I walk into my father’s house, unload the girls who run straight to their playroom, and drop my diaper bag on the kitchen counter. My father's house, entirely foreign for so long. Now, the house, the man, becoming familiar to us all after a couple years of getting to know each other.
“We’re here! How was your day?”
He grins widely, “Oh, good—just been picking blackberries in my Granny’s yard. I’ve done that forever.”
I wonder silently: I didn’t know. What else have you done forever?
A year later, I’m walking toward him in his Granny’s yard, my first time at his family’s annual reunion. It’s a place that feels like the country in the middle of this tiny rural town; it feels a little like home to me. Nearly 100 of our family members have gathered on over an acre of land on a quiet street, the back property line marked by trees that have been there as long as the generations represented here. He’s holding both of my girls, blackberry juice streaming down their little chins. It’s surreal, life coming full circle. In the most ordinary ways. And in extraordinary ones, too. I feel an ache smarting inside, but I can’t tell if it’s homesickness or helplessness. I shake it off and smile at their love for each other. But my ears are ringing—I’m so sorry, echoing loudly in my head, in my heart. It’s so strong, I feel it about to burst through my lips and cause a scene right here in the middle of this family reunion, where these total strangers are so happy to see me after all this time. Why am I sorry? I don’t know if it’s even the right feeling to have, to be honest. Am I sorry for those decisions that weren’t mine to make, for the 25 years I spent in another world only a town away, for waiting so long to try to make it right somehow?
My parents were teenagers when I was born: my father barely old enough to legally drive, my mother taking her first semester of college classes with a newborn at home. I wasn’t the only unplanned baby to come from that area in rural Oklahoma where small towns and winding backroads don’t produce much entertainment for teenagers. From the pieces I have gathered along the way, I know my parents were passionate people as teenagers. For years they were on again, off again. They loved and fought with equal intensity, and their parents' indignity toward the whole situation didn't help matters. By the time I was three or four, I think my father realized he simply wasn’t ready for parenthood, nor did he yet have the means to take care of me the way he (and my fiercely protective grandfather) thought I deserved. When my mom married a man who adopted me on paper and into his life and who I’ve ever since called “Dad,” my father bowed out. And that was alright, really. Maybe it was even for the best. Partly because I was so young, and partly because I still had a wonderful dad to raise me, I never questioned it, though I wondered about it from time to time.
Over the next 20 or so years, we lived in the same county but completely apart. I grew up with my parents and siblings (who were simply my brother and sister—no “half” ever thought about), and he eventually married my stepmother and raised two sons in the next town. I led a normal, well-adjusted life. I broke several fingers attempting to play softball, won spelling bees, and tried purple eyeshadow in the seventh grade. I went through boyfriends, ran for student council, and applied for colleges.
My mom was also unsure of what role he should play, but she relayed major life events now and then. For the first time since our early separation, we met face to face, two weeks before my high school graduation. Until then, he existed in my mind only as a face stolen from hazy photos. We fumbled through an hour of catching up with nervous laughs and fidgeting hands. Nerves had both of us nearly sick. And while he was so grateful for the meeting, I don’t think either of us got a real sense of one another, nor did we discuss expectations for future encounters. So, it went quiet, again. My selfishness coupled with all the distractions of impending college life told me it would be easier this way. I got engaged in college. My fiancée prompted, gently but surely, “I should meet him. We should invite him to the wedding.” We did, he came. And we were both glad he was there. But again, what next? No one knew, and we didn’t have the courage to figure it out, so there were another few years of radio silence.
When I became pregnant with my first child, my mom suggested we let him know he’d be a grandfather soon. But it was the sight of my daughter held safely in her daddy's arms that led me to make the call. His love was so apparent and it struck me that even though my father wasn’t in the delivery room, or rocking me to sleep, or even consistently with me as an infant, there must have been a similar bond. He met my daughter when she was a few days old. As he stared with wonder at her tiny features, he was nearly too overcome to speak. He held her so gingerly, and it was apparent that he knew he was holding something precious in his hands. While I thought it was only natural for him to meet his granddaughter, I had no future plans for their relationship or ours. Of course, though, he fell head over heels for her, and with his love came my questions. How could I keep him from his granddaughter? Why would I ever want to? In that moment, I realized she was the link we’d been missing; this new life could help heal us. Three years later, they adore each other, and adding my second daughter into the mix only amplified the love and the giggles constantly emanating from their little trio.
Legal actions prevented our relationship from existing during my childhood. But the ball landed back in my court as an adult. I could have chosen to pursue a relationship much earlier, but out of respect for my dad and for fear of opening up to someone who had been away for so long, I let it slide. I’m sorry for that. I feel it every day, the weight of that decision, especially since I became a mother. How would I live without my children? Now, he and I dance around each other with the girls in the middle. We try to understand each other, and learn each other’s character, though some of the most formative years are simply missing—he’s never had to ground me for missing curfew; I’ve never cried to him over a broken heart. I hold no grudges over the missed years, but I feel a constant, consuming wonder: were the paths we took right? There is no way to know how different or better or worse yesterday would have been. There is only today, and tomorrow. And today he spoils my girls; he lives for their laughter. We make plans for family trips and I make it to all my brother’s high school basketball games. We are starting now.
Standing among those blackberry bushes, my stepmom, who has been instrumental in encouraging this relationship, and I watch as he chases the girls. She confides, “He spent a good part of his teenage years here, with his granny. He wasn’t close to his father but to his stepdad, and he passed away right before you were born.” I nod, and I begin to understand how sometimes parenting is about making harder decisions than I’ve had to face. I’ve had the beautiful realization that time does heal and allow courage to build up, bit by bit. I’m still not sure how I’ll sit down with my girls one day and explain our complicated family tree – which is less like an oak tree and more like those blackberry bushes, vines stubbornly clinging to one another, becoming fuller to eventually bring forth fruit. Perhaps, I’ll just tell them, “He loves you now, and he loved me then, too.”
Guest post written by Rebekah Warren. Rebekah is a graduate student, wife, and mama to two little girls. She lives on 10 acres in Oklahoma, where she’s constantly chasing after her barefooted kids with their shoes. When she’s not working on her thesis or fishing yet another small object out of her toddler’s mouth, she steals away to jot down her thoughts so she can better remember life with her small children one day. You can find her on Instagram.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.