My parents conspired to exasperate me when they were alive and dead. I have written about their brief marriage before. This story is about their last romance and my first contact with my Dad in adulthood.
To briefly preface – my parents met in San Francisco in 1959 and swiftly married. They were infatuated with each other. My Dad was a handsome Mexican American, a pilot and accomplished artist. He was the direct descendent of ‘Californian Royalty’, Captain Jose Francisco Ortega who, on a scouting mission for the Spanish, discovered the bay of San Francisco in 1769. He has his own Wikipedia page; Jose Francisco Ortega My Dad was a charismatic black sheep of his family but my mum was smitten. Equally, he was entranced by the Irish beauty who was as sharp as a whip and very funny. She worked as a model in a department store in San Francisco but her regular job was with Bank of America in the Foreign Exchange.
After he abandoned us, my mum was careful to extol his virtues to me although I was aware that the rest of her family did not share that opinion. As I got older, little bits of information were let slip. He had been in San Quentin prison on forgery charges. As my mum disappeared into mental illness and alcoholism, she shared more about his real personality. He was emotionally cruel and seemed incapable of holding down a decent job. Eventually my mum divorced him in 1976.
Life moved on and I came to an incomplete conclusion about my father. In my late twenties, I had an overwhelming desire to know more about him and asked my mum if she would mind if I tried to contact him. She was very open to that and I contacted a mutual friend of my parents who likely knew his location. Shortly after, I received a long letter from my elusive father. He seemed happy to resume contact with his only child. His first letter was very welcome and I pored over his handwriting trying to connect with him through the paper.
A few letters passed and I felt comfortable enough to give him my house telephone number. My mum also gave him her own telephone number. When he called drunk in the middle of the night, I started to have reservations about contacting him. He had not expressed his remorse for abandoning his family or even given a good excuse for his behavior. I am slow to temper but if you wind me up enough, I will implode with cold fury. By this stage, I had stopped answering the phone. Poor Teddy had to deal with a maudlin, unstable father-in-law. Finally, I wrote a cold letter to my dad telling him how disappointed I was in his lack of remorse and apology. Further, I was ceasing communication forthwith.
The response to my letter was a deafening silence. To be honest, I thought he might attempt to reconcile and I was disappointed. My mum always said I was cruel with words – just like my father. Then I attempted to just move on in life and pretend he hadn’t existed. I deeply regretted my foolish need to know my father and thought my mum’s relatives were entirely right in their opinion of him.
Months passed. My mum shared that my dad had continued to phone her but it was not a problem. I was blissfully unaware that a spark had ignited between them. Part of it was my age and theirs. At age 30, I thought they were far too old to be attracted to each other. Now that I am in my 60s that seems ludicrous. They were each other’s great passion and I had enabled their affair to continue. Then, my mum tentatively said that Dad was coming across to Scotland for a short vacation. “WHAT!”, I exclaimed, outraged and angry. She said that he really wanted to meet me but I was utterly stubborn. I had made my decision and that was final.
What I didn’t know was that those two old loves had planned to live happily ever after. My mum was a very good-looking 55, slim and fit. My Dad had put on weight from recent photos and was about 58 years old. My father was almost destitute (unknown to either of us) and had embraced the idea of retiring in my mum’s council house with his pension. My mum managed, barely, on Disability benefit. I was incensed by him coming to Scotland and told my mum that I wouldn’t call her until after he had gone back to the States.
My decision drove my mum to the height of anxiety because in her fairytale he was living with her forever… On the day that he arrived in Scotland, my mum went across to her friend’s house with terrible nausea. It was a major heart attack and she ended up in Intensive Care. That evening, I got a call from the ward my mum was in. She spoke to me and told me that she had had a heart attack. Although my mum smoked and drank, I was totally stunned by this news. We arranged to drive down the next day and I had completely forgotten about my dad’s arrival.
When I walked into the ward, I was relieved that my mum looked well. It was just the start of her heart problems and would later almost die after a triple bypass. Then she told me that dad was truly worried by her not coming to meet him, that he had phoned all the hospitals in our area and turned up at the ward. He was very drunk and upset, so much so that the hospital staff banned him from visiting. I asked my mum if she wanted to see him but I think the reality had awoken her from the fairytale. He was an old troubled alcoholic and frankly out of her league. She told me that he was staying in a local hotel.
My mum recovered very quickly and came home where I looked after her for a little while. Dad did not attempt to communicate with either of us and in the chaos of the situation, I just forgot about him. After a couple of weeks, I assumed that he was safely back in the USA. ‘Good riddance to bad rubbish’, thought I. Some weeks after that, my mum received a call from the local police to say that my dad’s body had been discovered in a Glasgow apartment that he had been renting. He had slipped into a diabetic coma and died. A neighbor could see his dead body through the window.
Inevitably, my mum was overwhelmed by this sad news but I suspect a little relieved. I was horrified. This was the last thing I wanted even if I was so angry with him. I phoned the police and explained our estranged situation. They put me in touch with the American Consul in Scotland who were incredibly helpful and solicitous. When I explained that this man was a stranger to me (despite the communication I had yet to meet him), they suggested that the Consul contact his ex-wife and see if she wanted the body repatriated. What ex-wife??? It was just one lovely surprise after another. This still unknown ex-wife did want his body so I asked the Consul to give her his remaining effects which amounted to $300.
Should I laugh or cry? If I hadn’t already had been diagnosed with a mental illness, this situation might have triggered it. This was something that I would have liked to have kept private but I had to tell my mum’s extended family. One uncle, who particularly disliked my dad, felt that I should have paid for the funeral. His response shocked me as I owed my father nothing. He had paid not one cent of the alimony ordered at the divorce.
Now I only laugh when I think about this ludicrous situation. Could parents be any more annoying? I feel like Saffron in the British comedy, Absolutely Fabulous. The sensible daughter always sighing about her parent’s behavior. After I moved to the USA, I found out much more about my paternal family and I have more sympathy for my father. There is a history of mental illness and alcoholism in our family. His father, my grandfather, was married four times, I believe, and ended up a pitiful old man. With the wisdom of age and experience, I now hope that my parents are happily connected in the hereafter. I will give them a hell of a row when I join them…