My girls and I were looking at our family’s photo albums this morning, when I decided to dig out photos my paternal grandma had given me years ago. There were photos of her as a child, photos of my dad as a baby, a picture of me on my first day of Kindergarden, and a photo of my grandma and my biological grandfather on their wedding day. I’m basically a carbon-copy of my grandmother and my dad. As genetics would have it, my dad only takes after his mom in appearance.
Until about fifteen years ago, my dad was 18 years old the last time he saw his father. I was born four years later, when my dad was nearly 22. I can remember being maybe five or six, being on the phone with a man with a Spanish accent my dad told me to call him Ernie. Both my parents were sitting on the floor with me smiling as I said hello. He asked me if I had a boyfriend yet. I laughed at him and said, “No way!” and that’s all I remember about the man who was my dad’s dad until I graduated from college. I guess as a child, you don’t pick up on those kinds of conversations, or maybe they didn’t happen when I was around. But, my grandma filled me in once I was old enough to understand heartbreak. My grandfather had been in the US Army when he was deployed to France over 65 years ago. He met a gorgeous blue-eyed blond who spoke French and Spanish and fell in love. They married and had my dad in Bordeaux, followed by two more sons. They were stationed in Germany for a few years, and then ultimately, to Virginia in the US. He got called to to Vietnam and there he remained for a full term. After he returned from Vietnam, his relationship with my grandma was different. Abruptly, he told her that he had orders to go back. My grandma, shocked and angry, marched to his direct officer’s office and demanded why he was being sent back after he had just finished his tour. “Ma’am, he volunteered,” the officer told her hesitantly. He had met someone else. So, he left his family in Virginia and started a new family in California, and a son just a few years before I was born. That was kind of it. No looking back. No birthday cards. No visits. I’m not sure if there were any big goodbyes or even how my dad and his brothers reacted. I’m sure they felt abandoned. Stunned? Angry? Guilty? Bitter? Most likely yes to all of the above.
One of my college roommates, Carmen, moved to Los Angeles for her first job after graduation. She invited me to come out to visit her, so I decided that if I was going to fly across the country, I should officially meet my dad’s father who lived nearby. I called up my dad to ask him his thoughts. He was so excited that I wanted to meet his dad, he even called his dad after years of silence. He wanted to make sure his father would be willing to meet me in person. The conversation was positive. He agreed to meet me. Carmen, along with our other roommate from college, Sunita, and I piled into Carmen’s car and followed the route to my grandfather’s home address. We pulled in front of his house, and all of a sudden, years of emotions spilled out of me. I cried, overwhelmed at never having met the man who was the father to my father. I was the same age my dad was the last time he saw the man I was about to meet. Carmen and Sunita soothed and encouraged me, told me they’d be with me the whole time. So, I pulled myself together, wiped off the tears from my face, and stepped out of the car. My friends bolstered me up on each side as I rang the doorbell. The door opened, and a man with beautiful light brown skin, a wide nose, brown eyes, and white hair (that used to be jet-black) pulled into a low ponytail opened the door. The first thing he did was laugh and say to me, “You look just like your father.” He welcomed us in and introduced us to his wife. The five of us sat around the kitchen table and talked for hours until dinnertime threatened to break up the conversation. It was clear he wasn’t ready for us to leave, so he invited to take all of us out to a restaurant and they treated the three of us to dinner. It was difficult to say goodbye that night. I didn’t know when, or even if, I would see him again. I was thankful that I had gotten to meet this man, and that somehow, maybe that if he had felt remorse over leaving his family so long ago, he would know that it was all in the past now.