In what would be a life-long pattern of behavior for me, I was absent for the birth of my oldest child. In anger towards her mother, I ignored my daughter for the first seventeen years of her life. The technical or clinical term used by therapists for a person engaged in this type of behavior is: shithead.
Go ahead, look it up in the DSM-5.
My first introduction to my oldest daughter—who, to protect the innocent, I will call MJ—was when she was brought by her mother to a family court hearing in Wayne County for increased child support payments. My daughter and I had never spoken to, or seen, each other. Her mother had explained to me, I believe it was at some point prior to the court appearance, our daughter wanted to, at the very least, get a glimpse of her biological father.
MJ’s mother had taken her out of school for the day and brought her down to the Detroit courthouse. I was with my father. There were many people involved in multiple hearings that day and all of us had to wait for our turn before the judge in a large anteroom filled with row after row of padded folding chairs. It was an interior chamber. The harsh fluorescent lights overhead were casting black, sharply defined shadows of the many plaintiffs, defendants, and their lawyers as they conferred, argued, bantered. The room was loud with these numerous conversations many of them with the liquid jangling of African-American patois interlarded with frequent fulminating expletives. My father and I sat in silence several rows behind MJ and her mother. I was unable, in my peevishness and puerile spite, to view her mother as anything other than my adversary and therefore chose not to speak to her and, by extension, our daughter.
Sitting there tense and upright, my spine as stiff as cold drawn rebar, not sure what to do with my hands, too nervous to speak with my own father, I was determined not to look at MJ or her mother so I stared forward and found the greyish brown of the institutional walls of the anteroom endlessly fascinating and therefore worthy of my full attention. Off to my right, I unwillingly perceived, from the periphery of my vision, a cute but quiet little girl, clearly curious, turning in her seat to look back at me.
I withheld eye contact until my own curiosity prevailed and, as she again twisted around in her seat to watch this strange man who was supposed to be her father, I slowly turned my head like a second-rate actor playing the role of the hideously deformed monster in a B-grade horror film seeking to stretch a moment of suspense and met, with a protective clear plastic face shield of assumed solemn dignity, the gaze of her pretty brown eyes. She quickly turned away and whispered something to her mother who turned to look with distaste at the grim frigidity of my countenance. It was my turn to look away.
Sitting frozen in my fury that this woman—who I was sure was making, with her state job, at least twice the money I was making teaching at the Indian reservation school—seeking more child support, a little voice in my brain timidly suggested it might be better if I were to walk over to MJ and just talk with her, tell her she seemed like a very nice little girl and how adorable she looked. I ignored this voice of reason and, like a marble statue of Zeus—regal in his aloofness and father (in name only) of countless gods and demi-gods—remained seated and immobile.
Dipshit is the technical, legal term for this behavior. If you want to look it up, it can be found on p. 25 of the Friend of the Court Handbook in the Glossary of Frequently Used Terms section.
As I write this, I will be sixty-one years old in a couple of months. Years are never kind to one’s recollection and a little over a decade (from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties) of heavy drinking and dope smoking, along with some brief forays into drugging, have exacerbated my memory problems. I am doing my best to be truthful in my recounting of events but feel compelled to admit, due to my memory issues, I may at times be less than accurate.
My next contact with MJ was when she was seventeen. Slender and with long, gorgeous auburn hair (much like her mother’s when she was seventeen), she had grown into a beautiful young lady as evidenced by the one photo—kept on display in my office until my retirement—I have of her as an adolescent. My mother was a ward clerk at Garden City Hospital and I believe it was she, perhaps through her job at the hospital, who made contact with her granddaughter. She and my father had a couple of pleasant visits with her. My mother encouraged me to meet with MJ and gave me her phone number. My daughter, she assured me, was a nice young lady. We talked on the phone and decided to rendezvous at my cousin Don’s tidy little bungalow in Dearborn where I would be staying with my wife and our three children.
We waited in Don’s living room patiently until MJ arrived late which, I have found over the years, is typical for her. Perhaps it was due to nervousness at meeting me, my wife, and her half-brother and -sisters. She entered with a grace of movement and self-assurance surprising for a teen-ager in such a socially difficult situation.
The living room was small with limited seating. After greetings were exchanged and introductions accomplished, she politely declined the offers to make room for her on the couch and stationed herself on the carpeted floor. We made small talk and asked inanities like, “Did you have any trouble finding the house?”
