History Podcasts

Meet a Long-Lost Father of New York City Pizza

Meet a Long-Lost Father of New York City Pizza

How did pizza, a saucy dish originating in a southwestern region of Italy, become so dominant in the United States? Legend has long recognized Gennaro Lombardi as the founder of the country’s first pizzeria. He supposedly received his business license for it in 1905, in Lower Manhattan. Over a century later, Lombardi’s is still selling slices on Spring Street.

But according to Peter Regas, a Chicago author and pizza historian, there’s a little more to the story. Before Lombardi immigrated to the U.S, there was another man named Filippo Milone who started pizzerias—including, it seems, the one Lombardi took over on Spring Street. Regas suspects Milone established at least six pizzerias after immigrating to the U.S. in the 1890s, a few of which—like Lombardi’s—became famous under someone else’s name.

This would mean Milone might be the lost forefather of pizza in America, not Lombardi, who was only 18 years old when the restaurant that bears his name is believed to have begun.

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Who Brought Pizza to America?

Milone likely immigrated to New York in 1892. He seems to have made pizza dough back in Naples, and he probably began making and selling pizzas in his early years in the United States.

So why haven’t we heard of him before?

“The Brooklyn [business] directories were not that good at picking up Italians,” Regas says of the period in the late 1800s and very early 1900s, when many Italians were entering the U.S. Even Italians who were recorded may have had their names misspelled or their business incorrectly categorized (one entry labels Milone as a pastry chef, a possible mistake by someone who wasn’t familiar with “pizza pie”).

This means some early pizzerias—like Milone’s—slipped through the cracks.

Despite the lack of directory entries for Italian businesses, there is evidence that other Italian immigrants—one of whom may have been Milone—ran the Spring Street pizzeria before Lombardi. The teenaged, fresh-off-the-boat Lombardi likely began working there as an employee rather than owner. Though he’s certainly an early pioneer of New York City pizza, he’s only one of many people who brought the dish to the city.

READ MORE: Who Invented Pizza?

Not all Italian immigrants were familiar with pizza around the time Milone moved to the U.S. The dish was local to Italy’s Campania region, home to the city of Naples, where Milone supposedly gained experience making pizzas.

The dish’s emergence in America may have pre-dated him, too. As immigrants from Campania settled in New York City during the 1880s and 1890s, they opened groceries and restaurants that may have served pizza. Eventually, they opened businesses that were dedicated to the Neapolitan dish. Regas found an ad for a “pizzeria napoletana” from 1898, and a directory entry suggesting there was a pizzeria in Manhattan as early as 1895.

READ MORE: New York City History

Regas says the first pizzerias were visited mainly by Italian immigrants, and likely acted as hang-out spots for men in the evenings. “In the ‘20s and the ‘30s, you start seeing little signs on these pizzeria restaurants…saying ‘women welcome,’” he says. This was perhaps a self-conscious attempt to convince women that pizzerias weren’t just for the boys.

Pizza started to reach people outside of Italian-American immigrant communities in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1947, The New York Times predicted “pizza could be as popular a snack as the hamburger if Americans only knew about it.”

Within the next several years, the Times saw this prediction come true as pizza spread throughout national media and culture: Lucille Ball picked up a shift at a pizza parlor on I Love Lucy, a take-out pizza showed up on The Honeymooners and Dean Martin sang about “when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.” By 1953, The New York Times’ wrote that “pizza…is such a gastronomical craze that the open pie threatens the pre-eminence of the hot dog and hamburger.”

Yet even though pizza was more popular than ever, Milone’s name had slipped from public memory. Unlike Lombardi, Milone did not have any children who could carry on his pizzerias. He died in 1924 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Queens, his influence remaining hidden until the 21st century.

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Tony Hawk

Anthony Frank Hawk (born May 12, 1968), nicknamed Birdman, is an American professional skateboarder, an entrepreneur, and the owner of the skateboard company Birdhouse. He completed the first documented "900" skateboarding trick, licensed a video game series published by Activision, [6] and is a pioneer of modern vertical skateboarding. [7] In 2014, Hawk was named one of the most influential skateboarders of all time by FoxWeekly. [8]

Summer X Games
Representing United States
1995 Rhode Island Vert
1997 San Diego Vert
1997 San Diego Vert Doubles
1998 San Diego Vert Doubles
1999 San Francisco Vert Doubles
1999 San Francisco Vert Best Trick
2000 San Francisco Vert Doubles
2001 Philadelphia Vert Doubles
2002 Philadelphia Vert Doubles
2003 Los Angeles Vert Best Trick
1995 Rhode Island Park
1996 Rhode Island Vert
2001 Philadelphia Vert Best Trick
1998 San Diego Vert
1999 San Francisco Vert
2002 Philadelphia Vert Best Trick

Hawk has appeared in films, other media, and his own series of video games. He has also been involved in various philanthropic activities, including his own Tony Hawk Foundation which helps to build skateparks in underprivileged areas.


Twins Finally Hear Long-Lost Father's Voice For First Time in Decades: Part 4

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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14 Surprising Facts You Never Knew About Billy Joel

After being bullied in school, Billy decided as a teen to take up boxing lessons. He won some Golden Gloves amateur brawls but gave up the sport after one particular fight that broke his nose. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Vienna Is Written About His Long Lost Father

Billy Joel’s father was a classical pianist who fled Germany during the Holocaust. He came to the Bronx, changed his name, and met Billy’s mother. The famous song Vienna is about reuniting with his Dad after twenty lost years. (Photo by Scott Gries/ImageDirect)

He’s Written A Song About His Mom Annoying Him

The frustration-filled lyrics to “Laura” are about Billy’s mom, Rosalind Joel. She apparently had a habit of calling Billy in the middle of the night to complain about her day. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

Billy Gained His Fame From A Pirated Recording Of Captain Jack

Billy gained his fame from an underground recording of Captain Jack in 1972, and this is when Columbia Records reached out to give him a second try on another album. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

Billy Ditched Woodstock

He wasn’t a performer just yet when Woodstock rolled around, so he wanted to be in the crowd for Jimi Hendrix’s performance. But he actually left the festival after a day and a half of the festival due to the lack of bathrooms and amount of standing that was too much for him. (Photo: Getty Images. Kevin Winter / Staff)

He’s Humorous About His Looks

In an interview for the New Yorker, the singer admitted to looking more like “the guy who makes the pizza” rather than a stage performer. (Photo by Ted Bath/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

He Started With Beatles Covers

When Billy was 17 he started a band that exclusively covered British Invasion songs. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

He Was In A Heavy Metal Band

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Billy’s First Album Didn’t Do Well

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Billy Joel Believes In Ghosts

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Joel Didn’t Graduate From High School With His Classmates

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He Named His Daughter After Ray Charles

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By Jaya Narain for MailOnline
Updated: 14:05 BST, 14 June 2008

A top teenage athlete began an incestuous affair with her long lost father after tracking him down, a court has heard.

Chelsea Cummins, now 21, would meet for secret trysts with her father, Steven Broomhead, 42, at his home.

Their relationship continued for two years, despite both having other partners.

Chelsea Cummins, 21, has become a convicted sex offender after she admitted having a two-year affair with her father Steven Broomhead

When she became pregnant Miss Cummins could not be certain of the identity of the father so she decided to abort the baby.

She became jealous when her father rekindled a relationship with her mother, Lisa, and she discovered them in a passionate clinch.

Miss Cummins told her mother: 'He'll only cheat on you. I hate my father. Do you remember when I was pregnant the previous year? I had a relationship with him.'

She later told police: 'He has never been my dad and so I didn't look at him like that. I did have sexual feelings for him. It wasn't planned and I didn't think about it after because it just happened.'

At Manchester Crown Court this week Miss Cummins pleaded guilty to two offences of sexual activity with an adult relation.

She was given an absolute discharge. But the judge sentenced Broomhead - who was charged with the same offences - to three years supervision and ordered him to attend a sex offenders programme.

Miss Cummins incestuous relationship was uncovered after her mother Lisa (left) resumed her relationship with Broomhead

The court heard Cummins was an outstanding athlete who represented Britain in taekwondo championships in Egypt and Korea. At 17 she decided to trace her father, who had abandoned the family some years before.

Rachel Shenton, prosecuting, said: ' Neither can agree on how they started their relationship. Chelsea Cummins alleges that she was in fear of her father. Steven Broomhead gave a different account in which he says that his daughter was the instigator and a normal kiss and cuddle became something more.'

The court heard the pair had sex several times over two years. In the summer of 2006 Cummins discovered she was pregnant and decided to have an abortion.

She moved in with her father before returning to live with her mother in April

Miss Shenton said: 'The matter came out because Chelsea Cummins's mother resumed a relationship of sorts with Steven Broomhead and that caused Chelsea a certain degree of distress.' Miss Cummins then told her mother about the affair. Believing her daughter had been raped, Lisa Cummins called the police.

Gary Woodall, defending Miss Cummins, said of the affair: 'It began with her being vulnerable and in fear - that fear subsided and she consented to the sexual relationship.'

Judge Andrew Lowcock told Miss Cummins: 'In my view you were very much not in control of what took place.'

Sentencing Broomhead, he said: 'She trusted you and you abused that trust. You seem unable to accept your responsibility and put the blame on your daughter.'

Miss Cummins represented Britain in taekwondo at World Sports championships at Egypt and Korea


Girl Meets Her Long-Lost Father She Hasn’t Seen For 10 Years After Booking A Grab Ride

Who knew that Grab drivers can lead you to more than just your desired destination, but also to the person close to your heart whom you thought you’ve already lost forever?

Like Uber, Grab has already become a widely-used app because it offers easier ride hailing to millions of commuters from across the world. One lady from Indonesia, however, received an extremely surprising bonus from her recent Grab ride as she found her long-lost father – who was unexpectedly her booked driver!

Who would’ve thought that Grab will be the way for a girl and her father to meet again after ten years?

17-year-old Salma Zuhara booked for a GrabBike a couple of days ago to pick her up from her school and drive her home to Centrl Java, Indonesia. As this has been a typical routine for her, she said she did not really pay much attention during that certain booking. However, when her ride came to her school, she was quite amused that her driver turned out to be her father whom she has not seen for 10 years!

Salma was separated from his father when she was younger after her parents decided to divorce.

Salma later shared the experience on social media and wrote:

“I went home from school and ordered a GrabBike. I then got a driver. I wasn’t paying attention at first. When the driver arrived, I looked at him, it turned out he was my papa.”

