The Father of My Child
June 1951 True Romance
It was the best of intentions that she invited her first husband to meet her second. And when it was too late, she realized what a mistake she’s made.
Carefully I spread the quivering meringue over the still warm lemon pie. I wanted so much for everything to be right for tonight, Steve’s and my first wedding anniversary!
“Make sure Dickie feels part of it,” Steve had whispered to me that morning as he kissed me good-by.
There was a wistful note in his voice that tore at my heart, and made me wish again desperately that I knew the key to the riddle of Dick and Steve. “Time, give the boy time,” Steve had said in the beginning, but time only seemed to have made matters worse, and each day Dickie’s resentment appeared to grow rather than decrease.
The change had come over him so mysteriously, so insidiously, that it took me a few months to realize that instead of being gloriously thrilled and happy with his wonderful new stepfather, my eight-year-old son was miserably the only source of conflict in the one precious year Steve and I’d had together.
When I first met Steve I guess the thing that attracted me to him was the way he went out of his way for Dickie. Not in any over-display of affection, as some men would, showering him with grand presents and making a big fuss, but in a quiet, almost grave companionship.
Steve made a point, from the very beginning of coming to take me out on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when Dick could come with us. Of choosing movies he would enjoy, of doing all his courting via circuses, rodeos, country fairs and all the things entrancing to a small boy. And I loved him for it.
Dick had been only two when Barney, his father, had skipped off, not even having the courage to ask me for a divorce, but leaving it to a lawyer. And even. in those two years Barney had spent considerably more of his time “on the town” than with us. After the dismal misery of that unfortunate marriage, and the years later alone, meeting Steve, falling in love, was like stepping out of a wretched, lonely wasteland into an almost forgotten world of laughter and affection, of slowly remembering the simple every-day joys of living, and the deep, mysterious magic of love.
When Steve whispered, “Meg, will you marry me?” I felt as if God had given me a reprieve, as if He had said, “You’ve suffered enough. You’re twenty-six years old and you’ve been through horror. I’m going to give you and Dickie, too, another chance now.”
And I still felt that way. I loved Steve with a passion and a tenderness that was unlike anything I had ever known before. Everything about him seemed blessedly different, new to me, even his looks. Big, blond, slow-moving, he was almost the direct opposite of Barney, who was narrow, slim and dark with a kind of graceful nervousness.
Naturally Dickie asked questions about his father and I answered them the best I knew how. After all, I couldn’t tell a small child that his father was selfish, irresponsible . . . about the ruthless disregard he had for anything and anyone, including Dickie, if it interfered with his own pleasure. So I picked out a few things and built up from there, about how gay he was, fun to be with, always ready for a laugh. The lies started out innocently enough soon after Barney was gone and Dickie had a broken wagon I couldn’t fix.
“If my daddy were here,” he said, his big brown eyes solemn, “he’d fix it, wouldn’t he?” I thought for a minute of the destruction Barney had left behind him, the unpaid bills, the broken window pane that still had a cardboard stuck in it because Barney couldn’t be bothered and there wasn’t any money to call in a glazier —and I had taken Dickie in my arms and said, “Of course, darling, your daddy would fix it.”
For a few years after that it seemed that everything that went wrong in Dickie’s life could be fixed and comforted by the words, “Yes, sweetheart, if your daddy were here it wouldn’t have happened.” It was such an easy way out for me—to stop the tears and the upsets—I didn’t realize the awful magnitude of the superman I was building up for the child to cling to. It wasn’t until he was around five or six that the magic ceased to work, and instead in any crisis he screamed, “I want Barney, I want my daddy.”
When Steve first came along, I think Dickie was as excited as I. The delight of having a man around was almost pathetic, and when I told him Steve and I were going to be married, he shouted with glee, “I’m going to have a daddy, just like all the other kids!”
But after a few months the novelty wore off, and having a new daddy wasn’t all fun when he told you what to do. Suddenly, came back again the old cry, “I want Barney, I want my own daddy.” I suppose I should have expected it, and yet somehow I had hoped that Steve with his kind, patient goodness would have wiped out the thought of anyone else.
“Hi, Mom.” I had been so lost in my own thoughts I hadn’t even heard Dick come in. “What’s all the decoration for?”
“Why, I told you, sweetheart. It’s our wedding anniversary. Steve and I have been married one year today. We thought we’d have a little party to celebrate.”
