“The spiritual journey is about discovering our birthright, our beginning, with the same excitement of an orphan or adopted child looking for his birth parents.”
I was in my sixties before I discovered who my parents were.
Until I was thirteen or fourteen, I’d accepted the man and the woman with whom I lived as my parents, but once I hit adolescence, it was clear that there was no way this carpenter who lived in overalls and drank Narragansett Beer and his wife who seemed to spend her time gossiping on the telephone could be my real parents. No, I was like a prince in a folk tale, stolen at birth by a wicked witch and given to some peasants named Lester and Florence to raise in poverty, but who somehow knew he had the blood of royalty coursing through his veins.
My sense of frustrated entitlement grew once I left for college. Lester and Florence had never been to college, nor had anyone else in their families, which was just another clue that they weren’t really my parents.
I recall my anger at Lester one Christmas when I was home for the holidays. I talked him in to watching Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales on PBS. “What kind of nonsense is this?” Lester muttered as he lay on the couch, a beer resting on his gut. You’re such a lout! I thought.
Florence, on the other hand, kept asking questions, prying into my private life—“How are your courses?” “Are you dating?” “What do you plan to do after college?”—each question a reminder that my grades were mediocre, I had no idea what I wanted to do after I graduated, and that I was lonely as hell.
In other words, Lester wasn’t interested in my life, while Florence couldn’t keep her nose out of it.
After I got married, I tried to put as much distance between these people and myself as I could. My wife, and later, my daughter, and I seldom visited, and when we did, I could barely wait to leave. Lester was becoming more and more critical of everything and everybody. He wouldn’t stop smoking, and would wake us up at 4:00 in the morning with these coughing fits. He was drinking more, and usually fell asleep in the evening about 7:00, so that any attempt at conversation took place over the sound of a good-sized buzz saw.
After four years of asking my wife and me, “When am I going to be a grandmother?” Florence now asked, “Is Laurie going to have a brother or sister?” A reminder that my wife had told me—to my disappointment—that she didn’t want any more children. Even though neither of them said anything to me, I could see that Florence and my wife didn’t get along. I’d catch Florence looking at me with pity whenever my wife would criticize me or I would snap at her, and I knew Florence felt that my marriage was in trouble. She’d talk about what was going on at the church we’d all gone to, and I could feel her criticism for not being active in my own church.
When Lester died at the age of sixty-six of oat cell carcinoma—a highly malignant form of lung cancer that occurs only in smokers—I had too many other things on my mind to feel particularly upset. My marriage had just broken up and I’d fallen in love with another woman, who was planning to move from Colorado to Maine to join me. Then, two years after I remarried, my daughter died of cancer, and I spent the next fifteen years in solipsistic grief, too absorbed in sorrow to think of either of my parents.
Some twenty years after Lester’s death, however, as I began to approach the age he was when he died, I began to think about him more and more, even dream about him. I started to peruse photograph albums, read old newspaper clippings, searching for the father I felt I never had.
And I found him. In memories of his showing me how to play baseball and basketball; of recalling him at all my little league games and high school events. How when he and my mother would visit my first wife, our daughter, and me, I’d take him fishing; how, the weekend I left my first wife and drove to my parents because I couldn’t think of any other place to go, he took me fishing in his boat; how, the last time I saw him, in bed and riddled with cancer, he reached up and clasped my arm, and tried to smile.
I began to realize the difficulties my father had faced growing up. Of having to live for eight years—years Dad never talked about—in what 1920’s Massachusetts called “A Home for Wayward Boys,” while his mother, who’d divorced Dad’s father for beating their son with a belt, worked at a W.T. Grant’s department store, and visited him on weekends. Of moving to Yarmouth, Maine when his mother remarried, where, because of having had little education, he was placed in classes two years below other students his age. Of spending five years in the Army during WWII, two of those years in Europe away from my mother and me.
I learned in talking with my mother what I’d forgotten: that that Christmas vacation when I’d been so angry at my father for not understanding Dylan Thomas, he’d just been let go by the construction company he’d been working for, and was facing the winter with no job and three children to feed, one of whom had goofed off enough in college to lose his scholarship.
And in learning about my father, I began to understand my mother. Her struggles growing up in an alcoholic family. Her fear as child of inviting friends into her house, because the one time she did, her father walked into the living room drunk and naked. (Small wonder she never learned about boundaries!) Her mother’s acid tongue and spend-thrift habits. Being smart enough to go to college, but never having the money. Spending her life overcoming her shame by striving to be in complete control, while always presenting herself as sunny and confident, so that by the time she retired from her job at a large insurance company, she’d become an administrative assistant, while at the same time, holding every position in her church but pastor. A woman on her deathbed (and April 30th was the third anniversary of her death), who smiled at every nurse, and who was disappointed in herself for not being able to endure her pain without drugs.
So I found my mother and father at last, two people brought together by hardship and shame, who together built a life in which they raised three children in the kind of stable environment neither of them ever had for themselves.
My regret, of course, is that it took me so long to find them, and that, in the case of my father, especially, I was never able to tell him how much he’d meant to me.
Still, it’s been an exciting search, for in finding my parents I’ve also found my birthright. We don’t talk a lot about birthrights these days, but these rights or privileges to which someone is entitled by birth used to be very important, especially when it came to property or inheritance. My birthright was certainly not anything material, but rather something my parents created together and then passed on: the example that love can overcome shame, can even reach across the chasm between life and death.
Something I hope I can pass on as well.