There were no photos of my father in our home.
That’s not precisely true.
When I was about ten, I think, it occurred to me that there must have existed, at one point, some photos of my father and me together. Fathers pose with their first-born children. It occurred to me that this absence of photos might be because my mother had hoped to wash away all traces of him. It also occurred to me that it’s very hard to wash away all traces of a person.
Having a family with secrets will turn a child into a detective. One night, after my mother had gone to sleep, I got my baby albums out of the cupboard in the living room and tiptoed back down the hall to my bedroom. I closed the door. I turned the pages, looking for any sign of him. A man’s shirt, maybe, slung over a chair in the background? What I found was a photo of me as an infant, being bathed in shallow, milky-colored water. A man’s hands were propping me up. I could tell that the man had taken off a watch and a wedding ring; when he removed them, they left pale traces of themselves on his skin.
As a teenager, I often wondered if I would recognize him if I ran into him. (In an airport? At a huge stadium concert? Would I trip over a backpack, and look up to apologize to the owner, and be undone by the sight of my father?) For a while it was part of my nightly routine to lean in close to the mirror before I washed off my face soap. I would lather a white mustache over my lip and gaze at myself as the faucet ran warm water, and try to see traces of my father’s face.
When I was a junior in high school I took a trip to visit my paternal grandmother, who had kept in close touch with me. On that trip, it was my grandmother’s file cabinet I infiltrated, looking for information about my father, after everyone had gone to sleep. My grandmother keeps meticulous records. I found a manila file folder labeled with my father’s first name, and it was full of hand-written letters. My father’s handwriting. Elegant, with lots of loops.
Many of the letters were from my father as a young man to his parents and siblings, trying to explain why he had snuck out of the house right before high school graduation and joined the Navy without telling anyone where he was going; he had just disappeared himself one night, and reappeared via letters in their mailbox, telling them he’d moved on.
In a later letter, he wrote to tell his parents that I had been born. He described me as “a very beautiful baby daughter. Very health [sic], well shaped, coordinated, and alert.” I must have read that phrase 30 times, trying to suss out just how much love it had been written with.
There was also a letter from my grandmother to a judge, written in the year I was five-years-old, concerning an adoption case. It seemed that my father was trying to adopt a young girl named Cassandra. I remember hunching over my folded legs on the beige carpet, propping myself up on my elbows as I read this letter, but I don’t remember the precise emotions it drew out of me when I read it. When I try, now, to reconstruct what I must have been feeling, I feel my face tighten and my chest hollow out. I think that’s called “longing.” I think I might have thought, “When I was five, I needed a father.”
In the first paragraph of this letter to the judge, my grandmother writes, “My name is Sally A. D___ and Max A____ is my son. I talked yesterday to the case worker, Harlan T____, who suggested that I write to you concerning Max, whom I know as Michael D____.”
I think this was the first time I learned that he had used an alias. Later in the letter, my grandmother tries to explain the name change: “Mike has been married twice, and with his second wife has a precious little girl whom he considers the most important person in his life. His child was born out of wedlock, and when they later married, Mike assumed his wife’s name in order to give legitimacy to the child.” When I read that, I remember thinking, “But why did he change his first name?” I scoured the contents of the file for an answer to this question. I didn’t find it.
I also searched for something in those letters I could recast as fatherly advice, but I came up empty on that front, too. My father had just disappeared himself from my life, and then made me search for him in my soapy-faced reflection, or in old papers filed away in the back of a cold metal drawer. But he wasn’t in either of those places, of course—not the parts of him I was hoping for.
In my twenties I gave my longing an aesthetic framework. I started to write a show about the disappearance of my father.
I make theater. I’m not very good at describing what I do exactly, I’m always getting tongue-tied. “What kind of skits do you do?” people ask me. “Oh, you know, just shows,” I say. “Shows about my life, or sometimes not about my life. It depends.” Then they ask, “Can I see a video?” and I say, “Oh, no, no. I don’t show videos of what I do.”
