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“The Escape to the Unknown” (2009)

Voices / Memoir

‘Nine step-grandchildren’

‘I came to understand that I was no longer related to my father, not in the way I had been, and not in the way I had taken for granted that I always would be. And I was never to speak of this.’

Kelly Salasin, a longtime prolific blogger, is currently in the throes of writing a memoir. This piece originally took shape on her blog, “The Motherless Muse” (themotherlessmuse.wordpress.com), which “traverses the landscape of loss and healing.”

Marlboro

I was surprised to find myself referenced in the lines of the obituary. Somebody was mindful — maybe the parent of the other three step-grandchildren, though I’m not sure who they are.

When the deceased and I first met, I was already a young adult, so I don’t know that I ever considered her a step-grandmother, though perhaps some if not all of my younger sisters did.

I find myself touched to be included all these years later, to be considered family, even while the ground beneath that sentiment shifts, inviting closer inspection.

My “step-grandmother” was an elegant woman — or maybe “graceful” better captures her, but a grace born of self-composure more than wealth or finery. Despite her graciousness, however, she stung me once, irrevocably, and all these years later, it comes back to me, when I am the age she would have been then.

My father, the surgeon, began sleeping with her oldest daughter, the operating room nurse, when I was in college and the nurse in her 20s.

My parents soon divorced, and my father’s new bride had the large church wedding denied to my mother two decades earlier. A generational Catholic, born on Christmas Day like her Aunt Doll, my mother was turned away from the Church, not because my parents were expecting me — which they were — but because my father’s grandfather was Jewish.

There was, as a result, nothing to be annulled of my parents’ city hall marriage when my father married again.

After the parish affair, the surgeon and the OR nurse built an extravagant home on the water. I helped them move in, and soon after I stopped by with my childhood friend to show her the place. My father was exceedingly proud of the home that he helped design with his new friend, the architect.

My childhood friend knew my father back when he lived with me in the stately brick home that once belonged to his parents over the toll bridge. That home seemed almost campy now by comparison, especially when I understood that my father and his new bride considered my grandparents’ island a much lesser one than the wealthier island upon which their modern home was built.

My childhood friend also knew my father when we lived in an even campier home on a side street of the same lesser island over the toll bridge. It was in that house, in fact, that my fifth and sixth sisters were born, less than a year apart. “Irish twins,” they call them. My mother was Irish.

It was in this same home that my mother began to buckle under the weight of too much to bear alone. It was there that my father’s private practice began to take off, as did his earnings — along with his sense of self, which was already atmospheric.

My mother remained on Earth, tending to their six children, ages newborn to 15, and to the home and even to the books for my father’s office, not to mention to a full calendar of social engagements expected of a surgeon and his wife.

It was in this lesser house on a side street on the lesser island with six children that my mother found herself in her mid-30s at the edge of disappearance as my father’s life increasingly revolved around itself.

And it was soon after we moved from the campier home into my father’s parents’ home on the main thoroughfare of the same lesser island that my mother jumped, as they say, “from the frying pan into the fire,” but not without a warning, which she delivered to me two years before my parents split.

I was 16 that summer. I remember where we were that day, seated inside the minivan after she’d picked me up from my summer job at the hospital and before she dropped me off at my evening job as a hostess.

“If your father and I ever split up,” my mother said, seemingly out of the blue, “he’ll be with that OR nurse — the tall, pretty one. She’s more his type.”

She said this matter-of-factly, maybe even wearily, from the driver’s seat of the minivan, which was filled with my father’s children.

“I met her today,” I said to my mother. “Dad introduced me outside the operating room."

My mother nodded.

* * *

When my childhood friend and I arrived at my father’s new waterside mansion, we entered where I had been instructed to enter: through the garage door, but only after knocking.

No one ever knocked at the stately home that had belonged to my grandparents on the lesser island over the toll bridge. “Knocking was for guests,” I was told, and even close friends were considered family.

I knocked on the door inside the garage and found my new “step-grandparents” inside, seated around the kitchen island with its view of the water through the spiral staircase that my father and his friend the architect designed to appear suspended in midair at the center of the home.

“Hi, Kelly,” my step-grandmother said with her signature grace. Her husband nodded from his stool beside hers at the kitchen island. It appeared that no one else was home.

“I wanted to show my friend around,” I said enthusiastically, and my step-grandparents nodded their approval.

I proceeded with my childhood friend past the spiral staircase to the sunken dining room and beyond it to the living room with its floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the water.

From there, I took my friend out onto the deck and down onto the dock, after which we spiraled back around through the side door, passing between my father’s office and the den, and into the kitchen again, where I turned to head up the spiral staircase seemingly suspended in midair.