My loquacious wife excels at this, making friends with strangers everywhere, by asking a myriad of questions—some of which are innocuous while others are rather personal, if not intrusive—along with frequent insertions of opinions and observations. I am terrible at it and, as usual, struggled to contribute to the fast-moving conversation. By the time I was ready to comment, the conversation had advanced two or three topics and I had to abandon what I wanted to say and come up with something new. This cycle kept repeating itself as I got more desperate to say something, anything. I knew I wasn’t connecting with MJ and the minutes were slipping away. The pressure to come up with some sort of meaningful verbalization, some worthwhile contribution to the dialogue, did not, as it does with some people, inspire my mind or sharpen my wits. Instead, it clogged my thought process and sent my mind whirling and diving like a helicopter with its tail rotor shot off.
At some point MJ was provided a seat in an upholstered easy chair (I think my son Tristan may have gallantly offered it to her) and my youngest daughter, Ariana, who was five years old, had moved to my lap. I was a stay-at-home father for the first three years of her life while my wife worked full-time so it was not unusual for her to come to me for nurturing and protection. I’ve always wondered if perhaps Ariana sensed my anxiety and came to offer protection for her Daddy. I was reminded not only of how much I had enjoyed having her and Christiana and Tristan in my arms—gazing down at their beautiful, angelic faces while I whisper-sang Jesus Loves Me and listened to the susurrus of their infant snores—as I rocked them to sleep in our maple glider, but also that I had thrown away the opportunity to do the same with MJ when she was a baby. I held Ariana closely, a human shield to my guilt and shame.
MJ explained she could only stay for a short time as she planned to attend a rave in Detroit. Knowing of the drinking and drugging common at raves along with the inadvisability of a young women driving alone in Detroit at night, Monica and I expressed our concern. Monica, as usual, did most of the expressing but I did manage to squeak out a concurrence. MJ scoffed and laughingly explained she knew exactly where she was going and that she wasn’t interested in drugs or alcohol but only the dancing and socializing. I didn’t want her going downtown and would, if I only could, have forbidden it but was in no position to do so. A parent has to actually be present in a child’s life to earn that privilege. Permission for this was her mother’s decision. MJ assured us her mother knew, and approved, of her plans.
Not wanting to be late for the rave, she soon arose to leave. As she was saying her farewell, first Monica, then Tristan, followed by our middle daughter Christiana, and finally Don, stood and gave her a good-by hug. When it was my turn, I sat in the chair with Ariana in my lap. I could have set Ariana down and gone over to MJ and hugged her. Instead, I remained seated, clinging to my little excuse for not getting up and embracing my oldest daughter. After the briefest of glances at me and Ariana, MJ, expressionless, turned and walked out.
It would be years before I would see her again.
I knew, even as the door was closing, that I should have gotten out of my chair and hugged her. I didn’t because I was afraid she might reject me.
On page 72 of the Urban Dictionary, one can find a term for this craven cowering. It is: cowardly fuck.
Since then I have made a number of apologies and overtures, through phone calls, letters, cards, or social media, to MJ in attempts to re-start our relationship. Some were ignored and others were well received. In 2010, my relationship with MJ had progressed to the point she accepted an invitation to visit with me, Monica, Christiana, and Ariana over Thanksgiving weekend. Tristan was on his own trying to make it as an actor in California.
After Thanksgiving supper with her mother, step-father, and other family members, she and her son (who I will refer to as A) drove north to our house in Tawas City. They arrived so late we were getting anxious. I had been thinking she must have changed her mind about the visit. With relief at their safe arrival, we greeted them warmly and hugs, this time including me and MJ, were shared all around.
With travel bags in hand, we took them to the bedroom upstairs where they would be staying the next few days. This area would provide them with the most space and privacy. Monica and I have been living in our current house for fourteen years. All of those years have seen, at any given time, one or more areas undergoing construction or refurbishment. The room we were working on at the time of MJ’s visit was the upstairs bedroom so there were hand tools, paint cans, roller pans, paint brushes and rollers, joint compound, and other paraphernalia on the floor. We had straightened up in the bedroom and set all those tools and materials off to the side.
In an attempt to make it presentable, I had spent three hours earlier in the day cleaning, with limited success, the upstairs bathroom. There is only so much one can do with a bath tub, sink and vanity, light fixture, and toilet when all of them are over fifty years old. The toilet—a porcelain hell-hole infested with swirling virulent rust stains impervious to any cleaning agent ever devised—was particularly bad. The accommodations were, in short, less than desirable. We left her to get settled in and went downstairs.
