I looked for him for years. Proof, of some sort, that he was ever there at all.
There was none. Not one collar stay, or old wallet, or empty bottle of Old Spice. Of course there was no "Daddy's scratchy face" of Pat-the-bunny fame - but there was no old razor, either. No stiff pocket knife or well-worn sports equipment, no impossibly large button-downs or scuffed shoes.
By the time I was aware, and looking, he had been gone five years, at least.
There were pictures - exactly two that I can recall. In one, he's propping up a gigantic stuffed Easter bunny (he was well over six feet tall, as was the rabbit). I think it is pink, but my mind may be colorizing a black and white photo. It was huge,and it pre-dated me.
In the other, a family picture. I am an infant. We are in a studio. Everyone is sixties-Kennedy-era stylish and crisp and perfect and wearing something mom had expertly sewn.
We each look- serious. He is the only one smiling. It's a half-smirk. I think. Dashing, smug. For the camera.
Mom looks like she has maybe been crying. Recently.
In 1968, the world changed, they say. I was born that year, so I don't recall. In this photo, this 1968 photo, our world was changing - but mom was still taking it, and every one was still pretending this was the way it would be.
In 1969, my father left. Thoroughly, completely, and apparently without a trace.
For years and years I bumped around, thinking this was Very Significant, and self-defining, and a little tragic. I wrote letters that went unanswered. If I had a dad? I would have A's in math. I would be an athlete and a scholar. We would take trips on airplanes instead of long drives, and I would never go dateless on a Saturday night.
I met him three times. I was 5, then I was 9, and then I was 34 and standing in his scrubby back yard eating chips and dips and drinking, I believe, a Bud Light. From a can. At ten in the morning. With my siblings. My 90-year-old grandfather (his father), and Mom.
In his absence, I had invented him. And all those years of imagining a lost and fabulous life, conjuring a quiet, (but stern), focused, charming and artistic man who turned to scrimshaw and beer-brewing as hobbies? They melted away in that yard.
In front of me, he was nothing. So very thoroughly nothing that I it would take far more characters than I care to type to describe, accurately, the absense.
And just like that, I was done.
He no longer tripped through my thoughts, or gave me pause. I had no more fantasies of the grizzled, misunderstood dad rejoining the family in old age, begging for forgiveness and time with his grandchildren. He was just... gone.
Today, they would have been married 50 years.
I had kids, I have kids. I cannot imagine doing this alone.
I cannot imagine being abandoned.
I cannot imagine any of it.
It was our job - the four of us - to keep Mom more distracted, busy, and sometimes laughing. And it was our job, collectively, to help out. And then we grew up.
I love her more than life - and when I had my own children I realized, agonizingly, that she loves me even more. It is an awkward, unbalanced, beautiful and brutal thing, child-parent / parent-child love.
And in my adulthood, while I am out here, being 1/4 of my mother's everything? My everything is here, eating up so much of my thoughts and efforts. Because that's that crazy imbalance again.
I cannot begin to imagine how colosally screwed up our lives would be, and we would be, had he not left. The vacuum he left was filled with busy-ness. It wasn't love that he took away, it was extra hands, and the outside impression that everything was fine. The pretty, posed picture where nobody smiled. He took some of the order and a second adult voice.
Thank God he did.
We had noise, we had laughter, we had chaos and spontaneity and a collage of places lived and road trips taken and prayers said and books read aloud and summers on a farm, being tended to by grandparents of another era who grew every known vegetable, and most of the fruits.
We had the South, we had New England, we had the beach in Florida and vacations - later - on islands.
His absence, had he lived with us, would have darkly affected our rhythms, our friendships, our sometimes ridiculous cartoon lives and inside jokes. The void, had it been standing in front of us and ordering our days, would have been far more vast had he stayed.
And the only reason, truly, that I think of him at all, is that today would have been their 50th wedding anniversary.
Thank God it isn't.
I don't want to share the five people we were and the 17 people we are today - the strong, capable, competent, loving, generous lot of us - with the person who he is. I want to wholly, completely, entirely credit my Mom. And I am so genuinely grateful that I get to do that.
There is no such thing as a broken family if it doesn't need fixing.