When I was seven years old, my parents divorced. My mother loaded us kids into the van and moved us 3000 miles away. I never saw my father again. Ever.
Later, whenever I would ask for something that we could not afford, Mom would explain that my father never paid his child support and I therefore could not have it, unless I earned the money to buy it myself. That was “truth” for me. I never questioned it. In retrospect, this “truth” probably made me a better person, certainly more independent at a younger age.
We lived with her parents in my mother’s childhood home. Every weekday morning, my mother caught the train into Grand Central to her job in the City. Until then, she had been a stay-at-home mom. Now my grandmother took over, raising my mother’s four little girls. My grandmother had already raised her family and she always deferred to my mother when it came to parenting issues.
At nineteen, in my last semester at Yale, my father telephoned me. This was well before cell phones, and, even today, I have no idea how he got the dormitory number, but there he was, on the phone. No caller ID, back then, and I had just picked it up. I recognized his voice, despite the years.
He asked how I was, and talked as if there had not been twelve years of my very short life intervening, as though we had spoken just the month before. On the other hand, I remember how baffled and proud he was that his eldest daughter was about to graduate from an Ivy League college.
I was so surprised I don’t recall much else about the conversation. I only remember it as being extraordinarily mundane. Afterwards, I regretted that I hadn’t thought to ask him why he had never called before. We certainly made no arrangements to talk again.
I called my mother soon after. She was, after all, my best friend.
“Why do you suppose he called me?”
“I don’t know, Honey. I suppose he wanted to know if you were supporting yourself. After all, the age of majority in California is 21 years old.”
“What do you mean? ‘Age of majority?’”
“Well, he probably wanted to know if he still had to pay child support. If you were supporting yourself, then he could argue that he didn’t need to.”
“Oh, I get it.” As per my usual, I accepted the gospel from my mother’s mouth. When you only have one parent, you learn not to question her truth. Not consciously; the lesson is subliminal. A child is so dependent on his parents. When he only has one, that dependency is utter.
Two parents offer greater perception. Their differences and disagreements teach their child that reality is flexible. Each parent tempers the other; it’s like the difference between having one eye and having two. You can see with one eye, but you don’t perceive any depth. Two eyes give one perspective.
I was forty-seven before it finally struck me – the discrepancy between what I believed and accepted as fact versus my mother’s justification of why he had called me. My insight dawned while I explained to my client why she needed to foster her child’s relationship with his father. I was describing how sad it was to grow up without a father, knowing he had paid no support, having no contact for years, and then only a single call. I heard myself say “and he was only calling because he didn’t want to pay child support anymore.”
Had he paid child support for me? I will never know. My mother and I don’t speak anymore. And I would not trust her to tell me the truth anyway.