She called him “Uncle Honey,” while I tried my best not to call him anything. He was the father I gave up, and while I tried to love a replacement three thousand miles away, my cousin found joy in his embrace. A joy and love that could have been mine. Another cousin, “Laura,” once told me he was her favorite uncle. Her words, when read, stung my heart.
I can remember Laura’s smiling face next to his each summer when the plane arrived, delivering me and my sister back to the state of my birth for two weeks. The smile I returned was reluctant, at best, as I recognized a closeness that should have been mine. When my birthfather would hug me and press his lips to the top of my head, after the absence of a year, I would respond by curling my body back to the memory of my mother and stepfather three thousand miles away.
It’s not that I didn’t want to love the father who gave me life, I did. Tangled with my mother’s acrid stories, and my own earliest memory, was a daughter’s longing for love and connection. Laura was also a part of my earliest memory, which I folded into the memory cells of my body when I was two years old. I can still see her sitting on Grammy’s plaid sofa, in the middle, my sister on one side, I on the other. Here’s the picture, “The Fairy Tale” by Sir Walter Firle, that hung above our heads while my parents fought beyond my sight. That was the day, as I sat in fear of her safety, when I became the fierce protector of my mother’s truths.
I never allowed my eyes to see love inside my father, even when he called me “Honey” and hugged me tight. I couldn’t. If I had, it would mean betrayal of the mother for whom I held a blinding love and trust that wrapped my heart like a fist. Instead of “Dad,” I called him by his first name, but only when I had to call him something. There was no word to address my birthfather that didn’t feel like salt on my tongue.
The photographs I have tell both his story and mine, as do the letters he wrote to his mother before my mother left him. They tell the story of a father’s love that never died, even when his daughter’s face scowled against his embrace.
I have lost the years of child, but I still feel her secret longing to be loved, and to love, her forbidden father, even though I have allowed that love to be freed. Although love should not come with conditions, this one did, it still does. But they are not my father’s conditions, they never were. His love, I have come to realize, was always there, waiting to be seen. I hear it in the vibration of his voice when he calls me each week to find out how I am doing, I read it in the words he sends on my birthday and Christmas, and I feel it in his embrace when we erase the three thousand miles that still keep us apart.