Searching for Father—A Tale of Repentance, Redemption and Resurrection
A LITTLE BOY'S QUESTION:
It was a happy childhood in my Gran's home, in Bristol, England. I was a well-loved only child by my mother and I felt I was the "apple of my grandmother's eye". Happy and content though I was, there was the inevitable question that one day I would have to ask: "What happened to my Dad?"
The answer from my Gran was "Oh, 'ee never cum back from the war" said in her Bristolian accent but with a certain gravitas that deterred further questioning. Gran's brothers, my great uncles, had fought in World War I. It was only many years later, as an adult, that I was able to fully comprehend the horror of what that war meant to people who lost loved ones. But even at this time, although only a youngster, I could dimly grasp a sense that it was something that should not be talked about too much. Phrases such as "...he never came back from the war..." and "...blown to bits...they never found his body..." lodged in my mind to such an extent that even today I can still remember my grandmother's words and the sadness in her voice. The name of her eldest brother, Henry, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, is listed among 73,000 other names who were "missing", on the huge memorial monument at Thiepval in Normandy. So given that sort of background to my thinking it is not surprising that I thought my father, an American soldier in World War II, was probably dead! It also fitted with the experiences of my peers in the neighbourhood and school in the late 1940s since many of my contemporaries also did not have fathers because they were killed in the war.
THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER
While "he didn't come back from the war" was good enough and true enough to satisfy a little boy, little boys do grow up and find things out. When I was about 11 years old there were entrance exams to be undertaken to try and win a place at a grammar school. As a result, various forms had to be filled in by my mother and for the first time I saw the word "divorced" and a date—1952. As I got older, more bits of the puzzle fell into place as I learned more from my mother. My father saw me briefly on three occasions: at my birth, when I was 6 months old and for the last time when I was a year old. Later, in 1945, when he was repatriated to the United States, the pay cheque (the married allowance) from the US Army stopped coming and my mother never heard from him again. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for her waiting and waiting and then at some point deciding the marriage was over. In those days women had to wait seven years and were then automatically granted a divorce on the grounds of desertion and this was for true for my mother. At the outbreak of war in 1939 she was a pretty 15-year old full of hopes and dreams of becoming a music and dance teacher since she had excelled at both from a very young age. The harsh reality at the end of the war was different—she was a teenage mother with no husband.
Beyond the basic details I mentioned earlier, my father was hardly ever spoken of again. To me he was a "non-person". I rarely thought of him, apart from briefly having a rather silly teenage notion that he might have been some kind of American war hero. And as I said, I did not feel out of place or strange for not having a father around since this was the case for so many kids in postwar Britain.
FIFTY YEARS ON
We all got on with our lives—when I was eleven I won a free scholarship to one of the best grammar schools in Bristol, Queen Elizabeth's Hospital (QEH). My mother had gone back to work when I was two years old and I was looked after by my Gran while my Mum was at work. My mother, after a series of short term local jobs (shop assistant, waitress, cinema usherette) became a police woman in the Bristol Docks Police. Great Uncle Dick, Gran's youngest brother, a badly injured survivor of WWI who lived with us, continued working at Bristol Airplane until his retirement in 1978. Grandad died in 1954 virtually penniless (he was a gambler!), although the grandchildren were each left the princely sum of 50 pounds which was put in trust until we were 21 years old. Mine was used in 1966 to buy the engagement ring for my future wife Rita. My Gran, the Victorian matriarch, continued to rule the roost at 37 Badminton Road, Bristol but as in the Victorian era, this was now a diminished empire as I went off to university, got married and emigrated to Canada in 1970.
So where was my father in all this? The answer is nowhere. As I said earlier, continuing the schoolboy context, he was to me a "non-person". He did not exist for me. I had been abandoned as had my mother, who had never remarried. She once said to me in a moment of rare candour "I waited and waited and waited and I never ever heard from him—and then I hated him. After the divorce came through in 1952, I put him out of my mind forever."
