Who’s Your Daddy….

In the years following my parent’s divorce, most of the men my mother dated, or married, either wound up in rehab….again…. or they suffered some sort of mental breakdown, cardiac event, or both.

The first victim to suffer a relapse and flunk out of the program was Neil, who my mother met at an AA meeting.

My mother committed herself to AA in her years of strict sobriety with the same veracity she had devoted to bar hopping during her years of intoxication. All of her friends came from the program.  She participated in a number of committee’s organizing social events like group picnics and dances (not the same without a fully stocked bar if you ask me), so naturally, all of her dates would come from her affiliation with the program.

Apparently, nothing says “romantic encounter,” quite like a room full of recovering alcoholics sharing their woes of personal destruction under a perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke and vats of coffee.  Not to mention the near constant presence of my mothers baggage running around, also known as my brother and I.

My brother and I loved attending AA meetings. They were typically held in a church or a school auditorium, which meant that we had complete access to the interiors of these otherwise empty buildings. We would race up and down the dark hallways, play hide and seek and occasionally offer to run errands for cash.

“Hey, need a cup of coffee? I’m happy to get it for you for a dollar.” 

“How about a donut, only fifty-cents!”

“Would you like me to light that cigarette for you? Let me grab my Zippo. That’ll be twenty-five cents.”

“Oh, you need to bum a cig? No problem, for a dollar-fifty I’ll ask around!”

“Um, no, I cannot go pick up a 40 of Old English for you. Someone get this guy’s sponsor!”

When my mother first introduced my brother and me to Neil, I was not impressed.  He had long, dishwater-blonde hair that he sometimes wore in a braid and he drove an old pick-up truck that was always dirty and packed with tools.  However, he also had a light yellow Monte Carlo he drove from time to time that I loved.  It was a huge boat of a vehicle and I found comfort in the fact that we could live in it if we ever got evicted.

There was no easing into relationships for my mother. If she clicked with someone, we were all in and Neil was no different. Before we knew it, we were spending afternoons at backyard barbecues surrounded by Neil’s family and friends. We were soon counted among the nieces and nephews and Neil’s mother, Ruby, considered my brother and I her grandchildren.

Ruby was a sweet woman who was devoutly catholic, a fact that was reflected in her choice of religious inspired lawn ornaments and home décor.  It wasn’t exactly my style and I didn’t really understand the religious significance of her Virgin Mary statue poised in front of what appeared to be an erect blue bathtub guarding her Gardenia’s….and the bleeding Jesus head she had hanging on the wall in her living room with its thorn crown and down turned eyes that seemed to follow me wherever I went, gave me the creeps, but otherwise, I didn’t mind spending afternoon’s at her home.

One day, Ruby babysat my brother who was too ill to go to school. She had agreed to baby-sit only if my brother was well enough to attend an afternoon Mass. While the jeans and t-shirt he’d worn over were not appropriate for such an event, there was not need to worry. Luckily, Ruby just happened to have an extra pair of lovely tweed knickers, complete with a giant hole in the ass and a butterfly collar dress shirt circa 1972 that fit my brother perfectly. When he arrived home later that afternoon, reeking of moth balls and striking an uncanny resemblance to Pinocchio, I fell into fits of laughter while he cried.

One Friday night, Neil took us all ice-skating at the local rink, a favorite activity for my brother and me. Although I was happy to go, I suspected this particular trip was Neil’s attempt at peace making.

A few days prior, my brother and I were in our attic with Neil watching him assemble a toy we had been given for Christmas. As the project neared completion, we began to bicker over who would get first dibs.

“I called it first, on Christmas day!” my brother bellowed.

“I never heard you say that, so it doesn’t count!” I shouted back.

“Yes, it does! Plus, I’ve been helping this whole time and you haven’t done anything!”

“Oh, shut-up, you whining little brat!”

Before I knew what was happening, Neil was standing over me. He grabbed my arm, yanked me to my feet and spanked me. As I struggled to free my arm from his grip, I scrapped my toe against the unfinished wood floor and it began to bleed. I burst into immediate tears of fury.

The spanking and the bloody toe weren’t particularly painful. I had been whacked by a belt, backhanded and kicked enough times to know what real pain felt like, but this attack pissed me off.

Regardless of who started the fight, I did’t think this man should be physically assaulting me.  Convinced my mother would see this my way and dump him immediately or, at the very least, scream at him and explain that boyfriends do not have spanking authority, I stormed from the room to report him.

“Neil hit me!” I wailed as I teetered into the living room to show my mother the proof of Neil’s abuse.

“Well, did you deserve it?” she asked without the slightest bit of the fury I expected in her tone.

I looked at her flabbergasted.

Why yes, mother. As a matter of fact, I did deserve it and even though we have only known this man for 10 seconds, I realize I should accept that whomever you drag in off the street has the right to discipline me in any way he sees fit. Sorry for bothering you, you can go back to sitting on your ass and being a lousy freaking mother now!