“Who’s coming? Will they bring me presents?”
I smiled at his only interest in parties. “No one’s coming. It’s a family party, just you and Steve and me. I don’t think there will be any presents.”
“Well, I want to go to the movies anyway. Can I, Mom?”
“No, of course not. I said we were having a party, and we want you home with us.”
“But I want to go to the movies.” Dick’s face looked stubborn. “Having a party with you and Steve ain’t no fun.”
“Oh, Dickie!” I could feel despair. Please, not tonight. Don’t build up to a scene tonight, I prayed silently to myself. “You wait and see, I think it might be fun,” I said aloud.
“Maybe for you and him,” he answered sullenly. “But not for me.”
I was glad to hear Steve’s key in the door, and overjoyed to see him come striding into the kitchen carrying two long boxes. “Happy anniversary, sweetheart!” he exclaimed, taking me in his arms and holding me close. In Steve’s arms I felt as if nothing could ever really be wrong between us.
“Hi, Dick.” Steve turned to Dick as soon as he released me. “Here, this is for you.” He handed him one box and gave me the other.
Dick’s face lit up for a minute as he tore off the wrappings. “Oh, boy, this is great.
Thanks,” he said a little sheepishly, taking out a fine baseball bat.
I was busy with my own present, my favorite long stemmed deep red roses. I was filling a vase with water when I heard Steve’s voice behind me say, “Dick, don’t swing the bat around the kitchen,” and a second later the crash, of shattered glass.
“Oh, Dickie!” I spun around to see two of my best tumblers in tiny pieces on the floor.
“Why did you deliberately swing that bat, after I told you not to?” Steve’s voice was kind but firm.
“‘Cause I wanted to.” Dickie was defiant. “Besides, I don’t have to do what you tell me.”
“I think it’s time you started learning,” Steve said patiently. “Take a dust pan and sweep up that mess.”
“I’m not goin’ to do it. You ain’t my father, and I’m not going to do anything you tell me!”
Dickie’s eyes were darting around the room, looking for escape. “Mom, give me my supper so I can get to the show.” He turned to me, pleading.
“I thought that was all settled, Dickie,” I said, trying to keep my voice quiet. I could feel the tension in the room, the fury in Dickie’s little body, mounting up to something enormous, frightening and terrible. . . .
“Of course you’re not going to the movies,” Steve said, stooping down to take care of the glass himself.
“Why not?” His voice was high and shrill. “Why not?”
Steve stood up and faced the boy. “Because first of all it’s a school night and you know you don’t go to the movies then, and secondly your mother went to a great deal of trouble to fix up a nice party, and I think you should help us celebrate our wedding anniversary.”
Then it came. The anger, the temper, the bitter resentment and hate. Dickie burst into loud sobs, his face red and wild looking, his foot stamping up and down. “I don’t want to celebrate your wedding. I hate it. I hate you—you’re not my father and you never will be. I want my own daddy. I want Barney,” he shouted so loud people must have heard him blocks away. Suddenly he ran out of the kitchen and we could hear the door to his room slam after him.
My whole body trembling, I sank down on the kitchen chair and heedlessly let the tears roll down my cheeks. Steve put a hand gently on my shoulder. “Don’t take it so hard, Meg.”
Steve was pacing around the kitchen restlessly. I tried to make myself stop “Maybe you should have let him go to the movies,” I said dully.
“Nonsense!” Steve’s voice was strangely sharp “If he got the movies, it would be something else! That’s not what he’s crying about. It’s this idiotic picture of his father you’ve been building up all these years. Nobody in the world could live up to that!” He ran his fingers through his hair impatiently. “If Barney were someone real I could cope with him. But not this image of perfection the kid has!”
“What do you want me to do? Tell the boy his own father’s no good?” I felt myself getting angry now. It all seemed so hopeless, so confused. . . .
Steve swung around in front of me. “Why not? You can’t keep on kidding him forever. Barney never comes to see him, hasn’t been around here since I knew you. He doesn’t give a hang about the kid, and yet he’s ruining his life—and yours and mine too. And you’re the one who’s letting him do it!” I had never seen Steve like this before. His face was white and his eyes blazing.
I said the cruelest thing I could have. “If you were his own father you wouldn’t be talking this way.”
