I know this is long but I’ve never really written about my fathers. And I’d like to take this weekend to muse about them a bit.
I’ve never met my biological father. He was married to someone else when he and my mother were together. His name was (is?) Francis Will Sheehan (Frank) from Brooklyn New York and he was born sometimes in the 1920s. I know this because I did manage to see my baptismal certificate when I was in my 30s and looking for my biological family.
The story I heard (and who knows what is or isn’t true) was that he was married with 2 boys in Brooklyn and he met my mother in Manhattan where he worked for the sanitation. It sounded to me like she was just crazy about him to the point where she convinced herself and her family that they were actually married. She checked into the hospital under his name and gave me his name at birth.
Growing up I saw my mother and my brothers (they have a different father than me) but my father was a complete mystery. Back when I first spoke to my mother (in my 30s) I tried to talk to her about my father. I just wanted to know about him. Know something about him. She told me a little and then abruptly shut it down by saying, “Don’t try to find him, he won’t care about you.”
Well alrighty then. My biological mother never gave me much of anything. Even knowledge about my father. But this WAS the woman who told my brother that she never told him he had a sister because it was “none of his business.” So how much could you expect from someone who honestly believes that?
I have sporadically looked for my father but the name Francis/Frank Sheehan is pretty common in Brooklyn and who knows if they still live there. I’ve looked on the Social Security Death index and it seems like there is a Francis Sheehan born in 192x and maybe that’s him.
I have other half siblings over there but my search for my maternal biological family was so emotionally exhausting, I never thought I could go through that again.
So my biological father is a complete blank to me. I know he left my mother at some point by not showing up for my Christening when everyone was expecting him and being good Irish drunks, they had rented out the local Knights of Columbus for days it seemed. And dad never showed. What a guy.
Now to my adoptive father. My adoptive father was an alcoholic and a workaholic. But he was very understated in a fairly passive aggressive way. He was not huggy or kissy. I hugged him exactly once when my grandmother died and he blanched like I was trying to hit him.
But the funny thing was that I liked my adoptive father. He used to take me to Manhattan and he was the one who gave me my love for the city. I remember a few Sundays when he took me down to Wall Street when there was not a soul around and I remember thinking that I was in the canyon…it was so quiet and so peaceful with these walls that went on forever. It was dark because the tall buildings were so close together. There were no tourists, no business people. No one. There were pigeons and an occasional paper that floated by, but overall it was just us and it was so cool.
We would walk uptown from there and he would point out things along the way but mostly it was just the two of us walking. I would notice the old gum embedded into the sidewalks and the many nicks and scrapes on the sidewalks. Today when I walk in Manhattan and look down at the old sidewalks, I think of my father.
We stopped at the Automat all the time. And Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee shop. And Woolworth’s lunch counter. I remember we would always go to these places that, increasingly, don’t exist in New York any longer.
Going to Manhattan with my mother was different. We never just walked and walked. She was always there with a mission. My mother loved Broadway and when we would go to plays mother would take us to Howard Johnson’s in Times Square (just disappeared a few years ago) for clams and fries and if we went to a play at night we would go to Mama Leone’s or even to Sardis.
To me you always dress up for the theater. Those actors do (at least) 7 shows a week and work very hard. The theater is special. And Broadway is the most special theater of all. I was taught, by my mother, to always dress for the theater. Even matinees. And back then the theater was attended mostly by New Yorkers and New Yorkers knew to dress for the theater. And I do and my children all do. I would never go to the theater in jeans or (gasp!) shorts. Unfortunately that dress code is being eroded day after day.
So when I went to Manhattan with my mother it was usually dress up time, go to plays, first run movies and a decent restaurant. After the play we would stop in the many record stores in Times Square and get the soundtrack to whatever play we had just seen and come home with goodies.
With my father we hardly ever got any goodies. My mother accused my father of being cheap. And he was definitely a balance to her extravagance…but I liked the Automat and the coffee shops. He also took me to triple features of the Marx Brothers. My mother did not think they were funny. My father GUFFAWED at them and so did I. I loved and still love the Marx Brothers.
The one time his cheapness got to me was when I was about 12 and he took me to City Island to go fishing. I was walking along the dock and slipped on a sandwich someone had thrown there and, being a natural klutz, tumbled sideways into the water. It was a pretty steep drop and I was down there with fishing line and a lot of garbage. I popped up in the water, my heart beating, flailing wildly. I looked up at my father standing there looking down on me. “What the hell are you doing down there?” he said. I was spitting out water and trying to stay afloat.
A few men came by and managed to pull me out of the water. My father wasn’t one of them. He was, I could tell, completely disgusted. I had lost a shoe and was sopping wet. He said we needed to go home. So I hobbled along and asked if we could take a cab. He said no cab driver would let me in the cab. So we took 3 buses home…me wet with one shoe. My mother exploded when we got home. Where was my shoe? Why didn’t we take a cab? What was wrong with my father?