Shocked to see a familiar face after such a long time, the teenager said she did not know to react and rather felt awkward to finally find her dad in the most unexpected setup. The father-and-daughter duo later warmed up after a few minutes. This was after they started a small talk about Salma’s school.

According to Buzzflare, Salma revealed that her parents are already divorced and they were separated for 10 years now. After her parents finalized their divorce, the young lady never saw her father again but caught wind that he has been traveling to different places. Salma wasn’t sure whether her father already has a new family and didn’t take courage to even ask. She is hoping though that they can find time to bond together despite their current circumstances they.

She referred to the meeting as a blessing and said:

“For your information, my mama and papa divorced a long time ago and we hadn’t heard from him since. Now, God arranged our meeting like this. I’m so moved after not seeing my papa for years.”

To be sure that their odd meeting will not be the last, Salma left her number to her dad so they can still keep in touch.


Meet a Long-Lost Father of New York City Pizza - HISTORY

“Do you know your father?” I asked him.

It was a humid, rainy night in Angeles City, some 50 miles north of Manila. I was aboard a jeepney on my way home after partying with friends during a recent trip to the Philippines. He was also a passenger on that jeepney, the most popular mode of public transportation in the Philippines that were originally made from U.S. military jeeps left over from World War II – one of the more visible and enduring vestiges of American military presence in the Philippines.

Red pins show where some of the larger former U.S. military facilities in the Philippines were located.

“My mother is a Filipino, and my father is an American,” Eric said, as he lowered his gaze and kept it fixed on the jeepney floor. He started shaking his head and said he has no recollection of his father, although he often wondered about him — where he lives, if he is still alive, or if he remembers him or if he knew that he existed at all.

His father is a U.S. serviceman, one of the hundreds of thousands of American military men who were stationed in the Philippines since 1898 when the U.S. became the new colonial master of the former Spanish colony. Eric is what Nobel Prize for literature awardee Pearl Buck called an “Amerasian” — born of Asian mothers and sired and abandoned by their American soldier-fathers who were momentarily posted in countries that were either stages or hosts to U.S. military adventures.

The Pearl S. Buck Foundation once estimated that there are between 76,000 and 136,000 half-American children — and that is despite an infant-mortality rate of up to 50 percent in some areas — in the Philippines, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

In the Philippines alone, there are around 52,000 Amerasians, at least 5,000 of them in Angeles City, the site of the former Clark Air Base, which together with Subic Naval Base in Olongapo City, were the two biggest U.S. military facilities outside the United States. Their number could actually balloon up 250,000, to include second and third generation descendants across the Philippines, according to a recent study of Michigan State University.

“’Increasingly, the prostitutes are Amerasian, children of prostitutes caught in a cycle that transcends generations,’ stated a study by the National Mobilization for Survival, an organization that campaigns against foreign military bases.”

Both Clark and Subic, and all the other U.S. facilities in the Philippines, closed down in 1991, thus ending an almost century-long American military presence in the country. The bases may be gone (at least, for now), but they left behind a living legacy – Filipino Amerasians, “souvenir babies” of American military servicemen who were stationed in the Philippines during the decades the U.S. Navy and Air Force had bases in that Asian country.

These are some of their stories.

Eric’s story

Eric’s blend of Asian and Caucasian features makes him stand out in a crowd. He was in his early 20s, and we were on the same jeepney that rainy night in Angeles City. I struck up a conversation with him.

Growing up without a father was tough, he said. And because he was abandoned by his father, Eric became the object of discrimination and bullying. In a predominantly conservative Catholic country like the Philippines, being illegitimate and being a child of a prostitute are two guarantees that one will be treated with extreme prejudice.

Eric said he did not have a chance to change his fate because he was too poor to even go to school.

Left with nothing to survive, Eric used his unique looks to make a living — he turned to prostitution. “This is the only thing I know to do. I have no choice. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t be doing this,” he said.

“I still hope my life will change,” he added.

I wanted to learn more about his story but the jeepney came to a stop and it was time for me to get off. I handed him a pack of otap (local sweet biscuit) that I had with me from the party earlier and his hands clung to them as if they were his lifeline. He thanked me quietly. I could feel his sad eyes followed me as I got off the jeepney.

That fleeting encounter with Eric led me to my own journey — to find out more about Filipino Amerasians, to find more people like Eric and to find ways I could help to alleviate their plight.

Ally’s Story

I met Ally’s mother, Susana, via a Facebook page created by a group of Amerasians based in the Philippines. Susana was pleading for help to find Ally’s father in the U.S.

Ally is a bubbly 10-year-old Amerasian whose father is African American. She and her mother live in Magalang, Pampanga, a remote and isolated town east of Angeles City. She was in contact with her father for about two years but their communication suddenly stopped.

Susana works in the Balibago district of Angeles City known for its night life in particular, sleazy bars and prostitution. Angeles City used to host the Clark Air Force Base, while Olongapo City was where the former U.S. Subic Naval Base was located.

Ally

Both bases were used as staging grounds for U.S. military offensives during the Korean War in the 50s, the Vietnam War in the 60s and the 70s and the Gulf War in the early 90s. And both bases also served as the unofficial rest and recreation hubs of U.S. navymen and airmen during these wars.

The sex industry grew and thrived around these bases – the result of the American servicemen’s leisure dollars coming face-to-face with the Filipinos’ abject poverty.

Ally attends a public school in her small village, and without financial help, she does not stand a chance of going to college. She might not have a choice but to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

“Increasingly, the prostitutes are Amerasian, children of prostitutes caught in a cycle that transcends generations,” stated a study by the National Mobilization for Survival, an organization that campaigns against foreign military bases.

Ally is hoping her father would step up and take care of her. She handed me a greeting card addressed to her father. “In case you see my father in the States, would you please give this to him?”

I still have the card, and I wonder what Ally’s message is for her father. I guess it’s probably another daughter’s wish to see her father again.

John Nicole’s Story

John Nicole

Hindi ko po alam (I do now know),” John answered in Tagalog when I asked him if he knows where his father lives.

John Nicole, 6, was a blond-haired boy who I found wandering around the slums of Angeles City.

He lives in a rat-infested hut that he shares with his extended family. He strikes me as another young Amerasian who may not be able to afford proper education. His long-lost father’s potential paternal acknowledgment may be his only chance of a better life.

Harold’s Story

Harold is 22 years old and lives in Olongapo City, where the U.S. former Subic Naval Base used to be.

He has a photocopy of his father’s old American passport, and continues to hope that he will be able to meet him. He said he learned that his father lives in San Diego, California.

Harold is so determined to meet his father that he applied for a visa to enter the United States three times. Each time, his application was denied by the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

Harold

Filipino Amerasians like Harold need an affidavit of paternal acknowledgment from their fathers before they can be recognized and granted American citizenship. But the American fathers must do that before the children turn 18. Most Filipino Amerasians like Harold, however, have aged out with no paternal acknowledgment and end up being already too old to claim U.S. citizenship. (Remember that the military bases in the Philippines shut down nearly 25 years ago.)

Again, like most of the Filipino Amerasians, Harold never had the opportunity or the resources to go to college. He is pinning his hope on a once-upon-a-time ticket to the American Dream – that of joining the United States Navy. The U.S. Navy used to recruit Filipinos since the end of the Spanish-American War in the early 1900s. But when the bases closed with the end of the military bases agreement between the countries in 1991, the U.S. stopped the practice.

Harold’s dream, however, will remain just that – a dream.

Katherine’s Story

Katherine

Katherine is a 38-year-old mother of two but has never met her father.

She has no recollection of her father, saying the only memory she has of her father is a faded photograph that she keeps in her wallet.

“This is the only moment I could be close to my father,” she, said while looking at the almost ghostly image of her father in the picture.

Like many of the abandoned souvenir children of American servicemen, Katherine also wishes to come to the United States and search for her father. “I have been searching and searching for him on the internet, but there are so many men with his name. If I was in the U.S., I think it would be easier,” she said as her voice trembled and her eyes teared up.

“I hope that one day I can knock on my father’s door, and that he will open the door for me. I just want to give him a hug and say, ‘hello’. And then my life will be complete.”

Discrimination and exclusion

There are tens of thousands more like Eric, Harold, Katherine, John and Ally. A study made by the Center for Women Studies of the University of the Philippines said that many Amerasians have been victims of abuse and even domestic violence. The findings cited cases of racial, gender and class discrimination against Amerasian children and youth committed by strangers, peers, classmates, teachers and even family members.

Black Amerasians seem to suffer more from racial and class discrimination than their white counterparts. According to one estimate, a quarter of Amerasians in the Philippines are of African-American descent. White female Amerasians, meanwhile, are highly vulnerable to sexual harassment, the study said.

In many cases, these children abandoned by their fathers were subsequently abandoned by their mothers, who were unable to care for them or too ashamed to keep them. Some were raised by other family members or adopted by foster parents. Many grow up in poverty.

The majority were likely to be out of work, homeless, have alcohol, drug or familial abuse problems, as well as “identity confusion, unresolved grief issues over the loss of their fathers, social isolation and low self-esteem,” according to a 2010 study by the Philippine Amerasian Research Institute.

Double discrimination, extra exclusion

In 1982, the U.S. Congress passed the Amerasian Act of 1982, which gave preferential immigration to children from Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea and Thailand. G.I. babies from the Philippines, and those from Japan and Taiwan, however, were excluded. There was no explanation given.

There were efforts in Congress to rectify the omission. A Philippine-based organization providing services and advocacy for Amerasians filed a complaint before Congress on behalf of the Amerasians. From 1997 to 2001, the late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii tried to introduce an amendment to the Immigration Act to include Japan and the Philippines.

But the Senate judiciary committee blocked the attempts at each and every turn. For this Senate committee, Filipino Amerasians were not victims of discrimination, that they were conceived from illicit affairs and prostitution, and that, unlike Amerasians in South Korea and Vietnam, they were born during peacetime or away from a war zone.

But many of those who I have talked to, media accounts and case studies by research, academic and not-for-profit service organizations clearly show that Filipino Amerasians do suffer discrimination, prejudice, and hatred.

Sure, there have been no wars in the Philippines post-World War II, but these military bases in the Philippines played strategic roles in the U.S. wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. These U.S. military facilities in the Philippines served as staging grounds, launching pads of the U.S. troops in all its wars since the second World War. It also provided safe encampment for war-weary troops. War is a specter that hovers above these bases, and they are considered not in a ‘war zone’?

Another question: Are the circumstances of one’s birth – that is, being born out of wedlock or being born out of prostitution – enough reasons to deny a person of his or her rights to citizenship?