I grew up in a family of secrets, and I longed to have the truth. It’s what I try to do with my shows: to say things that would be overwhelming in casual conversations, and to do it with my heart wide open, so that we can all be in the room together without pretending for a while. Only, you know, sometimes it’s fictionalized.
But I never show videos of what I do. It’s because I’ve got a nervous disposition. The only way I can be brave enough to tell the truth with my heart wide open to a room full of strangers is if I know the moment will consume itself. Growing up in a family full of secrets will teach a person about the safety that comes from leaving no traces.
Growing up in a family full of secrets will also teach a person about the power that comes from teasing out someone else’s traces. I wanted a list of my father’s aliases. I used online background search databases, and later, when I was overwhelmed with the tangle of names I was turning up, I hired a private investigator. He turned up the same names mostly, and cautioned me that they were just initial guesses. I asked him where all this information came from. He shrugged and said, “Ever order a pizza and pay with a credit card? This information is for sale.”
Google searches for the aliases led to the tiniest glimpses of his life, as if through a keyhole. As Max A____ it looked like he was helping to run a Ponzi scheme, and he also appeared to be selling a product called Jurak Classic Whole Body Tonic. By this point, his use of aliases was making perfect, stomach-turning sense to me. Disappearing himself was just what he did after he caused all the damage he felt like causing.
The background search also showed that as Maxamillion A____ he’d used an address that was just ten miles away from where I was living at the time, as a six-year-old. Claiming to his mother I was the most important person in his life, and then using an address ten miles away, and never coming to see me. “You brazen, lying fucker.” That’s what I thought.
One winter morning, when I was 29, my mother called me to tell me that investigators had called my grandmother, wanting to know if she was the mother of the man born as Michael B. D____ but arrested as Prince Maxamillion K____ A____. Wire fraud. I didn’t know what “wire fraud” meant exactly.
I pulled out my laptop and googled the alias again. I did not find any reports of his arrest (and the Department of Justice wouldn’t mention him in a press release until much later), but I did find a recent news article about a man named Max A____ in Las Cruces who was claiming to have been defrauded by a landscaper.
The news story had a video.
Look at his face. Oh my god. I can see my grandmother in there, I can see my great-grandfather. Oh my god.
I was undone by the sight of my father. For a moment I forgot all my disgust. I had never learned to recognize the rhythm of his footfalls coming down a hall, I did not know the smell of his shampoo or the way he held a pen. There were a million missing mundane intimacies. But this news story had a video.
I clicked on the video. It wouldn’t play. I needed Windows Media Player. I downloaded Windows Media Player. Windows Media Player crashed my browser. I bundled up and went to the Copy Central down the road. I convinced the man behind the counter to let me use the owner’s workstation, upstairs, because it was the only computer in the establishment that had speakers. I watched that video over and over. There were about 24 seconds of footage of my father: three full body shots, two three-quarter shots, two close-ups on his face. Seven weight shifts, nine hand gestures, five rotations and five inclinations of the head. 68 words, six stammers, 85 syllables.
I recorded the screen of the computer at the Copy Central with the camera on my laptop. The man running the embroidery machine looked at me funny and I readied a speech about how my actions might be illegal but not immoral. He never asked me to give it.
I counted 801 frames, and I wanted to notate them faithfully, but I realized that notating them on paper would never be sufficient. Too much would be lost in translation. I notated them instead with my body. I learned his presence in the 801 frames as choreography. I watched that video of my father every day for months, maybe. I retraced his performance to hate it. I wanted to carve out my anger as specifically as possible.
Things got kind of topsy-turvy around that video. If you wanted to find it now, you’d have a very difficult time, and I think that’s largely because I went hunting for it. I did something kind of stupid. I e-mailed the ABC affiliate that ran the story, and I told them two things: 1) The man in the video claiming to have been defrauded wasn’t a credible source. He’d just been arrested for fraud. 2) I happened to be that man’s daughter. I’d like a copy of that video. Would they be willing to mail one to me?
