It’s father’s day. Again, I am reminded of the mystery of my father.
Every time mother and father’s days come around, I think about the people who, like me, have difficult parental narratives. While the world celebrates and lauds those giants in our lives, I either ignore the day or spend a few moments confounded again.
My father was a very smart, funny man.
Often compared to Alan Alda in demeanor and comic delivery, people remarked on his charm, good looks, and voracious curiosity. I never stopped marveling at how he would toy with complex math, computer, and philosophy problems for fun. He had an outsized intelligence, quick wit, and the ability to make friends with anyone. He was an odd combination of larger-than-life and ghost like.
Being the youngest of five, in my earliest years, I credited my father’s physical and emotional distance to lack of time. Trying to keep a roof over our heads, he worked two jobs and went to school at night. At home, he stressed over money. To my child’s mind, I was a burden to him and tried to be as little trouble as possible. In my 20s, I told him how I’d felt back then and he said, “Really? You weren’t a burden. No. You weren’t.” It was little comfort because it was one of many attempts to gain emotional closeness to him that fell flat. He tried to connect. I know he did, but it was like we were both grasping at air. There was this hollow in him that correlated to the one in me. Often it felt like there was little between us but our shared last name.
And it was a name I never liked. Even in grade school, when someone would say my first and last name, I would bristle inside. Marilyn Flanagan. Almost a rhyme, but incongruous to my ears. I hated writing, saying, or hearing it. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s, two years before my father’s death, that my distaste for it would find an explanation.
My father rarely spoke of his childhood.
When he did, it was about a funny prank he pulled as a teen or something his mom used to say. And he never, ever spoke about his father. All I knew was his dad was gone. Nothing else.
But when I was 34, my dad told me a story about his childhood he’d hadn’t uttered before. He said he’d never met his father. His mother, Edna, refused to talk about it. It was a taboo topic in his childhood home, so he learned to stop asking. But every birthday and holiday he hoped his father would surprise him, show up, and claim his son. It never happened. On his mother’s deathbed, he said, “You’re going to tell me who my father was.” She blurted out a name, Frederick Flanagan. He researched and found the man died twenty years earlier. Frederick’s obituary named his children and my father’s name did not appear there. Edna had likely never told Frederick he’d had a son.
Family revelations surprised me.
Not only was the story astonishing but the fact that my father never shared it before was jarring. The mystery of my father’s emotional distance now made sense. How does a guy who never had a father know how to be a father? And what kind of residual pain had he carried with this crater in his identity? His unfathomable behaviors that maddened, confused, and hurt me took on different meanings. Perhaps the man that felt like air to me felt similarly to himself.
And then I realized, why should I believe that Frederick Flanagan was his father? His mother kept the secret for 40 years. Why would she finally part with it? The name never resonated with me, so when my father died two years later, I changed my association to it. I didn’t want the legacy of secrets and lies connected to the name Flanagan. But I wanted to honor that little boy who wished for a father, so I took my father’s first name, Heywood as my middle name and let my given middle name, Paige, become my sir name. Paige was the last name of his maternal grandfather, a man he adored, so that felt closer to a true legacy to me.
Discarding Flanagan from my moniker felt like shedding ill-fitting clothes. Marilyn Heywood Paige has felt purposeful and right to me since the ink dried on the court decree. I felt strengthened by my self-delineation in a way my father never could have.
Over the years, and certainly every father’s day, I think about the mystery of my father’s heritage and how it shaped his character. Since the holiday last year, my family discovered through DNA testing and databases that Frederick Flanagan was not his father. Edna took the secret to her grave. His biological father’s last name was Dorr. It answers some questions and opens others.
The newest revelation of my father’s ancestry has made the man who felt unknowable a bit more lucid to me. I feel compassion for him and the mother, who no doubt had good reason to keep his heirship a secret. I’ll probably never know the whole story, but trusting my instincts about my birth name and learning that I was right to feel that way helps me heal that hole I share with my Dad.
How would my dad feel about my name change?
Rather than being offended that I discarded Flanagan, I think my Dad would be proud of me and say something Alan Alda-ish like, “Hey, wood you look at that great name? You took a Paige out of the old man’s book.”
Yeah. That's exactly what I did.