In the meantime, the only way Filipino Amerasians can become citizens is if their fathers claim them. But it’s too late for most of them.

Unwanted in their mothers’ country and unwelcome in their fathers’ homeland, Filipino children of American servicemen are still in search of a home.


Like Father, Like Son

Lamont Wilder knew there was trouble last September when his 5-year-old son, Sheemie, entered the Bronx barbershop alone, dragging a duffel bag. In the bag was a letter from the boy's mother, Kisha Reynolds. ''Show him how to be a good, responsible man,'' she had written.

It was a Saturday night, and Lamont, 26, had been expecting to keep Sheemie for a weekend, not a lifetime. Leaving a customer in the middle of a $10 haircut, he rushed into the street to catch Kisha. All he saw were the taillights of a car disappearing in the dusk.

Lamont should have seen it coming. After months of no contact except through court papers dunning him for unpaid child support, Kisha had brought Sheemie back into his life a few months earlier. And despite Lamont's renewed efforts to be a father, she still accused him of not doing his share. She did not seem to understand that he was often hard-pressed to keep a roof over his own head. The barbershop was a place of sagging vinyl seats and scarred linoleum, in a seedy, striving Parkchester section of the Bronx full of freelance barbers like himself. Business was bad, and Lamont had to cut 15 heads a week just to pay rent on the workstation where he had taped Sheemie's school picture.

When he turned back that Saturday night from the dark street toward the fluorescent lights of the shop, he could see the little boy waiting on the other side of the glass, his possessions in a lumpy bag on the floor. It was like seeing himself as a child again. Lamont had grown up in foster care yearning for a family. He was determined not to have his son go through the same ordeal. ''It's not like I'm going to leave him on a church step and walk away,'' Lamont told me later, in one of the hundreds of conversations we've had over the past eight years. For the next few weeks, he and Sheemie slept on a couch at a cousin's place. He struggled to get Sheemie to school in time for the free breakfast after their long evenings in the shop. Sometimes Sheemie fell asleep in kindergarten. Most nights, Lamont washed Sheemie's school uniform by hand because he couldn't afford to buy another, and his cousin's temper flared over spilled detergent and Sheemie's misbehavior.

In mid-October, their tenuous life fell apart. The barbershop owner ordered Lamont to leave because of rent arrears, and Lamont's cousin insisted that he and Sheemie move out. Lamont had applied for public assistance for Sheemie a few days after Kisha left him at the shop, but assembling the required documents took weeks, and under the stricter screening process of the state's new welfare rules, no checks would arrive for at least another month while caseworkers decided if they were eligible at all. Suddenly, Lamont saw himself jobless and homeless, with no means to provide for his son -- and no way to keep him out of foster care.

New rules affecting poor families reflect the resurgence of an old conviction that has dogged public support for children, to varying degrees, throughout American history -- the belief that parents unable to rear their children without public aid are, by definition, unfit to be parents at all. It was this belief that in the 19th century gave shape to America's foster-care system, a mix of foster homes, institutional care and adoption for children whose parents failed the test. In 1935, the federal government did guarantee support for poor children in their own homes through welfare payments to their parents. But that guarantee, always ambivalent, ended with the 1996 welfare overhaul, which encouraged states to make it harder for families to get public aid in an effort to promote work and deter irresponsible childbearing.

For Lamont, all the good intentions of welfare reformers to push parents to self-sufficiency slammed up against the unyielding reality of a small child's needs. He could not, for instance, reconcile policies that made him wait weeks for food aid with Sheemie's need to eat every day. And despite all the Congressional advocacy for swifter termination of parental rights, more adoptions and a revival of faith-based orphanages, Lamont could not believe that his son would be better off in the state's care. His own life had been too painfully inscribed with the failure of all its versions.

Lamont was born on June 4, 1974, to Shirley Wilder, a 14-year-old girl who a year earlier was the named plaintiff in a watershed class-action lawsuit against New York's child-welfare system. The suit challenged the century-old arrangement that ceded control of publicly financed foster-care beds to private, mostly faith-based agencies. Under state law, the Catholic and Jewish agencies that dominated the field were allowed to give preference to their own kind in violation of the Constitution, the Wilder lawsuit charged, black Protestant children like Shirley waited for the leftovers.

Yet as a child in city custody herself, Shirley had to relinquish Lamont at birth to the same system. Initially, Lamont was lucky. Even when his first Protestant foster-care agency shut down and another took over his case, he remained with the same Hispanic foster family in the Bronx.

''Lamont has an exuberant personality,'' a caseworker wrote when he was not yet 3. ''He is always talking and verbalizes tremendously for his age, both in Spanish and English. He 'reads' stories by remembering them and can identify many objects. . . . He is a very responsive and attractive youngster.'' Only one incident marred the glowing reports of his early childhood: at 4, when his foster parents' marriage began to break up, he caused a small fire at a baby sitter's apartment while playing with matches. At the time, the fire was considered an accident. Years later, reinterpreted, it would stunt his chances of ever belonging to a family.

A photograph taken at his 5th birthday, in June 1979, still bursts with high spirits. But his foster mother, Alicia Fils-Aime, knew the party was a farewell. Shirley Wilder's parental rights were being terminated. Caseworkers had given Alicia an ultimatum: adopt Lamont or let him go. She was in the midst of a divorce and about to be laid off from her bookkeeping job. Fearing that she, Lamont and her own young son would end up on welfare, she told me later, she bowed to the caseworkers' evident conviction that he would be better off adopted by a financially stable two-parent family. The agency handed 5-year-old Lamont over to Nann and Bill Miller, a middle-class white couple in Minnesota. Within a year, the Millers changed their minds. As Lamont's grief and confusion erupted in bad behavior, a second white Minnesota couple, Sherri and Albin Wasserman, gave up on him, too. Still shy of 7, Lamont was shipped back to New York with documents that retroactively labeled him 'ɿire setter.''

He was soon sent to the Astor Home for Children, a red brick mansion in prosperous Rhinebeck. Considered one of the system's best institutional options, Astor Home was built in 1914 expressly for convalescent waifs from the New York City tenements by the heir to a fortune built on tenement profits. Like so many children's institutions, it had become obsolescent after 1935, when the number of children in out-of-home care declined sharply with the Congressional passage of Aid to Dependent Children provisions that guaranteed government support -- welfare -- to poor children in their own homes. Like many former orphanages, Astor reopened as a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children, run by nuns at public expense.

When Lamont arrived at Astor, he was said to show ''problems forming attachments.'' One goal of his treatment was to change that, according to the report Astor Home submitted to the city every six months to justify the cost of his care, which ranged over time from $64 to $151 a day. ''Lamont will learn to relate to women with less anger and anxiety,'' the report promised, 'ɺnd will exhibit more real spontaneous affection.'' The form also described the ''method/service task'' to meet that goal: '⟾male child-care staff will spend individual time with Lamont.'' Those Lamont did become attached to invariably moved on, leaving him behind in a place where workers often used physical restraint and isolation to quell the outbursts of children hurt by earlier abandonments.

By the time he was 12, Lamont was bigger than most of the kids at Astor Home, and as a black boy, he said, he stuck out in Rhinebeck ''like a raisin in a slice of white bread.'' The staff often took him along as a helper when they took the youngest children sledding. Standing guard by the big tree near the bottom of the hill, Lamont would catch the little kids to keep them from hitting the tree trunks as they flew down the slope.

He knew no one was waiting to break his fall. As an Astor Home psychologist wrote in 1984, Lamont ''had developed a strategy of maintaining distance or, when threatened by the possibility of attachment, of rejecting the other party before that person could reject him.''

Lamont was transferred to an Astor group home in the Bronx as he approached 13. Before the move, a female staff member took him to the Hudson Valley Mall and bought him a new aviator-style jacket. He wore it proudly on the van trip down to the city. But on his first day at the group home, an older teenager grabbed the new jacket and walked off with it.

''Go out and get your jacket,'' a counselor at the group home told

Lamont. ''If you don't go out and fight that kid, I'm going to kick

your butt myself.'' It was his introduction to the rest of his life.

Children who age out of foster care typically return to their birth families, if they can find them. Lamont hadn't seen his mother since April 1976, when he was not quite 2. In his fantasies, she was an heiress who brought him birthday gifts, one for every year they had been apart. Instead, as he realized when he finally met her in 1993 -- an unexpected result of the Wilder lawsuit -- Shirley had become a crack addict.

For a time, between 19 and 20, Lamont lived with his long-lost father, Prentis Smith, in a crowded project apartment. Smith, a former postal worker with a history of alcohol and drug addiction, sometimes admonished him: ''If you can't learn to be a nigger in the projects, you won't survive.'' Lamont came close to accepting a relative's offer to work in a crack house in the summer of 1994, when he was living on corn bread and coffee and using beer and weed to blunt his fears. Instead, he signed himself back into a group home where he could live until age 21. He was still in the state's care, earning a few dollars as a barber between remedial classes at Bronx Community College, when his son was born on Jan. 27, 1995.

For months, the talk on radio and TV had been about ending welfare. Children without private economic support should be put up for adoption or placed in orphanages, Charles Murray, the conservative intellectual, argued. If teenage mothers could not support their children, said Newt Gingrich, then the Republican House whip, America should tell them, ''We'll help you with foster care, we'll help you with orphanages, we'll help you with adoption,'' but not with money to keep mother and child together. The same concept was in the Republicans' Contract With America, though the word ''orphanage'' had been softened to 'ɼhildren's homes.''

Whatever the name, Lamont wanted no child of his consigned to one. ''My child will never go in the system,'' he vowed.

But when Lamont exited foster care for good on June 3, 1995, the day before his 21st birthday, after an upbringing that had cost taxpayers more than half a million dollars, he had only a high-school-equivalency diploma, $9 in his pocket and a mounting debt to the welfare system that was supporting his homeless 5-month-old son.

One of the baby's first words was '�y.'' Lamont loved that. He was very conscious that everything he did for his son was something his own father had not done for him, from signing paternity papers in the hospital to bottle-feeding him before dawn. But no matter what he did, he felt he could not satisfy either Kisha or the state, which demanded that as a noncustodial parent he reimburse welfare payments made to Kisha for the child.

Lamont and Kisha met as students at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx. A small, strong-willed woman six months older than Lamont, Kisha graduated from high school, while Lamont dropped out on the advice of group home counselors who told him to get an equivalency diploma instead. Kisha grew up in the projects and never knew her father. Her mother, who had a job with the Transit Authority, often flew into rages once Lamont saw her beat Kisha with her shoe. Kisha had trouble keeping office jobs, but she was determined to get her own place. She lived for a time in a city prenatal shelter, sharing a bathroom with 67 other pregnant women. Then she was sent to Siena House, a city-financed residence for 27 homeless young mothers and newborns run by Catholic nuns. Eventually, they helped her and the baby get an apartment through a federal voucher program.

