My Father: Preacher, Philanderer, Liar
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because history gets written by the victors.
My father was a Southern preacher. Who was married four times and abandoned me. You see, he cheated on his first wife with my mother, and that’s how I got involved in this whole thing.
My mom got the idea to move away from New Jersey to North Carolina for a fresh start, though. Which meant: away from my dad’s four children from his first marriage, who lived around the corner from us. Away from the ones he called “his kids,” as if my mother had conceived me on her own.
But “his kids” followed us down South.
“A house divided against itself will not stand,” I imagine my father preached, but he let my siblings tear at us. When my sisters were disrespectful to my mother, Dad did nothing. When he wanted to have a family outing, he took “his kids.” He laughed with me while watching TV, but otherwise he ignored me.
Mom left my dad after she was hospitalized with grave depression and anxiety. She and I moved in with relatives the next town over so Dad could easily keep in touch with me, his youngest child. He made some efforts to be a dad, like buying me a bike when I finally learned how to ride one, but he never called me.
Before their divorce was final, he’d half-heartedly tried to reconcile with my mother, at the same time he was courting his new wife.
My older half-brother Al worked at the same company as my mom when I was 13. Mom and Al had always gotten along, so when Al needed a ride home, to my father’s house, she was happy to help. After the divorce, Dad didn’t tell us where he was living, so Al gave Mom directions. We pulled up to a little old church that had a small house attached to the back. Two cars sat in the driveway next to it.
“Whose car is that?” Mom asked.
Al hesitated, looking like he wanted to jump out the window. “That’s my dad’s wife’s car,” he mumbled finally.
I wanted to ask Al who, when and why, but my mouth wouldn’t open.
“Oh, OK,” Mom said, shrugging like it was no big deal.
How could she think it wasn’t a big deal? My father had officially moved on with his life and had not had the courtesy to inform us. I wondered what I had done to not deserve his affection. I could understand if he was mad at my mother for no longer allowing him to abuse her, but I couldn’t figure out why I had to suffer his wrath as well.
I didn’t think about calling Dad to ask who he had married or when he married her. Clearly, he didn’t want me to know, but I needed to. I needed to know the magnitude of his thoughtlessness, measured by time elapsed since the ceremony.
That weekend, I asked Mom to take me to the library. I searched through back issues of the local newspaper for my dad’s name. I didn’t find it then, but I asked to go back again the next week. Finally, there it was. My father had married someone named Margaret in February 1999. I went to find my mom.
“He got married in February,” I said.
Her face went blank with shock. I couldn’t tell if it was because of the date — immediately upon finalization of their divorce — or that I’d spent two Saturdays in the library looking for it.
It was almost June. My father had been married for three months. Before their divorce was final, he’d half-heartedly tried to reconcile with my mother, at the same time he was courting his new wife. And he had also officially started his new church.
In that moment, standing in the library next to my stunned mother, I realized that my father was never going to be able to give me the love I needed. I’d already felt unwanted, but this was evidence that he really didn’t want me in his life. I wanted to stop speaking to him, but Mom wouldn’t let me. Fatherless herself, she made me call him at least once a year. When I did, I learned to shield myself from Dad’s thoughtlessness by anticipating it.
In June 2010, I called my father to ask him to lunch so he could meet my boyfriend, paying him the courtesy he wasn’t capable of showing me. He said OK, and we hung up. But he called back immediately to add, “I’ll bring my new wife so you can meet her.”
I knew that he would never apologize, but I had to give my father something he didn’t deserve: forgiveness. I remember calling him on a Wednesday night when I was 15 years old. I knew he had Bible study that night because all Southern churches have Bible study on Wednesday nights, so I could say what I needed to and then get off the phone quickly.
“I know you haven’t apologized,” I said through tears, “but I forgive you for not being there and for making me feel unwanted.”
“If that’s how you feel …” His voice didn’t trail off. My ears just chose not to hear the rest, because it was a defense of his actions. After that call, I did not feel lighter. I did not feel any better. But I needed to do it.
Dad later called me one day out of the blue when I was in college. I assumed someone had died; why else would he be calling me?
“I wanted to apologize,” he said.
My eyes widened.
“I bought you that bike and never took you out to ride it.”
I smiled faintly. “I’ve already forgiven you for that.”
“I know, but I wanted to apologize.”
I wish I could say from that moment, Dad and I were close, but that’s not what happened.
He got divorced, again, and remarried, again, without telling me. He also never told his church members that I existed. He also didn’t tell me he had cancer. But one thing he didn’t have to tell me? That he had died.