There was a long silence which Steve finally broke in a toneless voice. “I guess you’re right, Meg. He is your son, and from now on you can run the show any way you please. You give the orders and I’ll try to keep my mouth shut.”
knew, and Steve knew too, that that was no solution. It was about the worst thing in the world that could have happened. But I was too weary, too emotionally spent, and I guess too stubborn, to say anything except, “That’s okay with me,” in a terse voice.
After supper Steve said gruffly, “I’ll do the dishes, you take care of the boy.”
Slowly I pushed open the door to Dickie’s room. He’d been so quiet I suspected he was asleep, and sure enough he was curled up on his bed, his face still wet and streaked, and clutched in his hand was the one snapshot he had of Barney. . Gently I undressed him. He hardly woke up at all, just a few times he cried in his sleep, “Daddy, I want my daddy!”
After that Steve kept religiously to his word. Every time Dick asked if he could do anything, it was always the same answer from Steve. “Ask your mother.” Whatever discipline there was had to come from me, and that was getting harder and harder to maintain. So far as Dick was concerned, Steve was like a polite guest living with us—and with every advance that Steve made toward the boy Dickie got bolder and bolder in rejecting. It seemed if Dickie couldn’t have Barney he didn’t want any father at all!
It would be foolish of me to say this didn’t affect things between Steve and me. How could Steve be a husband to me and not a father to the boy? In my desolation I thought of all kinds of things. Even of leaving Steve, my wonderful, strong Steve, whose eyes were carrying around a pain that seemed to say, “What have I done? Why can’t the child love me?” And my tormented heart answered him silently, “It was done before you were here. . . . I did it, I’m the one.”
Some words of Steve’s kept nagging at my mind. “I could cope with a real father, but not with this image. . . .” Why not, I wondered. Why shouldn’t Dickie see his own father?
I had covered up for Barney so much, why couldn’t I go one step further and ask him to come around. I was sure he would if I asked him, Barney wasn’t mean or vicious—just careless, thoughtless, disinterested. I remembered an article I once read saying how to tell a kid that a stepfather was something extra . . . that gave him two fathers, his own and another one, which was more than other children had.
Maybe that’s what Dickie needed, some part of his own father once in a while, and then he wouldn’t mind so much about Steve.
Barney lived only sixty or seventy miles away from Torrington. . . . I’d ask him over for Sunday dinner and surprise Dickie.
But I was going to have to tell Steve, I knew that. That night after Dickie was in bed, my heart hammering violently, I said as evenly as I could that Barney was coming over on Sunday. Steve’s face flinched and the pain shot through his eyes. “What brought him to, after all these years?”
I got very busy with the dishwashing. I couldn’t tell Steve I’d called him. I just couldn’t, I knew he would hate Barney even worse for that. “I dunno, maybe he just has a yen to see Dickie, or,” I added, laughing a little, “maybe he wants to give you the once over.”
“I hope it makes Dick more happy than it will upset him,” Steve said quietly.
I felt a pang of uneasiness go through me. “It won’t upset him—why should it? He’s been clamoring to see his own father and now he will,” I said, wishing I felt as convinced as I sounded.
Sunday dawned clear and pleasant. Right after breakfast Steve announced that he was going for a walk. “Want to come, Dick?” I could tell by Steve’s face he didn’t want to be around when Barney arrived.
“Naw,” Dickie muttered.
When I called Barney I’d told him to be sure to be over by twelve, figuring he’d get there around one, but a few minutes after twelve the bell rang. My heart was hammering furiously as I stopped to powder my nose before letting him in.
“Hi, Meg,” Barney said easily, as if he’d been coming around for Sunday dinner regularly for years. “How’s tricks?”
“We’re all fine,” I answered, surprised at the evenness of my voice. “You’re looking well.” As he walked around the living room on an inspection tour I was able to look at him. He did look well, very well … he was even fat and he was extremely well dressed. Steve’s best suit wasn’t as good as the carefully pressed pin-stripe Barney was wearing, nor could the tan shirt and perfectly matched tie have been bought at a cheap store by any means. “You look very well,” I repeated, “and certainly prosperous.”
“I’m doing all right,” he answered casually, perching himself on the arm of a chair. “I’ve got a nice hunk of territory selling booze, keeps me moving. Where is everyone?”
“Dickie’s downstairs, I’ll call him. Steve’ll be back soon.”
My knees were shaking as I went to the window to call Dickie. It was easy for me to see Barney, but Dickie . . maybe I should have told him, warned him, but it was too late now.