Lamont hoped that they could be a family, and reluctantly, Kisha let him move in. She threw him out a week later. To Lamont, it seemed she was berating him over every piece of lint shed from his pants onto her couch. To Kisha, it was as though she had to run after another child, but one with no claim on her tolerance. When he tried to assert himself, she did not hold back. ''You have no rights here,'' she told him. ''I went through hell getting this apartment. You don't come here and rule.''

Lamont had not understood the endless consequences of proclaiming his fatherhood. He was ordered to pay $38 a week, but he could not spare that sum most weeks, and if he could, he saw no point in paying it to the city to defray the cost of Kisha's welfare checks. Most women on welfare preferred to have their child's father pass them money under the table or buy things for the baby outright. But however much he contributed that way, it did nothing to shrink his official debt or his vulnerability to arrest for nonpayment. And as long as he had four months' worth of child-support arrears, Lamont eventually discovered, he was prohibited from getting a student loan, a regular driver's license or even a real barber's license, which he needed to work in any better hair salon. Such measures were part of welfare reform's crackdown on absent fathers who let taxpayers pay for their kids.

Very soon, his poor prospects set the limits of his fatherhood. When Sheemie was about 7 months old, Kisha took him and moved without leaving an address. Lamont spent weeks sleeping in Grand Central Terminal before he found a barbershop where the owner would let him close up after work. Pulling down the shades so people passing by wouldn't see him, he slept on the floor or in one of the barber chairs and tried to shrug off the loss of his son. ''I guess I'm going to be one of those daddies where I meet him when he's 20,'' he said at the time, 'ɺnd we do the whole lost-daddy thing.''

Kisha had no sympathy. ''Homeless?'' she told me. ''Who gives a damn? My child was born homeless. Lamont's a damn man. He's an able-bodied man. He has no excuses.'' In 1996, she managed to get off welfare by working as a stripper the bouncer's sister took care of the strippers' kids for $25 a head. But the New Jersey clubs that booked her got worse and worse, and eventually, she said, the good money was only for those willing to do more than strip. She shifted to sales, hawking ''vacation ownership'' by telephone on commission. Finally, when Sheemie was 18 months old, she decided that she had to go back to school or sheɽ never get a better job. She turned to Lamont, who was living in a precariously shared apartment, as a last resort.

Sometimes she would leave Sheemie overnight, promising to pick

him up the next day, only to call saying that Lamont had to keep himanother night because she was tired. When Lamont protested that he had to go to work, he says, she cursed him out. Kisha didn't dispute his version of events.

''I've been working all day,'' she would shout. ''You try carrying a child out of his bed at 4 a.m. to go to a sitter so you can be at the job at 8 a.m. I get home from school, I'm tired. I've got to keep a B average to keep my loan. I got no time to do my homework without hearing, 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.'''

But Lamont couldn't get over what a great kid he had. At 3, Sheemie could be too loud sometimes, squealing and running around, his big eyes scrunched up with laughter, his little legs pumping. But he was so funny, smart and cute, how could anyone resist him? He tried to hold back in Kisha's presence. 'ɺs soon as she sees he's really attached to me, she'll take him,'' he told me at the time.

Crisis hit both Lamont and Kisha in February 1998. His barbershop was closing down, and he was near eviction from his apartment. She had just lost another job and needed expensive dental surgery. Angry that he had not paid the baby sitter, she demanded that Lamont take over Sheemie's care completely or never see him again. She says she called him 'ɺ worthless, selfish nigger who needed reality to hit him in the face like a mug.'' He says he pleaded with her, ''We have to work together,'' as Sheemie ran in and out of the room.

''There's nothing I can do for him here,'' she said. ''I'm not working. I don't have any food for him. And I am not going back on welfare. I can't stay on top of my bills on welfare.''

On Dec. 8, 1998, Kisha sought emergency food stamps at her neighborhood welfare center. But policies had changed there since the federal welfare overhaul dismantled the old A.F.D.C. entitlements for poor children. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had vowed that New York would be ''the first city in the nation, on its own, to end welfare.'' Jason Turner, the city's welfare commissioner, asserted that the idea that poverty itself hurt family well-being was 'ɺ serious mistake.'' Even with very low incomes, families with two parents and a working head of household 'ɺre usually stabilized and seem to do well over all,'' Turner said. To push welfare applicants to self-reliance, he added, ''we need to create, if you will, a personal crisis in individuals' lives.'' Following those policies, welfare workers turned Kisha away -- illegally, a federal court later ruled -- with only a referral to a private charity's food pantry. When she got there, the supply of food had run out.

As Christmas approached that year, Lamont, too, turned to the city for help. His landlord had put all his belongings out on the street. His mother was dying in an AIDS hospice. (She died at age 39 on Jan. 17, 1999.) But when he turned to the city shelter system, he found himself caught in the overflow of the overnight circuit. After cutting hair until 9 p.m., he had to wait until 2 in the morning to be bused to a shelter and then had to vacate the cot at dawn, only to start all over again the next night.

Lamont's and Kisha's crises were now Sheemie's too. A year ago, as Lamont was getting back on his feet at a new barbershop, he was arrested and jailed overnight for failing to make an ordered $1,106.33 payment to the Support Collections Unit. On her own, Kisha had been aggressive in pursuing a court action required of any woman seeking public aid. Lamont's debt to the state was calculated at more than $9,000, including $532 from the hospital where his son was born. Soon afterward, Sheemie's nursery school called Lamont in for a conference. The teachers wanted to refer Sheemie to child protective services. He had been hitting other children, and in one of his worst outbursts, he came in one morning and turned over a table, crying, ''My mommy put my daddy in jail.''

For a few days after Kisha brought Sheemie to him last fall, it seemed that the worst was over. Lamont would help Sheemie do his homework in an old barber chair or keep an eye on him as he played just outside the shop. ''It hit me: this is my little boy,'' Lamont told me. ''I don't feel, like, alone. I feel good. I love this little boy.''

But in October, when Lamont learned that his job was ending, he knew he had to find someone to take his son off his hands for a day or two at least. With Sheemie in tow, he sought out Kisha at her sister's apartment. All the while, Kisha had been trying to find work in construction, she said, $23-an-hour work that would let a single mother support a child. Lamont asked her to keep Sheemie while he established himself in another barbershop and looked for a new place to live.

Kisha refused, and they argued on the sidewalk as Sheemie played upstairs. When Lamont began to back away from the confrontation, Kisha, angry and frustrated, called Sheemie down and urged him to go with his father. ''Your father is trying to leave you,'' Lamont heard her say.

Sheemie began to cry. He clung to Lamont. Finally, giving up, Kisha pulled him back herself. ''Stay away from me and my kid,'' she shouted.

Lamont has not seen him since. In the weeks when he and Sheemie were together, Lamont had prepared paperwork for a petition in Bronx Family Court. ''Petitioner is seeking custody of his son,'' it says, '�use he loves him very much and feels he can provide more of a stable and loving home for him to be raised in than the respondent can.''


I just found my long lost father online. What should I do GAF?

All possible jokes from the title aside, let me bring you up to speed GAFers.

Okay so, once upon a time, about 26 years ago, my biological mother and father met, enjoyed a fling and had me. My mom wasn't liking the way their relationship was going. Saying that, despite being a nice guy, didn't seem cut out for parenthood / married life and left him and didn't want him in my life. From what I could discern growing up, he simply made dodgy child support payments, but offered no contact or letters from him in any way.

I found a lot of this back story out when I was around 17 or 18. My mother broke down saying she regretted not having him in my life. She suggested contacting certain people to get a hold of him, but at the time, the whole idea seemed a lot to take in and I declined mostly because I just couldn't shake the thought of how awkward it would feel to meet him.

Fast forward to earlier this week. Watching an old episode of In Plain Sight where the homeless witness wants to track down his real birth mother kinda prompted me to the idea of running his name (who I had thanks to a copy of my birth certificate) through Google.

And I found him on Facebook.

What really struck me was seeing a picture of him for the first time ever and seeing my resemblance to him. This definitely wasn't some guy who just happened to share the same name. His original location matched up to my birth city and everything.

I find out by perusing his Facebook that he married two years after I was born and had three children and is now happily living in Hawaii.

So here's my dilemma GAF, I kinda want to offer an olive branch and at least meet him and get to know him a little. As well as meet my Half-siblings (irony of ironies I grew up with 2 half sisters and a half brother with my mom, and now I have 2 half sisters and a half brother with my dad). But I'm worried at what it might do to his family. I'm probably some long forgotten skeleton in his closet that he probably doesn't want his family to know about. His current wife maybe resenting him for having a child before they met that she didn't know about. Not to mention I just don't know how to go about it.

Any advice, GAF? Anyone else here who has had experience with long lost relative and biological parents?

Speedpop

Has problems recognising girls

Wow. This is a big step, I think.

No one really knows what you should really do except yourself.

KibblesBits

Member

Beardz

Member

Gouty

Bloodborne is shit

Cnizzle06

Banned

All possible jokes from the title aside, let me bring you up to speed GAFers.

Okay so, once upon a time, about 26 years ago, my biological mother and father met, enjoyed a fling and had me. My mom wasn't liking the way their relationship was going. Saying that, despite being a nice guy, didn't seem cut out for parenthood / married life and left him and didn't want him in my life. From what I could discern growing up, he simply made dodgy child support payments, but offered no contact or letters from him in any way.

I found a lot of this back story out when I was around 17 or 18. My mother broke down saying she regretted not having him in my life. She suggested contacting certain people to get a hold of him, but at the time, the whole idea seemed a lot to take in and I declined mostly because I just couldn't shake the thought of how awkward it would feel to meet him.

Fast forward to earlier this week. Watching an old episode of In Plain Sight where the homeless witness wants to track down his real birth mother kinda prompted me to the idea of running his name (who I had thanks to a copy of my birth certificate) through Google.

And I found him on Facebook.

What really struck me was seeing a picture of him for the first time ever and seeing my resemblance to him. This definitely wasn't some guy who just happened to share the same name. His original location matched up to my birth city and everything.

I find out by perusing his Facebook that he married two years after I was born and had three children and is now happily living in Hawaii.

