My Father Rejected Me. But I'm Learning How To Love Him Anyway.

by JoAnn Stevelos
Marc Bruxelle / Getty

I once stole a photo of my father from a box my mother kept tucked away in her vanity. I still have it. It’s an old black and white snapshot, taken in front of an army barracks during the Korean War. My father, shirtless, wearing only boxer shorts, is shouldering a rifle. One sock is crumpled around his ankle. He’s a handsome man. I thought he looked like Hogan of Hogan’s Heroes. I hid the stolen photo in the top drawer of my dresser, under my half-slips and cotton undershirts.

As a young girl, I often fantasized that my father, wearing only those boxer shorts, shouldering that rifle, would tunnel under our house and rescue me from my evil stepfather. I imagined his red Buick convertible idling in the driveway while he dug his way in and up through the floor, just like in Hogan’s Heroes. Climbing inside, he would knock on a floorboard, rousing my deeply troubled stepfather, and the two of them would face each other in the front hall. No shots were ever fired, but with the rifle pointed at my stepfather, my father would yell, “Get your things, JoAnn. We’re busting out of here!” I’d grab my bag, always packed and ready, and run into his arms. He would carry me to the car and we would squeal out of the driveway.

I was never sure what happened after our getaway, because I had actually never been anywhere with him other than Hoffman’s Playland, a local amusement park. I remembered his car only because I had thrown up in it during the last of those “visitations,” as my mother used to call them. I was three years old, and he had insisted that I eat after four consecutive rides on the Tilt-A-Whirl. On the ride home he apologized. “You’re too little. I don’t know how to take care of babies.” As he handed me off to my mother, my gingham summer dress splattered with puke, he promised to come for me again, “…when you’re a big girl.”

Now and again I still look at that photo and try to understand how this man could abandon his children. How did that kind of thing happen? What day did he wake up, put on his pants, shirt, shoes, and walk out of our lives? Was it morning or night? Was it a Tuesday or a Sunday? I think about that even now, the practical side of abandonment, of forsaking your children. What did he put his clothes in? Was it an old leather suitcase or a Samsonite? How did he decide what to take, and what to leave?

As a child, I never told anyone about my rescue fantasies, certainly no one else in the family. An overt allegiance to my father would upset the harmony my mother was trying to establish in our new life, in a new town, with a new husband. I sometimes heard her whisper to girlfriends on the phone about my father’s numerous faults.

My other siblings were not interested in seeing him or talking about him. One was too young to remember him, and the other two, older than I, remembered his ill temper, the violent fights with my mother, and their own feelings of abandonment. My stepfather summed him up for us in two sentences, ones he repeated often: “The guy’s got gambling problems. He’ll never amount to anything.”

My mother, in the new life she’d established, had no need for child support or alimony. Off that hook, my father came to our house only once after my vomiting episode, apparently saw how well we appeared to be doing, and never came back.

The allegiance to my ideal father figure — savior, protector — persisted into my twenties. In 1990, I called him. A woman answered the phone. After an awkward pause, I asked to speak to him. Not sure what to call him, when he got on the line I just said, “Hi. This is JoAnn.”

“Well, what a surprise!” he answered. “How did you find me?”

After one too many angst-filled pauses, and not knowing how to end the awkward conversation, I invited him to my home to meet my four-year-old son. He accepted. This “visitation” went fairly well, in that he sat at the table, drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, commented favorably on the breakfast I had prepared and murmured about the beauty and charm of my son. At the end, I walked him to his car. His black leather coat reeked of sweat and Old Spice aftershave. He made a point of saying that he was on his way to meet a lady friend. With a cocky smirk, he added, “I still get ’em to go out, but not to stay.”

Impulsively, I invited him to come again, next Sunday, and he agreed. I didn’t realize that the next Sunday would be Father’s Day until I was grocery shopping that Saturday. A big sign over the beer coolers advertised the kind of beer that dads might like for their special day.

Instead of buying beer, I headed to JC Penny’s. I poked through the sale rack and bought a shirt and a tie. I wrapped the box in pinstriped royal blue paper and made a card. It said, Happy Father’s Day. Love J–. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. After one visit, what did I know about him? That he liked his coffee black, that he smoked a cigarette every fifteen minutes or so, and that he liked French toast and bacon. No syrup, just butter.

