The day I met the man who would be Dad, we took turns roaring like lions over diner cheeseburgers while my mom watched with an expression that married wonder with apprehension and strangers’ eyes knifed glares at us. It was the summer of 1970; I’d guess it was July, and my mom had been dating him for about two weeks. My family is notoriously bad with dates—my parents celebrated their wedding anniversary on the wrong day for three decades—but I know it was hot, and my dad spent a whole afternoon carrying me on his shoulders around the Shelburne Museum. His back must’ve hurt, but I was seven and unimpressed.
If you made a composite of Donald Sutherland in M.A.S.H., Donald Sutherland in Animal House , and Zoot, the Muppets saxophonist, you’d have a pretty accurate picture of my dad the summer I met him. A rangy sax player, he stood with his shoulders folded forward, like he was about to launch into some jazzy diddly-boop warble of notes. He and his sprawling band lived in a crumbling mansion next to the conservative synagogue in Burlington, Vermont. Complete with a statuary fountain filled with fetid water, this manse wouldn’t have been out of place in a Southern Gothic. I found the mansion only as scary as it was fascinating, which is also how I felt about this man who would become my dad.
Even before I met him, I knew from my mom’s behavior that this new man was different. My mom always got this shine on when she was lusty in love, but this time she was acting weird, suffering a conflagration. She smoldered for this new guy; she radiated in squiggly cartoon lines, and her heat shimmered as she moved through our small apartment. Blonde and skinny in that fashionable, flat-hipped way of the late 1960s, my mom was a dish. She might have been a single parent from the time I was six months old, but she was rarely single.
A high school English teacher, my mom had planned to spend our school break driving cross-country to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where my great-grandfather’s summer house sat. But the engine fell out of her Mustang as we were driving up Main Street and she had to buy a new car, so we stayed put and she looked for a summer waitressing job, the work she’d done to put herself through college. She found work as a cocktail waitress at the Rusty Nail, a nightclub of sorts in Stowe, a swanky resort town about an hour’s drive away on Mt. Mansfield.
The Fat Band spent a week or so playing at the Rusty Nail in June, and that was when my mom met Frank, the man who would be Dad. It happened quickly. One day I saw my mom’s shine, then the conflagration; days later, I was being carried around the Shelburne Museum. I remember sitting in the bathroom as my mom put on makeup. I asked her if she was going to marry Frank. She smiled and said she didn’t know. I knew, though, and at the end of the summer, she did.
An ordained minister, the trumpet player of The Fat Band wore his Converse sneakers to climb to the wooden platform on Mt. Mansfield, but he performed the ceremony barefoot. Frank and my mom married in late August on a scenic overlook affixed to the face of Mt. Mansfield, its cliff fluttering with a motley group of friends and relatives. My mom wore a handmade burnt-orange jumpsuit with a white lace mantilla; Frank wore orange suede pants and a white lace shirt; I wore a vaguely Swiss-styled green dress printed with yellow and orange flowers. My mom carried a bouquet of yellow roses and daisies. I covered my face when they kissed. I think I cried.
Within days of their wedding, we moved into a new apartment; the middle of nowhere, Vermont was the fourth place I’d called home since I was a year old. I had always lived close to a city, and now my mailing address was my name, my town’s name, and my zip code: That’s how small the town was. Rural Vermont looked nothing like what I had pictured. There was no tow-haired farm boy sitting on a wooden fence chewing a long stalk of wheat. There was no wheat. There were a lot of cows, and when winter came, there was a lot of snow. Snow like Doctor Zhivago —deep, curling, and insinuating as icy-cold cats.
And, of course, now there was a man—a Jewish hippie man. I felt alienated there in the middle of nowhere with this adult I didn’t know and my mom, whose attention was fractured at best. She and I had once had, to my thinking, a good thing going, with our occasional TV dinners and escapes to movies. This man completely upended our groove. I was no longer the center of attention; indeed, in Nowhere, Vermont, I wasn’t in the center of anything. The library of that tiny town would fit in my Manhattan bedroom. Around me were hills and cows and the hostile stares of people who looked at my family as if we were strange because, quite simply, we were.
Look, here’s the thing: My adult heart beats for those two young people, my parents, suddenly married and instantly adult. They were twenty-seven; they knew nothing; and they were fumbling into maturity like any clueless humans who are in pain and in love in equal measure. But as a child, all I saw was confusion and chaos in my world that, while slapdash and weird, had once been familiar and predictable. This change was hard and it was frightening.