When she and A joined us in the living room a little later, we started making plans for one of our annual Peach family Thanksgiving traditions. On Black Friday, instead of fighting savage hordes of shoppers maddened by their lust for bargain prices, we travel to a National Forest to find a Christmas tree. When we lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan it was the Hiawatha National Forest; in Tawas City it is the Huron National Forest. For a five-dollar permit, one can go into designated areas and cut down a pine tree for Christmas.
In our discussions for tomorrow’s excursion into the deep woods, MJ explained she was set with her cold weather gear but A would need some warm boots. We told her we could stop by a local discount store called Norman’s to get him boots before heading off to the woods. I offered to purchase them.
The evening seemed to go well with all of us in the living room. The television was playing a show I can’t remember and nobody was really watching as there was a constant stream of chatter going back and forth between the extroverted, verbal members of the group (Monica, Christiana, Ariana, and A) with an occasional comment or observation thrown in by the two (father and daughter) who were introverted and non-verbal. At several points in the evening, MJ went outside to smoke a cigarette or talk to her mother on the phone.
After A went to bed, MJ, who was being treated by her physician for heroin addiction with a prescription for suboxone, asked if I would mind if she took her medication in the living room because her preferred method of ingesting the pill was to chop it into a fine powder and snort it. She found this to be more effective for her. It also happened to be the way she had been doing heroin. It was easier to do this in the living room rather than the bathroom and she wanted to know if it would be too upsetting for us.
As a recovering addict and alcoholic with my own addiction issues, it was not something I wanted to see but I wanted to be supportive of her efforts to fight her addiction. With reluctance, I nodded my approval. She took a prescription bottle from her purse, extracted a white pill, then took her time fine-hewing it to a medicated talcum. She made the white powder disappear with brio inhalations for each nostril then put the half-full plastic container with child-proof lid and warning labels in her purse. While in there, she grabbed her pack of cigarettes and lighter and went outside for a smoke. I stayed in my rocking chair wondering if she had just struck a blow for liberation from an insidious habit or merely swapped one addiction for another; in either case, I realized the prescription bottle was actually half-empty. Later, MJ informed me suboxone, at that time, was orange and there were no generics so it was probably Vicodin she had chopped and snorted as she was still using and had brought some with her for the visit.
At Norman’s the next morning, we quickly found a pair of boots for my grandson. I took a seat as my wife and three daughters hunted the store for bargains of which there were many to be found. One such bargain MJ discovered was a colorful two-piece swim suit. As she was trying it on in the dressing room, she called over to Monica, who was now finished shopping and seated with me, to come to her so she could get another woman’s opinion on its look and fit. MJ was modest and wanted me to stay where I was; Monica gave her approval and MJ kept the swim suit for purchase.
My other daughters were soon finished looking around the store so I took the box with A’s boots to the cash register to pay for them. MJ was in line right behind me and, as the insulated mukluks were being rung up, she moved forward and to my left and tossed the swim suit on to the counter next to the boots. I finished paying for the boots. The cashier bagged them, threw in the receipt and handed me the package. I left to find A to give him the boots and help put them on. MJ moved into my vacated place and paid for the swim suit. I don’t remember if it was cash or charge nor do I know how I could have possibly been so oblivious to what was happening with MJ, to what she was hoping I would do for her.
We left the store and piled into the Buick Rendezvous but, before heading out to the national forest, we fulfilled another Peach family tradition by stopping at Tim Horton’s to purchase for each of us a fortifying cup of hot cocoa and donut. As we drove north on Monument Road towards the section of woods we always use as our personal Christmas tree plantation, we played Nat King Cole’s Christmas CD and sang along to the mellifluous strains of his rendition of The Christmas Song, another family tradition for cutting down the Christmas Tree. I can’t remember if MJ sang along with us but I’m sure A joined in.
We soon found the two-track leading to “our” section and I pulled on to the forest road and headed west to the deep woods. To the sound of Nat’s dulcet voice and tree branches brushing against our vehicle, we drove north a couple of more miles to the usual spot and I parked the car. We exited the vehicle. A and his aunts were excited and wanted to immediately run off into the woods but we admonished them to wait for their more sedate elders so that we could stay together as we searched for the perfect tree.
Declaring she would fine, MJ had declined our offers for warmer outerwear, long underwear, or boots but soon found it was colder in the woods than in town and that tennis shoes, jeans, and a thin suede coat with artificial shearling lining, along with apprehension about coyotes and bears, would soon leave her shivering. She smoked a couple of cigarettes to calm her nerves as the children ran around trying to find a tree for the living room. In the process of doing this, A discovered, to his immense delight, a deer skull. His mother was less than pleased but graciously gave permission for him to keep the treasure. It wasn’t long before the perfect tree was identified. Perfect is a relative term for wild, national forest pine trees: in this case it meant, as is typical, scraggly and misshapen.
