How I Met My Father

Fathers don’t fare well in my fiction. They are white supremacist killers and domestic abusers. They trick their wives into becoming pregnant. They have affairs. They abandon their families.

My biological father, Albert Coleman Bryan Jr., was 22 when I was born. He was a dashing air force pilot who flew off into the wide blue yonder, leaving my mother and me grounded.

He had red curly hair and freckles and a charming grin. It’s a face I don’t remember, if indeed I ever saw it. My parents split up around the time I was born.

I grew up tasting the bitterness of my father’s absence, especially at Christmas, when he sent me expensive presents. My mother would hand them to me without a word, and I would know to go into my closet to open them.

By then, she had remarried. In addition to a stepdad, I had a brother and sister. Our stockings were filled with bananas and oranges, little else.

In my closet, I would open the presents from my father, with cards signed by his secretary or someone in a store. Among the many gifts over the years, he sent me a pearl necklace, a portable typewriter and a birthstone ring. I’d know to tuck them away in my closet and never to mention them to my brother and sister.

Decades later, on an afternoon in May, I pull into a strip mall in Chapel Hill, N.C. I’m taking a break from grading end-of-semester papers. Before I get out of the car, I check my email to find a note from a woman named Jann, who informs me that she is my adopted half sister.

“What about my father?” I ask. “Is he still alive?”

Yes, Jann writes, my father is still alive. He is living at the Floyd E. “Tut” Fann State Veterans Home in Huntsville, Ala. He is 91 years old. Would I like to see him?

I say yes.

Jann discovered my existence when she was clearing out our father’s house, before he went into the home. She reached into a pants pocket and found an old wallet. Tucked inside was a tattered photo of me, a snaggletoothed first-grader at Church Street Elementary School in Tupelo, Miss. On the back was an inscription: Dear Daddy, Love, Minrose.

I had never thought of myself as a dirty little secret. My parents were married in the First Presbyterian Church. My mother wore the white dress with the long train. There was music and a dry reception in the church basement, my grandfather being a teetotaler. I was born two years later.

As soon as grades are posted, I book a flight to Alabama and throw some clothes in a suitcase. In Birmingham, I rent a car, spend the night in a ratty motel, and head for Huntsville the next morning. By the time I arrive at Jann’s condo, my head is pounding. I take a double dose of my blood pressure medication.

The humidity makes my shirt stick to my back as Jann ushers me into the nursing home. She tells me I’ll need to speak loudly; our father is almost deaf.

I anticipate a private meeting in his room, poignant, with perhaps a touch of awkwardness. What I get instead is a crowded lunchroom: the clanging of trays, voices garbled by age and infirmity, very, very old men, the stench of urine mixed with the odor of overcooked meat. Jann leads me through the hubbub, homing in on a crumpled, hairless version of myself in a wheelchair.

“Daddy!” she belts out. “Here’s your daughter come to see you. This is Minrose, your daughter!”

Jann then addresses the room at large: the old men, all white; the young attendants, all Black. “She’s his daughter, and it’s the first time they’ve ever met!” She is bursting with enthusiasm.

Heads swivel. Forks pause in midair. Attendants smile.

My father turns to me, as slow as an ancient tortoise.

“What took you so long?” he says.

Jann and the attendants laugh. I do not.

It takes me a moment to absorb the fact that these are the first words my father has ever uttered to me, his 69-year-old daughter. I thought I had left my bitterness behind but now I taste it on my tongue.

“Why did you leave?” I find myself shouting.

The silence in the room thickens. Someone calls out, “Not very nice.”

I see two dozen sets of eyes glaring at me. My own little personal drama, I realize, has become a soap opera, and I’m the villain.

My father offers a toothless grin. “Just stupid, I guess,” he says with a laugh. And I find myself laughing, too.

Later, I will discover that my father had delivered babies in Huntsville. Women loved him. In his heyday, he was a jokester, a pilot, a dancer, a chef — the life of the party.

During his second marriage, he impregnated two single women, first his anesthesiology nurse, then his receptionist, both of whom gave up their baby boys for adoption, meaning I have two half brothers I’ve never met.

In the nursing home, I tell my father he has a granddaughter in Dallas. He asks about my mother. I tell him she died two decades ago of ovarian cancer. I also tell him she became mentally ill, that I had to commit her to psychiatric hospitals — a nice private one, then a grim state institution — against her will.

What I don’t tell him: I knew, early on, that something had happened to my mother. Something had gone click, turned off. Old photographs show me, a curly-haired, round-faced child clutching a stuffed rabbit twice my size as my mother gazes off into the distance.

He shakes his head. Then he mutters something.

“Speak up, Daddy,” Jann commands.

He examines my face. I bend down to hear what he’s about to say.

He whispers, “Why didn’t you come before?”

He died two weeks later. Jann wrote me that the Episcopal Church was filled. I was not mentioned in the obituary.

Minrose Gwin is the author of the novels “The Accidentals,” “Promise” and “The Queen of Palmyra.” Her next novel, “Beautiful Dreamers,” comes out this summer.

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