“Kelly,” my step-grandmother said from her watchful perch at the kitchen island. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go upstairs.”

I was halfway up the spiral staircase then, and I looked back toward the island, confused, and so my step-grandmother elaborated, suggesting that I should wait until my father and her daughter were home before going upstairs.

I looked up the remaining curve of the staircase knowing that my four younger sisters’ bedrooms were just beyond the railing on the street side of the house, just past the guest bedroom with its balcony view of the water.

* * *

But as was true in the home that my mother bought with her alimony after the divorce — a three-bedroom Victorian with only a single bathroom for six girls, her new beau, and their baby boy — there was no room for me at my father’s house.

In fact, the only sign that I could find that I ever belonged to him was a single photo that sat beneath the spiral staircase in the sunken dining room on a hutch.

This photo had been a birthday gift in the year he left us, a photo that the oldest of my younger sisters arranged of our father’s “Six Misses,” the name he had given to his first boat, a pun on the absence of a son, each “Miss” belonging to our mother.

Of this error of existence, my father reminded us often — how he’d never had a son and how the very sight of his six girls was at times a source of pain to his new bride of the children she would never have with him.

I could see the photo of his Six Misses on the shelf of the sunken-dining-room hutch through the open spiral staircase, and in the years to come I would always think of it as a sign, however vague, that I was related to my father — that we had ridden his motorcycle together on the beach, my arms wrapped around his warm belly; that he and I had built campfires in the Rockies and learned to ski together at Copper Mountain; that he had taught me to swim and how to ride a two-wheeler; that he’d given me my first stitch in my knee in the kitchen of our ranch in Newport News; that we’d lived together in Virginia as a family of five and before that in the high-rise in Philly as a family of four, and before that in the trailer in New Jersey as a family of three; that we lived in the split-level in Colorado where he did his residency and on the base at West Point where we lived before he went into private practice and where I’d accompanied him on his rounds and scrubbed with him for surgery; and that we had moved back “home” together to New Jersey to be near my grandparents, where I’d assisted my father in the doctor’s office that had been my grandfather’s when I was a girl.

After the separation, my father sold the office, too, like he sold my grandparents’ house, disposing of what remained of the past we’d shared, disposing of me, too, I guess. I had lived above the office in the apartment upstairs, as had the oldest of my younger sisters after me, as did the sister after that, each of us displaced and reeling, seeking solace in what remained of the past.

I’d meant to continue spiraling up the stairs of my father’s new home despite my “step-grandmother”’s admonition. It was my father’s house, after all.

But my childhood friend paused at the foot of the sweeping staircase, looking up at me suspended in mid-air and back at my “step-grandmother” perched on the kitchen stool beside her husband, certain of their place.

“Maybe we can come back another time, Kel,” my friend said wisely.

And so it was, with the gravity of all that had been lost to me, I descended the spiral staircase and exited through the door to the garage.

And it was in this way, little by little, and sometimes like a crack in the world beneath my feet, that I came to understand that I was no longer related to my father, not in the way I had been, and not in the way I had taken for granted that I always would be.

And something else. Something unspoken: I was never to speak of this.

* * *

The cost of speaking was made quite clear to me.

When I did speak, I would not see my father for some time. I would not have my calls answered. I would not be invited over. And most unbearable, I would be blocked from seeing my four youngest sisters who had been forced to move in with my father when my mother hit bottom.

It was soon after my mother moved her six girls and her new beau and their new baby, a boy, into the house with the single bathroom, that she began to spiral into a dark hole.

The oldest of us called my father for help, but he was too busy with work and he was out every night with the OR nurse and couldn’t be bothered to step in and help. It wasn’t until someone in the public eye spoke up that his hand was forced, and so he brought his four youngest daughters, age 5 to 14, to live with him in his townhouse, renovating the garage into bedrooms and turning the care of his daughters over to his 20-something girlfriend.

“You’re a mother to these children now,” my future step-grandparents said to their oldest daughter, who had been out frolicking every night with the surgeon on the town. “You have responsibilities.”

When the OR nurse began to buckle under the weight of caring for four children and a home, my father did what he did when my mother began to buckle: He expected more of his children.

This was, in fact, how I came to be fired from his office in the summer before my parents split up. He’d arrived at my bedside one morning in the dormitory above the garage in the stately home on the lesser island that had once belonged to his parents, and issued a directive:

“Kelly Ann, get up and help your mom with laundry."

When I explained that I had been taking my own laundry to the laundromat and that I had to get to work that morning, he replied, “You’ll do it before work.”

