What the Heart Wants
“The Heart wants what it wants—"
--Emily Dickinson, 1862
"What if I told you I'm incapable of tolerating my own heart?"
--Virginia Woolf, 1919
It’s not an easy call to make, to accuse my only living grandparent of deception. And it’s not exactly deception, nor an accusation, really. But it sounds that way in my head. No matter how many times I’ve rehearsed it, every time I say, “I did a DNA test and found my biological grandfather,” I lose my breath, my ribs contract, begin to strangle my heart. To reveal my blood-kin is to let surface my grandmother’s secret. A secret that has pulled our family under for over sixty years. I’m tired of drowning. I pick up the phone and try to control my voice.
Freda is giddy after I tell her. Her laugh and “Oh my!” flow into my lungs like ice water, not what I expected. She makes no denial of the past, gives no quick revisionist history. Freda does not sound like the woman who, for the last twenty years, has tried to get me to read the K.J.V. Bible, The Secret, The Purpose Driven Life. She sounds like the woman she suddenly became at her husband’s funeral. "Who the hell is she?" my sister and I asked each other after we'd been pulled out of our adult lives to become girls again in their home. We were sharing a bedroom and helping Freda sort the arrangements for the man we knew as our grandfather. Three days into his death, and she was giving away their lifetime together—the snow blower, his pickup, his collection of Stetsons, belts, and cowboy boots. It was a cold shock when she announced she'd given his rifle, the one he'd used to teach me to shoot quail, to her own brother. "When you come and visit us in Missouri, you can get it," she said. This was her way of revealing she was selling up and moving out of Raton, New Mexico, returning to her childhood hometown.
Then she foisted our grandfather’s ashes on us, a white cardboard box. Not knowing what else to do, my sister took them home. She put the box on a shelf in her closet, and after a week called me to say, "My closet keeps making noises. Grandpa is haunting me. Why didn't Granny want his ashes?" I muttered something about grief, but somehow knew it wasn't right. "We've got to get rid of him. He's not happy with me," she said. A few months later, we returned to New Mexico, just before the house sold, and scattered his ashes inside Capulin Volcano. Freda didn't come with us.
We asked our mother about Freda's behavior. Her response was so prompt it was as if she'd been waiting years to tell it. "I never got the impression he really loved her," she said. "She probably fell out of love with him years ago."
"What? How can you say that? They were married, like, forever," I said.
"Yeah, because he adopted Terry, and Freda didn't want to be on her own. Did you ever hear him tell her he loved her? He worked hard and never let her buy a thing. He socked away nearly every penny, like a miser. He made her work, even when she wanted to stay home with your father. He made your father work like a man from the time he was adopted. He was a cold man, you know."
I'd never heard my grandfather mention the word love with anyone. When I entered college, he sent me newspaper and magazine articles about saving money and planning for my future career, the type of advice no one else in my family seemed to follow. Most of them had declared bankruptcy at least once. He called me, sent birthday checks and cards. He took me to restaurants when I visited them, walked the rim of Capulin Volcano, went sight-seeing on long drives upon the mesas. If I needed something, he bought it or sent me the money for it. I got the feeling he loved me. That had been enough. My mother, though, knew it hadn't been for Freda. "He never let her forget that she needed him," she said.
My grandfather willed Freda a small fortune when he died. I remember this as I'm listening to her reaction about a man she'd known only long enough to conceive my father sometime in the spring of 1951. That man, with whom I share DNA, was nearly useless. He was a notorious philanderer, though he was married. All he'd given his wife was a hard time and a string of children. When I tell Freda about his cheating, she says, "Yes, I knew that." Her words are clipped and heavy, normal again. For a moment I wish my sister was with me, could hear Freda admit she'd slept with a married man. But then she says, "I didn't know it until after I was pregnant with your father, though. I found out when I was at my sister's. Eleanor and I were sitting at her kitchen table and I'd just told her I was pregnant. Before she could say anything about it, her neighbor came in the back door and was talking about a red-haired man with a red truck who worked with the state’s bridge-building crew and how a man who worked with him told his wife he was running around. 'He's been going around with some girl and he's got four kids of his own at home. The oldest boy is big enough to know now.' That's how she said it. She didn't know it was me. Eleanor didn't know it either. But I knew it was him. We rode around in that red truck all over St. Louis. He'd pick me up from the diner where I waited tables, where I met him. He came in with some other men on the crew, sat at my table, and winked. Told me he loved my dark hair. After that, he’d pick me up after work and that's what we'd do, ride around all over the hills."