Most of the time she exploded when we came home whether he had done something or not. So here he was, actually guilty of a few things (not rescuing me, making me take the buses home) and he looked at her like he could not care less. I think that by this time she had worn him out and he was probably thinking, as I would later on, that it didn’t matter what you did, she was going to freak out.
When I was 17 I wanted to go to college and my father needed to sign the residency papers for me to go to city college for free. He asked me why I wanted to go to college. I said I wanted to study English and become a journalist. He pointed in the direction of the New York Public Library and said, “You don’t pay someone to learn how to read and write. Go over there and read and write for free.” And he wouldn’t sign the papers. I was crushed. Later on I realized this was some power struggle he had going with my mother. But it was still wrong.
But other than these two times when my father disappointed, I usually had nice memories of him and managed to forget the City Island and City College incidents (though the college one set me off on a very disturbing course, unmoored and drawn to dangerous people).
When I was about 10 or 11 my father wanted me to go to Manhattan one day and “see the hippies.”
My father was a World War II veteran and many people thought that Norman Lear had based Archie Bunker on him. He was just like him. In fact, Archie was just like my father. He had the white hair, the white shirt, the black pants, the white socks and white shoes. He said things like “Gowan…” and had that thick accent like Archie, misprounounced words and had some old time New York Irish bigotry going on. We would fight about it later on but when I was 10, he was enamoured of the hippies and yippies.
Most WWII vets had so much trouble with the hippie movements of the late 60s but my father loved it. He thought it was like the circus was in town every single day. So we went down to the city on a rare Saturday and my father would point at them and say, “Look at ‘em Sooz, look at ‘em. Heh heh…” He enjoyed them so much. And I enjoyed my father enjoying them. I was a few years away from my rebellion so I was not yet embarrassed by him.
The day we went “to see the hippies,” we walked through Central Park and there was a woman being photographed for a fashion layout. She was dressed in a silver mini dress with silver fishnet stockings. She looked like Twiggy. I was amazed. Years later my father would ask me, “Remember the day we went to see the hippies Sooz? Remember the tootsie with the silver dress?” Yes, Dad, I remember the tootsie.
And in the summer he worked at Yankee Stadium and I was the only one in the family who would go on Sundays with him. I would play in the stands and then walk around the field when he was cleaning his section. He worked 3 jobs and one of them was cleaning up after Yankee games. To me the Yankees were just the home town team. We lived in the Bronx, they played in the Bronx. I loved them even though they played quite badly at that time.
My paternal grandfather almost played for the Yankees and he had a pencil sketch of him playing for their minor league team. “Smilin’ Jim Elliott” it said. But he was a drunk and threw away his baseball career. No one could agree on whether my grandfather had stuff or not. But all his sons played ball and all of them were pretty good.
But of all his sons my father was the most talented and everyone agreed that if WWII did not break out, he could have had a major league career. I never heard this from my father. He simply didn’t do regrets. But I heard it from my uncles and my mother. And when I was in Yankee Stadium I would try to imagine my father up there on the mound.
But he didn’t play. He was wounded in the war and suffered nerve damage to his wrist. And he was 27 when he came home. Too old to play. Too injured to play. He had a wife and child. Baseball dreams were a luxury he couldn’t afford and, to my knowledge, he never spoke of it again.
He cleaned the Stadium after everyone left. And never complained. Not once. And didn’t bring up the fact that he could have been a major league pitcher. Not once.
I quietly loved my father and had mostly good memories of the rare times he spent with me. I remembered him taking me trick o treating when I was 5. I remember him taking me to a parade when I was 7. I remembered the days at the park and on the subway and at the Stadium.
My father could have asked me to go to the moon and I would have gone. When I was 13 he asked me if I wanted to go to the movies. I said sure and he took me to a Saturday matinee of Hansel and Gretel. I was mortified as there were friends of mine there with the kids they were babysitting. And I was there with my father. I sat there with him and just tried to figure out how I could let him know I was a teenager.
My parents had separated when I was 10 and they were locked in an alcoholic dance…two adult children of alcoholics…and while they both knew that my father was not as bad as either of their parents, he was not the partner my mother wanted and when she would even smell beer, we were off to the races.
My father was a typical under-reactor and my mother was a typical over-reactor.
There was a basis for a relationship with my father. We both loved New York. We both loved baseball (though he was to become a Mets fan). We disagreed on politics and social issues but we got to a point later on where we just didn’t talk about it.
But because of the bad marriage and my mother’s violent nature toward him (his passiveness would make her completely unhinged) and the fact that he wasn’t a nurturing parent or particularly THERE. I always felt disloyal to my mother when I secretly preferred my father. She spent money on us. She spent time with us. But she was also controlling, abusive and pretty crazy. My father was a relief from that. As a child I just loved that he wasn’t abusive. He never raised a hand to anyone and for me, I was just thankful for that.
After I went through my abusive (like my mother) partners, I wound up with emotionally unavailable men…men who, like my father, were pretty enjoyable when they were there…but the thing is, like dad, they weren’t there very much. But when they were there I enjoyed them. And I gave them, like my father, major points for not being abusive.