So here's my dilemma GAF, I kinda want to offer an olive branch and at least meet him and get to know him a little. As well as meet my Half-siblings (irony of ironies I grew up with 2 half sisters and a half brother with my mom, and now I have 2 half sisters and a half brother with my dad). But I'm worried at what it might do to his family. I'm probably some long forgotten skeleton in his closet that he probably doesn't want his family to know about. His current wife maybe resenting him for having a child before they met that she didn't know about. Not to mention I just don't know how to go about it.

Any advice, GAF? Anyone else here who has had experience with long lost relative and biological parents?

Member

Hateradio

The Most Dangerous Yes Man

Balladofwindfishes

Member

Teddman

Member

Message him on facebook, it should go straight to him so he can respond without the rest of his family being aware.

And yeah, now that you've gone this far, you should contact him. Even if he turns you away, the sting of that will eventually be less traumatic than never getting in touch, and regretting it years later when it's no longer possible.

Goomba

Banned

BertramCooper

Banned

If he seems like a solid dude, I'd go for it.

Do you have any friends or relatives that are in contact with him? If so, I'd probably suggest asking one of them to see if he's interested in meeting you. If his wife and kids aren't aware of your existence, that certainly could complicate matters.

How old are his kids? If they're young, it might be best to wait until they're older.

Themadcowtipper

Smells faintly of rancid stilton.

[GAF answer]Is he a Nigerian prince, if so have him take a picture with a fish on his head.


[Real Answer] Whatever happens good luck.

Wenis

Registered for GAF on September 11, 2001.

NGAMER9

Member

Check if he's into Mafia Wars or Farmville before adding him or he will annoy you to the point of it not being worth it.

PetriP-TNT

Member

Challenge him for a game of Zoo Keeper


then invite him to the group "My mom had sex with a guy and now me, her son, finally found the dad on Facebook"

Always-honest

Banned

wow. i wouldn't dare to make a pun. i'm a father of a 2 and a half year old son.

i hope you meet him and that it will be a nice reunion and a great starting point for some kind of relation between you and your biological father.

but for advice.. i have none. Do what you want. You have every right.

Gospel

Parmesan et Romano

Make a fake facebook account with a fake profile pic and send him a friend request.
Ask him weird questions with it.

I won't lie, I don't really know where I was going with this, but at some point you should ask him his penis size.

Jiggle

Member

a hello and brief introduction to start things off
use his reply to gauge if he wants you in his life(or not)
be emotionally prepared for a letdown

if all goes well
free room in hawaii

Equus Bellator Apex

Junior Member
Will Eat Your Children

Beardz

Member

DonMigs85

Member

Crazy monkey

Holds a masters in liberal arts

BertramCooper

Banned

Beardz

Member

Krypt0nian

Banned

Mysticwhip

Banned

DMeisterJ

Banned

Seriously. Poke him on Facebook, and when he asks why you poked him, say something like 'I always wanted to poke my daddy.'

GQman2121

Banned

I too have never had any contact with my father. I don't even know what he looks like. I do know that he's never made any child support payments to my mother and that he's basically the epitome of a dead beat dad. I have no interest in ever meeting him. If he were to ever attempt to contact me, well, I would fear for his safety. And that's pretty much all I have to say about that.


I'm only two years older than you, but I would tell this guy to piss off and just continuing to act like he's not there. Because he's really not.


EDIT: I honestly didn't read your entire post before I hit the reply button. I was born and grew up in Hawaii. I lived there until I was 8 and then moved to Baltimore. That's kind of crazy.

DonMigs85

Member

ChaChaChaChia

Member

Gouty

Bloodborne is shit

Alr1ght

Bish gets all the credit :)

BertramCooper

Banned

Seriously. Poke him on Facebook, and when he asks why you poked him, say something like 'I always wanted to poke my daddy.'

Clemenx

Banned

Hieberrr

Member
Banned

So here's my dilemma GAF, I kinda want to offer an olive branch and at least meet him and get to know him a little. As well as meet my Half-siblings (irony of ironies I grew up with 2 half sisters and a half brother with my mom, and now I have 2 half sisters and a half brother with my dad). But I'm worried at what it might do to his family. I'm probably some long forgotten skeleton in his closet that he probably doesn't want his family to know about. His current wife maybe resenting him for having a child before they met that she didn't know about. Not to mention I just don't know how to go about it.

Any advice, GAF? Anyone else here who has had experience with long lost relative and biological parents?

Tell him what you just told us.

And if he doesn't want his family to know about you. well, that's his look-out, not yours. No need to complicate your thinking just because of that possibility.

Weekend_warrior

Banned

Choppasmith

Member

I know, but never growing up without a proper father figure, it just gnaws at me. And like a couple people have said, if I don't do it now while I still can, I might end up regretting it.

If he seems like a solid dude, I'd go for it.

Do you have any friends or relatives that are in contact with him? If so, I'd probably suggest asking one of them to see if he's interested in meeting you. If his wife and kids aren't aware of your existence, that certainly could complicate matters.

How old are his kids? If they're young, it might be best to wait until they're older.

Sadly no, there's no one connected to him that I know. AFAIK anyway. As for his kids, as far as I can tell the two oldest seem to be young adults while the third seems to be an adolescent.

Mysticwhip

Banned

Misterinenja

Member

Totowhoa

Banned

I know he didn't try hard with letters and whatnot, but I have a feeling he'd be happy to hear from you. I've known a couple people in similar (but both slightly different) situations. I could be wrong, but message him and say hello. I doubt he's forgotten you surely you're no "skeleton" to him, even if your birthday isn't on the calendar. Could be wrong, but I bet he'd be both scared/surprised and enamored to hear from you, especially since your OP seems to imply that your mother may have had at least some part to do with the fact that you don't have contact with him now.

I'd definitely say go for it. For sure. you've got nothing to lose, and surely his wife can fathom him having vaginal sex and producing a child prior to his current children. Regardless of whether or not she knows, it happened, and I highly doubt that contacting him will hurt the marriage if they have a good marriage. His kid is trying to get back in touch with him--not a girlfriend from the past.

Edit: I've seen the reverse happen. A father's family hated by his children because he left, and so they would never except that he moved on from their mother to a certain extent. I'd say give it a go, for sure. A message at first, see what happens. Also, read Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Boy on Earth

Meus Renaissance

Member

All possible jokes from the title aside, let me bring you up to speed GAFers.

Okay so, once upon a time, about 26 years ago, my biological mother and father met, enjoyed a fling and had me. My mom wasn't liking the way their relationship was going. Saying that, despite being a nice guy, didn't seem cut out for parenthood / married life and left him and didn't want him in my life. From what I could discern growing up, he simply made dodgy child support payments, but offered no contact or letters from him in any way.

I found a lot of this back story out when I was around 17 or 18. My mother broke down saying she regretted not having him in my life. She suggested contacting certain people to get a hold of him, but at the time, the whole idea seemed a lot to take in and I declined mostly because I just couldn't shake the thought of how awkward it would feel to meet him.

Fast forward to earlier this week. Watching an old episode of In Plain Sight where the homeless witness wants to track down his real birth mother kinda prompted me to the idea of running his name (who I had thanks to a copy of my birth certificate) through Google.

And I found him on Facebook.

What really struck me was seeing a picture of him for the first time ever and seeing my resemblance to him. This definitely wasn't some guy who just happened to share the same name. His original location matched up to my birth city and everything.

I find out by perusing his Facebook that he married two years after I was born and had three children and is now happily living in Hawaii.

So here's my dilemma GAF, I kinda want to offer an olive branch and at least meet him and get to know him a little. As well as meet my Half-siblings (irony of ironies I grew up with 2 half sisters and a half brother with my mom, and now I have 2 half sisters and a half brother with my dad). But I'm worried at what it might do to his family. I'm probably some long forgotten skeleton in his closet that he probably doesn't want his family to know about. His current wife maybe resenting him for having a child before they met that she didn't know about. Not to mention I just don't know how to go about it.

Any advice, GAF? Anyone else here who has had experience with long lost relative and biological parents?

Or maybe he, along with his family, would embrace you and love to meet you. He is your father and you've never met him. Some people don't even have fathers nor got the chance of meeting them. You would be a fool for contemplating ignoring this opportunity.

Send him a message, asking him if knew XX (your mothers name) from 26 years ago or so, and if he had a son with her.


A Father’s Final Odyssey

One January evening a few years ago, just before the beginning of the spring term in which I was going to be teaching an undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey, my father, a retired computer scientist who was then eighty-one, asked me, for reasons I thought I understood at the time, if he could sit in on the course, and I said yes. Once a week for the next fifteen weeks, he would make the trip from the house in the Long Island suburbs where I grew up, a modest split-level he and my mother still lived in, to the riverside campus of Bard College, where I teach. At ten past ten each Friday morning, he would take a seat among the freshmen, who were not even a quarter his age, and join in the discussion of this old poem, an epic about long journeys and long marriages and what it means to yearn for home.

It was deep winter when the term began, and my father was worrying a great deal about the weather: the snow on the windshield, the sleet on the roads, the ice on the walkways. He was afraid of falling, he said, his vowels still marked by his Bronx childhood: fawling. I would stay close to him as he crept along the narrow asphalt paths that led to the bland brick building where the class met, or up the walkway to the steep-gabled house at the edge of campus which was my home for a few days each week. Often, if he was too worn out after class to make the three-hour drive back home, he would sleep over in the extra bedroom that serves as my study, lying on a narrow daybed that had been my childhood bed. This bed, which he had built himself fifty years earlier, had a little secret: it was made out of a door, a cheap, hollow door, to which he’d attached four wooden legs that are as sturdy today as they were when he built it. I would think of this bed often a year later, after he became seriously ill, and my brothers and sister and I had to start fathering our father, anxiously watching him as he slept fitfully in a series of enormous, elaborately mechanized contraptions that hardly seemed like beds at all.

But that came later. Now, in the early months of 2011, he would come each week and spend the night in the bed he had made, in the house where I spent a part of each week.

It used to amuse my father that I divided my time among several places: this house on the rural campus the mellow old home in New Jersey, where my boys and their mother lived and where I would spend long weekends my apartment in New York City, which, as time passed and my life expanded, had become little more than a pit stop between train trips. “You’re always on the road,” my father would sometimes say at the end of a phone conversation, and as he said the word “road” I could picture him shaking his head in gentle bewilderment. For nearly all his adult life, my father lived in one house, the one he moved into a month before I was born—which over time filled up with five children and then was emptied of them, leaving him and my mother to live a life that was quiet and circumspect, at least in part because she didn’t like to travel—and which he left for the last time one January afternoon in 2012, a year to the day after he started my class.

