I’m the first to admit that I have more than a few buttons that people can push to send me off on a long rant. One of them is the use of the term “real father” (or mother, or virtually any other familial designator), particularly when it is used to refer to someone’s biological-but-absentee relative. And sometimes I don’t just rant, sometimes I’m barely suppressing an urge to punch someone in the mouth over the use of the phrase. More than a little of the blame for that irrational reaction rests solidly at the feet of the man pictured here with a very young me. A man named Ralph.
The story can get a little convoluted, so I’m going to first sum-up, then unpack a bit as I also explain why I get so ticked-off about the use of the phrase “real father.”…
When Mom was about thirteen months old, her biological father abandoned his wife and two kids. Not quite two years later Grandma met and married the man I call “Grandpa.” They moved to the Pacific Northwest and Grandpa raised the girls as his own until Mom was fourteen years old. A series of family disasters and medical issues culminated in Grandma suffering what they called at the time a nervous breakdown. In the midst of that, as the result of Grandpa’s attempts to legally adopt Mom and Aunt Silly, Ralph found out where they were living, showed up, and begged Grandma to take him back. Astonishingly, she did. They remarried. Ralph, Grandma, and the girls moved to a tiny town in northwest Colorado. Mom met Dad and they married before Mom was seventeen. I and my sister were born and started our childhoods with no idea of all this past drama. Then, when I was about five years old, one morning Ralph secretly loaded some of his belongings in his pickup truck and drove out of town without telling Grandma what was happening. Months later, divorce papers arrived from a far-away state. Grandpa eventually learned what had happened, he and Grandma met up, decided to re-marry, and Grandma moved back to the northwest where she helped Grandpa raise six other children, some of them his biological children, some not. Grandma and Grandpa were together until Grandpa died, years later.
And that’s only the sum-up!
To unpack only some if it: Grandma was nineteen years old when she married Ralph, who was a year older than she. At nineteen, at that time, Grandma was starting to be considered a late bride. Other young women her age were already married with at least one child by then. Grandma and Ralph had their first daughter a year later. They had their second daughter, my mom, two years after the first. So, Grandma was twenty-three years old, with two kids aged three and one, when her husband Ralph shocked her by saying that he had never wanted to have children, and that he was pretty angry to find himself now the father of two of them.
Now, this was 1944, and there were not very many birth control options readily and cheaply available, but it’s not as if people didn’t know where babies came from, either. And it wasn’t as if the two pregnancies had somehow been hidden from him so that having two kids came as a complete surprise to him one morning. He was there for the entire process, twice. The excuse he told Grandma was that he had picked her to court and marry precisely because he thought she was incapable of having children. Grandma had been involved in an accident on the farm some years before, and had nearly died. Surgery had been required. Grandma didn’t talk about it much in any detail. I think part of the problem was that the doctors had never been very clear in explaining all of the details. But some part of the surgery had involved her uterus in some way, and she had been warned that she might experience difficulty carrying children to term. Somehow this had entered the local gossip network that she was completely incapable of having children.
Anyway, Ralph gave Grandma an ultimatum: either the children went, or he did. Grandma, stunned, refused to abandon her own children. (As she put it one time, “I kept asking him, what do you mean they have to go? They’re children. It’s not like going to the hardware store and buying the wrong kind of screws. You can’t take them back and ask for a refund!”) Ralph packed some of his things and left. Divorce papers arrived in the mail some months later. Grandma had to rely on a lot of help from her parents (my great-grandparents) as she worked as a nurse’s aid, went through nurse’s training, and attempted to raise the girls on her own.
About a year later, she met George, the man I call Grandpa. And as I said, some months later they married. George did all of the things a parent is supposed to do for Mom and Aunt Silly. He put a roof over their heads. He made sure their was money for clothes, food, school supplies, doctor visits, and all the rest. He sat up with them when they were sick. The one time that Grandma made him spank the girls to punish them for something, he cried for hours after (and Aunt Silly still says she and Mom were tearfully promising never to be bad for days afterward not because of the spanking, but because they’d made George cry). He helped them with their homework. When the family dog got injured and had to be taken to a vet, he dried Mom’s and Aunt Silly’s tears and tried to convince them everything would be okay.
In that and a million other ways, he did everything a father is expected to do. He wasn’t their biological father, but his parenting was far more real than anything Ralph had done for them.