My eardrums are banging so loudly, I'm sure Freda can hear them through the phone line. This is more than anyone—except maybe Eleanor, who is dead—has ever known about my father's father. And it all came out rehearsed, like a stale monologue, sixty years past its expiration date. "I didn't even know his real name," she continues. "I just called him Red because of his hair. I didn't know it until I looked in his glovebox. He'd left me in the truck and gone in a store for something," her voice fades. Somehow I know that he'd gone into the store for liquor, something Freda now demonizes. "I opened the glove box and there was his registration. As soon as I knew his name, I remembered rumors some of the other woman around town had going about him. But I didn't think much of gossip like that. I probably should have done. But when you're young, you just don't think of those things," she says. "He didn't know I was pregnant. He never saw me again after that day I was at Eleanor's. I quit the diner. But he saw me on the street after Terry was born, and that's how he found out. He knew just by looking at him that he was his son. He saw your father a couple of times. Brought him a present for his second birthday."
I need to ask her why this has to be such a dark secret. Why she never bothered to tell my father any of this when he was a child and begged her for answers. Why she insisted on keeping such a small thing as an affair a secret. Why she's letting him continue to pine. But I can't quiet my heart, now thrumming so fast and loud I’ve broken into a sweat. Anything I say will come out as accusatory, like I’m blaming her while she’s in the witness box. That’s why I’d practiced so long before picking up the phone.
I force a breath into my chest, and feel my heart move, then I say, "He had other kids. He and his wife had other kids after Terry was born. They lived on a chicken farm. And he had another family. Another woman who was like his wife in another town. They had at least one kid, maybe more. His real wife even knew about her. He'd go there when he was in the dog house. He'd just go off and leave his wife with their six or seven kids."
"But she wouldn't divorce him,” Freda says, sounding like someone who's been living too long by a stranger's rules. "She was religious. They didn't do that. He told me she'd tried to, but the judge told her they had too many kids and she had to uphold her vow. 'For better or worse.'"
I get the impression that Freda is lying about breaking it off with Red. I suddenly imagine an
argument between my pregnant grandmother and Red. She’s screaming at the man who's charmed his way into her bed, who won't leave his wife and children. Or maybe she was screaming when he showed up with presents for my father. Maybe it wasn't until then that she realized Red would never leave the chicken farm. And then I'm hit with a faint memory, something whispered that I'd overheard when I was a child. Eleanor was supposed to adopt my father because she and her husband weren't able to have children. At the very last minute, though, Freda had changed her mind. My brain clicks, tumblers fall, and I see my grandmother with her married lover, his plea for her to keep the child so they can make a life together. I see her believing him. And suddenly, Freda and my father are the other family Red kept, the one he ran to over the next three years every time an argument with his wife got heated. Before I can test this theory, Freda asks, "Is he still in Missouri?"
My heart drums in my ears. I manage to swallow and squeeze out the answer. "He's dead. He died when Terry was eight. Heart failure. He was only forty-seven. He left his wife with nothing but kids. They lost their farm and had to sleep on couches of relatives and friends. The oldest boy turned out okay. The younger ones, though..." I can't say any more, can't tell her the little I've uncovered about my half-aunts and -uncles. I wait for her to offer some condolence, something obligatory. My receiver-holding hand sweats and I try to eke out another sentence. Nothing comes. Freda's silence causes my face to burn.
My father's half-siblings fared poorly after Red's death. They were homeless and split up. One or two, along with their mother, would be taken in for days at a time by a friend or neighbor, but there was never enough room for all of them. The older kids were forced into an early adulthood and bore the weight of constantly feeling out of place. Several of them died just before I got my DNA results. But the oldest son, my father's oldest half-brother, twelve years his senior, went to college and managed to rise from the stink of the chicken farm, the perpetual life of poverty, and make a man of himself. Even before Red’s death, he knew his father was everything he didn’t want to become. When Red fell ill, my half-uncle hadn't seen him in four years. Red spent the last two months of his life in a VA hospital, suffering from congestive heart failure. By the time his oldest son visited him, he'd been reduced to a shell. His father had loomed so large, always had a twinkle in his eye, had served in World War II, and played on a semi-professional baseball team. But his hands and feet were like ice. He died shortly after the visit.
My grandfather, too, died of congestive heart failure. He’d survived Scarlet Fever as a child, but it had damaged part of his heart muscle. He spent his life working hard—as a boy on a ranch, then as a man for Pacific Bell and an apartment complex owner. He had to take doctor-prescribed naps in the middle of the day to care for his weak heart. He and Freda bought a central California hilltop ranch and raised chinchillas, taught me to hunt rabbits and small birds. He still napped, even when we visited. Then, after he’d retired and they moved to New Mexico, a standard operation to remove cancerous tumors from his prostate damaged his kidneys. Rather than endure a transplant, he chose a port in his chest and a machine to filter his blood three times a week for the next eleven years. I never heard him complain about the dialysis until the year before he died. “I should’ve taken the transplant,” he said, voice laced not with self-pity but with the lament of having made the wrong decision. By then his body had shriveled. Two days before his death, he’d been admitted to the ICU to drain fluid from around his heart. Freda spent thirty-six hours with him, and when he was feeling better he told her to go home and change clothes, to bring him some clean pants for the ride home they’d make soon. He died alone, shortly after Freda had left his side.