The Odyssey course ran from late January to early May. A week or so after it ended, I happened to be on the phone with my friend Froma, a classics scholar who had been my mentor in graduate school and had lately enjoyed hearing my periodic reports on Daddy’s progress in the seminar. At some point in the conversation, she mentioned a cruise that she’d taken a couple of years earlier, called “Journey of Odysseus: Retracing the Odyssey Through the Ancient Mediterranean.” “You should do it!” she exclaimed. “After this semester, after teaching the Odyssey to your father, how could you not go?” Not everyone agreed: when I e-mailed a travel-agent friend to ask her what she thought, her response came back within a minute: “Avoid theme cruises at all costs!” But Froma had been my teacher, after all, and I was still in the habit of obeying her. The next morning, I called my father.

As we talked, we each went online to look at the cruise company’s Web site. The itinerary, we read, would follow the mythic hero Odysseus’ convoluted, decade-long journey as he made his way home from the Trojan War, plagued by shipwrecks and monsters. It would begin at Troy, the site of which is in present-day Turkey, and end on Ithaki, a small island in the Ionian Sea which purports to be Ithaca, the place Odysseus called home. “Journey of Odysseus” was an “educational” cruise, and my father, although contemptuous of anything that struck him as being a needless luxury, was a great believer in education. And so, a few weeks later, in June, fresh from our recent immersion in the text of the Homeric epic, we took the cruise, which lasted ten days, one for each year of Odysseus’ long journey.

The hero’s return to Ithaca is hardly the only voyage in which the Odyssey is interested. It is not for nothing that, in the original Greek, the first word in the first line of the twelve thousand one hundred and ten that make up the epic is andra: “man.” The poem begins with the story of Odysseus’ son, a youth in search of his long-lost father. It focusses next on the hero himself, first as he recalls the fabulous adventures he had after leaving Troy and then as he struggles to return home, where he will reclaim his identity as father, husband, and king, taking terrible vengeance on the suitors who tried to woo his wife and usurp his throne. And, in its final book, it gives us a vision of what a man might look like after his life’s adventures are over: the hero’s elderly father, the last person with whom Odysseus is reunited, now a decrepit recluse who has withdrawn to his orchard, tired of life. The boy, the adult, the ancient: the three ages of man. The underlying journey that the poem charts is a man’s passage through life, from birth to death. How do you get there? What is the journey like? And how do you tell the story of it?

As far as my father was concerned, Odysseus wasn’t worth all the fuss the poem makes about him. Again and again, as the semester wore on, he would find a way to rail against the legendary adventurer. “Hero?” he would sputter at some point during each class session. “He’s no hero!”

His contempt amused the students, but it didn’t surprise me. The first adjective used of Odysseus in the epic—it comes in line 1, soon after andra—is polytropos. The literal meaning of this word is “of many turns”: poly means “many” and tropos is a “turning” (which is why a flower that turns toward the sun is known as a heliotrope). On one level, the word accurately describes the shape of Odysseus’ journey: he’s the man who gets where he’s going by meandering—indeed, often by travelling in circles. In more than one of his adventures, he leaves a place only to come back to it, not always on purpose. And then there is the biggest circle of all, the one that brings him back to Ithaca, the home he has left so long ago that, by the time he returns, he and his loved ones are unrecognizable to one another. But “of many turns” is also a canny way to describe the hero himself. Throughout Greek literature, Odysseus is a notorious trickster, given to devious twists and evasions. In contrast with Achilles, the hero of the Iliad—who declares at one point that he hates “like the Gates of Death” the man who says one thing but means another—the hero of the Odyssey has no scruples about lying to get what he wants.

Odysseus’ sly proficiency as a fabulist, as a teller of tall tales and an outright liar, has endeared him to audiences over a hundred generations writers and poets, in particular, see him as a virtuoso of language. (In one memorable episode, he uses a pun on the word “nobody” to defeat the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant who has eaten some of his men.) But all this made him unbearable to my father. A mathematician by training, he valued accuracy, precision—a kind of hardness, even. He had meticulously calibrated standards for virtually everything, as if (I often resentfully thought, when I was young) life were an equation and all you had to do was work out the variables: children, marriage, friendships. Everything, for him, was part of a great, almost cosmic struggle between the qualities he championed and the weaker, softer qualities that most other people settled for, whether in songs or cars or novels or spouses. The lyrics of the pop music we secretly listened to, for instance, were “soft”: “Assonance is assonance but a rhyme is a rhyme. You can’t approximate!” Many of my father’s pronouncements took this x-is-x form, always with the implication that to think otherwise, to admit that x could be anything other than x, was to abandon the strict codes that governed his thinking and held the world in place. “Excellence is excellence, period,” he would bark. “Smart is smart—there’s no such thing as being a ‘bad test-taker.’ ” For him, the more arduous something was to achieve or to appreciate, the more worthwhile it was.

All this hardness, the sanity and exactitude and rationality, often made me wonder how he came to acquire the incongruously silly nickname we used for him: Daddy Loopy. True, there were sudden and unexpected softenings that, when I was a child, I used to wish would come more frequently. Some nights, instead of staying hunched over his small wooden desk in the hours after dinner, muttering at the bills as he passed a slender hand over his smooth pate, he would stand up with a sigh and walk across the narrow hallway, into my room, and then, after doing a “super-duper tucker-inner,” sit at the edge of the bed he had built and read “Winnie-the-Pooh” aloud to me. I would lie there in bliss, cocooned like a mummy, unable to move my arms but nonetheless feeling safe as his nasal baritone wrapped itself around the short, straightforward sentences.

And there was the time he took me down to Florida to see his own father, who’d fallen ill. This was in the mid-nineteen-sixties I was about four. At the beginning of the flight home, we were told that there was “weather” over New York and that we’d have to circle. I was unsettled by the plane’s continual tilting, by the moon passing our window again and again, and just wanted to get home but, instead of being impatient with me, my father put a book in my hands and said, “If you look at this, you won’t notice.” My father would occasionally tell this story, ostensibly because it showed what a good, patient boy I had been. But now that I know what it’s like to travel with small children I realize that it’s about how good and patient he was. Of course, being my father, he didn’t take long to segue from this tender anecdote into mathematics. The story, he would say as he started to tell it—and this is another reason that the Odyssey makes me think of him—hinged on a riddle: How can you travel great distances without getting anywhere? The answer to the riddle was: If you travel in circles.

In my father’s eyes, the hero of the Odyssey miserably fails the x-is-x test. Hence his derision, the sputtered imprecations: “He’s no hero!”

The first time this happened was around eleven-fifteen on the morning of January 28, 2011, about an hour into the first meeting of Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer. We’d been talking about the way the poem starts. The proem, as the first few lines of an epic are known, establishes the backstory: our polytropos hero has been delayed on his return “after sacking the holy citadel of Troy” having “wandered widely,” he has been detained by the amorous nymph Calypso, who wants to marry him despite his determination to get back to his wife, Penelope all the men he took with him to fight in the Trojan War have perished, some through foolish misadventures on the journey home. But, after this brief introduction, the poem turns not to Odysseus but to his son, Telemachus, who was a baby when the hero left for Troy. Now a youth of twenty, he sits around the royal palace as the epic gets going, fretting about the disastrous effects that Odysseus’ two-decade absence has wrought. Not only have the suitors overrun the palace, draining its stores of food and wine, carousing day and night, seducing the servant girls, but the social fabric of the island kingdom has frayed, too: some Ithacans are still loyal to Odysseus, but others have thrown their lot in with the suitors. Meanwhile, Penelope has withdrawn to her chambers, dejected. This is how the Odyssey begins: the hero himself nowhere in sight, the crises precipitated by his absence consuming all our attention.

As the session began, I tried to elicit ideas from the class about why the poem might begin this way. I looked around the big rectangular seminar table and peppered the students with leading questions. Why focus on the son, an inexperienced youth, and not the father, already famous for his exploits in the Trojan War? What narrative purpose is served by making us wait to meet the hero? Could the information we glean about Ithaca in these opening lines prove to be useful later on? The students stared at their texts in silence. It was only the first day of class, and I wasn’t surprised that they were shy but nonetheless I was anxious. Oh, God, I thought. Of course this would be the class that Daddy is observing.

But then a young woman next to me, who’d been scribbling in her notebook, straightened up. “I think the first book is meant to be a kind of surprise,” she said. “So here we are, at the beginning of this big epic about this great hero, and the first reference to him is that he’s this kind of loser. He’s a castaway, he’s a prisoner, he has no power and no way of getting home. He’s hidden from everything he cares for. So it’s, like, he can’t go any lower, it can only go uphill from there?”

“Great,” I said. “Yes. It provides a baseline for the hero’s narrative arc.”

It was at this point that my father raised his head and said, “Hero? I don’t think he’s a hero at all.”

“But what if a tyrant comes to power and no one’s able to stop him because the whole thing’s kind of funny?”

He pronounced the word “hero” with slight distaste, turning the “e” into an extended aih sound: haihro. He did this with other words—“beer,” for instance. I remember him telling my brothers and me, after his father died, that he hadn’t been able to look into the open casket, because the morticians had rouged his father’s cheeks. Then he said, “When I die, I want you to burn me, and then I want you boys to go to a bar and have a round of baihrs and make a toast to me, and that’s it.”

When we’d first talked about the possibility of his sitting in on the course, he’d promised me that he wasn’t going to talk in class. Now he was talking. “I’ll tell you what I think is interesting,” he said.

Nineteen heads swivelled in his direction. I stared at him.

He sat there with his hand in the air. A curious effect of his being in the room with these young people was that now, for the first time, he suddenly looked very old to me, smaller than I remembered him being.

“O.K.,” I said. “What do you think is so interesting? Why isn’t he a hero?”

“Am I the only one,” he said, looking around at the students, as if for support, “who’s bothered by the fact that Odysseus is alone when the poem begins?”

“What do you mean, ‘alone’?” I couldn’t see where he was going with this.

“Well,” he said, “he went off twenty years earlier to fight in the Trojan War, right? And he was presumably the leader of his kingdom’s forces?”

“Yes,” I said. “In the second book of the Iliad, there’s a list of all the Greek forces that went to fight at Troy. It says that Odysseus sailed with a contingent of twelve ships.”

My father’s voice was loud with triumph. “Right! That’s hundreds of men. So my question is, what happened to the twelve ships and their crews? Why is he the only person coming home alive?”

After a moment or two, I said, “Well, some died in the war, and, if you read the proem carefully, you’ll recall that others died ‘through their own recklessness.’ As we go through the poem, we’ll actually get to the incidents during which his men perished, different groups at different times. And then you’ll tell me whether you think it was through their own recklessness.”