An incident occurred where there was a temporary problem because he was, legally, only Mom and Aunt Silly’s step-father. I don’t know the details, but the upshot was that Grandma realized the legal situation would be more stable if George could adopt the girls. And he was more than willing to do it. Since as far as anyone knew, Ralph was still alive, before the adoption could go through, they had to make a concerted effort to find Ralph and get him to waive his parental rights. This required the expense of hiring some sort of private detective. If a certain number of months went by with no results, they could petition the court to waive Ralph’s parental claims.
While that was in process, in unrelated incidents, relatives of both Grandma and George suffered near fatal medical issue. Some of the young children of those relatives moved in with Grandma and George. Grandma was under a lot of stress helping take care of extra children and worrying about everyone while she was working part-time as a nurse and George was working full-time. Eventually Grandma wound up in the hospital herself, suffering with various stress-induced problems and having been diagnosed with “nervous breakdown.”
That’s when Ralph showed up. The detective had tracked Ralph down in Arizona, where he had remarried and fathered a couple of more children and just recently divorced. (I have no details beyond a distant relative’s description that the second marriage “had been on the rocks from day one.”) For whatever reason, he decided to try to get back together with Grandma. He begged forgiveness and claimed that he was ready to do the right thing “in the eyes of god” and be the husband and father he should have been all along (at least to his first ex-wife and children, never mind the second ex-wife and children).
Grandma, not exactly in the best state of mind, and having been a Born-Again Evangelical Fundamentalist her whole life, decided that god wanted her and the girls to be with her first husband.
Grandpa, who would have lassoed the moon and pulled it to Earth if Grandma or the girls had asked it of him (that’s a direct quote from Grandpa’s older sister, my Great-aunt Maud), agreed to divorce Grandma. Washington didn’t have no-fault divorce back then, so Grandpa convinced some of his friends to testify that he had been a cruel and abusive husband. He swore in court that he had been cruel and abusive. The divorce was granted.
As I mentioned above, after re-marrying, Grandma and Ralph moved to a tiny town in Colorado. Aunt Silly and Mom both got married, had kids, and moved away. One morning a few hours after Ralph had left the house to go to work, his boss called Grandma to find out if Ralph was sick, because he had never shown up for his shift. The town was very tiny, and it was less than a quarter of a mile from their home to his work place, so it seemed unlikely he could have had a serious car accident no one had heard. She realized what had happened when she discovered that his guitars were missing—along a bunch of his clothes, and a suitcase.
My Great-aunt Maud (Grandpa’s sister) had thought George divorcing Grandma was the biggest mistake of his life. My Great-uncle Lyle (Grandma’s brother) had thought Grandma re-marrying Ralph was the biggest mistake of her life. They had remained secretly in contact during the years Grandma was back with Ralph, and so they conspired to get Grandpa and Grandma back together after Ralph abandoned Grandma the second time.
I have almost no recollections of any of my childhood times with Ralph. Literally there are maybe two “scenes” I can dredge out of my memories. I look through all these old pictures, and find more than a few of me as a young child with him there, but I remember none of those events. Maybe that was because I was only six the second time he ran off. But I think it was also because he was never a warm person.
But Grandpa? I have so many memories of Grandpa: working on projects together, teaching me to make repairs on my first car (which was an old beast of a beater car), laughing together, watching football games together, and lots of other things you would expect of a grandfather. Most importantly, he loved Grandma, and his kids (whether his adoptive, step-, or biological) and their kids. He was never shy about telling people he loved them. He would get embarrassed and sniffly about it sometimes, but he was never afraid to say it.
Not every step-father or adoptive father is as wonderful as my Grandpa was, I get that. But to refer to Ralph as my mom’s “real father” implies that George was fake or imaginary. Referring to any absent biological parent as “real” completely dismisses the value of the sacrifices, work, and love from step-parents and adoptive parents and foster parents and close family friends and all the others who step in to help raise a kid when needed.
Not every absent father is a scumbag like Ralph. Sometimes they’re gone for reasons totally out of their control. Sometimes circumstances are such that it is a better emotional environment for the kids if the parents are apart.
And some non-absent parents are more detriment than help to the lives and well-being of their children. I can’t count the number of times over the years I’ve said that the only thing that upset me about my parents getting a divorce was that I wish Mom had left my abusive father years sooner.
Merely being the person who provided half the genetic material to a child doesn’t bestow any “realness” on your parenting. Parenting is hard, often thankless work. The person who does that work is the “real” father or mother, regardless of any biological connection to the child in question.