“Dickie, come on up, there’s someone here to see you.”
He came running into the room breathlessly, and stopped short when he saw Barney. I don’t think he knew who he was until Barney said, “Hi, son, how are you? Come here and let me look at you.”
Dick stood quietly in the middle of the room, not moving, not daring to look up. “It’s Barney, darling, your own daddy,” I said encouragingly. “Don’t you want to say hello to him?”
“Don’t tell me you’re shy,” Barney said, laughing a little too loudly. “No son of mine is shy! Come here and say hello like a man.”
Finally Dickie said “Hello,” in a tiny voice and ran out of the room into his own.
Barney looked annoyed. “Don’t you teach the kid any manners? That’s a heck of a greeting to give his own dad after all these years!”
I bit my lip hard. I must control myself, this is no time to have a scene with Barney . . . remind him that the years were his responsibility, his fault, not his son’s. “This is a big moment for him, Barney,” I said, “maybe he needs a little time to digest it. Why don’t you go in and ask to see his toys?”
“Well, maybe,” Barney replied. but he didn’t move. “You got a television set? There’s a show I wanted to see at one o’clock.”
“No, we haven’t. I’m sorry, besides we’ll be eating then. My heart felt heavy as lead. What had made me think Barney was going to be any different . . . that my bringing him here was going to achieve some magic?
After a while Dickie couldn’t resist coming out, but he came timidly, carrying a box of puzzles he’d gotten for his birthday “Can you do these?” he asked, shoving the box at Barney.
“Sure, sure,” Barney said expansively. “Of course I can.” He sat down on the floor with Dickie and I felt relieved This was more like it. But after struggling for a few minutes unsuccessfully with one of the puzzles, he excused himself, “Forgot to buy cigarettes,” he called from the door, “be right back. . . .”
By the time he got back Steve was there and we sat down to dinner. Then I realized the enormity of the mistake I’d made.
Barney kept the conversation going. but there was nothing in it that included
Dickie at all. He talked about himself, his trips as a salesman, and he talked cars with Steve.
A few times Dickie shyly said, “Daddy. . .” Steve, his face rigid, looked
the other way, and Barney would say,
“Yes, son?” and go right on talking. I was relieved when the meal was over and
wondered how soon Barney would leave.
Steve excused himself after dinner, saying he had a job to do over at the garage where he worked. Barney picked up the newspaper and turned on the radio.
Dickie hung around for a few minutes, his face tense and white. Finally he announced he was going downstairs to skate
“That’s fine,” Barney said easily. “Too nice to stay indoors, you should be with children, not hang around grown-ups.”
In about ten minutes Dickie was back upstairs again, carrying his skates. “Daddy,” he said solemnly to Barney, “can you fix this for me, please?”
He held a loose wheel in his hand . . . they were practically new skates, he’d hardly used them.
Barney put down the paper. “That was fast,” he said lazily, putting the wheel on to the axle.
“Here, ask your mother for a screw driver and tighten it. It’s easy.”
“No, you do it,” Dickie said quietly.
Barney laughed. “I’m too comfortable to move. Sunday’s supposed to be a working man’s day of rest, son, you can do it.”
Dickie was trying hard to keep his face from breaking up into tears, but the cry was there, drawing his mouth down. “I wanted you to fix it.” He couldn’t hold back any more, and the sobs came.
Barney looked surprised. “What a silly thing to cry about, if you’re big enough to skate you can fix it. Now go ahead, don’t be such a baby.”
I forced myself to get busy with the dishes, trying to push out of my mind the tragic disappointment on the child’s face. Perhaps I should have gone after him then, to comfort him, try to ease him with the warmth of my love. But my own heartache was too much, too stifling. . .
It must have been around four o’clock when Steve came in.
“Where’s Dickie?” he asked, surprised.
“Didn’t you see him downstairs when you came in?” I felt a funny little flutter in my heart.
“No, but I’ll go down and look again.”
Barney stood up, his face flushed. “Must have fallen asleep. Gosh, I didn’t know it was this late. As soon as the kid comes in I’ll say goodbye and beat it. This was darn nice, Meg, haven’t eaten as good cooking as yours in a long time.”
There was nothing I could say to him. I wanted to take my fists and pummel his face, wipe out the too-bright restlessness in his eyes, shake him until he couldn’t move, but all the time I knew it wasn’t entirely his fault. I had been the fool. The stupid, stupid, fool to have asked him here today. Hadn’t those years with him been enough to know he’d never change, that there was no understanding, no recognition, nothing in the world for him beyond the capital letters BARNEY. .