I looked around the room encouragingly, but my father made a face—as if he could have done better than Odysseus, could have brought the twelve ships and their crews home safely.

“So you admit that he lost all his men?”

“Yep,” I said, a little defiantly. I felt like I was eleven years old again and Odysseus was a naughty schoolmate whom I’d decided I was going to stand by even if it meant being punished along with him.

Now my father looked around the table. “What kind of leader loses all his men? You call that a hero?”

The students laughed. Then, as if fearful that they’d overstepped some boundary, they peered down the length of the seminar table at me, as if to see how I’d react. Since I wanted to show them I was a good sport, I smiled broadly. But what I was thinking was, This is going to be a nightmare.

In the weeks that followed, my father drew up an extended charge sheet of Odysseus’ failings.

“He’s a liar and he cheated on his wife,” he’d say. (He was right: whatever his yearning for home, Odysseus does sleep with Calypso every night of his seven years with her.)

“He’s always crying!” he’d exclaim, referring to Odysseus’ bouts of homesick weeping. “What’s so haihroic about that?”

And then there was the “real weakness” in the epic. “He keeps getting help from the gods!” my father said. “Everything he does, every bit of success he has, is really because the gods help him.”

“I’m not so sure,” I said, when this came up. We were talking about a passage in Book 6 in which Athena dramatically enhances Odysseus’ looks so that he can ingratiate himself with the rulers of an island where he has just washed ashore. “The poem also makes clear that even without the help of the gods he’s very clever—”

No,” my father said, with a ferocity that made some of the students look up from their note-taking. “No. The whole poem happens because the gods are always helping him. It starts because Athena decides it’s time to get him home, right? And then the reason he’s able to get away from Calypso is because Zeus sends Hermes to tell her to let him go.”

“Let me finish,” he pushed on, the jackhammer rhythm of his argument, with its accusatory emphasis on certain words, familiar from other, much older arguments. “So it’s really the gods. And it’s Athena who keeps dolling him up when he needs to look good.”

He made a little face when he said “dolling him up.” The students chuckled.

“Yeah, what is that about?” one of them snorted. “Now he has curls ‘like the blossom of a hyacinth’? Not very manly!”

“It does seem a bit artificial for him to get this total makeover,” the girl who sat next to me said. “Why isn’t it good enough for him just to wash off and put on some nice clean clothes?”

“She dolls him up,” my father said again, “and helps him in a lot of other ways. So it’s pretty obvious that he gets a lot of help directly from the gods.”

His vehemence took some of the students aback. It didn’t surprise me. The religion thing, I said to myself. Here we go.

He abhorred religion and rituals. Having to attend ceremonies of any kind reduced him to adolescent sulking. He would slouch low in the pews at weddings or bar mitzvahs or confirmations, covering his eyes with the fingers of his left hand, the way you might cover your face during a slasher movie, wincing like someone with a headache, and mutter his atheistic invectives to me or my siblings or, sometimes, to no one in particular as the rabbi or the cantor or the priest droned on: “Nobody can prove this crap. It’s like voodoo!” He would leaf through the prayer books as if their pages were evidence of a crime, stabbing a finger at this or that passage with an incredulous shake of his head.

After repeating, “He gets a lot of help from the gods,” my father sat back in his chair.

One of the students said, “Well, yeah, I have to agree with what, uh, Mr. Mendelsohn said. The thing that stuck out to me the most this week was how much Athena intervenes in the story. It’s like she’s holding Odysseus’ hand even when it seems unnecessary. After all, if Odysseus is such a great trickster, why can’t he trick his way back home on his own? If everything is predetermined to go his way, then why should I be impressed by his masterful cunning or physical abilities?”

My father was beaming: “Exactly! Without the gods, he’s helpless.”

It was when he said the word “helpless” that I suddenly understood. I had been thinking that his resistance to the role of the gods in the Odyssey was just part of his loathing for religion in general. But when he said the word “helpless” I saw that the deeper problem, for my father, was that Odysseus’ willingness to receive help from the gods marked him as weak, as inadequate. I thought of all the times he had growled, “There’s nothing you can’t learn to do yourself, if you have a book!” I thought of the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air under whose chassis he had spent so many weekends, reluctant to let it die, a pile of car-repair manuals just within reach of one greasy hand of the Colonial armchairs he had painstakingly assembled from kits in the garage “with no help from anyone.” I thought of how, after taking out the appropriate books from the public library on Old Country Road, he had taught himself how to write song lyrics, how to build barbecue accelerators, to create a compost heap, to construct a wet bar. No wonder he was allergic to religion. No wonder he couldn’t bear the fact that—right up until the slaughter of the suitors, at the end of the poem—the gods intervene on Odysseus’ behalf.

If you needed gods, you couldn’t say you did it yourself. If you needed gods, you were cheating.

A month after the end of the semester, my father and I were on a ship in the middle of the Aegean, retracing the Odyssey.

At the start of the cruise, he’d been tense. He was prickly when his taxi pulled up in front of my apartment building in New York for the trip to J.F.K. and our flight to Athens. He’d insisted on hiring his local car service for the drive, and when I made a face on entering the sedan—it had no air-conditioning, and the day was very hot—he snapped, “A taxi is a taxi.” After we landed and collected our luggage, we boarded the air-conditioned coach that would take us to Piraeus, the port of Athens. My father seemed as tightly coiled as a spring.

As the bus lurched and twisted its way through the traffic, which had been snarled by demonstrations protesting the country’s economic crisis, a representative from the cruise line gave a brief orientation. We’d board our small ship in midafternoon, and at cocktail time there’d be a welcome reception, followed by an introductory lecture. After dinner, we’d start our twelve-hour voyage across the Aegean toward Çanakkale, in Turkey, the site of Troy’s ruins, which we’d visit in the morning.

When my father and I were booking our tickets, a few weeks earlier, he had surprised me by insisting on paying for one of the more expensive cabins. It had a private balcony. Entering the cabin for the first time, he looked around, surveyed the sleek furnishings, and then walked onto the balcony, loudly sniffing the Mediterranean air. But even though he seemed to approve of the posh touches, the orchids and the cocktails waiting on a gleaming side table, I could sense in him a kind of resistance, as if he were going to prove to me by the end of our ten days at sea that the Odyssey wasn’t worth all this effort, all this luxury.

Almost imperceptibly, however, he started easing into the rhythm of our days. Mornings were for trips ashore to visit the sites associated with the epic. Many of these were not easy to access, and we’d return from our excursions exhausted and dusty, grateful for the tall glasses of lemonade and iced tea that would be handed to us after we’d climbed back up the gangplank. Early evenings were for bathing and changing then there was dinner.

After a couple of days at sea, a small group of passengers started to gather after dinner each night around a piano in the ship’s bar. My father would invariably request one of his favorites from the Great American Songbook. It was this more than anything, I think, that relaxed him as the days and nights passed. These reminders of home—the words he knew so well, the echoes of the culture of his past—reassured him. He seemed almost visibly to unclench once he was settled into a chair with a Martini, singing along in a raspy Sprechstimme as the pianist played:

Is your figure less than Greek?

Is your mouth a little weak?

When you open it to speak, are you smaaaart?

My father took a sip of his Martini and smacked his lips. “Ah, so great. Rodgers and Hart. That’s when a song was a song!”

To my surprise, it was soon clear that he was enjoying the rituals of the cruise itself—the late-night cocktails and the piano-playing, the desultory conversations with strangers over drinks or at breakfast—at least as much as he did the sites. He even seemed to enjoy the fussy pre-dinner dressing up. Clothes, to put it mildly, had never been his forte it was always a bit of a shock to see him wearing anything other than one of his beloved hooded sweatshirts, blazoned with the names of the schools my brothers and sister and I—and, later, our children—had attended. On the first night of the cruise, when we were getting ready for the welcome cocktail party, he started to put on a brown polyester shirt, which I snatched from his hands and threw over the balcony railing into the Aegean.

Daddy! It’s a Mediterranean cruise! Mom must have packed something blue or white!”

“Whaaat? A shirt is a shirt!”

At the start of the trip, I’d worried that the physical demands of the daily excursions would be too much for him. He was three months shy of eighty-two, after all, and there was a great deal of walking—which, in Greece, inevitably means walking up hills. But, as it turned out, his problem was something else.

“It doesn’t really look that impressive!” he exclaimed, the morning we walked around the ruins in Çanakkale—the first of many times that he let on that a site wasn’t living up to his expectations. As he grumbled, Brian, the cruise’s resident archeologist, lectured us on the history of the site. He explained that there had been a number of successive Troys over the millennia, each rising and falling in turn. Among the ruins of these, he went on, there was evidence of a “major catastrophe” that had occurred around 1180 B.C.—the traditional date of the fall of Homer’s Troy. As he said this, people murmured knowingly and wrote in their notebooks.

My father listened attentively but looked skeptical as we picked our way among the dusty paths and walkways, the giant inward-sloping walls, the heaps of gray stones rising out of patches of yellowed grass. In the obliterating sunlight, the stones appeared weary and porous, as insubstantial as sugar cubes.

My father looked around. “Obviously, it’s interesting,” he said. “But . . .”

His voice trailed off and he shook his head.

To my surprise, he suddenly threw an arm around my shoulders and patted me, smiling crookedly. “But the poem feels more real than the ruins, Dan!”

During the week that followed, this became a refrain of his. “The poem feels more real!” he’d say each evening, as people discussed the day’s activities. When he did so, he’d cast a quick sidelong glance at me, knowing how much the thought pleased me.

One night, after we’d traipsed around a ruin in the southwestern Peloponnese which is known as “Nestor’s palace”—Nestor is an elderly comrade of Odysseus’, whom Telemachus visits in Book 3, looking for news of his father—he turned to the group around the piano.

“Obviously, I’m glad I got to see the places and be able to make a connection between the real places and what’s in Homer,” he said.

People nodded, and he went on. “If I would have read Book 3 now, for instance, I would know exactly what the seashore of ‘sandy Pylos’ looks like”—he wiggled his fingers to indicate that he was quoting verbatim—“where Telemachus landed. And now we all have a sense of Troy, the way it’s sited, how it looks out with the water in the distance. That’s great. But for me it’s a little bit empty compared to the story. Or maybe half-empty. It’s like these places we’re seeing are a stage set, but the poem is the drama. I feel that that is what’s real.”

I smiled and said, “Don’t tell me we’ve come all this way to retrace the Odyssey and now you’re telling me that we could have stayed home.”

