Washington Post

Finding My Father

By Gigi Barse
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 14, 2001; Page C10

I always knew I would see him again, knew I would feel his arms wrap me in a hug one more time. I just didn't know how long and difficult and wondrous the journey would be to find him.

The last time my father saw me was in 1961. I was a towheaded 6-year-old holding the hand of my mother and younger sister as we climbed the steps to the airplane that would whisk us east. Washington, D.C., was going to be our new home, my mother told me. I would now have a new father, one new brother, and three new sisters. We would have a new house, new school, new housekeeper. Wasn't it wonderful? Oh, and don't talk about your "old father."

At first, I called my new father "uncle." Soon, however, "uncle" became "Dad," and my real father became "Daddy Feldman." I really tried to feel absorbed by my new family, throwing myself into my step-siblings' play. But I never felt as close to my new father as my younger sister did. Over the next three years, I received one letter, one card and a Christmas gift from the father I had left behind. He had a new wife and there was mention of a brother and sister. I assumed they were "new" like my Washington siblings, belonging to someone else.

When I was 11, my younger sister and I were legally adopted. Our new father was now our only father, according to my birth certificate, and my real father was no more. My mother adopted the other siblings, and -- poof! -- we were the perfect family. In reality, we were a hodgepodge of emotions battling for acceptance.

When I was 14, I decided to reclaim Daddy Feldman. So, I dialed Texas information and asked for Alpine -- the town I remembered from his letter's postmark. Sorry, no listing. Thus began an activity I would continue for nearly a decade -- randomly choosing towns in Texas and asking telephone operators for my father. After college, I located a biological uncle. Sure would like to talk to my father, I told him. Call him, he said. Better not, my aunt said. Write him instead, they agreed. So I did.

He never answered. When I was 25, I received a gift of sorts -- a bundle of letters. While cleaning up after a fire in my adoptive father's home, I found a small box that was virtually untouched amid the soaked and scorched cardboard. Inside, brittle envelopes were banded together, the ink on them faded, but clear. Daddy Feldman's name appeared on nearly every one. I started to read. And discovered that my father had desperately wanted to keep his marriage to my mother intact, had begged her to let him be a father to his girls. The letters spanned eight years.

Most compelling was the one-sentence telegram that stated simply: "REF. TO ADOPTION, THE ANSWER IS NO." I could only stare and read it again. And again. He had never wanted to relinquish his parental rights. Tears burned, but I didn't cry them. If I did, I wasn't sure I could stop.

Years passed. I married; I had two children. And with their births, I wondered again: Does my daddy ever wonder about me? In the summer of 1999, I received another kind of gift -- courage. I decided to seek counseling through my church, St. Columba's. It was time, I knew, to address the issues of how my patchwork family had affected me, and to find my father.

I searched the Internet. I called directory assistance. He was nowhere. Neither was the uncle I had found 20 years ago. On a whim, I paid an online service to search for a "last known address" as well as a death notice. The results appeared on my computer the next day -- his full name, an address in Lubbock, Tex., and the year 1998. I called the customer service number. Did that date refer to the year he died? I asked. Did you do a death search? the rep asked. Well, yes. Then that's what it is, she said. Oh. A crushing sadness wrapped around my heart. After all this time, I had missed him. I decided to find out as much as possible about this man. I started with the Lubbock newspaper's online archive, looking for an obituary. After hours of research, I found instead, a reference to his name in court records. I clicked, and glowing on the screen were the words "Marriage Licenses" and my father's name and age and those of his fiance. Another marriage license listing appeared, this one for a "junior." Did I have a half brother?

Turned out, the search firm had not conducted a death certificate search after all. What I had was his last known address.

I wrote a card and scrounged decent pictures of the kids and my husband and me. This time I urged him to write back and sent the letter certified. Then I waited. The letter was returned, unopened, two weeks later. Forwarding address expired.

I called an attorney friend and asked for the name of a private investigator. I was determined to find a current address and phone number. After that, I'd figure out what action to take. Within a few hours I had a phone number.

And I was suddenly struck by uncertainty. Did I want to call out of the blue? What if his new wife and my half brother never knew about me or my sister? And what if my father himself really didn't want to have contact with me? What then?

Indeed.

I started writing another letter and tore it up. I picked up the phone and listened to the dial tone. I knew calling was the right thing to do. I just couldn't do it without knowing that the call would be welcomed.

Bless my husband's father who lives with us -- he called on my behalf. My father would be delighted to hear from me.

As I started to dial his number, I promptly burst into tears. I cried, deep sobs, for the answer to a lifelong prayer, for the knowledge that I would hear my father's voice again, for the relief I felt knowing he actually wanted to hear mine. In all the years of searching and wondering, I realized I had never allowed myself to imagine the moment beyond simply finding him.

When he answered the phone, I gulped, then sputtered, "Uh . . . Dad?" "I would know your voice, even now," he replied.

I have since traveled to Texas and met my father, his new wife, and my two brothers and one sister. They have welcomed me with astonishing love and affection. My brothers are very close and share a great sense of Texas-style humor. My new sister and I savor each moment we have to get to know each other.

And my dad. Turns out I look just like him. He is funny, kind, and adored and respected by his kids. He was married for 35 years to their mother.

I also have some insight into why my father stopped fighting our adoption and allowed the ties to be cut. Why? It's complicated, the way family relationships often play out. Logistics, my sister's and my best interests, and the era all certainly played a part.

As my father's and my relationship deepens, perhaps he and I will talk more about that, too.

Recently, my father wrote in a letter to me: "You certainly make me proud. . . . Dads do have a special feeling for their girls. Can't explain it, but it is there."

No one has ever said those words to me before. But then, those are words that can only come from a dad. My dad.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company