they do. But my dad found this thing called Sing Snap. Sing Snap is an online social website but it’s all based around karaoke. It’s just a website that has thousands of midi files and instrumentals. So people make these little home studios and they sing these songs over the tracks and then they share them. My dad started this account. He’s recorded 350 songs. He is friends with like 10,000 people. He has sung open duets with people who live in like Canada and Australia. And it’s a very strange experience now when I go to Sing Snap and I can log onto my dad’s account and I can see him sitting there with his little bald head. Sometimes he wears his aviator sunglasses indoors just because I think he thinks it’s cool. And he sings these songs smiling and laughing and it just warms my heart. And the coolest thing about it is that finally for once in my life these are videos that I’m supposed to see. Thank you.
Jamie J: David Crabb is a storyteller, comedian, educator, and author of the memoir Bad Kid published by Harper Perennial. It’s based on his New York Times Critics' Pick solo show about growing up Goth and gay in Texas.
You’re listening to Commonspace. I’m your host Jamie J, with WHYY’s Elisabeth Perez Luna.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: I’ve always wondered where do men learn to be fathers? Is there a father’s academy of sorts? But what is true is that fathers tend to want their kids to learn the skills they have and grew up with.
Jamie J: Sure, it's natural for fathers to want to pass on their own interests to their sons. It's a way to have a shared activity, and connect. But sometimes the family legacy can be a dangerous thing. Here’s Chris Davis with a story about the legacy his dad wanted to pass down. And as a heads up, this story contains some graphic moments that may be shocking to some listeners.
Chris Davis: One day my mother entered her bedroom to find me sucking on the barrel of a gun. I was an infant and had just learned to crawl and I had found the gun underneath the bed. And she told me this story when I was in my twenties. She said she came over to me and she saw me, and she slowly took away the gun from me. And she said at that moment she wanted to kill my father. And she went outside and she confronted him because it was his gun and he had left it there. And when she told me this she said he was very upset too. But the gun had been loaded and they divorced three years later.
I first shot my first gun when I was nine years old. My father took me to the gun range. The gun I shot was a rifle. I weighed less than 70 pounds and the rifle weighed around ten pounds. And one of the things they don’t show you in the movies is the kickback to the gun or a recoil. All the force that goes into sending the bullet out actually comes back at you. So the first time I shot a gun I actually fell over and my father picked me up and I shot again. But this time I was prepared and I knew how to deal with the recoil.
My father does not have a lot of decorations in his house. He has two trophies, however. And they’re these little trophies, this sort of fake gold enamel. He was part of a gun club and these trophies are for accuracy. He had won them both and he never, ever talked about them. He has over 30 guns in his house. An arsenal, everything from a semi-automatic rifle to a musket pistol. And I shot nearly every single one of them through my childhood into my early twenties. And my favorite was the musket pistol. And the reason I loved it is because when you shoot a musket, it rarely goes straight. It actually veers off to the side and so you actually never know where it will go. With the rest of the guns we were always sure and have this pinpoint accuracy.
The first gun he gave me was a pellet gun and he put a scope on top of it and I would shoot tin cans on the side of his house in Oakland, California. And I would shoot for a while and these were one of the few moments I actually spent with my dad, and one of the few times he would actually give me praise. And he’d always say the same thing, he would say, “Good eye, son.”
When I was 14, I moved to Pennsylvania with my mother. And I soon realized with the distance and the time away from him, I realized I didn’t actually like to shoot guns. I realized that I had never wanted to shoot a gun. The only reason why I’d ever shot a gun was because I wanted to spend time with him. And so I had done it for many, many years. And when I’d go to visit him, occasionally, he would always want to go back to the gun range. And he would always want to go a shoot again. And I would do it for a while—I would humor him, I would go with him. But eventually, I didn’t want to do it anymore. And the last time I shot a gun, we were in a canyon in the Sierra Mountains and it was a semi-automatic rifle. And a semi-automatic rifle, you can actually take the trigger and just, go like this, and 30 bullets will come out. It’s incredibly powerful. And the thing about a gun they also don’t talk about, when you do have it in your hands, is you experience a sense of power that is unlike anything else. And you realize that you can end anyone’s life, including your own, in a single instant. In that moment when I was shooting the gun, I looked over at my father—and I am ashamed to say this—I briefly fantasized about shooting him. And this fantasy terrified me. It was terrifying to think. And I even went through the whole scenario: going to jail, all the consequences, ruining my life, killing him for no reason. And so I decided then that I didn’t want to do this anymore. I took one last shot of that gun in the canyon and I heard the familiar words: “Good eye, son.” Thank you.
