Dear old Dad. To hear retailers tell the story, he’s a transparent creature, someone who is pleased by the simple things: a shirt, a book, a steak, a new gadget. But the dads most of us grew up with — and without — are a more inscrutable lot. They’re people, after all, whose past lives, present concerns, and future legacies can vex, perplex, and frustrate their children. Can we ever really know these men? Some of the best writing about dads embraces that mystery, confronting the hard questions of what it truly means to know one’s father.
In this poignant, posthumous feature at The Atlantic, Alex Tizon tells the story of his family’s slave, Lola. An utusan (“person who takes commands”), Lola was given as a gift from his grandfather to his mother in 1943, when Lola was 18 years old. Lola worked, unpaid, for Tizon and his family for 56 years. During a turbulent childhood where his parents were out of the house for days at a time, Lola was a constant source of love and devotion for Alex and his three siblings. In this moving piece, Tizon attempts to understand his parents’ point of view and motivations, and reconcile himself with Lola’s life of servitude.
We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then. In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby, I uttered Lola’s name (which I first pronounced “Oh-ah”) long before I learned to say “Mom” or “Dad.” As a toddler, I refused to go to sleep unless Lola was holding me, or at least nearby.
Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. “Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?” she would say in Tagalog, her voice venomous. “It’s not hard naman! An idiot could remember.” Then my father would arrive and take his turn. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house shrank. Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying, almost as though that was their goal.
It confused me: My parents were good to my siblings and me, and we loved them. But they’d be affectionate to us kids one moment and vile to Lola the next. I was 11 or 12 when I began to see Lola’s situation clearly. By then Arthur, eight years my senior, had been seething for a long time. He was the one who introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was. Before he said it I’d thought of her as just an unfortunate member of the household. I hated when my parents yelled at her, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they—and the whole arrangement—could be immoral.
“Do you know anybody treated the way she’s treated?,” Arthur said. “Who lives the way she lives?” He summed up Lola’s reality: Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters. (Her designated place to sleep in each house we lived in was always whatever was left—a couch or storage area or corner in my sisters’ bedroom. She often slept among piles of laundry.)
The woman who used to hum Tagalog melodies as she rocked me to sleep, and when I got older would dress and feed me and walk me to school in the mornings and pick me up in the afternoons. Once, when I was sick for a long time and too weak to eat, she chewed my food for me and put the small pieces in my mouth to swallow. One summer when I had plaster casts on both legs (I had problem joints), she bathed me with a washcloth, brought medicine in the middle of the night, and helped me through months of rehabilitation. I was cranky through it all. She didn’t complain or lose patience, ever.
Catapult has a personal essay by Chris J. Rice about searching for, and finding, the baby brother she left behind when she ran away from their abusive mother. Rice left home at 15, when her brother was just a year old. For years, she wondered about him, and felt guilt about having gotten out when he was stuck.
I hadn’t seen him since I was fifteen and he was one. I have a single Polaroid of him: a family shot taken when he was a few months old, nestled in Mama’s lap. Like her, he had a full head of dark hair and searching eyes. For years, I didn’t know how best to reach out to him or how to let him go.
I wondered what became of him. I wanted to know, but I was afraid to find out. At sixty, I didn’t want to reach out to a brother I’d left behind only to be turned away, or worse, blamed for the hard life I’d left him in.
If I’d stayed, I could have protected him. That’s what I believed. Maybe he believed that, too.
Then Mama died, and I put aside fear. I used every resource I had, and some money too, to find a likely contact number. I discovered it through a fee-based public records database. His number, listed and active for years—kept through every change of address and dropped like breadcrumbs as he went along—convinced me he might want to be found. Still, I had to muster the courage to connect.
With trembling hands and a trembling voice, I left him that message and waited.
At Refinery29, Ashley C. Ford has a moving personal essay about getting to know her father now that he’s been released after thirty years in prison Her father has missed so much of his daughter’s life, but that’s not all he has to catch up on. Having been incarcerated since the late 1980s, he is way behind the times, technologically speaking. He’s new to the whole world of cell phones, not to mention texting.