Like my father had a major distraction in my mother, my bf’s also seemed to have distractions…issues, ex-girlfriends, other crap. And excuses, lame excuses, for disappointing me (the cab driver won’t let you in the cab wet).
I went on a “all my boyfriends are emotionally unavailable and/or passive” streak for a LONG time. While they drove me crazy, the emotionally unavailable were SO hard for me to give up.
It seemed like the dance I did with my father was so much like the dance I did with the emotionally unavailable crowd. I really liked the time I spent with them. And, like my father, I would miss them when they were away and then, just as I adjusted to his absence, he / they were back again and there would be a magical day or a night. A day at Yankee Stadium. A walk through Central Park. Something that fond memories are made of….
…and then it/he was gone.
Snapping the spell of the emotionally unavailable was so hard. These guys, like my father, were truly likable and when I was with them, it was like nothing else mattered. To me. To them.
Doing my grief work around my father was hard. The issues I had with him were so much of what wasn’t there. So much of what I couldn’t count on. But what was there was special and wonderful. The problem was it just wasn’t there very often.
And I got used to accepting things that really weren’t acceptable. I’d sit through Hansel and Gretal just for the time. I didn’t quibble with the fact that my own father didn’t realize I had turned INTO A TEENAGER and Hansel and Gretal was just a bit immature for me. No, I sat there. Even with the risk that friends of mine would see me there with my father. Just accepting it because I wanted to spend time with him.
And later I would be with an emotionally unavailable man who would take me to his music gigs and I would sit there, all night, nursing Diet Cokes and smiling weakly at men who would come by and wonder if I was alone. No, I would say, my boyfriend was in the band. And we would go home in the wee hours. There was a diner in Boston that we used to call the Star Wars bar because it was full of freaks and nuts at 4 am. It was so much fun….and we would laugh for hours and go home and fall into bed at 6 am. And I would have sat for six hours in the club just for the magical hour in the Star Wars bar and the time when we fell into bed, at dawn, giggling and snuggling.
It was a lot of waiting and then having a wonderful time. It was maddening. It was difficult. It was really really hard to give them up…to give them all up.
And when I finally was letting go it was tough to know I was getting better…because the nature of these guys is so understated that usually I had trouble even knowing if I was with one or not.
Working through my father issues was really hard. I was so angry at my mothers and considered them abusive but my fathers were some whole other story. More benign but still damaging and in some ways, the subtle damage was so much harder to deal with.
I have to be honest that I didn’t confront my father issues for a long time because I really didn’t want to. I gave my adoptive father a lot of free passes and, consequently, gave the guys who were like him a lot of free passes.
It’s not like there were a million other times with my father that I haven’t recounted here. There weren’t. The times that stand out in my mind, that I’ve written about here, are about all the times there were. And I clung to them for years. And to him. And later to men like him.
The “subtle” neglect was always hard to take. It was also easy to blame it on my mother. He would be more involved if it weren’t for her. Or my brother who was not into anything my father liked. My father would be around more if it wasn’t for him. Or whatever.
And later I would forgive and forget men who were like him. They had reasons, excuses. And most of them had some ex-girlfriend like my mother (imagine that!) and some situation that would make it easy to understand and forgive. And that would be my downfall for a very long time.
Until the day came when I realized that just good enough is not good enough. That just “not abusive” is not good enough. There has to be more than a few magical days and nights to sustain me. There has to be consistent love and caring and dedication to the daily struggle.
Not come, entertain, and go.
That is NOT how it works. But for a long time that is what I settled for. Grateful for someone who was there some of the time (unlike my biological father who was there none of the time) and then danced away.
My sons are taking my husband golfing for Father’s Day. They took him golfing and went fishing with him for his birthday 2 weeks ago. They adore him because he was the father their father wasn’t.
And I was able to find him and be with him after I had done my grief work around my fathers. After i had done the Life Inventory and seen how damaging “not there” really was. I picked him when I gave up on the nowhere men who were there only when they wanted to be, not when I needed them to be. I picked him to be there for me and my kids and he has been for 12 years now. And that is what love, real love, is all about.
Because he knows love is an action and you love what you give time to.
So Happy Father’s Day to the only man who has ever been there for me. Day in and day out. And for being the kind of father to my kids that every kid deserves.
And I only found that by walking away from the other kind. By saying good enough isn’t good enough for me. By having higher standards than just “not abusive.”
By no longer giving major points for what you’re supposed to do. I used to give points for not being abusive. Well, you’re not supposed to be abusive. HELLO. You don’t get points for that. You get no free passes just because you’re not a monster. No, the standards HAVE TO BE higher than that.
I found a stable “there for me” man by rejecting the men with the really fun times when they came because they didn’t come often enough. By becoming WILLING to be alone rather than accept the breadcrumbs from the table of life. By finally confronting the nebulous father issues in my past.
For demanding more.
For insisting that I deserve more.
Because I do.
And so do you.
Hold out. Hold on. Never give up. Never give in.
And insist on there being a there there.
Happy Father’s Day all!