Jamie: You know, there comes a time in every son’s life when he has to decide to become his own man, and in Chris Davis’s case, to step out from his father’s shadow. Chris has done just that, and today he’s a writer and actor based in Point Breeze, Philadelphia. He was selected as one of Billy Penn's Artists to Watch Out For.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Speaking about fathers passing on their passions of what they knew or they liked, here’s our WHYY colleague Rocco Ritorto, and he remembers his father’s love of football – soccer – and how he is passing it on to his sons. So tell me about your dad.
Rocco Ritorto: Yeah basically, my dad, Sunday mornings, my mom’s religion would be going to church, and his was just sitting in front of the TV watching the state run station from Italy, and, you know, soccer would come on, and that was it. And around that time was when I had gone to Italy for the first time to visit family, in the late eighties, early nineties. And we would go to southern Italy, Calabria, and written on the wall would be J-U-V-E, in real big black letters, that was short for Juventus, the team from the northern part of Italy, Torino. And I just, when I got back home, that became my team; it was like, my draw. And ironically today is the day after I found out that they got to the finals of the Champions League. So, in the middle of the game, I hit pause on the game, picked my son up from the bus, ran him inside, watched the rest of the game together, and then called my dad up and we sang the Juventus song to him. It kinda goes a little like this (sings song). And then I kinda like also have this thing with my sons where I’ll clap my hands and we’ll go like this (Claps, shouts JU-VE!). So, my wife gets a little tired of it after awhile, but you know, it makes the kids happy, and makes me happy too, so, uh, especially when they’re winning, so it’s just, you know, I couldn’t help but think of, you know, my dad and just how my sons have taken it on, you know I’m not one to kind of force it on them, but they obviously see dad sitting on the couch and he’s jumping up and yelling, and what’s going on there, and then now they’ve got their jerseys and...
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Do you play soccer too?
Rocco Ritorto: Yeah my sons and I have little pop-up nets, and we have them in the basement, and my son the first thing I’ll do is when I come home is “can we go play soccer,” or go do it outside and what not. So, to me that’s refreshing, you see so many other kids just kinda wanna watch TV and what not, and get into video game stuff, so you might have a long day at work, but if you see that glimmer in his eye that he wants to play I almost know before I even ask these days so, and then we’ll take videos and watch them and that kinda gets me through, sometimes, the long train ride into work, I’ll just look at the videos and pictures, and it’s pretty funny stuff.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Anyway, (makes lip smack) multi gracia!
Rocco Ritorto: Prego, prego!
Elisabeth Perez Luna: So, that was my friend and colleague, Rocco Ritorto, who is the radio operations specialist here at WHYY, a dad, and a soccer fan, which is called…
Rocco Ritorto: Calcio!
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Football!
Rocco Ritorto: You can call it whatever you want as long as you love the game. I’ll be watching on Spanish channel, and, you know, I’m not too great with Spanish but when the announcer says “the beautiful game”, I know I’m watching the right channel.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: You know Jamie, listen to this…my father was from Spain, and he took us to bullfights, and hunting. And guess who was playing the role of the golden retriever?
Jamie J: (laughs)
Elisabeth Perez Luna: He was from Spain, that was his world!
Jamie J: You’re listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between First Person Arts and WHYY, and it’s been supported by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. I’m your host Jamie J.
Jamie J: If there’s one thing we know, it’s that, although its more common now, not all fathers are able to say the words "I love you" or “I’m proud of you.” But sometimes they find a way to express it in another way. Our next story is about a father's gift and a daughter's realization and acceptance of his love. Here’s Lori Horvitz.
The last time I visited my father in New York, the first thing he did was insist I take a coffee mug back home with me. “Take the cup!” he said. “It’s a beautiful cup!” He had donated money to a charity and received the mug as a thank you gift. Over and over he repeated himself, “it’s a very nice cup!” Wheeling his walker behind me he said, “You should take it!” It’s not unusual for my father to repeat himself. He’s always been anxious and obsessive and once he gets on a roll he can’t stop. In the past, some of his obsessions were downright sadistic. When I was a lonely teenager every now and then he’d say, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you have any friends?” He offered me five dollars to call a friend knowing full well I had no one to call.