A fairly common heart condition killed both men. One had swayed Freda with a sweet tongue, took her driving on cool Missouri nights, and did nothing to help her raise their child. The other man married her, gave his name to a boy not his own, worked to provide for them both, but never expressed love. It’s clear Freda regrets the choices she's made, especially when it came to the well-being of my father. She blames herself for his behavior, mental incapacities, and eventual incarceration, wonders where she went wrong. Her turn toward religion has helped absolve her a little, but the sorrow and shame linger. Still, the heart wants what it wants. If given a choice between passion and stability, the heart jumps into Red’s truck every time.
My father bore the pull of his absent father through his childhood. He begged her for information and, at first, was met with a stern reprisal. More questions earned him a smack. When he got older and the questions became accusations, he got a belt lashing from my grandfather. He continued to ask, even after he was told, "You're lucky to have a father at all." There is some dispute over who said this to him. My mother insists it was my grandfather, while Freda has told me she said as much to him a handful of times. But his heart was tethered to a man he imagined loved him and wanted to be with him. He thought his life could've been better. He still believes this even though he's over sixty years old and has made his own choices.
In spite of everything, here's what completely hollows my chest, creates a sucking pressure in my heart: my unknowing eight-, nine-, ten-year-old fatherless father, begging for information about a father he wished would suddenly arrive and love him. His life was hollow somehow, but he tried to hide it by excelling in sports, as if he'd been mentored by a man to hit a baseball, catch a football, jump a hurdle. At school, he was teased and bullied, but even the principal told him he had to bear his powerlessness. He couldn’t stop what others did. The principal told him to pray. Pray for strength. Loneliness kept him awake at night in his Los Angeles apartment, so he sat in a nearly-bare bedroom, gazing out a wide window at a starless sky, pleading to the dark, his cheeks wet, his nose dripping snot. He begged for his father to come. He didn’t know Red was already dust, moldering in a Missouri graveyard. He made promises—he'd quit fighting in school, even when the boys called him a bastard; he'd stop showing off on the baseball field; he'd do every chore his step-father asked, even if it meant blisters and scrapes and bruises. As long as his father came to the door, puts his arms out, hugged him the way his mother used to before she married, he would do all of these things, and more. If his father came now.
His little ears strained to hear a knock at the door.
Each time he heard nothing, his little heart beat once, stopped, beat again, stopped. His chest sank.
At some point, his prayers turned to anger. By the time he was a young man, he'd been accused by his step-father's tenants of being a peeping Tom and of stealing jewelry from their apartments. Once, on the street, he’d grabbed a woman’s breasts and been called before a judge, who sentenced him to a psychiatric evaluation. In his twenties, he lost a meter-reading job with Southern California Gas Company because he'd walked into a sleeping woman’s bedroom, claiming he smelled a gas leak in her house. Again, he was court-ordered to see a psychiatrist. Years later, he was arrested, tried for violence against eight women, and sentenced to 101 years in prison. Until then, he’d managed to keep the violent nature in his heart a secret from his parents and my mother.
I was just shy of my eighth birthday when the press dubbed my father “The Nine-Fingered Rapist.” Before then we were an unassuming, church-going family. But, by the time I turned nine we’d been dragged under the tidal wave he created. I was told again and again that I'd never see him again and I'd be better off telling people he was dead. I was not allowed to write to him in prison. No one shied away from telling me the details—I knew what rape was before I knew about menstruation and breasts. His case was followed by a gaggle of reporters, the gory details of his burglaries and violence is the stuff of television melodrama. My mother was eventually shunned. I was bullied. Our neighbors read the papers. We cut out the articles and squirrelled them away with the half-dozen letters he wrote to us from jail. He condemned my mother for going through with a divorce, assuring her that his children would never forget their father because he’d never forgotten his. He wrote to my mother in an early letter, “The girls will never forget their father. I never did!” Among the vitriol he extolled toward her, his lawyer, his accusers, he seemed to pass along a certain legacy—that fatherlessness would be our curse, our ruin, as it had been his. I’m not sure why we kept the newspaper articles or letters. They were didactic and ethnographic, and constantly squeezed my heart.