At least once a day I open my phone to scroll through our one-sided text conversation. There are a few sentences from his end, words separated by periods. He has trouble with the space bar. I see the uninterrupted column of my selfies and views of my surroundings. I know he appreciates the technology that allows him to see my current world so clearly, as he missed so much of my past. Because he has trouble responding with text, he calls to say how wonderful I am, how proud of me he is, and how much he wishes he could see the things I see every day. If I can’t answer he leaves minute-long voicemails. He is a talker, and I am his rapt audience.
I know someday he’ll figure out how to text exactly what he wants to say. When that happens, I’ll miss how much we’ve had to fit into phone calls, and how I’ve had to describe all the things he can’t see about who I am and where I am. I’ll miss his voice, too. His strange and familiar voice that sounds so much like my brother’s, and his brother’s, though the thoughts often sound just like mine.
During the ’70s and early ’80s, 30,000 people “disappeared” during Argentina’s Dirty War — some of them pregnant women who gave birth in detention centers, had their babies stolen, and were then killed. Delia’s daughter Stella was one of those women. Aided by other mothers and grandmothers, Delia never stopped looking for her lost grandson. Bridget Huber tells the story of Delia’s search in California Sunday magazine.
Delia counted the days until Stella’s due date. Then she started looking for Martín, too. A neighbor whose own son was missing told her that searching mothers were meeting in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. The first time Delia went, there were just a handful of mothers, but their numbers multiplied each week. The women made head scarves from cloth diapers they’d saved from their children’s infancy and embroidered them with their missing sons’ and daughters’ names; their white kerchiefs would come to symbolize the search. Public assemblies were forbidden, so the women would make counterclockwise laps around the plaza, sometimes prodded along by soldiers’ gun barrels. (Within a year, three of the mothers would disappear.) In the plaza, Delia met other women who were looking for pregnant daughters or daughters-in-law. Soon they were meeting in parks and coffee shops. They’d bring props like knitting or birthday gifts to pass themselves off as harmless grandmothers on a social call. But really they were plotting investigations. The women made the rounds at candy stores and orphanages and spied on families that might have acquired a child under murky circumstances. They gathered evidence and stuck it in tin cans that they buried in their gardens.
Frances Badalamenti | Longreads | April 2017 | 19 minutes (4,741 words)
Late on a Tuesday afternoon in January, while I was at my therapist’s home office in Portland dissecting and disseminating a recent holiday visit with family, my elderly father was sitting in his Lazy Boy in New Jersey watching television, his brain slowly bleeding into his skull. I was anxious, unsettled. We were expecting a snowstorm and I now had to make the trek across the Willamette River from the Southwest Hills and back to my Northeast enclave. Right before I left my house, I had received an urgent phone call from my older brother: our father had taken a spill earlier in the day.
“I just spoke to Dad and he said that he fell today,” my brother told me. “He’s upset with himself and doesn’t sound right.”
“What do you mean he doesn’t sound right?’ I asked.
“He said he hit his fed, not his head,” my brother said. “And he hurt his hand,” he said.
A hot wave of energy ripped through the core of my body. The same sensation like when you almost get into a car accident. My father was in his mid-eighties, but had only recently begun showing signs of frailty.
“Have you spoken with Lee and John yet?” I asked my brother.
“Not yet. I’ll call them right now.”
My three older siblings all live within driving distance of our extended family back in Jersey.
“Listen, I have an appointment for the next few hours, but I’ll check in after,” I said. We hung up. But then I phoned him right back. “Someone needs to go over there and check on him right away!” I yelled. “And why the fuck is he not at the hospital?”
“I have no idea, Frances,” my brother said. “I’ll get on it right now.”
“And what the hell does Barbara think?” I asked.
“She thinks he’s fine,” my brother said. “Dad said she iced his wrist and gave him soup.”
My brother and I did not trust our stepmother to take proper care of our father. They had not been on the best of terms during the past few months. They hardly spoke to one another. And if there was a transaction, it was most likely her yelling at him about leaving something out of place in the house, and then him firing back. I had to go to my therapy appointment. There was so much on my mind, mostly around my recent visit to Jersey. I hadn’t been this concerned about the state of my family since our mother underwent cancer treatment almost ten years ago. Now it was our father; he was having a hard time of life.