“Go to the bathroom and clean-up your foot before you get blood on the carpet. Then, go to your room,” was her final response.

Later that night, my mother came into my bedroom and discussed how important it was to remember that things that happened at her house, should stay at her house and should not be discussed with my dad.  Odd, since it was apparently perfectly acceptable behavior.

So, even though I was still furious about the incident, I was willing to be temporarily swayed by an evening of ice-skating. After making a few laps around the rink together, my brother and I spotted some friends from school and quickly ditched the adults to whiz around with our chums.

“Is that your dad?” My friend Beth asked as we slowly skated past my mom and Neil, stopping to say a quick hello.

“Nah,” I replied. “That’s my mom’s boyfriend, Neil.”

Later that evening when we had returned home and were getting ready for bed, my mother pulled me aside and stared at me expectantly for what seemed like an eternity.

Uh, oh. Was this going to be one of those exchanges where she would say to me, “I know what you did and I’m giving you this one opportunity to come clean. If you do, the punishment will be light. If you don’t, the punishment will be much worse.”

“I didn’t do anything!” I would say while rapidly tried to determine exactly what she had busted me for.

“Ok, go get the belt. I gave you an opportunity to be honest and you have chosen to lie.”

“Wait!” I would shriek.

Panic stricken, I would then confess every rotten thing I had ever done only to find out afterwards, that she really didn’t know anything.

I would take the ass beating that followed feeling like a total idiot and extremely guilty, because my confessions typically sold out my brother as well. Sadly, we would both fall for this trick repeatedly throughout the years.

“Neil is very upset. His feelings are very hurt,” she said quietly.

“Oh” I said confused. “Why is he sad?”

“Well, you told that girl at the ice skating rink that Neil was not your father.”

I looked at her, totally not following the logic that would lead me to understand why this conversation had upset Neil. Rather than fall into a potential trap, I just stared at her and waited for the trap to reveal itself.

“Well, why did you say that?”

Damn, this was not enough information. Where was she going with this?

“Answer me!”

“Um, because she asked me if Neil was my dad. I was just telling her the truth. He’s not my father, he’s your boyfriend,” I answered cautiously.

“I think that man has been more than just my boyfriend to you. He’s like a second father.”

Uh, really? I don’t think so lady! Not only did I officially hate him for spanking me, but also, I had only known him for a few months!

Furthermore, what I did know, I didn’t particularly like and if I was ever going to have a second father figure, this grubby guy wasn’t it. Not to mention, the stability of their relationship changed by the hour.

“What am I supposed to call him then?”   

“You could call him dad, or how about something special, just for him, you pick.”

I looked at her for a moment trying to gauge how serious this exchange was meant to be.

Uh, oh, was that Sybil I sensed lurking just below the calm demeanor my mother was presenting?

Yup, I could see her.  Oh my God, she was actually serious. I knew I needed to respond carefully and in a way that gave her what she wanted or else.

Dad was out of the question. This man was nowhere near dad status. I debated suggesting shit-head as an appropriate moniker, but I knew it would be met with a nice, swift, back-handed slap across the face, so I drew from my “Little House On The Prairie” knowledge and suggested “Pa.”

“Ok, I guess I like Pa” I said, holding my breath and hoping that would suffice. “Maybe he can refer to me as Half-Pint, I mumbled under my breath.

“Great!” my mother exclaimed, hopping up and clapping her hands, a large smile spreading across her face as she tucked me in and headed out the door.

As time went by, referring to Neil as “Pa” became like second nature to me. Although in my mind, it was never a term of endearment, just a battle I had to lose in order to keep my mother at bay. Of course, anytime my mother was pissed at him, like every other day, she would demand that we commence calling him Neil again.

“He’s not worthy enough to be a father or a husband! He’s a piece of shit!” She would scream.  See….shit-head would have been more than appropriate!

Alas, “Pa” and my mother never married. In one final blaze of fury over who knows what, my mother threw him out for good. As she was tossing his belongings onto the front lawn and screaming obscenities, I watched from the attic window.

I cringed a little when she whipped out the baseball bat and went to town on his pick-up as he tried to hurriedly collect his belongings and get the hell out of dodge. As she chased him down the driveway screaming, I opened up the attic window and yelled a final goodbye.

“See ya later Pa and good luck!”

A few years later, I asked my mother if she’d ever heard what happened to him.

“Oh yeah, total loser” she said. “Right after we broke up, he fell off the wagon and became a complete mess. He couldn’t hold a job, had to move back in with his mother, wound up in rehab again. Ugh. Loser.”

I sighed and looked at my mother, searching for any sense of guilt or responsibility. I saw nothing. “Right after you broke up, huh?”

“Yup, almost immediately.”

“You don’t say.”

Moral of the story….My step-kids just call me by my first name.  Best not to complicate these things….

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