I stood rigidly at the pulpit of the chapel--my hands clinging to the lectern’s wooden edges as if I were holding on for my own dear life--preparing to eulogize my mother, dead at 48.
As I spoke, I tried to explain how my mom, despite three bad marriages and painful physical ailments, nevertheless devoted herself to shaping the life of her only son. How she was, essentially, my dad.
I surveyed the chapel full of teary eyes--a congregation of family members, friends and co-workers. Staring blankly forward, the bumpy road map of my life looked back at me:
In the back sat a heavyset man with a scraggly beard, a bulbous nose and a graying ponytail, who stood out from the well-coiffed crowd. He wore a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, greasy jeans, black biker boots, and had a 6-month-old girl on his lap. It was my father. Biodad.
A row behind him sat a conservatively dressed man of middle age. With short-cropped hair and a mustache, he could be a cop, but, actually, he too is my dad. While my mother was married to him--her second husband--he legally adopted me and I took his last name. Let’s call him Adoptodad.
I have yet another dad, my mother’s last husband, with whom I lived during my adolescent years. He wasn’t at the funeral; he was in the hospital nursing two bleeding ulcers and pancreatitis. But, as I spoke, I’m sure he would have been proud of me--like a son, probably. At least that’s what he always said. To me, however, he’s merely Fauxdad.
Three men walked through my life, each staking a fatherly claim to me. I played the Dadding Game throughout my formative years. But I chose none of the above.
Family values? That’s a laugh. Standing at the podium, I knew who my family was, and she was gone. My personality, my values, my interests were all derived from my mother. Amid a sea of auditioning father figures, she was my life preserver.
Unfortunately, she suffered from the “smart woman, foolish choices” malady. She always wanted me to have a father, never realizing the strength of her own parenting.
And here they are. Biodad married my mom shortly after her 18th birthday. He had no choice, really: He impregnated her (on their first try, he claims) when they were both 17, on a cold December night in 1963. He’s flesh and blood, but I hardly knew him: This was the second time I had seen him in 15 years.
He appeared only sporadically after flying the coop before I was 2, succumbing to the hype of hippie freedom--he didn’t want to be tied down with straight-world formalities like supporting a family. By the late ‘60s, he was too busy riding choppers and perfecting his role as a self-proclaimed “starving artist” to have to deal with a kid.
I became acutely aware of my family’s dysfunction at about age 5. One of my early coping mechanisms was to take my cues from those around me: The kids who were my friends wore nice clothes, lived in nice ranch homes, had nice parents--two of ‘em. I never invited my friends to my two-bedroom apartment with its rain-stained ceiling. My (mostly invisible) dad had long blond hair and a beard and wore a headband and sandals. This was not what a dad was supposed to be: He was loud, partied hard and looked like Jesus.
And where was he, anyway?
But you know what they say about blood. Thus he was given ample opportunities to make it up to me. For example, at 14, Mom and I went to his house for dinner, for another infrequent attempt at father-son bonding.
Being the gracious host, Biodad offered me a tequila sunrise, which tasted quite good . . . and tasted better as the night progressed. I was never allowed to drink at home and, of course, Mom disapproved, but could only cower in silent disgust, deferring to the male parent.
I finally stopped drinking after sprinting through the screen door to puke all over Biodad’s front lawn. Between heaves, I heard robust laughter. Guess I couldn’t toss ‘em down like the old man.
Whereas Biodad couldn’t care less about fatherhood in the conventional sense, Adoptodad did his damnedest to fill the void. He was born to play a dad.
Mom married Adoptodad when I was 3, and, at first, it felt pretty darn nuclear. He was the Anti-Biodad: We bought a house, did normal things like flocking Christmas trees and pretending there was Santa Claus (a revelation for a young Jew).
Adoptodad tried to treat me as if I had emerged from his own loins. But he was a TV dad: a nine-to-fiver who liked to fish, watch “Gunsmoke” and host weekend barbecues. Ultimately, I resisted becoming a conventional son, because, however sincere he was, I believed he was only interested in me so long as I succeeded where his real son failed. There was incredible pressure to be a Stepford child: If I ceased to make him proud, I was over.
I was the trophy son, yet I always felt second-class around Adoptodad’s family. Once, at a Christmas gathering, Adoptogranddad asked me to run to the store for beverages, smack in the middle of the gift-opening process. To them, I was the pitiful bastard. What a nice thing Adoptodad was doing for that poor, fatherless child. He didn’t have to, you know.