When I explained that I was expected at 9, he said, “You’ll skip work today and do laundry.”

When I asked why he never helped with the laundry, he told how important his work was.

When I said that I could not miss work because the office staff expected me, he fired me, right there, under the covers.

And he’d meant it.

My father stormed out of my bedroom above the garage at the house that had once belonged to his parents just as years later he stormed into my younger sisters’ bedrooms in the renovated garage of the townhouse where he lived after the separation.

He told my little sisters, ages 5 to 14, that if they didn’t behave for his girlfriend, the OR nurse, if they didn’t treat her better, if they didn’t help her more around the house, that he would send them back to live with my mother, who had been too drunk to brush their hair or bathe them or pick them up from school or make them dinner.

I know this because I was on the receiving end of those sobbing phone calls from my younger sisters.

My father never made good on that threat to return his children to his drunken ex, but by the time he’d married the OR nurse and moved into the waterside mansion, one sister was sent away to boarding school, while another moved out before she’d finished high school, crowding into the studio apartment above his old doctor’s office with another sister rather than remain in the beautiful home beside the water.

* * *

During those painful years of displacement, I would find my father’s new in-laws — parents and brothers and sisters and spouses and kids and family friends — happily ensconced inside the new home, circling around its spiral staircase, certain of their belonging.

My father and his bride would often extol the helpfulness of her family and friends so that I might better understand that relational ties like ours had been commodified and I had come up short again and again.

Center stage had been earned by my father’s new family and friends, while I was forevermore cast as an extra, easily forgotten, often in the way, and mostly ignored, as I was just some years back when I traveled 300 miles to attend the funeral of my “step-grandfather.”

On rare occasions, however, if I stumbled upon my father home alone or if he’d had a couple drinks, but not yet too many — say, at his annual black-tie Christmas Party — he might suddenly recognize me as his daughter, as if the fog of amnesia had momentarily cleared beside the glow of the twinkle lights. With a snifter of Grand Marnier in his hand, he might bend down then in his black tie beside the spiral staircase to kiss my forehead or tussle my hair as if I wasn’t only a reminder of the wreckage he’d helped create and left behind, as if I wasn’t only a reminder of the children that his new wife would never have with him, as if I wasn’t only the voice who spoke out about the pain spiraling around him.

In those warmest of moments beside a tower of jumbo shrimp and sirloin, my father would suggest that we get together again, and I would blink back tears as if I’d been lost and now found.

He’d invite me over for dinner or to an outing, but when I’d arrive expectantly at the scheduled hour, it was clear that his friends or other family had been invited, too, and that they had been told to arrive at an hour earlier than mine, and that I would be seated as far away as possible from him.

Once, maybe twice, or even three times — I shudder to recall them at all — I arrived at the set time, dressed to the nines, something that was a challenge on a first-year-elementary-school-teacher salary but necessary in order to garner my father’s acceptance and praise. I knocked on the door to the garage only to walk inside in my heels and find no one inside.

The stools. The kitchen island. The spiral staircase. The sunken dining room. All of it empty. Not even my “step-grandparents” were there.

Reeling, I might call my father then from inside his vacant house, if I could get past the humiliation, but he never answered the call.

He rarely did. Or does. Even now.

* * *

Eventually, I came to understand that as my mother’s daughter, I, too, was an ex of sorts, tolerated or endured, particularly on holidays and special occasions to which my mother was never invited. And, much like her, I was derided as if I, too, was responsible for her affair with a younger man to which as a woman, let alone a wife, she hadn’t been equally entitled.

“You are a failure as a daughter,” my father pronounced on the occasion of my graduation from college, magna cum laude. “I’m only having this graduation party because it is the thing to do. People will expect it.”

My father sneered as he said this, his voice riddled with disgust, because I had been unable to drop my studies and my work to help him with the laundry that had been piling up in the town house after my youngest siblings moved in with him.

On the morning of my graduation from college, the oldest of my younger sisters called sobbing.

“Mommy isn’t going to make it,” she said. “She’s drunk again.”

“It’s OK,” I told her. “Just hang up and try to catch Dad before he leaves so that you can get a ride to the city.”

It was clear when my father and his fiancée arrived with my sister that none of us were to talk about my mother’s absence, even as my sister and I exchanged swollen-eye glances across the room, just as we were never to talk of the pain beneath the surface of our father’s new and improved life.

* * *

As the years passed, the spiral staircase at the center of my father’s new life began to crack, and I don’t mean this figuratively. The staircase literally was unable to withstand its suspension in midair, requiring what we all require: solid footing.