No, in fact. No, they would not be willing to mail one to me. They would be willing to avoid my follow-up calls for a month or so, then they’d be willing to tell me that they’d lost their archive of that segment. I left a voicemail for the webmaster and asked if he would be willing to give me a copy of the file they used on the website. No, actually. No, he would not. The webmaster would be willing to ignore my message.
There was a moment when I thought that my very act of searching for that artifact had obliterated it, like a buried codex that turns to dust when it encounters the air. But I have programmer friends whom I’m sometimes able to convince to do my bidding, and one of them downloaded the video directly from the website.
I hired a composer to create a score for the clip, and I put it in a performance, which I will never show you a video of. And when I forget my notation of those 801 frames, when I forget my choreography, that particular trace of that particular video will be erased.
Here’s something that’s not easily erased: the people who really paid the price for the existence of this video, this video which I arguably benefited greatly from, were the landscapers my father was maligning. I’ve talked to them on the phone a handful of times. Their business really suffered, and the news team never amended or followed up on the story, even when a judge dismissed my father’s suit against the landscapers. Later, the landscapers hired a lawyer to sue the station for defamation. They told me the lawyer bungled the case by filing it under the wrong statute, and then he presented them with a hefty bill, which they had to declare bankruptcy to get out from under. Just a disaster. All these landscapers did was accept a client, and their life exploded, and this news team had a part in that and won’t even admit they might have been irresponsible, and it makes me so mad.
This is Mary Summers, my great-great-grandmother on my father’s side. At one point she was married to a man named George. No one really knows what happened to George, and my grandmother can’t find the photo of him anymore.
And this is my great-grandmother, Julia, daughter of Mary Summers.
After I finished the show about my father’s disappearance and reappearance, I toured it to a festival that was not too far away from Adams, Massachusetts, where Mary had lived with Julia, so I spent a couple of days there. I was especially curious to see Adams because in my early twenties I had chosen Mary as my namesake. I’d been using the last name of my mother’s second husband since I was about eight, and I didn’t like the man. I wanted a fresh start, and I chose Summers because, not only did it come from someone in my family, it came from someone in my family I knew next to nothing about. No baggage.
Part of the reason I changed my name was so that my father couldn’t find me—he’d learned the last name that came from my mom’s second husband when she wrote to my father asking him to relinquish his paternity. But five years after I changed it anew, he did find me. It’s so banal: I was friends with a relative on Facebook who searched out my father and contacted him through his profile. He saw that a “Kathleen” was connected to this relative—this was back when it was impossible to hide one’s friend’s list—and just like that my new last name was spoiled. He found out about my show, he found my performance schedule, and he found my website.
My husband and I watched two computers in New Mexico scour every page of my website and click on every link. He sent me emails. He called my husband’s work. He wanted me to stop doing my show. An investigator turned up an old permit for carrying a concealed weapon. Just before this, I’d just been sitting in on the murder trial of a man I’d been on a single date with. This man had never killed anyone before, until he wanted something badly enough, and then he just did it, because he had the psychological ability to do it. After my father found me, fear took over my whole body for weeks. It subsided a bit, but every time I performed my show again after that, I hired a guard. Ridiculous, maybe, but I did it. I also deleted half my blog. Safety in obscurity.
I knew next to nothing about my great-great-grandmother, Mary, because my grandmother knows next to nothing about her. My grandmother had always just assumed that Mary had died young, leaving her daughter Julia an orphan. Julia had talked about being raised by two old maids in Adams, and if pressed further, she would sternly insist that her life had started when she got married, and would refuse to answer any more questions. I don’t know whether she was trying to keep someone safe with these omissions. Maybe.
The records in the City Clerk’s Office in Adams indicate that Julia was not an orphan—they list her as having lived with her mother, Mary, until she was 22. The town directories list occupations, and they suggest that Mary had supported the two of them by working in the textile and paper mills in town.