There was already a benign layer of snow carpeting the ground when the session ended and my therapist, a sturdy woman in her fifties who I have been seeing for over two-and-a-half years–and whom I would describe as tough and unconventional and kind (a Mack truck filled with marshmallows)–walked me out her back door. She lives and works out of a cozy Keebler Elf-type bungalow in a hilly, leafy Portland enclave. “It’s so pretty,” I said looking up at the dark sky, letting the thick wet flakes fall onto my face. I could tell she was concerned about me. Of course I’d shared with her that my father had fallen earlier in the day, and she knew he was having a difficult time in his marriage.
“You okay driving in this?” she asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I’ll just take it slow.”
She knew I did not feel safe, that I was scared not only about driving through a snowstorm, but that I was worried about my dad. And she was right. I wanted to be alone, with nobody there to witness the distress.
When I got into the car, I found a thirty-something deep text message conversation between my siblings. Ambulances, hospitals, MRI’s, confused speech, unrecognized faces. It felt as if my whole body had been wired with electrodes.
“Sorry, I’ll be home in about an hour,” I wrote back. “It’s snowing hard here.” Then I found my way out of the now hardly recognizable neighborhood, then crawled through the white-out storm in the relative safety bubble of my Subaru wagon. Read more…
Alex Difrancesco | Longreads | April 2017 | 8 minutes (2,070 words)
Last year in New York City, a 19-year-old engineering student named Nayla Kidd went completely off the grid. She changed bank accounts, cell phone providers, shut down her social media, and ditched her Ivy League college to move to Bushwick and become an artist and model, all without ever informing anyone in her life. Social media jumped all over the story, and then news outlets followed suit. Kidd was a missing person for around two weeks when the police finally found her.
I remember reading her post-discovery missive in The New York Post, complete with discussions about her fancy boarding school, full scholarship to Columbia University, calculated plans, the loving mom who had clearly sacrificed for her, and thinking it was a story of the ultimate callousness. She’d had everything, but she said the pressure was entirely too much, that she’d wanted to run away and have the fun life she saw in an East Williamsburg loft she was thinking of renting. I remember reading it, sitting there and staring at the the words while thinking of my own picture plastered across subways and bus stations. How could she do such a thing intentionally? Didn’t she understand what it was like to be truly lost, to need help? Didn’t she understand that so many people were, that it was not some game?
Perhaps I was jealous. When my mental illness made me a missing person in 2010, the NYPD suggested to my friends who reported me missing that I had run off to follow a band. Though my friends set up a cross-country network of activists looking for me in any of the places they thought I might have been, the NYPD did little. Had the cops accessed my bank account, or even looked at my Metrocard swipes (an investigation practice well-established by law enforcement by 2010), they’d have easily figured out that I wandered around the city aimlessly for days before taking a bus to my hometown and checking myself into a hospital. When I saw Kidd’s story, I thought of all the resources that had gone into her “case,” and all of those of us who really were lost, unhealthy, and scared, who were given little to no help.
Alone in a hospital bed that year, unknown, technically still “missing,” my head still a wash of paranoia and confusion, I began to entertain a fantasy. What if I moved to the Midwest? Changed my name? My gender? Grew a beard? They were thoughts I couldn’t remember ever before having had, but they seemed exactly like what I should do in that moment. I had a vision of myself, flat-chested, wearing a white Hanes T-shirt, a genderless pair of Levis, and combat boots. What if I disappeared from all the people in my life? Started over as someone new? I was not well at the time — I was also standing in front of the mirror thinking about a bug I was certain had entered into my skin and had been living in my bloodstream for years, something I now know is obviously not true — but having disappeared from everyone in my life successfully, I began to wonder, “What if I really need to disappear?”
Years later, it wasn’t until I remembered this fantasy that I began to empathize with Nayla Kidd.
At Catapult, Noah Cho ruminates on why his mother, a “symbol of America, the homecoming queen,” was attracted to his father, a “barely-bilingual” Korean immigrant who came to the U.S. to pursue a career in medicine.
I’ve been thinking about how my parents met, and how unlikely it was that my Korean father caught the eye of my stereotypically “all-American” mom. Even now, forty years after they met, a partnership like theirs is still rare. The cutting remarks they heard have not entirely disappeared; queries my mother fielded about my father’s manhood from the white people around them still flicker in shows like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in films like The Hangover. Korean ahjussis still grunt in disapproval over their sons abandoning Korean blood quantum in favor of people Not Like Them, and therefore inferior.
