Sometimes I don’t know what’s true, and what I’ve made up to fill in the gaps. What I picked up from movies or books or TV and used to create a history. What I’m lying about. What the truth is.
I know this: Six months after I was born my parents divorced. They had been married for ten years. I was the fourth and last child they had together. They had both been married before; my mother had a son from her first marriage, and my father had three children from his. When I was around three, my mother married my stepfather and he adopted me. But even the simplest facts are filled with uncertainty. My mother had moved to the small farming community my stepfather lived in—how had they met? How do you go from Morro Bay, California to Eastern Washington State? Where did my father go? Why did some of my siblings stay with him, and some with our mother?
Part of the mystery comes from my own obliviousness. I was a uniquely oblivious child, always occupied with my own projects. Creating stories, imaginary friends, and elaborate rules that turned multiplayer board games into single player showdowns with myself. I had things to do, you know. I didn’t care about my family, or notice that they were strange in any way. As I grew older, the obliviousness became a habit and a self-fulfilling thing; by not concerning myself with any of that family shit, I also got to play at being the misunderstood outcast, youngest child, eternally left out of the story. So I made up my own.
Now people actually want their photos to be square and tinged with sepia, but when I was a kid those traits marked a photo as impossibly old, a relic. I found the square photo of a handsome man, almost in profile, with wavy hair and a large nose in the back of a photo album, with some other loose photos of my siblings and one of my mother, standing in a front yard in a maxi dress, her hair long and flowing down her back.
No one had to tell me who the handsome man was. I knew the nose and the hair because they were similar to my own. Though every friend I had denied my nose was big, in profile it was, in my girlish opinion, gigantic. It had a particular shape in profile. I recognized that shape in my father’s young face.
I haven’t seen that photo since I was a kid; it disappeared somewhere. But it’s vivid, in my head. There was no writing on the back, unusual for one of our family photos, which usually included at least a date, and potentially a name, location, description of the event… But I could tell my father was in a kitchen. He wore a blue polo and he was smiling, looking away.
The first time I remember meeting my father was at my older sister’s wedding. The wedding was a massive event held in a large church in Fresno, and I had been recruited to serve as “candle lighter,” a task I figured would be simple until I realized the candles were on an absolutely massive standing candelabra that was taller than me. I found myself giving a frantic glance back to my mother, who watched benignly from a pew in the front. After a few moments the brass candle lighter I had blindly thrust towards the top candle connected with the wick, and I was still flush from this victory after the ceremony, when my father approached and said hello.
He seemed old, not like the young man in the photo. He was a bit overweight and projected a confidence that had clearly fooled a lot of the people a lot of the time, but immediately put me on my guard. People are easy to trick. They trust too easily. Wear the right clothes and say the right things and they’ll do whatever you ask them to. I was eleven or twelve, and I had just started sensing in myself the same abilities that had made it possible for my father to be perceived as a good person and a con artist, a friendly father and a troubled felon. When I lied, people believed me. When he lied, I knew what it was.
My mother dropped hints about her life with my father, and by the time of my sister’s wedding I knew they had lived a dangerous, unpredictable lifestyle. They sold cars, but my mother passed bad checks, my father went to federal prison, their dealings were not always above board, and at least once my maternal grandfather had needed to give them a large sum of money to make their problems disappear. I knew, too, that my father had beaten my mother, often.
I’m likeable. When people meet me and they don’t like me, it always leads me to try a bit harder, with the attitude of, “oh, I’m sorry, perhaps you didn’t realize how likeable I am?” This was the same reaction my father had to my reluctance to engage him. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he seemed to be saying as he tried to quiz me about my life, my likes, my dislikes, my personality, my thoughts, “Perhaps you don’t realize you’re supposed to like me.”
Two years later he was dead. My mother called it a “stomach aneurysm,” also known as an abdominal aortic aneurysm, or colloquially, “AAA.” When the abdominal aorta ruptures, your abdominal cavity fills with blood, and you’re dead in minutes. He was alone.
It’s hard to say what led to the AAA. It could’ve been the alcoholism. It could’ve been the drug use. His death was one way to insert himself in my life in a continued way; because there can be a genetic component to AAA, and because of the way doctors write their patient history forms, a dead parent who collapsed from an aortic aneurysm is something I get to talk about with most of the doctors I see.
At first when I would ask about my father I was hungry for stories, anecdotes, any hint of what life had been like way before I was born. For a while the only story I had was story about when they lived in the Mojave and brought a desert tortoise home to be a pet. My father had drilled a hole in its shell to put it on a leash. I thought this sounded strangely practical. Eventually someone told me it causes pain. All the stories were like that; initially I was hungry to hear them, but on reflection, there was a sad, cruel streak running through my parents’ marriage. Did my father know it hurt tortoises to drill through their shell? Part of me chalked it up to “it was a different time.”
Part of me thinks he did.
Really, I lost two fathers. For the first ten years of my life I considered my stepfather “dad.” He doted on me. His family always treated me with less enthusiasm. I was reminded of my status as an “other” frequently, and this was how I learned to suppress the need to be liked. There were some people, I learned at a young age, who would never like you, who you could never charm. You had to treat them in a certain way—keep them at a distance, make sure they didn’t get in your way. I imagine this was a lesson my father learned young.
My stepfather was bland, nice enough. After he and my mother broke up he had a series of girlfriends he proposed to quickly, before the relationships broke up. My siblings didn’t like him. I didn’t have any other grown men in my life to think of as a father, but in the years since I last saw my stepfather, he stopped meaning much. Recently, going through my old room in my mom’s house, I found a photo of me and my stepfather taken the last time we saw each other. After a certain point, he had stopped calling, and I had stopped calling. I guessed I referenced him once in a while when I talked about learning to shoot a gun at a young age. I threw the photo away.
In the 70s my father went to jail for a year for starting a fistfight on a plane, leading the plane to make an emergency landing. When he was released from the federal prison on Terminal Island he had a limo pick him up. This is the kind of story my mother tells me: charming anecdotes.
As an adult, I found the case. My father had appealed his conviction, blaming the airline for allowing him to continue to drink after boarding the plane obviously intoxicated. It was a long shot; he lost. Still, the ability to independently confirm a story of my mother’s had an impact on me at a time when I would’ve rather believed that my parents had not been troubled con artists.
Now it’s true that everyone makes their own truth. Nobody knows that more than someone who tells lies that get believed. So I could really tell anyone anything about my father; in fact, I mostly do. When people ask about your family they’re usually being polite, and the most polite thing you can do in return is not get too deep. People will ask me about my mother, and I will say she’s retired. Then they’ll ask about my father.
“He died a few years ago,” I’ll say.
“I’m sorry,” they reply.
“Thank you,” I say.
It’s a gift. Tell a lie. Be believed.
D.M. Moehrle is a librarian living in Southern California. She tweets prolifically.