A assisted me with attaching the permit to the trunk, felling the Charlie Brown Special, and dragging it out of the woods. I tied it to the luggage rack on the roof of the car while the rest of the group warmed up in the car. On the way home, we listened to Mariah Carey’s Christmas CD. Before I could bring the tree into the house, I had to saw a good eight inches off the trunk as the chosen Tannenbaum was, as usual, too tall for the living room ceiling. Monica had already prepared the area in front of the picture windows where we always place the tree. A and I brought it in and put it in the tree stand. With feedback from the female observers, we secured the four fasteners in the stand to the trunk so that it stood as straight as could be for such an unprepossessing pine.
After the fun challenge of untangling the Christmas lights and repairing those strings refusing to shine, I, again with A’s able assistance, strung the lights on the tree branches and then all of us began hanging Christmas ornaments on the tree. Monica, it must be understood, is passionately in love with Christmas and that is why the Christmas tree and Christmas Village must be displayed as soon as possible after Thanksgiving. She will already have purchased most of the Christmas presents for immediate and extended family members and friends. One of her traditions is to order, every year, a Christmas ornament for me and her and each child and grandchild from Bronner’s store in Frankenmuth, Michigan. The largest, they claim, Christmas store in the world. We hung our own ornaments and I believe MJ was touched that Monica had been doing this for her. A, obviously, had the least number of ornaments so he was quite excited when given the opportunity to also hang his Uncle Tristan’s ornaments.
At some point in the evening, it may have been during the tree decorating, MJ left to call her mother. By the time the phone call was finished, it had been decided she and A would not be staying with us for a second night as originally planned. MJ came back to the living room and explained she was feeling uncomfortable, in fact overwhelmed, with our family. Her mother had offered to put them up in a nearby motel because it was already late in the evening and MJ was too tired from a full, taxing day to drive the three hours to her home. She had accepted the offer.
We were disappointed and asked if there was something that could be done, what could we change, to make her more comfortable so that she could stay another night. She told us there was nothing we could do, that she needed her own space. She and A packed quickly but before leaving, we set a time for her to come back in the morning for the previously discussed blueberry pancake breakfast I had been planning to make for all of us. I think she agreed because A was keen for the pancakes.
She and A arrived late for breakfast the next morning. I had begun thinking they weren’t going to show. The pancake batter, a sickly shade of lavender, was ready. In November, the only blueberries available are frozen. If you’ve ever made pancakes with frozen blueberries, you will know they should be added to the pancake after the batter has been poured on to the griddle. I forgot about this fundamental of blueberry pancakes and, in another of a long series of missteps throughout the entire visit, had added the blueberries, as if they were fresh, to the batter thus turning it purplish as soon as I folded them in. The resulting hotcakes looked funky but tasted fine. My daughter and grandson left soon after eating their livid pancakes.
We walked them to their car and farewell hugs were exchanged all around. They’ve never been back to visit. In the seven years since her visit MJ has given birth to another boy. I’ve only seen him on Facebook.
Later, after reading an article entitled, “Understanding Obliviosity: Etiology, Assessment, and Treatments,” written by Ima Jerque, MD, et al, published in the Fall 2015 Quarterly Review of Neuropsychiatry, I have determined my obtuseness and obliviousness during MJ’s visit to be at the Shit for Brains level which is worse than the Moron level but not quite as bad as the Complete and Utter Asshole level.
Update: July, 2018
MJ has forgiven me. We have been in contact through Facebook with several nice chats. Clean and working full-time for some years now, she has been attending classes to finish her degree. I hope to meet with her and my grandson H face-to-face soon and introduce her to her young nephew, Grayson.
M. Kelly Peach is a husband, father of four adult children and grandfather of three grandsons. He enjoys reading, writing, collecting books, baking, and camping. He’s been a taco fryer, dishwasher, cook, library aide, maintenance helper, teacher, workforce development professional, supervisor, and, for the State of Michigan, a Project Zero Coordinator, Eligibility Specialist, and Community Resource Coordinator. His Twitter account is @MichaelPeach and has published humorous essays in Punchnel’s, Alternate Hilarities III, Mad Scientist Journal, Summer Issue 2014, and Woods-N-Water News and short stories in Alternate Hilarities I and II, Cheapjack Pulp, Unsung Stories, In Medias Res: Stories of the In-Between, and Strangely Funny IV.