On the Disney bus ride back to the airport two weekends ago, the extended family of my long-lost father found me for the first time in 49 years. A niece of his–and I suppose half-cousin of mine–named Celia found the Ancestry family tree I created two years ago, and from there, my blog. By the time I got through security, I had the first new pictures I’ve ever had of my dad since the age of 24, when my mother admitted to me a familiar face in an old family album was my real birth father, a Puerto Rican man named Angelo Oropesa.
I wasn’t ready to search for him then. By the time I did, in my mid-thirties, like my mother before him, he was already deceased. Almost exactly a decade ago, when my forties began, I blogged about how, as I got older, it felt more urgent to find out more about him. The man my mother met at a Halloween party in 1969, who courted her for months and then left forever after getting her pregnant. (And after my adult siblings beat the fuck out of him.) The man who made my mother feel so ashamed, she swore my family, school, and neighborhood to secrecy, and invented the phony backstory that my alcoholic siblings’ alcoholic father–her Irish husband, dead for six years–was actually my father, too, dying only a few months before I was born.
All the well-intentioned lying–and addict enabling, and emotional turmoil, and financial disaster that stemmed from it throughout my childhood. I may have left New York over 9/11, but I stayed away from my family for 20 years over all that. In fact, when my mother’s side of my family came back into my life four years ago, it was an eerie surprise. At the time, I had actually been strongly pining for my father’s family–if he ever had any–to finally enter the picture.
Be careful what you wish for.
I may have started my forties yearning for my father, but I’m ending them leaving him behind. Earlier this month, it felt magical to suddenly, finally have the first real knowledge I’ve ever had in my life about my father. To see photos of him later in life. To communicate with someone who knew him throughout her own.
Celia told me her Mexican-American family knew him as “Uncle Geno”, and that she was surprised to learn he was Puerto Rican. He always told them he was Italian. He married her mother’s sister, but they never had children. He treated Celia and her 13 brothers and sisters as his surrogate family. She said he was very hard on her boyfriends, warning them never to hurt her. He was particularly hard on her boyfriends because she was the youngest.
As nearly as we could piece things together that day and the following couple of days that I continued to text with her, he left New York over gambling debts and settled in Santa Ana, California–in the shadow of Disneyland–where he married Celia’s aunt. My mother had told me he had gone to Santa Ana, and every time I’ve ever been in Disneyland, I’ve always wondered if I would somehow, some way run into someone who knew him. (So you can imagine my shock at first contact happening while leaving Walt Disney World on Disney’s Magical Express.)
Except, my mother was talking about his return to California. Celia was talking about his first arrival in California–in 1961. Eight years later, his wife threw him out over his continued gambling, so he returned to New York, met my mother, didn’t tell her he was married–and the rest is me. I always suspected my siblings nearly put him in the hospital because, after learning about my mother’s pregnancy, he finally disclosed to her that he was married.
Not only married for eight years, but already uncle to Celia–five years my senior–and every single one of her brothers and sisters. None of them knew what he had done in New York. My existence came as a complete surprise. His wife took him back after my siblings threatened him away, and he never told any of them about me. Celia said they all felt for me upon learning what their “Uncle Geno” had done. She said one sister couldn’t decide whether to cry for me or be angry at her uncle.
Let me tell you, I’m angry at her uncle for her. Not for the adultery. Not for the lies. For the years of being a coward. Celia said he always seemed to have a sadness in his eyes and that she guessed that must have been about me. But how easy it must have been to walk away when you already have more than a dozen other kids in your extended family to return to California and drown your sorrows in.
I’m angry for the stories of love, and affection, and family that they shared with my father–love, and affection, and family that he never shared with me, over the 29 years of my life that he was still alive, and had the chance, and knew better than not to.
I’m angry that I now have two parents who ran away from their cultural heritages. My mother left her Venezuelan Spanish behind to flee her mother’s house and raise unilingual, white-bread American children. My Puerto Rican father told his Mexican-American family that he was Italian.
I’m angry that I’ve spent my life chasing down Spanish. That I’ve felt guilty for decades that my French and Portuguese–the languages that I came to love on my own–have always been far easier for me than the language of my mother and father.
I’m angry that I’ve been haunted by the intergenerational toxicity on my mom’s side my whole life, only to discover equally boneheaded, toxic choices on my father’s side, too. If you read my Ancestry post from two years ago, you know my greatest role model is my great grandfather, Max D’Arcy. A Frenchman who immigrated to San Francisco with his parents, then spent half his adult life raising a tri-lingual family across Latin America and the Caribbean with his Venezuelan wife before settling in New York.
If you’re keeping count, though, at this point he’s my only role model in my family–and you have to go back to the late 1800s to start counting. I’m angry that I need a time machine to find an ancestor in my family on either side that I can look up to.
It all just has to end. Toni Morrison’s quote from Song of Solomon is fitting here:
“Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
I’m not mad at my father’s family at all. I wish them well. But I don’t need to know any more. They were his family to begin with. But in the end, he was never mine. So I’m giving up the decades of yearning and decades of guilt, and I’m taking back my life.
I’m taking back my French and bringing myself back to fluency. I miss it. This time, I’ll do it without feeling like a failure because it isn’t Spanish.
I’m taking back my right to live where I want to–whether it’s Chicago or Orlando or anywhere else–without feeling guilty that I may never again live in a city where my family–either side of my family–still lives.
I’m giving up hope to ever find a cultural barometer or any semblance of a cultural identity from my family. I’ll make my own choices and forge my own alliances from now on. I trust myself more.
I’ll give more credit to the fact that the language that I loved on my own first was, unknown to me at the time, the language of my great-grandfather. So maybe I do have a barometer after all.
What I don’t have, never did have, and no longer have any need for is my father. Angelo, or Geno, whoever you were and why ever you made the choices you made while you were here, I guess I never really did know you at all. Let’s keep it that way. It’s probably better you’re dead now, because if you weren’t, it would be a lot harder to say goodbye. For you, I’m sure.
But not for me.