I’ve since tried to humor him. When he said again, “you need to take the cup.” I started to lose my patience. “I only have a carry-on bag; besides I have plenty of mugs at home.”
“But it’s a nice cup!”
My father is 88 and his back is twisted and hunched over and he can barely walk. It breaks my heart to see him struggling like that. Yet while growing up I was terrified of him. Every so often his face would turn beet red and he’d scream at me and my siblings, and we’d hide in the back of closets, under beds, behind the dirty laundry. Now he asks, “So how are you? What’s going on with you?”
I never talk about my romantic life with my father although after meeting my college boyfriend he did give me his assessment: “Good vocabulary. Ugly as sin.” Ten years later when I was in grad school he said, “Send your grandmother a recent photo of yourself. She wants to set you up with a police sergeant. He’s Jewish!” And one day he asked, “Don’t you ever meet any men?” No doubt the subtext was, “Are you a lesbian?” Now he looks up from his iPad and says, “How’s that woman from Madison?” Earlier in the year I had told him about a girlfriend from Madison although I didn’t use the word “girlfriend” but he knew. I even showed him pictures of us together. I mentioned her because my father grew up in Madison and while I was there I visited his childhood home. The home where his mother told him he wasn’t smart enough to get into college; where his army colonel father called him a moron; where his parents fought with each other from morning ‘til night. I asked him what he did when his parents fought. “I sat in the closet,” he said. “And read the dictionary.”
Now I look at the white haired man in front of me. Never the most supportive of parents, when I told my father about my upcoming trip to Mexico he said, “You don’t need to be going to Mexico s****ing all day long. Why don’t you go to Epcot Village? You’d love it!” When I got accepted to a PhD program he said, “Stop with the school already! Just get a job in an advertising agency!” And when I mentioned I was reading Marx for a class he said, “You don’t need to be reading Marx. He was a filthy bastard who never took a bath.”
During my first semester teaching college a colleague wrote a glowing teaching observation. I showed it to my father figuring since he worked as a schoolteacher he would appreciate it. Maybe even be proud of me. But instead he looked up and said, “This is beautifully written! Where did this woman go to school?” My father taught middle school social studies in Queens, New York. Most of his students were African American. One of my earliest memories, my father took me to his class the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated. He talked about the civil rights movement and King’s impact on it and together he and his students sang “We Shall Overcome.” A few students wiped tears from their faces.
On the morning of my departure, again, my father said, “Take the cup! It’s a very nice cup.” And so I took the cup. I snapped a photo of him, a big grin on his face holding up the cup. What I didn’t say before, he donated money to the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national LGBTQ civil rights organization and they sent him the mug as a thank you gift. It’s a nice cup. It’s a deep blue with HRC’s equality logo embossed on it. Before leaving for the airport I bent down to hug my father. Finally, I heard in my head those words he could never say aloud: “I’m proud of you.”
Jamie J: Lori Horvitz, professor of English at University of North Carolina Ashville, is the author of the memoir/essay collection The Girls of Usually, published by Truman State University Press. A version of this story will appear in the Summer 2017 issue of The McGuffin.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Hey Lori, we’re here in the studio holding up our own mugs, to you and your story —
Elisabeth Perez Luna & Jamie J: Cheers!
Jamie J: If there’s one thing that sociologists and scholars agree upon is that over the last two decades or so, the attitudes towards men as fathers have changed. It’s not uncommon to talk about same sex parents, paternity leave at an increasing number of workplaces, and traditional family chores being divided more equitably. That has allowed fathers to participate more closely in child rearing and caregiving.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: But all thing being human, the stores of regrets, guilt, forgiveness, and redemption, are part of the mix. Here’s Paul Lyons with a story about longing for his father’s approval and apology, and how he finally finds the answer…but not in the way he expects.
Paul Lyons: When I was 17, my Dad gave me a compliment. And I remember it because I think it was the first one. At least the first one I remember. But it still didn’t register. Because up until that point nothing I had done was ever good enough for my Dad.
When I was 11, he would take us—me and my five brothers—down to do his janitorial business, to St. Thomas Grade School, the same school I went to so I was embarrassed. I had to clean the rooms and the toilets of the same kids I went to school with. And this was on the Main Line, they all had big single houses and there was nine of us living in a duplex. And I was thinking, “We live in half a house, you know.” And, uh, one particular night my Dad really lost it, he really lost it. He threw his wad of keys at me, right, and he said, “Jesus Christ! Look at all the spots you missed!” Right? He goes, “Why don’t you wake up? You’re not going to amount to anything!” and I thought, “F*** you!” Right? Right? “Look what you amounted to. You’re cleaning toilets.”