“It’s like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ ” my father said jauntily. “ ‘There’s no place like home . . .’ ”

Brian turned to me. “Would you say that that movie is actually an Odyssey-based story?” he asked.

“It was a book first,” my father interrupted. “L. Frank Baum!”

I thought for a moment. “Sure,” I said. “Totally. The protagonist is torn from home and family and experiences fabulous adventures in exotic locales where she meets all kinds of monstrous and fantastical beings. But all the time she’s yearning to go home.”

My father was staring down into his Martini. “That movie came out just before the war started,” he said, wistfully. “Weeks before, as I recall. Your grandfather was working away from home that summer on a big project, but he was home just then, and he took me and my brother Bobby to the Loews Theatre to see it. Man, in those days when you saw a movie it was really an experience. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney did a floor show. An organ came out of the floor!”

The small group huddled around the bar had grown quiet as he spoke. To them, I realized, this was who he was: a lovely old man filled with delightful tales about the thirties and forties, the era to which the music tinkling out of the piano belonged, an era of cleverness and confidence. If only they knew the real him, I thought ruefully. His face now, relaxed and open, mellow with reminiscence, was so different from the one he so often presented, at least to his family. I wondered whether there might be people, strangers he had met on business trips, say, bellhops or stewardesses or conference attendees, to whom he also showed only this face, and who would therefore be astonished by the expression of disdain we knew so well. But then it occurred to me that perhaps this affable and entertaining gentleman was the person my father was always meant to be, or had possibly always been, albeit only with others. Children always imagine that their parents’ truest selves are as parents. But why? “No one truly knows his own begetting,” Telemachus bitterly observes, early in the Odyssey. Indeed. Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysterious to them.

The only time my father didn’t cap off an evening in the ship’s lounge by saying “the poem feels more real” was after we’d gone to Gozo, a small island off Malta, to see a cave that, according to local legend, belonged to Calypso. We’d been warned that the descent into the cave was rocky and difficult, and that only a few people could go inside at a time, given how cramped it was. Elderly passengers and those who had “mobility issues” were advised not to visit the site.

When I heard all this, I was determined not to go. I suffer from claustrophobia: simply being in an elevator sets my teeth on edge. There was no way I was going into Calypso’s cave.

“What are you talking about?” my father exclaimed when I told him. “You have to go! Seven-tenths of the Odyssey takes place there!”

“Seven-tenths?” I had no idea what he was talking about. “The epic is twenty-four books long—”

“Math, Dan! Math. Odysseus spends ten years getting home, right?”

“And he spends seven years with Calypso, right?”

“So, in theory, seven-tenths of the Odyssey actually takes place there! You can’t miss it!”

“Well,” I protested weakly, “actually, no. The poem isn’t actually equal to his life. They’re two different things.”

But he wasn’t convinced. “You can’t argue with numbers,” he said.

We got on the bus and went. As the bus rattled and bumped along the rocky roads, it became touchingly clear that my father was trying to distract me. “Look at those beautiful blue flowers!” he would say, pointing. I looked without seeing I was thinking about the cave.

We pulled up at the site and found ourselves on the brow of a barren hill. Withered bushes clung to the dun-colored dirt. A narrow parapet above the cave looked out at the glittering sea about twenty feet below was the opening—a dark vertical gash in the face of the rock, surrounded on either side by parched scrub. A few people had already made the descent and were disappearing into the cleft.

A clammy terror seized me. I shook my head. “No,” I said to my father. “Nope, sorry. I’m not going. You go. You’ll tell me what it’s like.”

“Oh, come on, Dan,” my father said. “I’ll be with you. It’ll be fine.”

Then he did something that astonished me. He reached over and took my hand. I burst out laughing. “Daddy!”

“You’ll be fine,” he said, holding my hand, a thing I couldn’t remember him having done since I was a small boy. His own hand was light and dry. I looked at it awkwardly.

“I will be there with you every step of the way,” my father was saying. “And if you hate it we’ll leave.”

I looked down at our clasped hands and to my surprise found that I felt better. I looked around to see if anyone was watching and then realized, with a complicated feeling of relief, that the others would assume that I was leading my elderly father by the hand.

And so it was that I visited Calypso’s cave with my father holding my hand. He held it as we made our way down the rocky path to the entrance. He held my hand as we crouched down to squeeze through the opening he held my hand as we shuffled around inside, my heart thumping so hard that I was surprised the others didn’t hear it held my hand as I said firmly that, no, I didn’t want to go through a passageway to see the spectacular views of the bay below held my hand as I scrambled at last into the hot, dry air, not even bothering to conceal my panic. Only after we were back at the parapet above the cave and walking toward the waiting bus did he let go of my hand.

I grinned shakily. “I think this is one time when we can say that the poem does not feel more real,” I said.

“Ha!” my father said. Then he lowered his voice and said, “You did good, Dan.”

In the lounge that evening, Elena, the tour manager, asked people what they’d thought of Calypso’s cave. I looked across at her. That morning, I had told her about my claustrophobia. “You really don’t have to go,” she had said. “A lot of people are staying aboard because for them it’s too difficult.” I’d felt a flood of relief so intense that it was vaguely shaming. But something stopped me from accepting the excuse she was offering: I didn’t want my father to see me afraid. Later that day, after we’d got back, I bumped into her on deck and told her what had happened: my panic attack, Daddy holding my hand. “Wonderful!” she had cried.

Now, as people recalled the excursion, she smiled at the two of us warmly. “See? You survived!”

I was searching for something to say, when my father cut in.

“We had a great time,” he said, loudly.

I tried to catch his eye, but he was leaning forward, facing into the ragged semicircle of armchairs like a teacher addressing a study group.

“I didn’t want to go,” my father said to them. “Hills are hard for me. I thought it would be too much for me physically. But Dan helped me, and I’m glad I went. After all, Odysseus spends seven-tenths of his adventures there!”

He paused, not looking at me, and said, “It was one of the more impressive things I’ve seen, actually.”

Elena murmured, “Your father is a very charming man.”

During our ten days at sea, we saw nearly everything we’d hoped to see, the strange new landscapes and the debris of the various civilizations that had occupied them. We saw Troy we saw Nestor’s palace we saw Calypso’s cave. We saw the elegantly severe columns of a Doric temple left unfinished, for reasons impossible to know, by some Greeks of the Classical era in Segesta, on Sicily, where Odysseus’ remaining crew ate the forbidden meat of the cattle that belonged to the sun god, Hyperion, the climatic instance of foolishness which got them all killed. We visited the desolate spot near Naples which, the ancients believed, was the entrance to Hades. We passed through the Strait of Messina—where Odysseus had to navigate between the man-eating monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. And of course we saw the sea, always the sea, with its many faces, glass-smooth and stone-rough, at certain times blithely open and at others tightly inscrutable, sometimes a weak blue so clear that you could see straight down to the sea urchins at the bottom, spiked and expectant-looking, like mines left over from some war whose causes and combatants no one remembers, and sometimes an impenetrable purple, the color of the wine that we refer to as red but the Greeks call black.

We saw all those things during our travels, all those places, and learned a great deal about the peoples who had lived there. But we were unable to make the last stop on the itinerary. On the day before we were to start sailing to Ithaki, the captain announced that, because of nationwide strikes protesting the austerity measures being forced on Greece, the Corinth Canal was going to be closed. The canal was to have been our shortcut back to Athens from the Ionian Sea, on Greece’s west coast, where Ithaki lies now, in order to get back to Athens in time to make our flights, two days later, we’d have to spend the next day and a half sailing all the way around the Peloponnesian peninsula.

And so we never reached Ithaca, never saw Odysseus’ home. But, then, the Odyssey itself, filled as it is with sudden mishaps and surprising detours, schools its hero in disappointment and teaches its audience to expect the unexpected. For this reason, I came to feel that our not reaching Ithaca may have been the most Odyssean aspect of the whole excursion. After we got back home—just before my father tripped in a parking lot and fell, the beginning of a chain of events that led, finally, to a massive stroke that left him helpless and unrecognizable, unable to breathe on his own, to open his eyes, to move, to speak—after we got home I would sometimes joke with Daddy that, because we had never reached our goal, our journey retracing the Odyssey could still be considered incomplete, could be thought of as ongoing.

But now, on the morning of the last full day of the cruise, we sat glumly on our balcony, thinking about Ithaca and drinking our coffees in silence as the ship strained toward Athens. At one point, trying to lighten the mood, I said, “It’s actually sort of cool, our not getting to Ithaca. It’s the infinitely receding destination!” But he shook his head and said, “It’s just a ten-day tour.”

A moment or two later, a steward knocked on the door of our cabin and handed me a note from the captain. It said that he was aware that I had recently published a translation of the works of the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, who lived in Alexandria at the turn of the last century. One of Cavafy’s best-known poems is called “Ithaca,” and the captain wondered whether, since our destination had suddenly “disappeared,” as he put it, I would consider filling the void by giving a reading of the poem and perhaps a short lecture about it. This way, although we would miss the real Ithaca, we would at least visit it metaphorically.

This captain is smart, I thought. For although Cavafy’s poem is named after the most famous destination in world literature, it is about the virtues of not arriving.

This is why, just around the time we would have been visiting Ithaki, I stood at a lectern in front of a small group of passengers on a boat in the middle of the sea, talking about “Ithaca.” I started off by discussing the other poets who had taken the Odyssey’s hero and refashioned him for their own purposes. In Dante’s Inferno, Odysseus (given his Latin name, Ulysses) is damned for deceitfulness and madly sails over the edge of the world. In the nineteenth century, the character’s perpetual restlessness made him a Romantic hero. In 1833, the young Alfred Tennyson wrote a poem called “Ulysses,” a dramatic monologue spoken by the aging hero. Long since returned, the “idle king” reflects on a bitter irony: life back on Ithaca is not what he’d dreamed of during his years away. The homecoming is revealed as odious it was in the adventuring, he realizes, that the meaning of his life had lain. “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,” he muses. In its much quoted final line, “Ulysses” sums up the very spirit of travel, of adventure: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Cavafy knew Tennyson’s poem well. In his “Ithaca,” published in 1911, he reiterates the earlier poet’s wariness about getting where you think you want to go. “Hope that the road is a long one,” his anonymous speaker admonishes an addressee who may be Odysseus but may also be the reader. The poem then goes on to catalogue the riches that only travel can bring: harbors we have never seen before fabulous treasure from foreign ports, amber and ebony and coral, exotic perfumes and encounters with wise strangers. Of course, we must remember our destination, whatever that may be but it becomes clear that life’s meaning derives from our progress through it, and what we make of it:


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