My Father’s Old Pea Coat

My heart panged one Sunday while lunching with friends. It was the way their 18-year-old daughter addressed their father.

“Daddy when are we going to see…” Sensing the special relationship between the two, my throat tightened. I never had a father.

All my life I had longed for someone I could call “Daddy.” Someone I trusted, to whom I could go with all my problems. All I knew I was born as an illegitimate child to a 16-year-old mother. I didn’t know who my father was or what happened to him. My mother eventually married and bore seven more children. We seldom saw our stepfather. He was distant, emotionally and physically, a shadow figure in our lives. I never thought of approaching him for anything.

My mother had all she could do raising eight children with hardly any help from her husband. There was never enough money or time to go around. So each of us sought acceptance and affection differently, growing up in spite of our circumstances.

I was 20 when my mother revealed her long-kept secret. She handed me a black-and–white snapshot of my birth father in a Navy uniform. It was signed, “All my love, Jack.”

Delighted, I studied the photo closely. So I had a father after all!
“His name was Jack Carver,” she said, her voice tremoring. “We lost touch somehow. Now don’t go looking for him,” she warned. "He’s probably married and has a family. You’ll just disrupt them and cause problems.”

What she didn’t say got me thinking. I had a strong feeling they had really been in love. But what had happened?

I examined that snapshot over and over again. My father looked so happy, so friendly. I thought we had the same nose, same smile. I lay in bed thinking about him. How I longed to hug him, to talk to him. Did he know about me?

My prayers continually ascended,

“Lord I know you are my real Father, but somehow in someway, help me find my earthly father.”

I went on to marry a wonderful man with a familiar name. My husband Jack was kind and loving, but still a hollow ached within me. I wanted my husband and our grown children to know my father, too.

In December 2001, my mother died. A week later the sheriff’s department contacted us because my stepfather who was emotionally uninvolved with me was pressing charges against my husband and me.

Since there was no substance to his claims, the charges were dropped. But this ultimate rejection poured salt in an open wound. My mother had just died, my stepfather was disowning me, and it was Christmas.

“God are you there?” I cried. “Help me.” I seemed to be sinking deeper into a black pit. How I longed for a compassionate father I could run to.

Through the years I thought about searching for him. But I was afraid someone would hang up on me. What if a little elderly lady who was married to him heard my story? It could throw her into a heart attack. Their grown children would call me a liar. I couldn’t bear the rejection.

In January 2003, we saw the movie Antwone Fisher, a true story about a boy who lived in foster homes all his life. He was encouraged to find his birth family but, just as I, was afraid they would reject him. The film only accentuated my longing. Had my father cared about me? I shrank from causing problems for his family. I just wanted to know if he wondered what I looked like, what had become of me.

Desperate, I opened the out-of-state phone book and thumbed through the Carvers. No Jack or John. Seeing my growing anxiety, my husband said:

“Honey, I know how you feel. Let me make some calls.”

I don’t know how he did it but the next day while on the phone, he called me over with a big thumbs-up sign. (Later I found out he called every Carver in the book.) He put the phone to my ear as a man jovially said: “This is so exciting, put her on.”

My husband pointed to the open phone book, his finger on the name, Carver, James, in Zelienople, Pennsylvania.

“It’s your father’s brother,” he said. My heart jumped, but I was afraid to talk on the phone.

“Does he know who I am? I don’t want him to hang up on me.”

My husband nodded. In trepidation I picked up the phone and tentatively said: “Hello..?”

“HI Honey,” responded an exhilarated voice.

“This is one of the happiest days of my life. I love you!”

For a moment I was confused. Why was this man so happy? He didn’t even know me. Maybe this wasn’t my father’s real family. I thought about DNA. “Are you really Jack Carver’s brother?” I asked.

“Yes, yes!” I had to make sure. “Why don’t I e-mail the photo of my father my mother gave me,” I suggested.
“Great. I’ll call you right back.”

An anxious half hour passed. The phone rang. “Honey, are you sitting down? Welcome to your family! When the photo came up on the screen, my daughter screamed: “Dad that’s you!” “No,’ I said, “that’s your Uncle Jack and I have the same picture.”

Honey, he enthused, “I’m your Uncle Jim and I love you!”

A whirl of emotions flooded me, and I broke down sobbing. Uncle Jim, who had waited patiently on the phone, continued:

“Honey I am sorry to tell you but your father died in 1963. He never married or had other children. But he never forgot you. He did talk about you. We had no idea where you were. Oh, how he would have wished to be here now.”
He stifled a sob. “Your Dad and I were very close. Now I feel a part of him is still alive because of you. Please,” he begged, “come and visit.”

He gave us his address. It was a snowy February day when we flew up to Pittsburgh, where we rented a car and drove to nearby Zelienople. As we turned on to the Carver’s street, I clutched my purse anxiously. How would my father’s brother accept me in person? What would I say to him? My heart caught as we stopped in front of a neat and tidy brick house. I got out of the car, and stared at it, frozen in uncertainty.

Suddenly, a man ran from the front door with his arms outstretched, shouting: “Brenda!” I ran to him and broke into tears as he crushed me in his arms, exclaiming; “You are beautiful, I love you, I love you. I love you.” I felt close to my father. My uncle ushered us in and we visited with my new family around the kitchen table, sharing stories and photos. I noted so many of us shared the same characteristics in looks and mannerisms.

Then we went to dinner at my Aunt Elizabeth’s house where I was handed a candle with the scent “Homecoming” and truly felt at home. All the while Uncle Jim kept saying, “I love you.” Why do you say that, Uncle Jim, I asked? You don’t know me yet.” He put his hand on my arm. “Honey, you were lost and now you are found. You are part of the family.”

It was then he told me all about my father. “He was in the worst of the bombing of Pearl Harbor fighting in the Pacific and he was never the same after that. But that wartime trauma got the best of Jack and he started drifting, finally becoming an alcoholic.”

He stopped and wiped his eyes. “ I hate to tell you, Brenda, things got so bad for him he took his own life while very depressed.”

We were quiet for a moment. My poor dear father. I squeezed his hand.

“ Thank you for telling me, Uncle Jim, I feel closer to him than ever.”

The next day practically the whole town greeted me at a big party where a metallic banner emblazoned: WELCOME HOME! Uncle Jim took me by the hand and led me around introducing me to everyone. I was presented with a framed picture of my father and his brother in their uniforms, Dad’s discharge papers, and an extensive family genealogy printout.

The crowning moment came when a cousin brought a dry cleaning bag and opened it while cameras flashed. She pulled out a Navy pea coat and presented it to me.

“It was your Dad’s, “ she said, pointing to his name inside a lapel. As I put it on, I was speechless and for a moment stood there, quietly thanking God. I had found my father in the love glowing from my new family and in the warm embrace of his pea coat enfolding me.

-Brenda Smith, 2004