To say a little more.
As a child I had very little curiosity about my own paternity. It was all imaginative. I’d come up with a theory that my father must have gotten left behind on holiday, and had occasional “memories” of watching him run for the plane. Other times I had romantic fantasies about an elegant Italian man (I am not Italian, but as a child I thought/hoped I looked Italian). I probably shared these thoughts with my mother and grandmother, but I don’t remember their responses.
When I was twelve or so, my mother finally told me the story of my father. She did so because I had asked her why she occasionally yelped, compulsively, a certain male first name. Initially she had told me that it was meaningless to her, but I guessed that wasn’t true. I have occasional tics like this too. I’ve written about them - sometimes I’ll yell out a painful thought, or a desperate cry of love. Apparently my mother’s father, who died a decade before I was born, used to yell out “I want some money.”
So, the name. My mother couldn’t bring herself to talk. I asked if this man’s name was my father’s name. She said yes. I asked why they had decided to split up (I had never, and have never, seen my mother in a romantic relationship). She said “why do you think?” I said I didn’t know. She went on: “what is the usual reason two people don’t stay together?” I thought it an odd time for a quiz, but tried my best: had he died? Was he married to another? My mother stared at me, and eventually said, very deliberately: “no. he was a priest.”
So I learned the story of the priest. A kind, gentle man of intellectual measure; a lover of Christ and of God. An Oxford man (as I went on to be). “You look like him, Jos.” Eventually I learned that he simply loved Christ more than he loved me, or her. Fair enough, I thought.
A few years later - I was 17 - I had grown sad, drunk, lonely, and adolescent, and I told my mother that I wished I had had siblings. Rather bitterly, my mother responded that I did have siblings, I just didn’t know them. I asked, “so the priest had other affairs?” No. It was time for a new story. My mother had loved the priest, and had wanted to have a child with him, but he had been unwilling. So my mother had a brief affair with another man, who already had a wife and four children. His wife knew of my existence but not the kids.
My mother showed me a photo of my father with his actual family. They looked like complete strangers, which they were. I looked then, and still look, like my mother, and I already knew that my character flaws were hers, though we have very different virtues. I asked why he hadn’t contributed child support, which we could have used. My mother didn’t want him involved, and anyway she had refused to put his name on my birth certificate. I asked why he had never looked me up. She paused. It turned out that he had. When I was 12 or so, he had come round to the house. “Remember that friend of mine who came around that time?” He asked me questions about my life. He called me “son,” which my mother disliked. So did I.
I fixated on the child support. There was an Eastenders plot involving Robbie Jackson seeking money from an absent father, and he wanted £17,000. I wanted £17,000. I considered seeking it, but I didn’t know how to find the man. Throughout my early adulthood, the only thought I had of this man was that I felt he owed me money. The priest, meanwhile, I had grown used to thinking of as my father, and my mother clearly did too. My father was a teaspoon of mess, but the priest was a spiritual forebear.
After graduating college, I made a friend who worked at the electoral rolls. She asked me about my father, and eventually came to me saying that she had found his address. I wrote him a letter attempting to explain myself to him. I had no idea how to do that. I didn’t send it. I thought of my father once or twice a year. Every couple of years I would spend an hour googling the names of my half-siblings, and from a distance noting when they graduate, got jobs, got married, lost their hair (they’re older than me).
Sometimes I found photos of them all together. Standing on lawns, posing for family photographs. They looked nothing like me - their lives, a few miles from where I grew up, a couple of social classes up the scale, looked utterly alienating to me. Did they know about me? I didn’t know, but every time I thought about it I realized that it was quite possible the story my mother had told me wasn’t true anyway. Which was another reason not to bother them - especially after I relinquished my sense of entitlement to the £17k.
A couple of years ago, I was on one of these occasional google binges and noticed that my father had died. I felt the final closing of a door that had been functionally useless for ever. There was another picture of the rest of the family on the lawn. They looked more settled, maybe. Again I considered reaching out to them. But what would I say? “I think your dad might have fucked my mum in 1982. Also I’m a transsexual libertine living in New York and teaching in California. Hi, I’m Grace.” It just seems a lot to give, and a lot to expect people to take. And what would I want? They don’t look like people I would want in my life. They have boring seeming jobs, and they are all straight, white, married, and sporty. They almost look like *Tories*. Shudder. So, I never have, and probably I never will - though I reserve the right to change my mind, or to just skirt through google again in a couple of years’ time.
But: I did learn more about the priest a couple of years ago. I can’t be sure of the details, and this is my mother’s story to tell - or, as seems to be the case, to decline to tell. But certainly I realized that I had made some assumptions about the priest that turned out not to be true, and that he may very well have been profoundly evil. I’m going to leave that vague. But it’s not just to spare blushes. In the end, paternity being a legal fiction about which one knows very little, I have almost no credible information about any of this. But I learned enough to know that I could no longer share my mother’s apparent warmth towards him.
There isn’t much of a lesson, but I think the guiding thread here was a persistent sense that I was supposed to care more about what was missing than I did. My mother wanted me to have a good dad, so she made one up. But I didn’t feel I was missing anything. She thought I lacked male influence, and perhaps that was why I was effeminate. Maybe it was. But again, once I began to transition neither I nor she saw that as a problem. Rather as a gift. And I’m grateful for that, as hard as my relationship with my mother is.