Growing Up Fatherless
Know Yourself #20
What happened to you in your childhood?
Not Your Normal Bologna Sandwich
I was five years old and sitting at my kitchen table in my first childhood home. I was methodically munching on a bologna sandwich when all of a sudden, three of my uncles barged into our kitchen and pinned my father against a nearby wall. As they glared at him, one of my uncles uttered these words:
“If you ever touch Sadie (my mother) again, we will kill you.”
Shortly thereafter, my father left, leaving my mother to raise me as an only child. I never heard from him again. There were times when the phone would ring in our apartment and I’d pick up, only to discover that there was no one on the other end. I also remember walking with my mother on a street close to where we lived after my father left. As if someone prompted me, I turned around and discovered a man whom I never saw before taking a picture of me.
When I was older, my mother told me that she believed the phone calls were from my father and that the man was someone that he hired to keep tabs on us. My mother’s fear also contributed to us moving a couple of times before we permanently settled into the first floor of my maternal grandmother’s home. My mother wasn’t paranoid, just overly protective.
Sadness in A Buick Special
My mother spent several years trying to track the whereabouts of my father through the Veterans Administration. My mother told me that my father was a World War II veteran. During my freshman year of high school, my mother picked me up from school in her white, slightly rusted 1964 Buick Special. She showed me a letter from the Veterans Administration. The letter revealed that my father, Austin Marion Roberts, died in a car accident in Philadelphia on July 25, 1966. He was forty-one years old.
I remember feeling both saddened and relieved that I knew what had become of him. I still didn’t know much about my father, other than what my mother told me. My mother was mindful of only telling me the good things about my father. That he was smart, industrious and that in his own way, he loved me very much. But it was hard for me to grasp his version of love. Why would he leave someone that he truly loved? Particularly his only son.
I felt the void left by my father’s absence throughout my childhood and especially during my teen years. I missed having a father around to help me navigate the confusing world of adolescent dating, to share my dreams with, and to give me a sense of stability during the challenging times that I was experiencing and was sure to experience in the future.
I wished that my mother had remarried so I could have a father figure in my life, but she didn’t. She could never find anyone who could give us what we needed, and she wasn’t going to settle for less than what she felt we deserved. I came to understand later in life that her decision not to remarry was part of her need to continue to protect me from further heartbreak.
My mother did tell me a year or so before her death in 1994 that my father was an alcoholic and unfaithful to her. I was angry because she waited until I was close to forty to tell me. But I also eventually understood that withholding that from me was part of her role as my staunchest protector. In retrospect, she played the roles of both mother and father extremely well. She was a woman of high character and integrity and those are characteristics that I have tried my best to emulate.
During later adulthood, I learned to accept my father’s decision to leave. He was simply not capable of thriving in a traditional marriage. My mother was the total model of stability. My father came from a family system that was characterized by dysfunction. Dysfunction carries with it its own set of rules that promote chaos as opposed to consistency. My father left not because he didn’t love me and my mother, but because he did.
My Two Surrogate Dads
In addition to my mother, my uncles, Dave and Jim, provided me with much needed moments of stability after my father left.
From my Uncle Dave, I got my love of sports. I recall many Saturdays where he would pick me up and take me to high school basketball and football games. If the games were on Saturday, breakfast was also part of the deal. He educated me on the intricate nuances of any sport that we watched. His willingness to spend time with me whenever he could, provided me with much comfort after my father left.
My Uncle Jim was on the surface a gruff man of few words, but he possessed a heart of gold. I remember being in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Utica, New York, awaiting the sacrament of confirmation. In order to be officially confirmed, I required an adult sponsor. I found out at the last minute, that my sponsor couldn’t make it due to health reasons.
I went into the ceremony that day not knowing who would step up in my sponsor’s absence.
As I was kneeling in the church pew, feeling very anxious about my fate, a hand firmly gripped my shoulder. I turned around and there was my Uncle Jim, impeccably dressed and smiling warmly at me. He would be my sponsor, the one who would usher me into my next phase of personal growth.
Sometimes it is so easy to focus on what we didn’t have growing up, that we lose sight of what we did have. To say that I missed having a father figure in my life, would be an understatement. But today, I realize that there were others that had it worse than me growing up. I was fortunate to be raised by a mother who loved me unconditionally and to briefly have a father in my life who taught me the importance and meaning of letting go. I was also fortunate to have two surrogate dads who taught me that actions speak louder than words and that men were truly capable of commitment.