In the absence of such footing in my young adult life, I turned toward the page, toward expressing what others refused to see or say or acknowledge.

Throughout those years, I wrote daily in my journal until writing became a practice and the practice became a center and the center became the thing around which I began to shape a life of my own.

There were times during those years when I sensed an opening in the cracks within my father’s new life, an opening into which I might purchase belonging, however brief, by deriding, say, a younger sister, who acted out her unmet pain and trauma in adolescence.

My ache for belonging was so deep that I sometimes felt the temptation of betrayal on the tip of my tongue, particularly when it came to the derision of my mother, who was an easy target — an uneducated woman without a career who not only had an affair with a man half her age but who went on to have two more children who she later orphaned before they were out of high school.

* * *

“You need to talk to your mother about her hair,” my father said, on that summer day when my mother was given two months to live.

We were all at the hospital, all eight of her children and her young husband. My father took me and the oldest of my younger sisters out to the nurses station to explain how the cancer had spread from my mother’s smoker lungs to each of her organs and into her spine and up into her head.

He’d leaned over the nurses’ station and drew an illustration in triplicate of our mother’s torso and head, notating each of the organs where cancerous tumors were found. He handed my sister and me each a copy, but my sister ran away from the nursing station in hysterics, which first confused and then embarrassed and finally infuriated him.

“What is wrong with her?” he hissed, as I held my copy of Mom’s cancers in my hand.

“She has always been overly emotional,” I might have said, while I remained remarkably stoic to impress him.

But instead, I looked back at him blankly.

“She needed a father. Not a doctor,” I said. “She needed comfort right now. Not an illustration.”

I turned to walk down the hall to break the news to my youngest siblings — my only brother and my baby sister — who were seated in the waiting room so as not to inconvenience my father with their presence.

I led the two of them, ages 14 and 17, through a set of doors into a private hallway filled with summer sun, and they leaned against the wall as I broke the news.

“Mommy is going to die,” I told them. “Very soon.”

I brought them to see our mother then, and I left to go down to the cafeteria to bring back refreshment.

I’d long recognized the sound of my father’s heels coming around a corner in a hospital. My heart had always quickened as a girl when I was working as a candy striper on the base at West Point, where passing nurses and doctors would say, “You must be Dr. Salasin’s daughter! You look just like him! I bet you’ll be a doctor someday too!”

I smiled when I saw my father come around the corner into view despite myself. I tried to avoid him, to say that I was headed to the cafeteria and that I wanted to get back upstairs, but he insisted on talking to me about my mother’s hair.

“It looks trashy,” he said, shaking his head.

“It does,” I might have added then, and on this we would have agreed. I had always preferred her natural brown to the blonde that she chased after splitting with my father.

Maybe if I had joined my father in this derision, he might have comforted me in the face of my mother’s diagnosis and my sister’s hysteria and the orphaning of my youngest siblings, not to mention the baby inside my belly about to be born, the baby who would probably never meet his grandmother who had been given two months to live.

Instead, I pointed out that his second wife and her friends did the same thing.

“They just spend hundreds of dollars on their hair,” I said. “And Mom can only afford $20.”

“She should travel,” he said. “That’s what I would do if I only had two months left. See the world.”

“She wants to see her children,” I said. “She wants to be home.”

* * *

Three months later, just after the baby was born, my father sobbed so loudly at the back of the church that I took the baby off my breast and handed him to my husband so that I could bring my father the pack of tissues that I had in the diaper bag before I stood along with my baby brother to give my mother’s eulogy.

The cracks continued to spiral around us during those years, and through it all my “step-grandparents” remained steady at their perch on the stools beside the kitchen island with the view of the water through the staircase that had begun to buckle under the weight of suspension in midair.

The casual cruelty of my “step-grandfather” was one of the constancies of my early adulthood, continuing on as I became a wife and then a mother.

Each time I brought around the kind young man who would become my fiancé, my “step-grandfather” would go out of his way to find ways to insult him, to suggest that he hadn’t amounted to anything with his life.

When my fiancé, later my husband, went back to school to become a teacher, my “step-grandfather” took to critiquing the summer work my husband did around my father’s place, wanting to be sure that my husband knew what I was always to know: that we would never measure up, that we did not belong.

The gracious presence of my “step-grandmother” was yet another constancy throughout the years, and that beauty and grace lingers inside me even now.

In large part, I see now, because it sat in such sweeping contrast to the spiraling horror in which I was invisibly suspended and about which I was to remain silent.

Still.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #623 (Wednesday, July 28, 2021). This story appeared on page C1.

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