As he left that Father’s Day Sunday, he promised to come again for breakfast. Next week, he said. Was that okay? Yes, I said, but wait. I had a gift for him. A gift? What kind of gift? A Father’s Day gift, of course. He took the package, seemingly perplexed, opened the card and read it, removed the wrapping, looked inside the box, stopped, shut it up, then reached out and half-hugged me by placing his hand on my shoulder and kind of squeezing and shaking it at the same time. He walked down the stairs of my second floor one-bedroom flat into the foyer and opened the door. I called goodbye and went inside.

I cleaned. I scrubbed the dishes and swept the floor. I emptied his cigarette buts from the old plate I’d provided as an ashtray. I tied up the trash and walked it down the stairs to the garbage cans on the side of the house. Re-entering the apartment, I saw the box. I don’t know how I could have missed it on my way out. It sat in the foyer outside my door, on the floor, covered in the pinstriped royal blue wrapping, with my card. Inside lay the ivory linen shirt and silk tie, a beautiful silk tie, a linen shirt, and the card, Love, J–.

I wanted to un-write that, Love J–. I wanted to unmake French toast. I wanted to throw coffee in his face. I wanted to break the old plate of cigarette ashes over his head. I wanted to un-purchase the hope of having a real father.

The hate I felt towards him, my father, my Hogan, was deep, but that hurt less than the sense of vulnerability. The word — vulnerable — means to be “assailable,” open to attack or damage. I’d made myself open to attack. Inviting my father to my home, acknowledging him as my father, offering him trust and affection, had made me assailable.

I hardly ate for weeks. His new rejection of me, as an adult child, took me down to just barely one hundred pounds. Even so, something hung on persistently. I kept picturing him as he left, as I saw him then — his back, his steady gait as he descended the stairs from my apartment to the foyer, the box tucked under his arm, the torn paper with pieces of tape jutting out — and the attending promise that he would come back.

I know now that I pushed my father beyond his comfort level. A gift from me was more of an emotional demand than he was willing and able to sign up for. A Father’s Day gift? He probably would have welcomed a more obvious response, like a sock on the jaw, a kick down the stairs, or an empty gift box with an invoice in it for the child support he never paid.

As time went by, I realized that the hate was destroying what mattered most to me, building a trusting and loving family. I developed a new fantasy. I re-imagined his departure. Not the first departure, when he walked out of our lives, but the last one, from my apartment. In my mind, I would watch as he turned from the open door where I stood, see him bend down slowly, place the box on the floor, gently, position the card carefully on top, stand up, look back at the gift, look at me, wave and walk away. I don’t deserve to be your father, he is saying.

He was not my savior or protector. He was not going to try to right any wrongs. And he was not going to let me believe that he could, or even that he should try. Because if he did, he would botch it again. He didn’t know how to do it, even yet, how to take care of babies, or grownups, or even himself. Rejection means to throw back, to not accept. It was not me my father was rejecting. It was being a father and all that entailed. He was still a child himself.

For the few days that I was a daughter, I was a good one. I showed my father love and respect. I gave him my trust. I opened my home and made myself assailable. I took that risk. And he taught me a lot. I’ve learned that I can make peace with his rejection in a way that supports the person I am and want to be. I’ve learned the definition of rejection and its types, and how to identify the level of pain associated with each. I’ve learned that I am resilient.

In his book Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh discusses a child’s relationship with a father as an example of how to transform anger into love and forgiveness.

Your father is in you; you are the continuation of your father ….We say our father is not us, but without our father we cannot exist. So he is fully present in our body and in our mind. He is us.

Thus, if you understand yourself, your whole self, you understand that you are your father — he is not outside of you.

I am my father. I am his abandonment, his detachment, his unwillingness to love and care for me. But that is just part of me, not the whole self. My whole self can interplay my father-journey with the other parts of my life, in my own family and larger community. Rather than surrender to the pain that he caused me, rather than bury it or deny it, I can be vulnerable by choice. I can, for instance, talk about my father both with the people who love me and, on the right occasion, with those who don’t know me at all.

One of my favorite lines in Hogan’s Heroes is when Shultz says to Hogan, “If you ever do escape, take me with you.” Shultz understood that the more we stay on guard, stick to one narrative, the more we become prisoners. My father and Hogan go everywhere with me now. We dig new tunnels, knock on new floors, and find ways to save each other, not just ourselves.

But some days too, I send my father a message. It goes like this: Even though you left me, it doesn’t make me any less your daughter.