Frank learned early that reading aloud to me earned my devotion. My mom had started reading Shakespeare to me when I was a toddler; I’d seen Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet when I was five and my first live production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was four. Frank took up the nighttime reading ritual, and I got a male voice to give weight to Hamlet, Benedict, Petruchio, and Macbeth. I found it interesting, both the novelty of a man in my room and his performance of commitment to me. It didn’t make a lot of sense, and I didn’t trust it, but I indulged it.
How does a new life become old? You live it day by day. Conflict erodes the edges; years pass with passing smoothness. My mom and Frank learned to play to their new roles—my mom as wife, Frank as husband and father—and they grew up. I saw them slouch toward thirty. As they did, they bought the house we first rented, and they made career decisions—or decisions to have careers. My mom quit teaching, and Frank left the band. By 1972, they were running The Vermont Freeman , a hippie anti-war newspaper, out of our house. A couple of years later, Frank finished college and started working to become a lawyer, while my mom began working in public relations.
I made a decision, too: I decided I’d be good. It was a conscious move I made, sometime around my ninth birthday, which fell on the same day as Frank’s birthday. I looked at our tiny family, and with the solemnity of blowing on embers to stoke their flames, I said to myself, This year I will be the best girl I can be . My choice to become the Best Girl was in part a commitment to nurturing my small family, and in part a social experiment. I wanted to see if, by conforming to the expectations of “good” girlhood—which I took to be acting dutifully and with as little drama as possible—I would be rewarded.
I was. I got trips to visit my aunts and uncles in Colorado. I got a dog. I got a new bedroom with new furniture. I got my mom’s praise and I got Frank’s extreme sigh of relief—even now, my father’s eyes glaze wistful when he says, “You were a delight at nine.” Frank started a tradition of taking me out to lunch, just the two of us, a couple of times a year. These were long, lingering adult lunches, hours of expensive food, and I treasured them. I can’t begin to tell you what we talked about, but they made me feel important.
No one remembers exactly when Frank asked if he could adopt me. I think I was ten. My mom thinks I was twelve. Frank thinks I was eleven. We can’t find the court form, nor can we find the letter that Frank wrote to the judge, but I remember reading it. More detailed and emotional than it needed to be, this letter was also more beautiful than the occasion deserved. At some point around the start of my second decade, we made it official: Frank became my father. His name sits on my birth certificate, as if this legally sanctioned fiction has always been biological fact.
One April morning when I was forty-four, I woke up, turned on my computer, and checked my email. “If you’re Chelsea G. Summers,” a subject line read, “your message has been received.”
Weird as that subject line was, the email’s contents were yet more heart-stopping. It contained irrefutable proof that my biological father was not only alive, but also looking for me.
In 1962, like dominos toppling one upon the next, my then-eighteen-year-old mom had gotten pregnant, gotten married, and given birth to me. Six months later on a midweek afternoon, her parents swept her and me out of the apartment she shared with my birth father and took us to their home to live with them. With the help of her parents, my mom finished college, graduated, got her first job, and moved out to start a life of her own. I never saw or heard from my birth father again—not until I was forty-four.
My mom didn’t like to talk about Larry, my biological father. Whenever I asked about him, her lips drew flat like Midwestern plains. I didn’t know much about him beyond the fact that his mom—the grandmother for whom I was named—had been a radio actress, and that he, like me, had allergies and nearsighted vision. I didn’t know if he was alive. I didn’t know if he wasn’t. I didn’t know until I was twenty-four that my mom had left because he abused her, and that after she left he spent some time in a sanitarium. (When she told me about this in 1983, my mom used that word, “sanitarium,” as if it were still a word people used.)
Growing up, I’d only known two other kids being raised by a single parent because of divorce, and I think I was in high school before I met someone else who, like me, had been raised by a single mom who, as my mom had, then remarried. Jessica’s dad was dead, though; that much she knew. I didn’t know, and I couldn’t help fantasizing about my missing father. My mom had a single black-and-white photograph of Larry that she kept in her underwear drawer. I would sneak into her bedroom and run my round child’s finger over its surface, trying to see his features in mine. When things got rough, I would imagine him swooping in and solving all my problems. Fathers know best , I wanted to believe.
My birth father was my missing half, the parts I didn’t see in my mom, the parts I didn’t absorb from Frank. As I grew into fractured adulthood, I heard how he was the crazy parts of me, the irrational parts, the self-harming parts, the parts that didn’t play well with others, the parts that turned vaguely homicidal in the velvet belly of the night. My parents—for Frank and my mom had cohered into a unit—didn’t take responsibility for my myriad bouts of darkness; these benighted bits were shoved off on the missing father, that person who still lingered out there, unknown and unseen.