Mom encouraged me to participate in the usual father-son stuff with Adoptodad, which I did grudgingly. But chess was boring, fishing made me sick, and I shudder to think back on those weekends when we went into the mountains to shoot cans with rifles and shotguns. Still, I did it without complaint, because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do if I wanted a dad.
My real idea of fun, however, was sitting in my room, listening to rock ‘n’ roll and reading books. Mom encouraged this--she bought Badfinger’s “Come and Get It” single for me when I was 6 and took me to buy records with my allowance money. I was smart and precocious, two traits straight-arrow Adoptodad couldn’t comprehend.
In fact, he deemed this behavior deviant enough to warrant several visits with a psychiatrist when I was 7. After all, I didn’t go outside to play all the time like normal children did. Mom--perhaps fearful of losing a second husband and father figure--allowed her son be diagnosed by a dad-come-lately.
My dads went to great lengths to seem “cool” around me, often to the extent of impairing their better parental judgment. But while my dads were trying to help me develop bad habits, my mom quietly tended to parenting.
Despite our always-tenuous financial situation, she made sure I became involved in Little League and Boy Scouts, and took music lessons. Born in an oppressed working-class household, she seemed to have no interests of her own, other than for me to have the life she felt she never had, diverting me from our household’s constant chaos through enrichment.
At her memorial, I told of how one spring day long ago, I sat on my bed, tossing a baseball into the air, snapping at it with my glove when gravity returned it to Earth. Suddenly, Mom knocked at my door, a mitt awkwardly covering her left hand. “Do you want to play catch?” she asked. I was 9, and Mom was in limbo between husbands No. 2 and No. 3--it was just the two of us.
This, of course, was a young boy’s worst nightmare: doing a guy thing with your mom. If anybody actually saw us, life as I knew it would be over.
Still, we drove to a park not far from our small apartment in the San Fernando Valley to toss a ball around. Kids passed and laughed at us but I ignored them--and became an all-star Little Leaguer despite not having a regular dad to throw to.
Of course, Mom offering to toss a ball around was probably as big a trauma for her as it was for me. She was a shy woman, severely lacking self-esteem--the result of a lifetime around men who told her what she couldn’t do. This behavior crystallized to me with her marriage to Fauxdad, from whom she was sadly never able to extract herself (they were married 14 years).
Through my adolescent eyes, I began to realize the loneliness and fear my mother had of being alone. She turned inward, as Fauxdad treated her like a helpless child or, worse, a pet. She rarely fought back and I often found myself in the middle.
Making matters worse was Fauxdad’s insistence on pretending to be a father to me. By this time, I had two deadbeat dads; I didn’t need a third imperfect stooge to take credit for me.
Mom seemed to tolerate Fauxdad’s foibles more than the others’, and they were many. The casual dysfunction of this environment scared the hell out of me. By this point, I just wanted to grow up and get away before it ruined my life.
Fauxdad and I lived under the same roof for several delicate years and I managed not to become a serial killer (or like him, thank god). Yet, to my chagrin, he persisted in taking a lion’s share of credit for raising me, even scolding Biodad on occasion for being a bad father.
Of course, he did do un-dad things like asking me to pay rent at 16, when I was working a part-time minimum wage restaurant job, and I was never allowed to borrow any of the cars, which I think he loved more than his family.
A short man with muddled hair, Fauxdad believed it was proper to bow to him simply for bringing in that weekly paycheck. Maybe I was living in a fantasy, but I thought dads were supposed to provide for their family; that kids were supposed to work part time to save money for college.
As I got older, I saw my mother less frequently. And it had less to do with geography than with the company she kept. Which in retrospect was a shame, because we grew more distant with each passing year. Every conversation became an awkward exchange of words that meant very little other than the comfort of hearing the other’s voice, an unspoken assurance of a connection that had become distressingly fuzzy, like distant acquaintances.
After I stepped down from the pulpit, I thought about moms, dads, family and how it all somehow blends into the mishmash that are subsequent generations. Unfortunately, my mom had to die before I could appreciate her strength in keeping me on the straight line, in her own quiet way saving me from the rest of my family. It took me this long to realize that I didn’t need a dad when I had my mom.
When Biodad and Adoptodad approached me amid the other grievers, they opened their arms, each explaining how my mother had touched their lives.
They said she would have been proud of me. Which is all I could have asked for.