For years, the only real clues I had about my dad came from a handful of thick, black-and-white studio portraits.
I had two favorites. One pictured my grandmother, young and beautiful with scallops of shiny dark hair and milk-white skin with a boy of about six in a sailor suit.
The other showed my grandmother, still young but with the beginnings of crow's feet around her eyes and hair that was beginning to lose its luster next to a young and handsome man wearing an Army uniform with pilot's wings pinned to the breast.
On each of these photos, I had written, with green ink in my best 4-year-old handwriting "my daddy."
As I had never met my dad, those were the images I carried with me. I didn't know much else. I knew he had some connection to Green Bay Wisconsin. I learned later that his father's family emigrated there from Ireland in the mid 19th century and stuck. My grandmother told me he had saved my life by rescuing me from drowning in a pool when I was about a year old.
Later, I learned from my mother that his IQ tested in the genius range, though he only completed high school and worked at manual labor jobs. That he was an alcoholic. That he had put her in the hospital twice.
I have only one picture of them together. It was on the day of my christening. My father was older than my mother, in his late-30s. His hairline was already receding, but he was still handsome. There were cans of Schlitz malt liquor in the foreground.
With so little information, these pictures became the basis of a rich fantasy surrounding my dad.
When I was very young and living with my grandmother, she used to play a song by Harry Belefonte called "Scarlet Ribbons" about a man desperately searching the night to find scarlet ribbons for his daughter's hair. I imagined that was my dad. I believed he wanted to find me, that, like the man in the song, he was out there somewhere scouring the streets at night looking.
Even as I got older, and was returned to my mother, I kept that fantasy. That one day my father would find me and rescue me from my life.
Of course, he never did.
My grandmother took me back to my childhood home of Milwaukee once to see him. My grampy, her second husband, had some sort of bowling event to attend and I came along. We stayed in the Red Carpet Inn. But I never met my dad. I learned later that he had "taken off" two days before our arrival with no explanation.
He died when I was 12 from alcoholism. As my mother put it, he had lung cancer and died during the operation from liver failure. She showed me a recent picture, a Polaroid. It showed a balding, overweight, middle-aged man leaning against a car. It looked nothing like the pictures in my head.
That day, my fantasy of rescue died along with my father.
A few years ago, I decided to find out what I could about my father. I started with his Army records. Much of his records were lost in a fire in the facility where they were kept. But enough remained to give me a glimpse into his life.
From his application, I learned that, as a child, he had a tonsillectomy and the removal of a bit of bone in one ear as the result of an infection. He played softball, basketball and football in high school, though did not excel in any of them. He graduated in 1940 and listed his only hobby as flying.
His enlistment physical noted that he had a deviated septum and a small facial scar.
From his service record, I know that he worked for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, which was then gearing up for World War II. It had recently won a government contract to build warplanes.
In 1942, he enlisted as an aviation cadet. He was 19 and married to his first wife. They had a daughter.
He was honorably discharged in June of the following year to accept a commission. He completed pilot training at various bases and learned to fly the B-26 Maurader. By June 1943, as a second lieutenant, he was qualified for overseas duty. I imagine it was about this time that the portrait with my grandmother was taken.
Then things started to fall apart. He faced two courts martial for being AWOL and was dihonorably discharged after having been AWOL for 37 days, and sentenced to three years of hard labor at Ft. Leavenworth prison.
His divorce became final a few months after he began serving his sentence. The records were lost, so I can only speculate about the reasons.
After his release, he married again. This marriage was brief and childless, and ended in an annulment.
His third marriage was tumultuous and produced two children. His wife, a reputedly beautiful welder in a factory, filed for divorce three times.
When the divorce was eventually finalized, my father had abandoned the family without support two years prior. He didn't even show up for the proceedings.
The divorce papers are telling. In those days, you had to show cause for getting a divorce. His wife had plenty. Court papers say my father drank to excess, disappeared for days at a time and returned spoiling for a fight. He heaped abuses "too vile" to be printed in court documents. There were physical abuses and "acts of cruel and inhuman treatment."
These abuses, the complaint claims, caused his wife to "become nervous and lose weight" and left her "sick and broken in mind and body."
Just a few months after the divorce was final, he got a young woman (my mother) pregnant. She was a young physical therapist. He was 36 and working as a warehouseman for the temporary agency Manpower. They got married.
The marriage didn't last long. But at the end, my mother committed herself to a mental hospital for shock treatments and agreed to my father's suggestion that she sign over custody of me to my grandmother. At the time of the divorce, my grandmother was given legal custody.
My grandmother sounded like a classic Al-Anon. In a letter to her lawyer, my mother describes her as "domineering."
In a letter to my mother, my grandmother describes finding my father and his third wife living in squalor with a sick child, "a cold wind blowing under the door." She bought them a house and a TV.
In a drunken rage, she wrote, my father had smashed the TV. At one point, she found the house trashed and abandoned. His wife had said my father had made such a fool of himself, he was ashamed to face the neighbors.
A clearer picture began to emerge.
My husband wondered why I kept digging.
"Don't you find it depressing?" he wanted to know.
But I didn't. I wanted some answers. Even then, I had romanticized my father. I fancied that I looked like him, was smart like him, inherited his restless gene. I wanted to know who this man was. Now I knew. I could let him, and the fantasy, go.
Of course, I had more to process. Al-Anon helped with that. More than anything, Al-Anon helped me see my father with compassion. Compassion for the shame he must have felt. Compassion that he never found a solution.
Not everyone was meant to be saved. For some reason, I escaped the compulsion to drink. And for some reason, I found my way into a program that has taught me a better way to live than he knew, or my grandmother or my mother. I don't know why God chose me. But I am grateful.