It was hinted that, had my father not been caught, he would've eventually moved on to his own daughters. I doubt it. His victims were all in their early or mid-thirties, of a certain height and weight, had dark hair, and all lived alone. One detective said they probably would have caught him sooner had they simply warned women who fit the demographic. But they were hesitant to pin him down as a serial, or even accuse one man of the 60-80 cases that all revealed the same pattern, the same profile: someone who seemed to both desire and need to exert power over middle-aged brunettes. He longed too long for blood-kin. Though I was raised to believe his sins would haunt me, that I had to walk the straight and narrow or I'd be just like him somehow, that he’d break out of prison and crawl through my window in the middle of the night, I never thought he’d harm me. Instead, I hoped he would come. So I slept little and listened to the sounds of the night, the loudest was the beat of my own heart. I knew it was wrong to wish him home, but for years I couldn't shut my heart. Though I longed for my father, I lived with continual thoughts that I would eventually do something that would land me in prison just like him. Already, when I looked in the mirror I saw my father lurking around the edges of my reflection. I’d learned over the years that children with incarcerated parents feel guilt and shame over their parents' crimes, and were seventy percent more likely to commit crimes that result in prison or jail time. I kept myself awake at night, worrying when my father’s blood would it would rise, flood my world, drown me.
Just after I turned thirty, I decided to write to him. My heart wanted him to be more than the vengeful man he'd been in the yellowing newspaper clippings. I wanted to know about his childhood, his love for the Dodgers, and if he'd ever known happiness. From his letters, it’s clear he’s mentally unstable. He has a brain deficiency he has never wanted to treat, though his lawyers and the parole board have encouraged it. He chooses to pray, to lead prayer groups, and to lift weights. I quickly realized that no matter how much I wrote to him, no matter how many questions I asked, he would write to me as if I was still a little girl. He remained tight-lipped about the rapes and burglaries. The refrain in every letter was a plea for me to get his mother to write to him. He wanted to write to her. He still wanted to know the identity of his biological father.
I call Freda a few weeks after telling her about the DNA results, after she's had time to consider what I'd discovered, time to think about anything else she might tell me. I ask her why she never told, still refuses to tell, my father about her long-dead lover. She says, "Maybe I should. I don't know what to say."
"How about just tell him what happened? That's what he wanted as a kid." Though weeks have passed since our last call, I am still struggling to speak without sounding like a criminal prosecutor. She lets out a sigh, then is silent for so long I think she may be angry. I wonder if I sound like my father had, so many years ago when he was a little boy asking about his father. I wonder if she is remembering how she refused him, and in doing so created a rift that grew to become a gulf that drown him, buoyed him to confusion and anger. She blames herself, but has never said why specifically, only that she wishes she'd helped him more. Her word: help.
I can't get myself to talk. My chest is heavy, my heart thudding against my constricting ribcage. Finally, Freda sighs again and says, "I don't understand why any of it matters to him. It was a long time ago. It’s over."
It's clear to me she won't tell my father anything. I get the feeling that, though I've given her all of my father's contact information, she isn't gong to write to him at all. She's scared. Not of him, of what he might say or do, that he might, somehow, get out of prison and find her, but of herself, what she might write
I say, "Granny, I'm gonna tell him his dad died. He needs to know."
"I think that's good," she says. "But, I can't write to him about that."
It's useless for me to tell Freda that mental health professionals now acknowledge that talking to children about their relatives and ancestors—immediate or distant—makes them more emotionally stable and empathetic to others. Not only because my father is no longer a child, but because when she was raising him, in the idyllic age of the 1950's and 60's, self-righteousness reigned, social status was derived from perceived normalcy, and pasts like Freda's were swept under the rug. It would be unnatural for her to do anything other than keep silent. What I somehow know, however, as the ache in my chest blooms, is that there is more to her silence. She can't admit that she'd fallen in love with Red, a man she could never have for herself. That perhaps for the whole of her adult life, even as she was married to my grandfather, she still loved Red. Perhaps some part of her believed, as her son hoped, that he would one day walk back into her life the way he'd walked into that Missouri diner and winked at her. She remained silent not to keep a secret from her son, but to protect her own crushed heart. I can hear the mourning in her voice, laced with regret. It's a sound only those who've felt it can hear.
I wrote to my father and told him everything I'd found out about Red. I wish I could say that something profound happened after I sent that long letter. But this isn't the movies, it's not even poetic. When I finally heard back from him, he reacted by asking me, again, if I could get his mother to write to him.
I’ve quietly started to acknowledge a birthright over which I have no control. And I think of my father in the same way I do about others: there are many versions of ourselves over our lifetimes, and the person we are today is not the one we'll be in a decade, or that we were two decades ago. I choose to think of him not as a predator but as the small boy who pined for a father, tethered like a tiny boat to an unimaginable anchor. I choose this version of him because it is most like my own experience, it is a reality that allows me a measure of emotional connection to a father that was so prominently absent that he was an overwhelming force in my life. And I choose to love that little boy because it is the least I can do for myself. Still, I often retreat—out of habit, out of ritual, out of heart-sickness—into the thought that we all hang on to things that can eventually drown us. I think of Virginia Woolf, who, on her stroll near the Ouse River, stopped intermittently to fill her pockets with the stones that would weigh her down.