Last night, I dreamed of my father, my biological father, that is — the sperm donor. The alarm woke me, or the dog barking, and the dream fled. I retained a slight sense of disturbance, a sense that I needed to remember the dream, but no details yielded when I probed the darkness of my sleeping memory. But later it came back to me surprisingly, all of a piece, during a student conference. I read a paragraph from my student’s paper, and a single word resurrected the memory, entire, with all its associated feelings. As soon as the student left — not soon enough — I typed the memory into my computer and emailed it to my home address, an unlike-me blurring of the boundaries between work and home. I work at work. And I write at home. Sometimes I work at home, but I never write at work. I never write down my dreams on my work computer and email them to my home address, though as a writing teacher such splits between what is right for work and what is right for home are artificial at best, and damaging ultimately. But that is my life — full of compartmentalization. Until today, when I wrote down my dream at work and emailed it to home. Somehow it seemed important.
Later I came home to find an email from an old acquaintance on the beach. He was my mother’s friend. He knew me when I was an embryo, a fetus, a squalling newborn. He came to my college graduation. I shared a bed with his lesbian daughter when I was 17. I liked her. We lay in the window of the loft bedroom in his beach house, which was glassless, just a six-foot square space that let in the sea-salt night air, and we counted the stars. She is my age now, and a smoker, and her voice is deep and evocative of late nights in bars. We pass on the beach, and I wonder if she remembers that night in the window. Her father, anyway, emails me to tell me that my biological father’s second wife, whom my father divorced the year I met him for the first time since babyhood, had toured the beach that day. He then suggested it was time that Zeke met my “her grandmother,” that the call of blood and heritage was too important to dismiss. But I was confused. Zeke has met both her grandmothers. She knows my ex-husband’s mother well, and sees her several times a year. And she was close to my mother, till my mother died. So who is this grandmother? Perhaps my father’s second wife, a step-grandmother of sorts? But she was never my stepmother, being divorced from my father only months after I met him at the age of 19. Why should she care to meet the granddaughter of her ex-husband’s first wife? It’s confusing, right?
And then I realized he was talking of my grandmother, my biological father’s mother, who is Zeke’s great-grandmother, and I felt a rush of irritation at his assumptions. Zeke has met her great-grandmother. Zeke’s great-grandmother is not interested in her. She said, once, “The first granddaughter to give me a son will inherit my estate. Otherwise it goes to my dog.” It will go to her dog. Rachel is childless. I have a daughter, a miracle child. I don’t care that she’s not a son. I am horrified that my grandmother does care. I have not been averse to the odd email or phone call, but the onus is on her. If she cares, she’ll make the effort. My daughter has heritage a-plenty in her life.
So I emailed back: “I don’t feel Zeke needs to know her great-grandmother any more than she does already. As far as I’m concerned, Dad is my father. He is the man who raised me as his own when JDS was long gone. He has loved Zeke as a grandfather loves his blood kin. Family, to me, is a product of love, not DNA, and my Dad is the only father I care to know.”
And then, on returning home from dinner with Summer tonight, I found a package in the mail: It was the “paperback” I had ordered a few days ago, “In Memoriam,” about my mother’s father. And there it was, the neatly packaged transcript of the memorial service held at Vanderbilt after my grandfather’ death. And within it was a family story — which I always thought apocryphal — proven true.
And I see the links, entwined like the separate locks that twist together to make a braid, my dream of my biological father last night, and then the email reminding me of the importance of blood, of the connection between my biological father’s mother and my own daughter. And finally, that relic from my mother’s side of the family, the booklet recalling the words spoken at my grandfather’s memorial service, evoking a day that fills my mind as though it is my own memory.
My father calls. I am buzzed on gin. Summer grabs the phone: “Let me listen. I’ve never heard his voice and I’ve always wanted to. You invited me over, and then I backed out. Now I want to know him.” We are cheek to cheek in the restaurant, the phone between us. Dad’s voice leaks out and falls away. I can barely understand him. What lingers is the softness of Summer’s cheek, and the restaurant sounds in the background.
Afterwards, I think of the confluences of this day: My biological father, my biological grandmother on my father’s side, my biological grandfather on my mother’s side. On this one day they all crowded forward, demanding their place in my memory, their pre-eminence in my heritage.
But my (step)father is the one who matters. Blood is only one strand in the braid of life, and in my braid, blood is the thinnest strand. What remains, what endures, is love.