I found their address, and it was such a short walk from the City Clerk’s Office. It was just across two little roads, past CJ’s Sports Bar, which looked like a train depot. It was a hot, muggy day. My shirt clung to my back, and the shade of the depot structure was so welcome as I stood under it to take photos of the place my great-grandmother had lived. It was such a small town that Google didn’t even have a street view available. The waitress at CJ’s Sports Bar was friendly. She told me that it had been the train depot, and that the trains stopped running in the 70s. Mary must have heard the trains from her apartment. I imagined her arriving in Adams for the first time, getting off the train with her young daughter in tow, and seeing a for-rent sign in that building right across the street from the station.
There are no listings for Mary in the Adams town directories after the 1925–1926 edition, which indicates that she “remitted to Springfield.” Had she gone in search of her daughter, who did her student teaching in Ludlow? Had she gone because work in the mills was getting more scarce? Had she gone because, without her daughter, there was nothing keeping her in that town?
Something happened between those two, that mother and daughter pair. That’s what I think. You know what Julia did? In 1924 she went to New York to get married and she started over with a new name. Though she didn’t legally change her first name, she started going by “Sally” (a name which she later gave to her daughter as well, my grandmother Sally). Right after she married, Julia-turned-Sally moved to Mexico with her new husband where she’d be simply out of range of easy communication.
The records in my grandmother’s files show that in 1928, Julia-turned-Sally was trying to register for a U.S. passport from Mexico, and she needed Mary to verify that Julia-turned-Sally had been born in the U.S. As far as I can tell, this letter reveals the final severing of ties between mother and daughter. Mary had moved away and didn’t, or couldn’t, tell her daughter where she went.
I recently looked back over my notes from that trip out to Adams. I looked at the photos I took and the pages I photocopied from the yearbooks at the college Julia attended, and from the town directories in the City Clerk’s Office. I found that I did not write down things which now seem urgently important to me, things like the color of the carpets in the City Clerk’s Office, or the names of the clerks who helped me, or the ways they walked.
I mourn these details. I remember thinking of writing them down, but then I didn’t. I lacked the energy for it, I figured if I ever made this bit of research into a new show, I’d go back to Adams anyway, to perform it in one of those big buildings that used to be the mills my great-great-grandmother worked in. I figured that while I was there a second time I could fill in those details. But I’ve never been back. Now I long for memories of these kinds of idiosyncrasies of bodies and buildings. I don’t just want to know the kinds of things one can learn from photocopies of old papers pulled from the backs of cold metal drawers. I want the mundane intimacies: they’re proof that one got the chance to love well and attentively, not just in traces. They’re proof that one didn’t take that chance for granted.
I don’t know when or where Mary Summers died. I don’t know if she was alone. I haven’t gone out to Springfield to look for traces of her life there. I could do that. I wonder if the records would have survived the big 1936 flood, the one I assume washed away Ferry Street, which was her last known address, but which no longer exists.
I want more than that. I want to go back in time and comfort her. I want to sit beside her and hold her hand. I want to notice the texture of her bedspread and the smell of the room. I want to tell her that I remember her, that whatever feud there might have been didn’t totally erase her, I want to tell her that her name gave me a fresh start. I want to tell her that I wish she hadn’t been so much of a secret.
I’m writing here pseudonymously because I still feel a need to hide from the archives. As long as my father is alive, I’ll probably feel like hiding. I’m not sure how long I’ll feel compelled to try to resolve all these unresolvable things, this recursive family legacy of name changes, of dodges, of unretrievable losses. Maybe one day I’ll come to regard it all as elegant, with all of its loops. I think what I hope for, most of all, is to not take for granted my chances to love attentively, in full detail, and to let people see me plainly whenever I can manage the courage.
Reader, tonight as I type this I’m sitting with my back propped up against the arm of an oversized chair. My feet are wedged against the other arm. I’m wearing a navy blue and mint-green horizontally-striped long-sleeved lightweight cotton shirt, and jeans that are slightly too big, and black footie socks. I’m listening to an album called “Endless Falls,” by Loscil. The walls of this room are all obscured by red velvet drapes, and the wood floor is barely visible, what with all the papers and photos and notebooks scattered around. The light is dim in here, and it’s comforting. I feel like crying but it’s not overwhelming. I just wish I could tell you everything.
The names of persons living and dead have been altered throughout this essay. —ed.