IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Reconnected with My Estranged Father and He Turned Out to Be a Jerk

After a congenial hello, Dad brusquely commented that I needed new clothes and a better haircut.
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PJ McIlvaine
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After a congenial hello, Dad brusquely commented that I needed new clothes and a better haircut.

When I got word that my father had passed away, it had been in a cold, awkward, impersonal email days after the fact. That wasn't surprising; "cold, awkward, and impersonal" described our relationship to a T.

Months later, I sat in a lawyer’s officer, ostensibly to learn about Dad’s will. I should’ve guessed that he would have one last, cruel parting gift for me.

Mom and Dad had fallen in love as teens in postwar France. My grandparents were aghast. My grandfather was the son of a Baron, and our lineage went back to the Crusades. Dad was a common plebeian, overweight with health issues, no future and no prospects. My grandparents did their best to break up them, but they failed miserably. 

When Mom became pregnant with my brother, a quickie marriage ceremony was hastily arranged. My parents’ wedding day photos showed a handsome, beaming couple full of life and promise.

My grandparents subsequently immigrated to New York City, and two years later, my parents and Mike, my then-toddler brother, made the transatlantic voyage to join them. 

Our family in very short-lived happier times.

Our family in very short-lived happier times.

Because Mom was heavily pregnant with me, they almost wouldn’t let her board. After Mom pleaded and cajoled, they were bumped up to first class as a precaution. Mom was doted on by the steward and plied with fine pastries. Mom would later say that the trip over was one of the best times she ever had with Dad. 

Two months later, I was born. By all accounts, it pretty much went downhill from that point on.

Living with my grandparents, first in adjoining apartments and then all of us in a rented house, took a toll on my mother and father. My grandparents complained that Dad had no ambition; he expected Mom, who was now recovering from traumatic miscarriage, to wait on him hand and foot. 

Eventually, my grandparents bought a plot of land and had a house built. The idea was that my grandparents and Dad would work in Manhattan while Mom stayed home with Mikey and me in suburbia.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Soon, Dad was gone, ripped from our lives like pages from a diary. I have a fuzzy memory of being in my footed pajamas late one night as Dad held me tight. I remember crying for him. I couldn’t have been more than four or five. Mike and I were told that Dad was going away on a “business trip.” 

Like clockwork, Dad sent us birthday cards and Christmas gifts. They were always the same: hardbound French Tin Tin books. When we scribbled our thank-you letters to Dad, I never failed to ask, "When are you coming back?" I never got an answer.

Mike and I stayed with our grandparents while Mom lived and worked in the city; she’d take the train out on the weekends to see us, a glamorous young woman who acted like our big sister. Sometimes Mom brought a “friend” with her; I remember Armand, who took us to the beach and bought us ice cream. Then there was Paul, the cool guy with thick sideburns.

Mike had caught on to the fact that Dad wasn’t coming back, but I still clung to the illusion, at least for awhile. It wasn’t until I was 10 or so that our grandmother broke down and told us that our parents were divorced and Dad was in France for good. (In reality, Dad had remarried and had another child, our half-brother.)

Was I distraught? No. The only true father that I had ever known was my grandfather. He was the one who attended my orchestra concerts, comforted me when I was sick, and spent hours helping me with my homework. I had my Dad’s looks and I shared his love of food, but other than that, he was a nebulous figure that I barely remembered.

Mike hit a rough patch as a rebellious teen. At her wits’ end, Mom turned to Dad for help. While in France on a holiday, she contacted him, and he had seemed genuinely delighted and concerned. They spent a pleasant afternoon being touristy at the Bateaux Mouches and made dinner plans. 

At the last minute, Dad abruptly canceled, nervously admitting that his wife had learned of their meeting and was giving him grief. Shortly afterward, he cut off all communication with us, meager as it was. Dad had a new life now, one that didn’t include us.

Still, when I got married, my grandmother urged me to reach out to Dad. No matter what had happened, he was still my father. It was relatively easy to find him, and once we reconnected, he seemed, once again, sincerely delighted and interested. 

When he learned that I was thinking of dropping out of college, he assured me that he’d help me continue my education. However, as I was soon to learn, this was Dad’s modus operandi. He made many promises, but few, if any, were ever kept.

A year later, I met Dad at the airport, his month-old granddaughter in my arms. After a congenial hello, Dad brusquely commented that I needed new clothes and a better haircut. I was hurt and confused. After all this time, this was all he could say? 

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But at dinner later that evening, he was unexpectedly tender, playing with the baby and promising me that he was going to be a better grandfather than he had been a father. I wanted so very much to believe him. Despite my better judgment, I had become emotionally invested.

The following spring, Dad flew us to France for a reunion with my paternal grandparents. He instructed me not to bring up the past; it would be too “upsetting.” I dutifully went along, but something was off. 

It soon became apparent that Dad was more interested in playing the professional Frenchman than having any real quality time with me. It also became clear that his wife was an iron butterfly who held the purse strings. 

While we were there, they hosted an American exchange student, and they treated her more like a daughter than they did me. As for my half-brother, he was nowhere to be found, and after all the hype of a reunion, it boiled down to one perfunctory afternoon.

Dad’s constant boasting and preening grated like fingers on a chalkboard. When the baby cried, he grimaced, and when I nursed her, he ordered me into another room. 

The piece de resistance was when I accidentally spilled gravy on the tablecloth. Dad flew into a rage. His wife was nonchalant about it; she was used to his outbursts. I wasn’t, and it left me unsettled.

After that, our relationship fell into a predictable pattern. Months would pass without any word from Dad, and then he’d suddenly announce his arrival. While he was here, I walked on eggshells, fearful that I’d say or do something that would set him off. We rarely talked about anything substantial. He’d stay for a few days, buy the kids a few token gifts, and then he’d disappear. 

While I tried to maintain some kind of relationship with Dad, my brother’s was far more fractured. Mike was a beautiful, lost soul who struggled with drugs and depression. His scars ran deeper than mine, and he’d spend hours fuming about how Dad had abandoned us and how we’d be cheated out of our inheritance. It became a fixation.

I spent years dancing to Dad’s tune until I realized that nothing I did was ever going to be good enough for him, and that he was never going to change. Hurting me was one thing, but when my kids wondered why “Pepperfrance” ignored them, my resentment smoldered. 

When I reached my breaking point and chastised him, Dad’s response was vitriolic. I wrote him a blistering email and briefly considered trashing it — and then I hit the “send” button. A wave of relief flooded over me.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy for Mike. A mere six weeks after we celebrated his new marriage, he killed himself. When I informed Dad, he acted like it was a personal affront. He didn’t even have the decency to send flowers to the funeral. When Mike’s angry, grieving widow wrote him, Dad harangued me: the nerve of that woman.

That was it. I was done.

The last time I heard from our father was a year before his death, just around Mike’s birthday. It was one word: “Courage.”

Not long after I got news of Dad’s passing, my half-brother called. He gushed that he was happy to have a sister. He assured me that we would be close from now on. He choked up about Dad, calling him a “great gentleman.” And by the way, he had papers to send me…

From my own research into French inheritance law, I knew that I couldn’t be disinherited. Our lawyer confirmed that. Truthfully, all I expected was maybe some family photos. 

Dad’s will was pretty standard, except for one paragraph: after his “American family” got what the law required, Dad instructed his French family to stay away from us. Even our lawyer seemed taken back. Mom was infuriated. 

And despite his protestations to the contrary, it came as no surprise to me that once everything was settled, I never heard from my half-brother again. The croissant doesn’t fall too far from the basket.