But at 17, I had written and performed in and directed a play in high school — a comedy show in high school, and my Dad came up to me afterwards and he said, “Paul, I’ve never been so proud in my life!” He goes, “Nothing John did could compare to this.” And John’s my older brother — football hero, MVP. You know, I’m thinking, “Why does he gotta bring up John? Why can’t he just acknowledge me?” My Dad can’t even give a compliment right!
But I knew why his compliment really didn’t register. Because I had a secret — besides my chip on my shoulder with my dad — I had a secret. A year earlier, my girlfriend got pregnant and we gave the baby up for adoption and I never told him. And I knew he wouldn’t be proud of me if he knew. And he found out two years later. He was in a bar. And he came home and he told me why he was so drunk. He says, “Well, you know” he goes, well, first of all he apologized that I didn’t feel safe enough with him that I could have told him and he told me what happened. “Well I’m in Jerky’s and Mr. Johnson comes up to me — who I never liked — and he comes up to me he says, ‘Bill, can I get your advice,’ and I said ‘Sure! What is it, Tom?’ and he goes, ‘Well, my son got his girlfriend in the same predicament that your son got his girl in.’” And my Dad said, “What are you talking about? He said, ‘What did you do?’ ‘What did I do about what?’ ‘How did you handle it when you found out Paul knocked up the O’Malley girl?’” My dad punched him. That’s how my Dad handled it, he slugged Tommy Johnson.
And so for years I had resentment with my Dad. And I remember even in my thirties, I remember getting a birthday card — and I hate Hallmark cards. Why does he have to pay someone else to tell me how he feels? Meanwhile, I was paying a therapist to tell them how I felt about my Dad. You know, I just wanted an apology! That’s all I wanted was an apology, you know? And I thought, you know what, I just have to forgive my Dad.
So I went back to that school where he threw the keys at me and said I never amounted to anything. And I said, “I’m gonna forgive him!” And I go back and I was standing outside the window and I realized within five minutes, my Dad’s not the one I have to forgive. I have to forgive myself, alright?
My dad, he had seven boys. He worked three jobs, he did everything he could, he lost his temper, he was a human being. But I was being so tough on myself; I was being so critical of him. I was being so critical of myself that I couldn’t enjoy my own life. I had to forgive myself. I had to forgive myself for giving the baby away and I had to accept it. And I realized then that, you know, the baby was accepted by two loving, mature parents who were ready and willing, and he was the light of their life. And now the more I — the more esteem I end up having for my Dad, I realize the more esteem I have for myself. And I realize we are who we see in others. Thanks.
Jamie: Paul Lyons tours the country as a comedian and writer. He just published his first book called, “Carpe Diem, Mañana” about his spiritual journey from insecurity to self-pity.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: That’s some journey!
Jamie J: Guess what, this is Commonspace and I’m still Jamie J of First Person Arts with WHYY’s Elisabeth Perez Luna, and we are collaborating on Commonspace, which has been supported by the Pew center for Arts and Heritage.
Jamie J: OK, so let’s change the pace a little bit. Sometimes I think that real estate inheritance, emptying a house or apartment when a parent either moves for health care reasons or dies, is a chore that’s all too common and wrenching. Going through a parent’s possessions, even in a place you grew up in, is an unraveling of familiar and at times surprising stories.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: You know, this goes back to something you said about parents having their own lives. When my mom died, I found boxes and boxes of photos, I had no idea who were the people in the photos. It was part of a life I didn’t see.
Jamie J: We all know that losing a loved one is never easy. Losing a parent is especially hard. And how do you cope with the loss of your father when there are reminders of him literally everywhere? Including your own home. Here’s Jared Bilski with a story that resonated with a lot of us.
Jared Bilski: When my dad died there was a question about what to do with his townhouse. My sister, who lives in California, thought my then-girlfriend, Liz, and I should just live there. But I didn’t want to do that for a number of reasons. I didn’t want to live in my dead dad’s house, because I didn’t want to be so close to where I went to high school. I didn’t want my future mother-in-law to be three minutes away from my doorstep at any time. And I didn’t want to constantly be reminded of the parent I just lost. Granted, I probably didn’t handle my dad’s death in what a therapist would call a healthy manner. But everything happened rather suddenly. Within weeks my dad went from a guy I saw every couple months to a terminally ill patient I was making medical decisions for. I wanted to scrub the image of my dad taking his last breath out of my brain. And I didn’t really think having coffee in his kitchen every morning would help me do that. Of course, I couldn’t argue with the logic of the move. My dad’s mortgage was roughly the same amount as our rent - rent that was rapidly going up each year.
