Weird name, Elmer. It probably sounded old-fashioned a hundred years ago. But I knew an Elmer once, only thirty years ago. He was my step-dad.
I never knew my biological father, and I deliberately use the word ‘biological’ and not ‘real.’ The man who was ‘really’ my father is the man who drove me to band practice, not the man who apparently just drove away. You know, sometimes language is so limited, and so limiting. ‘Step-dad’ is an awkward construction, implying someone who’s at least one step away from being a ‘real’ dad.
Since I’m a baseball fan, I’d like to suggest a new term—‘relief dad.’ In baseball, a relief pitcher comes into the game, in a tight spot, to help the team out of a jam, and if he does his job, the team has a shot at winning. That was Elmer. Relief dad.
Growing up, all I really knew was that my mom met Elmer when she was a nurse, and that he was a patient at a V.A. hospital. I learned most of what I know about Elmer after he died.
About once a year, I do some searching online to try to find some clues to my background. There’s a great, if a bit morbid, resource called the Social Security Death Index. Curious about that person you lost touch with from high school? If they had a Social Security number, and they’re dead, you’ll find them here. Birth date, death date, last residence…all there—along with their social security number (which doesn’t seem to be a good idea at all).
Anyway, I wasn’t finding any clues leading me to the BioDad. But one search led me to a genealogy someone had posted, and there was my mom’s full maiden name. One ‘ctrl-f’ later and I found a paragraph listing my stepdad. Granted, I was trying to find out information about the biological dad, but this was interesting, too. Here’s what I learned from a random stranger’s website:
Elmer became a Catholic in his twenties. He changed his name at least twice. We don’t know why. He abruptly moved to Montana after the war to become a gypsy truck driver. During World War II, he frequented brothels, contracted syphilis, lost his first child and his first wife went insane because of the syphilis, and—wait, what was that last part, after the Catholic thing?
Now understand, I knew about NONE of this, and it felt almost proctologically invasive to read about it on someone’s website. Oh, and I also learned that Elmer adopted me in 1967 (weird, seeing myself described in print as my mother’s ‘illegitimate son.’ Makes me feel all wrong-side-of-the-tracks; turn my life into a movie and the tagline could be “He spent half his life trying to prove he was legitimate!”)
You’re probably thinking, “How could you not have known these things? When you got older, didn’t you ask about any of this?” Oddly enough, no, and I’m not sure why. I never asked questions. I guess I felt that if I had asked about Technically Dad, it would be somehow disrespectful to the guy who actually played the role of ‘Dad.’ Or maybe I’ll find out in therapy that I was afraid that if I messed with that illusion, other illusions would be exposed, turning my safe, comfortable childhood into a maelstrom of drama. But I’m pretty sure it was the respect thing.
Here are some things I remember about Elmer that aren’t mentioned in anybody’s family tree:
- like a character in a sitcom, he had his catchphrases: “Can’t complain, and it doesn’t matter if you do.” (Yeah. Dad was an existential philosopher like that.) “A place for everything, and everything in its place” (And, thanks for the OCD.)
- Despite wearing a neck brace and a back brace from war injuries, he would climb on the roof to adjust the TV antenna so he could watch the Oakland Raiders. He was apparently, however, unable to get out of his chair to adjust the rabbit ears on top of the set, because that was always my job.
- He was the easiest person on the planet to shop for. He never needed material things, so at Christmas it was ALWAYS something made by Old Spice and a can of Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco.
- Speaking of Christmas, although as far as I know we lived on his Veteran’s benefits and my mom’s social security, there was always a tree, and there were always things under it for me.
- Even though henever went to college, he did everything he could to make sure I had a shot. When he couldn’t afford to buy me a desk, he built a damned desk out of an unfinished door and four milk crates.
- Even though he had zero musical talent or even interest, he made sure that I took up an instrument in fourth grade, because on some level he knew it was a good thing. And he put up with someone learning the clarinet, which, in the first few weeks, sounds like someone torturing a cat.
- The most frustrating thing for this former mechanic was the realization that his adoptive son, though ‘book smart,’ had an astonishing, almost breathtaking lack of mechanical aptitude.
- He never slept much—but strangely, he was always ‘resting his eyes.’ “Are you still watching this show, Dad?” “Yeah, leave it on, I’m just resting my eyes.”
- He drove me on my first date, at thirteen, with a girl named Eileen, to see “The Sting.” Dropped us off, picked us up in our ’64 Plymouth Belvedere, and discretely ignored my enormously awkward ‘move’ as I put my arm around her in the backseat. Since I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do once I my arm was there, I didn’t move the arm during the entire drive to her place, and it fell asleep, causing me to wave at her spastically with a dead arm.
The thing I remember most about Elmer is how much he loved my mom. This was no gushy, Hallmark love—I’m not sure I even remember them holding hands. But I always knew. My mom and I had a very…volatile relationship—a lotta love, but there were a lot of arguments. Elmer was fond of reminding me that my mom was the queen of the household, and I was just the crown prince, and that metaphor seemed to be enough for me. The only time I ever remember him crying was when he overheard my mom and I yelling at each other, and he heard me swear at her.
The State of California does a couple of strange things when there’s an adoption. First, there’s the whole not-telling-you-that-your-stepdad-went-to-whorehouses-and caught-syphillis deal. But the real weirdness is that they amend your actual birth certificate to list adoptive dad as birth dad! Okay, I can see some discretion, but it’s a legal freakin’ document! I don’t think it’s supposed to include MADE-UP ANSWERS!
If I had to choose one adjective to describe Elmer, (other than ‘elmeriffic’) it would be ‘stoic.’ He wasn’t the warmest, fuzziest dad, but I remember even as a young boy feeling his strength. I never saw anything faze him, even when he was badly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis When the pain got really bad, the only thing that gave him any relief was, of all things, acupuncture. Still not sure how Mom convinced him to try it.
But then there came a moment when I knew Elmer was checking out—that his ‘relief’ outing was almost done, and he could give the ball to someone else and go to the locker room. I asked him how he was feeling one day, and instead of “Can’t complain” he simply said “I hurt.”
Elmer was just a good, solid man, and, in this critic’s eyes, he was perfectly cast as ‘Dad.’ He never took me fishing, or had a catch with me, but I will always think of him as ‘Dad,’ no ‘step’ about it. I am a bit more interested in tracking down BioDad than I used to be, though. For one thing, I’d like to know if there’s anything health-wise I should know about on his side.
More importantly, even if he was a total putz, maybe he knocked up someone in addition to my mom, and so I might have some cool half-siblings out there. But see, now we’re back to language. ‘Half-sister’ and ‘half-brother’ sound so wrong. Honestly, after yet another holiday without any family, if I find someone who’s at all related to me by blood, I won’t be using the word ‘half.’ ‘Brother’ or ‘sister’ will work just fine.