I never got the full story from my father, who died when I was thirteen. Even before his death, he was a man of few words and seemingly fewer emotions. I have only ever been able to understand their courtship from the perspective of my mother, a white woman in love with an Asian man at a time when a war in Southeast Asia raged and the only knowledge the average American had of Korea were fleeting memories of newsreels, battles of a forgotten war.
Once upon a time, seeing my father in the hospital where they both worked brought her the greatest joy. As the whirring of machines tie him to what remains of his life, he is handsome to her even now—no matter that the chemo has taken his hair and the cancer has taken his weight, his voice, his lucidity. She looks at him, still in love, still seeing something wonderful in his face, but she also knows she has lost him. I see her sitting beside him after the ventilator is turned off, holding his hands the same way she used to during their smoke breaks, saying goodbye. Thinking, Hopely I’ll see you again.
While searching for a Korean radish called mu to make her grandmother’s soup, Vivien Lee meditates on family and food—what it means to be Korean in the West—where the burning desire for individuality is at odds with the communal approach to life, food, and family in the East.
Every other New Year, I’ve withdrawn from the potentially memorable (or not so memorable) eve of clinking champagne flutes with strangers to rise soberly at 6 a.m. with my family in Virginia, for an ancestral food ceremony called jesa.
These early mornings usually begin darker than day; a Prussian blue while my father wakes to light candles, opening the window to call his late father’s spirit in. The table takes a few hours to set, glorified with plates of dried fish, rice wine, jujubes, persimmon, pear, liver, and rice cake soup for my grandfather. After three rounds of synchronized bows, my sisters and I sit by his portrait to whisper gratitude and think of the other Lees who came and left before us. Once our silence is pardoned, we eat. Just as everyone’s ready to be done, grandma surprises us with more food, this time, with bowls of radish soup. During the Korean War she’d known what starvation was, and since then she has made sure that no one ever leaves a table still hungry. Eat more, she always insists.
Leslie Jamison is stepmother to Lily, age six. Lily’s mother died of cancer just before she turned three, and in this essay from the New York Times Magazine, Jamison explores fairy tale stepmothers both as the rare “port in the storm” and the much more common “stock villain” stereotyped by cruelty and abuse, as she navigates the fraught role of stand-in parent.
The evil stepmother casts a long, primal shadow, and three years ago I moved in with that shadow, to a one-bedroom rent-controlled apartment near Gramercy Park. I sought the old stories in order to find company—out of sympathy for the stepmothers they vilified—and to resist their narratives, to inoculate myself against the darkness they held.
My relationship with Lily, too, was not like the story we inherited from fairy tales — a tale of cruelty and rebellion—or even like the story of divorce-era popular media: the child spurning her stepmother, rejecting her in favor of the true mother, the mother of bloodline and womb. Our story was a thousand conversations on the 6 train or at the playground in Madison Square Park. Our story was painting Lily’s nails and trying not to smudge her tiny pinkie. Our story was telling her to take deep breaths during tantrums, because I needed to take deep breaths myself. Our story began one night when I felt her small, hot hand reach for mine during her favorite movie, when the Abominable Snowman swirled into view on an icy mountain and almost overwhelmed the humble reindeer.
For me, the stakes of thinking about what it means to be a stepmother don’t live in statistical relevance—slightly more than 10 percent of American women might relate!—but in the way stepparenting asks us to question our assumptions about the nature of love and the boundaries of family. Family is so much more than biology, and love is so much more than instinct. Love is effort and desire—not a sentimental story line about easy or immediate attachment, but the complicated bliss of joined lives: ham-and-guacamole sandwiches, growing pains at midnight, car seats covered in vomit. It’s the days of showing up. The trunks we inherit and the stories we step into, they make their way into us—by womb or shell or presence, by sheer force of will. But what hatches from the egg is hardly ever what we expect: the child that emerges, or the parent that is born. That mother is not a saint. She’s not a witch. She’s just an ordinary woman. She found a sled one day, after she was told there weren’t any left. That was how it began.