“Can you promise me this will only be temporary?” I said to Liz before agreeing to make the move. She promised. And she went out of her way to make it as painless as possible for me. She went in early and decorated the place so it looked like our old apartment and not my dad’s house. Of course, there was only so much she could really do. Even with Liz’ hippie curtains in the windows it still kind of felt strange. For the first year I felt like I was housesitting. It didn’t help that the Homeowners Association insisted on sending the monthly statements in my dad’s name despite my repeated calls and emails saying I was a homeowner now. Once, in a desperate attempt to get my name on those statements, I actually sent the following email:
“To Whom It May Concern, when I spread the remains of what the Leeman Funeral Home assured me was my cremated father’s body in the ocean along Delaware Seashore State Park, I was under the impression that my father, Gary Bilski, was actually dead. However, your dogged insistence on sending homeowner statements to Gary Bilski despite my repeated calls informing you of his death can only mean that rumors of my father’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Therefore, I’m asking you to please send some additional information showing valid proof of my father’s existence so I can reach out to the Leeman Funeral Home and find out whose cremated remains were sent to me. Thank you.”
Early on, I spent a lot of time wandering around the house trying to picture what my dad’s life was like or conjure up memories of my own brief visits there. If I stared at the sofa long enough, I could actually see a hung-over 25-year-old me sitting there sipping endless cups of coffee from the French press that my dad was so proud of. Eventually, I learned to settle in. And slowly, little by little, I actually learned to love the place. Not in spite of it being my dad’s home but because of it. Living in my dad’s house allowed me to keep a small part of him alive and let me feel like he was taking part in the moments that his death prevented him from experiencing in person. So many of those moments took place right in that very house. The bathroom sink is the spot where Liz placed a home pregnancy test and we watched as two solid pink lines told us our lives were gonna change forever. The upstairs bedroom is where I, along with some help with my Boston Terrier, Luna, proposed to an exhausted nurse after a 12 hour long night shift. And the coffee table in the living room is the very spot where Liz wrote the moment beautifully honest tribute to a life, a tribute she distributed at her grandfather’s funeral.
After a while my own family's memories took over. Now when I look around the living room I don’t try to envision my dad’s former life. I see my own daughter bopping around to “I Want to Poop My Pants,” a Beatles parody I’d sing to her on a nightly basis. Or Liz and I one the sofa, wine glasses in hand, catching up on the awful, awful backlog of DVR we had in our queue— Grey’s Anatomy. But with a second baby on the way, we need more space. That’s why after five years we’re finally moving. It already hurts to think about leaving the place partly because of all the memories we created there, but mostly because of my dad. Saying goodbye to my dad’s house is going to feel like losing him all over again. Thank you.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: Jared Bilski is a writer, comedian, Emma's dad, Liz's husband and roommate of Judith Weiland (the Boston terrier with a film credit). This story was originally published by Parent Co.
Jamie J: You’ve been listening to Commonspace, a collaboration between WHYY and First Person Arts, and it’s been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Commonspace includes this radio hour, plus additional content only available online. At acommonspace.org, you’ll find more stories, like this one from Edwin Desimore, about his father:
Edwin Desimore: At the age of sixteen, I found myself arrested, charged with first-degree murder. A year and half later, my father was arrested for murder. We ended up in the same prison together.
Jamie J: Edwin Desimore’s story was so compelling; we decided to make it a podcast on its own. To hear it, and other Commonspace content, go to acommonspace.org. If
If you haven’t already done so, please subscribe to Commonspace on iTunes, and give us a rating. I’m Jamie Brunson, host and co-writer of Commonspace.
Elisabeth Perez Luna: And I’m Elisabeth Perez Luna, Executive Producer of Commonspace, and the other co-writer. This episode, by the way, was co-written by Becca Jennings, Jamie J, and me.
Jamie J: Special thanks to our Commonspace team members: Producer Mike Villers, First Person Arts’ Dan Gasiewski and Becca Jennings, Associate Producers Jen Cleary and Ali L’Esperance, our studio engineer Diana Martinez, and our Archivist Neil Bardhan. The theme music is by Subglo. Thank you for listening.