Hearing from my biological father, then, was more than an opportunity to fill in the blank shapes with genetic color. It felt like a chance to find out why I was who I was. Over that prospect gleamed the chance that maybe he’d be everything I’d once hoped he was—gallant, chivalrous, and helpful. My best, brightest self, waiting in the wings.
I have a history of internet dating, and getting each new email from Larry bore a discomfiting likeness to getting new messages from internet swains. Every missive was a chance to read between the lines, to project myself upon the silvered screen, and to see my feelings and my desire reflected back at me. Equally thrilling was getting photographs. Opening the first photo I’d ever seen of my birth father as an adult, I wept. There were my cheekbones, my elbow-length, assertively glossy hair. There was my chin, and there the almond color of my skin. People always remarked on how much my mom and I look alike, but I never saw it. Looking at my biological father, I saw myself.
And in his syntax—peppered with digressions, laden with clauses, lingering with semicolons—I recognized my own language. It’s eldritch as hell to divine the DNA of your prose styling in the writing of a relative you’ve never met, but there it was. I was too good a reader not to see the likeness.
Yet in this happy avalanche of discovery, warning bells kept ringing. It was all too much, too loud, too heightened, too bizarre. He crossed too many boundaries, asked too few questions, and took too little responsibility for his own behavior. For more than forty years, he had woken up every day and decided against trying to get in touch with me; it seemed to me that his impending sixty-fifth birthday had prompted him to find me, and this troubled me. He was overly forthcoming with tragic details about his life, relaying stories via email that most people wouldn’t tell face to face, and this alarmed me. He told me he was bipolar, managing it through VIGILANCE and WILLPOWER, and this frightened me.
I also had the nagging sense that I was being somehow unfaithful to Frank, the man who had shown me how to swing a bat, who had taught me to drive a stick shift, who had toured colleges with me, who had hugged me when grandparents died, and who had once driven an extra hour to pick my dog up from the boarder even though he’d already driven seven hours that day. When Father’s Day rolled around that year, I felt conflicted. On the one hand, here was my shiny new biological father, something I’d wanted as long as I remembered. On the other, there was the man who raised me. I could celebrate them both, but I felt false doing it.
It might have been the second email in which Larry described hearing his friend shoot himself in the head while he listened, helpless, on the phone. It might have been his abject refusal to acknowledge abusing my mom. It might have simply been the fact that he never paused to ask me minor things about myself—my favorite sandwich or if I considered myself a mod or a rocker—but I grew less eager to click on Larry’s emails when they arrived.
Having my biological father parachute in on my middle age was at first shocking, then euphoric, then ambivalent—and then it was over. The longer Larry stayed in my life, the easier it was for me to let him go. He told tale after tale, and he became harder and harder to believe. Some things I could document—he had indeed held tenure as a history professor at a small Southern college, and he had published a couple of books on the Vietnam War. Pictures seemed to corroborate his claims of having addressed the Joint Chiefs. But other things—whether he’d been in the CIA, where exactly he lived in the Southwest, what his war experience truly encompassed—were murkier. The more I searched, the more dubious his history seemed.
Frank was solid. I knew where he had been, and what he had been doing. When I called him, he answered the phone, and when I needed to talk about our history, he didn’t dodge those questions. He wasn’t romantic, but fathers aren’t supposed to be. Fathers, I realized as I slowly let Larry go, were supposed to be stolid, solid, and not at all shiny. Fathers—the ones who spend the quotidian time doing the daily work of care and nurturing—grow dull. Looking at my bright, frightening birth father, and looking at the man who raised me, I recognized that blunt beauty abounded in the familiar.
My last email from Larry came a week before my forty-sixth birthday. The subject line read, “Hope you aren’t regretting being born.” It was what passed in his mind as a funny birthday greeting and, I imagine, a sincere wish. It was also beyond anything I could excuse. The return of my prodigal father didn’t need to come with a confusing side dish of parental emotional immaturity. I wrote back to say that while I appreciated him reaching out to me, I didn’t want any more contact with him.
A week later, on the birthday that Frank and I shared, I got a card from him. “Happy birthday,” it read. “Take it easy and keep smiling.” Frank’s handwriting, I noticed, skittered pointy and spidery across the page. It looked much like my own, but then he raised me. You don’t spend decades side by side in the same home, fighting the same battles, celebrating the same anniversaries, and cheering the same occasional happy changes without growing alike.
People say that you can’t choose your family, but people are wrong. You can choose your family. My birth father made choices not to be part of my life over and over again, every day for years and years, and one day I made a choice not to welcome him into mine. My dad and I made our choice to forever be part of each other’s lives decades ago, even if we can’t recall exactly when.