In The Story of My Mother, there is another parent just as important. That is My Father. Here in Part Six I will talk about my father. And, my other father.
I have two fathers. In the mid-1950s, having two fathers set you apart from your friends. And not in a good way. As a child, I only knew one father. The father who lived with us. His name was George Rusnak. He was tall, lanky, and funny. He was a fantastic artist. I so wish I had some of his drawings still. He was a kind man, but he lived in a time when parenting was more a mother thing than a father thing, and he often turned a blind eye to some of the less than good parenting from my mother. Know that my mother’s less than good parenting skills were happening in homes across the U.S. Not all homes, no, but in many. The parenting skills revolved around children being little beings created to for the parents’ purposes. In other words, to do as they were told, to be silent, to be respectful, and to follow whatever rules the parents set up, regardless of fairness. There was no fairness in my childhood.
My Dad, or the man I called Dad, was a good man. He loved my mother and all of us kids. He never treated me differently than my younger sister, Maryanne, or my brother, Michael. Michael, of course, was the only boy and because of this he was ascertained the usual privileges. I don’t remember thinking that his gender was special until I was preparing for college. Only then did the idea of “he’s a boy, of course he will go to college; you’re a girl, you do not need to go to college – after all, you’ll just get married and have a family and stay home, anyway,” come up. The concept was foreign to me. All of my friends, male and female alike, were planning college educations. A few girls were into the “I want to get married” idea, and got engaged… and perhaps married. I don’t remember. I do remember the excitement of getting our high school diploma and preparing to go ‘off’ to school. Off being away from home. We all wanted to get away from home.
My brother is five years younger than I. My sister, nine years younger. These are my half-siblings. I have two full siblings, older sisters, who lived with my ‘other’ father. The man who turned out to be my biological father, a fact that was not revealed to me until the summer I turned twelve.
It’s a bit disconcerting to learn, at the age of twelve, that the man you love, the man you call Dad, the man who effectively helped raise you for 10 years, who encouraged your writing and drawing, who drove you to school and back when you moved, who cared for you when you were sick, was not your father. Learning that the man who took care of my sisters, who lived in another town, more than three hours away, with a woman called Arlene (his wife), was my “real” father was a shock. There was a sense of loss. A sense of worry – who was I, really? And a sense of sadness. Why had no one told me this many years earlier? Why had my “real” father not spoken up when I visited him? You would think I would have figured it out, since I made regular visits to my sisters’ home and received both Christmas and birthday gifts from the man they called father. But, I had not figured it out. I was happy with the Dad I had. The man I was being told was my Dad was a stranger to me.
Memories of my Dad – Dad Rusnak – include Saturday morning bowling. He bowled with a team. I don’t remember much about the ‘team’. I do know he let me tag along, pad and pencil in hand to keep me occupied, and while I was there, he would buy me a sugar doughnut. I must have been six or seven; small, skinny, with short unruly hair. My memory allows me the sense of the bowling alley, the noise of pins falling, the laughter of men, and the smell of coffee. And the doughnut. I cherish the memory of how I got to go with Dad to the bowling alley, and have a doughnut. My little brother had to stay home, which pleased me immensely, of course.
When my mother decided to buy the grocery store, see Part One of this series, my Dad supported her completely. Even when she insisted the paperwork be in her name, not his. This was her desire, and she wanted control of it. Of course, after she bought the store, he did his share of work in it and on it. And, in time, when he retired from his regular job, he worked the store as diligently as my mother.
My Dad was a big part of my life, growing up in the tumultuous sixties. He was often silent, sitting in his recliner with a pipe, munching on cheese and crackers my mother would bring him. His childhood was hard. Much harder than mine. It made him pensive, I believe.
I never stopped to wonder what he was thinking or if he had desires to achieve more than we had, in our little corner house shaped like a barn, two city blocks down from the grocery store. He kept to himself and did the chores as needed, showed up for dinner, doted on our dogs (not my dog, the dogs that came after), and seemed utterly content. I am sad that I do not know if my belief in his contentment made it real. He passed from cancer of the mouth, far too early for me to have nurtured out the story of who he was.
All of this helped shape me. My Dad taught me the importance of art. He was a wonderful artist. He taught me patience- the value of not rushing to judgment. He taught me that enduring the unpleasant things had its own consequences and sometimes those consequences were worth the pain.
I miss my Dad.
I will talk more of the ‘other’ Dad in a future post. The story of each of these men and how they influenced me delves deeper than one or two blog posts can share. As each person we meet and care about touches our lives, they change us. Many of those changes are superficial, but others go deep and hide – for many years. It’s only now, as I venture into a new territory, a new business, a new me, that I feel how important it is to reach back in my memory and understand the girl who had two fathers.
“Which one?” I remember my girl friend saying, in her spiteful voice. She was a ‘friend’ only because we moved in the same circles in Jr. High.
I had started talking about “my dad”… and her question cut through the air like a sword.
“You have so many,” she snickered.
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I only remember feeling humiliated. A humiliation I carried for many, many years.
I no longer feel humiliated to share that I had two fathers, growing up. I feel empowered.