Steve came back with his face set in hard lines. “The kids said they haven’t seen him for about two hours. . . .” His eyes went past Barney’s and looked at mine accusingly. . .
“Maybe we’d better call the police. Dickie doesn’t wander off without telling us where he’s going.”
Standing there, my face glued to the window, hearing the grim plans for a search in the low tones of the men behind me, I would have given my life to take back the fairy tale I had spun, take back the easy words of comfort I had invented about Barney, because I couldn’t stand hearing Dickie cry.
I had given him a make-believe father he had to discover was a fake, and I had made it impossible for Steve, or anyone I might have married to be a father to him.
I guess it was close to midnight when Steve called to say he’d found him, way over the other end of town, curled up in an alleyway sound asleep. I sank down in grateful prayer, feeling that God was kinder to me than I deserved.
We were alone after Steve came speeding home in a police car. Steve, Barney, Dickie and me—the four of us. Dickie was in my lap, clinging to me hard and tight.
“Sweetheart, don’t cry. You’re home now, safe and sound with Mommy. Please don’t cry, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’m not afraid,” he mumbled, “but I wanted to run away. I didn’t want to come home. Steve shouldn’ta brought me home. . .”
The knife was turning in my heart so sharp I wanted to cry out with the pain of it. Steve came over to me and with one swift movement lifted the boy out of my arms into his own. “Why not. Dickie, why shouldn’t I bring you home?” he whispered, as if he didn’t want anyone but himself and the child to hear.
The boy looked around at the three of us uneasily and then covered his face with his arms.
From the depths of his despair his voice came to us, small and shaky. “‘Cause I don’t like having two fathers, it’s not like the other kids have. Besides I ain’t—I haven’t,” gravely he corrected himself, “I haven’t been nice to Steve, so he don’t like me—an’ Barney, he don’t like me at all either—so what’s the use of havin’ two fathers if neither one of them cares?”
“I’m afraid you’ve made a mistake there, son,” Steve said quietly. “I can’t explain it all to you now, because some of it’s going to take a long time, and maybe it won’t be for years, until you’re much older that you’ll understand it all—especially about Barney. But one thing you’ve got to take my word for—you’ve got to believe and never forget—no matter what you do or say I’m your father and I love you. Nothing you can do can stop that—and nothing I do, even when I’m angry, ever lets that stop, even for a second.”
Dickie took his hands away from his face for a minute and looked at Steve. “Even when I say I hate you?”
Steve smiled. “Even when you say you hate me—to tell you the truth, Dickie, I don’t think you always mean it.” He took the boy’s face between his hands. “And I don’t like you running away from home. You must never, never do this again.”
Dick flushed, and said, almost as if he didn’t know how to stop himself. “What you going to do to stop me?”
Steve’s face was serious. “You gave us a pretty rough time of it this afternoon. I think you’d better give up movies for a month, just to be sure you remember.”
Dickie’s face looked sullen, and then he looked up and caught Steve’s eyes on him. There was no mistaking, even for an eight year-old, the love that shone out of those eyes. “Okay, Dad,” he muttered, and broke out of Steve’s arms. Without looking at any of us he ran out of the room.
In the hallway we heard him stop.
“Good night, Barney,” he called out, “and Dad, will you fix those skates for me so I can take them to school tomorrow?”
Steve and Barney exchanged one swift look. “Sure,” Steve answered,
“I’ll do them before I leave in the morning.”
The three of us stood in the room in an uneasy silence. “I guess I better help him into bed,” I said lamely.
For once Barney seemed without words. He opened his mouth and closed it again. “Guess I’d better run along,” he said. “I guess I missed my chance to be a real parent—long time ago. You two can do it much better than I ever could. Good-by.”
There was something in the way he looked around the room, his eyes lingering on the doorway through which Dickie had vanished, in the way he shook Steve’s hand, that made me feel so choked up I couldn’t even say good-by.
After the door closed behind him I was grateful for the strength of Steve’s arm around my shoulder. “It’s going to be all right, Meg—I think it’s going to be all right from now on.”
By the tenderness in his eyes, the firm clasp of his arms around me, I knew it was going to be all right. My boy had found a real father at last—and, in a way, a different, wiser and better mother than he had had before.