It's One Big Happy Family season here at This Writer's Life. In celebration of the book's paperback release I have asked a number of the writers from "One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Polyamory, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love," to reflect upon how things have changed (or remained the same) in their own lives since they wrote their essays over a year ago. Further, I've also asked various writers I admire to discuss their wild, messy, loving, non-traditional families as well. Below, Tracy McMillan talks about her happy family:
MOUNTAIN HIGH, RIVER DEEP
By Tracy McMillan
For a long time - two or three decades, at least - I didn't feel like I was part of a family. My life, and the people in it, looked less like the Bradys or the Huxtables than it did a montage in a Scorsese gangster movie, except without the shootings. Compelling, stylish, entertaining... but not exactly bursting with secure attachments. However, as I approach what used to be called middle age, (but is now more like turning 33, for the twelfth year in a row), I'm coming to realize that a family bond isn't like glue - fixed. It's a thing in motion, more like a river - which, as it is said in Eastern philosophy -- can run a long way underground before surfacing.
Let me backup for a moment. I wasn't born into a family so much as I was hatched, in the general vicinity of a 20-year-old Minnesota girl with a really bad drinking problem, and the love of her life, a Billy-Dee-Williams-type who committed crimes for a living. As you can imagine, these two didn't have much in the way of parenting skills. In fact, my bio-mother bailed almost immediately, leaving me in the care of Mr. Mom, aka Freddie, who did surprisingly well as a primary caregiver despite his busy schedule pimping and drug dealing. When I was three, Freddie went to prison.
This is where the river went underground. Freddie's departure forced me into foster care, and after bouncing around a bunch of places, I was lucky enough to end up in the home of a Lutheran minister, his wife, and their five kids. In the four-and-a-half years I lived with them, these fine people taught me a whole lot about family. They were loving but strict, took vacations in a wood-paneled station wagon, and had dinner at the same time every night. They looked just like the people you see on TV, except for the dad, Pastor Ericson, wore a black outfit with a white preacher's collar around his neck. As far as stable, healthy families go, they had my recidivist dad lapped sometime in the first couple of days.
But they didn't teach me everything. Because my dad is like the little engine that could of jailed fathers. Lots of guys in his situation would have just forgotten about their pigtailed four-year-old some time during that first stint in Leavenworth. Not Freddie. He wrote, he called, he got my foster mother to bring me to see him, 500 miles away, twice a year. When he got out of Leavenworth he took me to live with him.
Unfortunately, Freddie, (like all parents), was himself - with all his flaws, fears, and limitations - all the time. Twenty-four hours a day, he was still Freddie, and the failings that made him unable to parent me in 1968, weren't exactly resolved by sitting in a jail cell until 1972. After only one year out of prison, Freddie caught another case and went back to Leavenworth. Like before, he called, and he wrote. And he got his ex-girlfriend to bring me to see him, three or four times a year.
Before I hit adulthood, this cycle would repeat itself two more times. But Freddie still called. Freddie still wrote. And Freddie still got someone - anyone -- to bring me to see him.
Until I refused to go.
By the time Freddie got released in the early 1980s, I wanted nothing to do with him. After all those years of going without, I was pretty sure I no longer needed a dad. Besides, now I had a nice MBA-type boyfriend to be the man in my life. We moved to California, settled down, and I "forgot" all about my crazy childhood.
Or tried to.
Until one day, on a whim, I looked up Freddie's number in the phone book (they still had those then) and dialed it. It had been at least six years since I'd seen him. Three years since I'd told him never to call me again. I don't know what possessed me, but before I could change my mind and hang up the phone, he answered. We've been in touch ever since.
For the next ten years, Freddie stayed out of prison, and we enjoyed the kind of relationship adult children who live half-a-country away have with their parents: we visited a few times a year and, of course, talked on the phone. In other words, we simply resumed the relationship we'd always been having. Nothing could have seemed more normal.
We grew close. Freddie had always been a warm, loving presence - maybe that's why he was so good at being Mr. Mom way back in the day - and as I pursued a journalism career, and tried (and failed at) all kinds of relationships with men, Freddie was always there for me: someone I could call upon any time of day or night, who was unconditionally accepting, and who would generally have something wise to say. He could also be counted on to flirt with my friends, but I forgave him for that.
When, in 1993, Freddie got convicted again (for cocaine trafficking), and sentenced to 23 years, my heart broke. To a child, even one aged 28, incarceration of a parent comes down to one simple fact: you can't call your dad when you want to. Or need to.
But your dad can call you. And my dad does. In February, he began serving his 17th year behind bars, and every two weeks, almost without fail, he calls me. When my birthday comes, he writes. And after many, many years of refusing to go, I recently took myself (and my school-age son, but that's another story) to see him in prison.
Because the river might run underground for a long time, but it never, ever stops running.
Tracy McMillan is a television writer currently on AMC's award-winning series Mad Men. Her memoir, I Love You and I'm Leaving You Anyway, is a comic literary road trip into the heart and soul of her relationships with her dad, her son, her three ex-husbands, and assorted other men.