When I was six and my mother started seeing a man named Sumner, I didn’t really see what the point was. Sumner was a physics professor at the university and nearly twice the age of my mom, who was only about 30.
The first time we met, he brought me a little red-and-white beaded necklace, which I accepted only because I didn’t want to be offensive. Who was this man anyway, taking my mother out at night and leaving me at my grandma’s house? He looked like Captain Luc Picard from Star Trek and he obviously had no idea how to talk to children even though he had his own -- four of them -- who were all grown up and one granddaughter who was my age. I took the gift suspiciously and later cut its string, releasing the beads onto my floor with the idea that I could make something better with them.
Still, my mother persisted in seeing him and we started spending our weekends at his wood-paneled home in the country. I slept on a brown plaid pull-out couch in a room with a cabinet filled with treasure: neat stacks of poker chips, rough wooden carvings of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and a model galleon ship, whose starched fabric sails and tiny rope ladders would be nighttime fodder for my imagination for the next five years.
Despite having had children, Sumner was not exactly kid-friendly. In keeping with his generation, his personal style of child rearing was similar to that of Don Draper’s, consisting of short bursts of self-involved attention in between drinks and dinner.
This was in sharp contrast to my mother’s school of parenting that dictated her child was a full person who should be able to express herself at any and every opportunity. I’m sure my constant presence drove him crazy. But we both knew that we would have to learn to deal with each other so that we could both have access to what we wanted most in life -- attention from my mother.
In the beginning, I spent my time at his house watching his Gene Kelly movie collection and staring at his decorations while he and my mom drank Manhattans on the couch. In return for my good behavior he would occasionally drop-kick the ball into the backyard for me to retrieve.
In the evenings, we took walks through the woods and farm fields surrounding his house. As the months and finally years passed, he got more fun. He would hide behind a tree to start an impromptu game of hide and seek. Or sometimes disappear for minutes and emerge through the top branches of an enormous pine. I had to admit his hide and seek skills were unmatched. We became close almost grudgingly, our weird little sort of family.
At restaurants, an 8-year-old me would happily sing out his drink order, “Whiskey Manhattan on the rocks with a splash of charge water and some cherry juice on top!” as Sumner looked on proudly. Sometimes people thought my mom and I were his children or that I was his granddaughter and she his daughter. But I was unaware of horrified onlookers.
One Christmas, during my “ballet and tap” phase, he brought us to Minneapolis see The Nutcracker ballet. This in itself was a rather remarkable act looking back on it. After the ballet, he and my mother drank their Manhattans poolside and watched me play with a group of kids I’d befriended. The pool was awkwardly located in the atrium of the building, near a restaurant. A woman from the front desk was getting increasingly annoyed by the group of splashing, giggling children. She came to the side of the pool and told us to be quiet or we would have to leave.
From his reclining position on an indoor deck chair, Sumner called out to the woman and earnestly said, “Ma’am. The sound of children is the most beautiful noise in the world.”
My mom snorted with laughter at this and Sumner had the twinkle in his eye that I now recognize from times when he knew he was being infuriating. Still, in that moment he was on my side. Just like a dad would have been.
They broke up eventually, though we have spoken on the phone since, both of our voices cracking with tears at the recognition of the truly good role we played in each other’s lives. He says it was his happiest time.
I watched a PBS special recently about aging in which the narrator suggested that because of our increased longevity, rather than looking at our lifespan as one continuous narrative, we look at it as series of short stories.
Sumner was my short story about having a father.