Retrospective 15: 1977 — Bastard child

I was 12 when I finally asked Mum why Dad hated me so much. I remember every moment of that conversation. We were in the drawing room of our Georgian home, a room with heavy red velvet curtains, a marble mantelpiece over the fireplace, dark leather sofas. The wooden floor gleamed, and the area rug that is now at the beach was still somewhat plush back then. My mother’s desk graced the bowed window at the end of the room. The other window, the one that looked out to the front, let in the green light of sunshine filtered through a dense curtain of wisteria.

I was polishing the mantelpiece. Mum was paying bills. I hesitated, then dived in, taking a risk. We weren’t allowed to interrupt her when she paid bills.

“Why does Daddy hate me?” I asked.

“He doesn’t hate you.” Her voice was absent-minded. She flipped over a piece of paper.

“He treats me differently than the others.”

“What makes you say that?”

“People notice. People from school.” In fact, I had stopped trying to invite friends over. It was just too embarrassing. But I remembered the comments from the few aborted overnighters friends would attempt.

She stopped. She put down her pen, a fountain pen, very carefully. She turned in her chair, red leather, with a high, scrolled back. She sighed.

“He’s not your real father,” she said.

I don’t remember being shocked. I don’t remember anything much emotionally, except perhaps a small, trickle of relief. Something settled in me, like sand shifting.

“Not my father?”

“No. You and Rachel have an American father. His name is JD. Daddy treats you differently because you’re not his child.”

“But he doesn’t treat Rachel like he treats me.”

She sighed again, a soft exasperated sound.

“Rachel was sick when she was a baby. Do you remember? She had diarrhea and exzema. He’s always liked underdogs. I would get impatient, and he wanted to champion her.”

I remembered Rachel’s explosive diarrhea. I remembered helping Mum change Rachel’s nappies in the apartment in Switzerland. It didn’t quite line up, but I accepted it.

“What did he look like?”

She stood up, drew a box out from underneath the desk, and pulled out a small album. A handful of thick black pages held glossy photographs. My mother, arms around a stranger, a dark-haired man. A baby on his shoulders. Me.

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know. We lost touch.”

“Why did you leave him?”

“We just weren’t made for each other.”

She was careful in her answers, guarded, kind. In the end I knew nothing more than that he was not right for her. He had vanished. She had simply taken up life with Dad as though we had always been together. By the time we came to Ireland, we had become one family, with no subversive, difficult, damning history.

Did she warn me not to tell anyone that Dad was not my father? Or did I just know, because I was living in Ireland in the 70s, that my state was sinful in some way? That I was a bastard child? That if anyone knew, we’d never be accepted? It’s hard for me to imagine, from this angle here in the U.S. where I’m divorced and most of Zeke’s friends’ parents are divorced, how I just knew, at the age of 12, that I couldn’t tell anyone. I understood why Mum had kept it a secret.

That night, when I went to bed, I didn’t cry for the sense of family I had lost, or rail against injustice. I just breathed a little deeper, relieved that there was a reason for my Dad’s treatment of me. He didn’t just hate me because I was unlovable. He hated me because I wasn’t his.

Somehow, that made it better.

7 responses to “Retrospective 15: 1977 — Bastard child

  1. Oh, TK. I’m so sorry. What a hell of a thing to grow up with. xoxoxo

  2. My second wife and I married after both of our children were raised, so I can understand feeling differently about your genetic children and your step children.

    However, as a teacher I was nearly as fond of some of my students as I was my own children. And the longer I taught them the more important they became to me. It seems to have something to do with the personal investment you make in them.

    If your stepfather didn’t love you like his own child after all those years, one can only wonder what other issues he must have had.

  3. Dale: It was OK, really. I mean, I guess it was hard, but no harder than the way anyone has to grow up. We all have experiences that make life challenging. And other people have it worse. Way worse. But thank you for understanding.

    Loren: I always fear that what will come out when I write is a picture of someone terrible. He wasn’t. He grew up in England during the 2nd WW. He was moved from boarding school to boarding school in advance of the bombs. When he came home from holidays, he found his little brother and sister comfortably at the center of a family that essentially excluded him. His experiences in boarding school were terrible. He was bullied, and found solace only in academic excellence. He learned to love physics, math, engineering, and anything that was sure and clear. I know these things only from probing, and from what my mother said about him. She understood him, and was able to love him despite the difficulty he had interpersonally.

    If he didn’t love me, it wasn’t really his fault or my fault, I don’t think, but more a product of those childhood traumas. Anyway, he loves me now as well as he can. I know that.

  4. Always Curious

    I am sorry but I can see why you were so relieved to find out that why he treated you that way…I think when there is a reason we tend to accept things easily…no matter how bad the reason could be…so in that sense, you must have found peace in knowing it. Very moving story like most of your other stories, thank you for sharing.

  5. I can see why knowing was a relief. I can. There were so many secrets in our family and when a couple of the larger ones came out after my mother’s death it explained and lightened so much.

  6. TK,
    You have painted this so vividly, the beautiful room, your mother, the shocking news spoken. And I can understand the seemingly odd sort of relief you felt. I also understand the incredibly powerful “unspoken rule” bit – about how you knew not to talk about it. Just how does that work? How do we so completely absorb the so very silent family “rules”?
    I wish your mom had been more honest about the blame for your father’s treatment of you.

  7. Always Curious: Yes, a true relief! Just having a reason for how he treated me made all the difference.

    mm: Yes! Isn’t it strange how unburdening oneself of a secret just takes so much pain away. I think family secrets can be so harmful. I’ve tried hard to be absolutely honest with Zeke, as a result.

    Stella: I’ve always wondered how I knew not to say anything. Even my friends didn’t know why I’d gone to the States when my biological dad finally contacted me. Once I tried to tell one person that Dad wasn’t my father, and she didn’t believe me. I did finally tell my best friend, after JD contacted me and I had proof. But I was terrified she wouldn’t believe me. Anyway, it was such a relief knowing, even if I couldn’t share it with my friends.

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