THE NEXT GENERATION ASKS THE QUESTION
So that was it—end of story in my family, you might think. But no, the story is not over yet. Fast-forward about 50 years from me as that little boy in England to me as a middle-aged father of three children happily settled in Ottawa for 20 years. There was no escaping now the question that I had asked all those years ago, only now it was coming from my own children, particularly my second son Graham, who, as an inquisitive teenager, began asking me that very same question: "What happened to your Dad?" My wife too had been urging me to find out about him since "time was running out" for if he was alive he would be in his seventies. I just did not want to get into it! I told what little I knew—he was a GI from Lake Charles, Louisiana, whose job in civilian life was as a bartender—this we knew from my mother's marriage license. He went into France on the Normandy invasion and was never heard from again. That was it—the sum total of our knowledge. Graham, 16 at the time, was insistent that he wanted to research the issue . I thought to myself, well maybe this is a way out for me—I'll give him the go-ahead, it will be an impossible task, and I will have salved my conscience in that I did make an effort to find him and we can all go back to normal life again—with no father figure in it!
A PHONE NUMBER IN LAKE CHARLES, LOUISIANA
Well you can never rule out the next generation can you? On Friday, October 29th, 1992, Graham passed me a piece of paper on which was written my father's name, address and a telephone number in Lake Charles, Louisiana, USA.
I was completely flabbergasted. I could not believe it but there it was right in front of me...HERBERT ANGELO MYRES, Telephone...written in Graham's hand. I was so full of questions. Graham explained that he thought he would start with the US Army military records but many of these were destroyed in a fire. Then the US Embassy suggested to Graham that they try the Lake Charles phonebook. As it turned out there were many families in Lake Charles with the name MYERS but only one spelt "my way", that is, M-Y-R-E-S. What's in a name...well it can be everything. I had that spelling drummed into me as a kid. I was told you tell people—it's spelt like the British word for TYRES, with a Y. It wouldn't have worked here in Canada of course because it is spelt the Canadian way!
A VERY LONG WEEKEND
I told Graham not to say anything to anybody about this because I needed to think it over and decide what to do. I did a lot of thinking and a lot of praying that weekend. I was scared. I wanted to think it was all a mistake, a coincidence even. And then what if it was him...did I want to risk rejection and abandonment for a second time? And what about my mother living quietly upstairs on the 3rd floor of our family home. She had never remarried and had taken care of Gran and Uncle Dick who both lived until their 90th year. When they died she had emigrated to Canada in 1979 to live with us here in Ottawa. I eventually decided that I must make that call and I would do it on Monday.
A FATEFUL PHONE CALL
Monday came and I still kept putting it off. Eventually I hit on a time—I'll do it after lunch at 2pm. The time got nearer and nearer and then that deadline passed too! Finally I gritted my teeth, picked up the phone and dialed. Part of the long delay was because I was trying to work out how to approach it and what to say. The phone was ringing for what seemed like a long time and I thought maybe I should hang up. Maybe it was a mistake after all. Maybe that wasn't the right number or maybe it was a bad number...maybe...maybe...so many maybe's. I was grasping that telephone so hard I thought I was going to break it. Then suddenly a sharp "Hullo" on the other end of the line. "Oh God—this is it" I thought as I began my prepared lines.
"Hello—is that Herbert Angelo Myres?", I said.
"Yea" came back the rather suspicious reply.
"Listen", I said, "My name is Tony Myres and I know this is a long shot but were you by any chance stationed in Bristol in England during the Second World War?"
"Yea" came back a more hesitant and even more suspicious sounding reply.
Then I couldn't contain myself and I blurted out in a torrent of words rising in a crescendo, "Then...then...you must be my Dad!!!"
Another hesitation, a vacuum...a pregnant silence if ever there was one, which seemed to go on forever but in reality probably only lasted a few seconds.
Then came back this soft, elderly gentleman's voice saying very slowly with a deep Louisiana accent, "Yea...yea...Reckun' thass riot—yu muss be ma boy!"
A great wave of relief came over me, "It is him! It is him!" We could not see each other's faces of course but I guess we probably both looked pretty shell-shocked. We certainly felt that way because we lapsed into a series of short factual questions and answers. Is Norma still alive? Is your granny still living? Where are you living? How long you lived in Canada? (HIM)
Did you get remarried? What did you work at? How long you been retired? Have I got brothers and sisters? (ME).
He didn't remarry and I remember feeling a faint twinge of regret because deep down I was maybe hoping for some half brothers or sisters. Also a sense of relief too since he could have easily been remarried and never said anything about the wartime marriage. That could have been terribly embarrassing all round!
After the factual details were dispatched we got down to the emotional stuff. He was sorry for what happened. "I had nuthin' for ya out hear. No edication, no family, nowhere to live—sept a shack down by the river. I couldn't get no regular job til 1953. I thought yewd be better off staying with yore Granny. I wrote to your mommy to try an explain but never got no answer".
So we were abandoned, there is no doubt about that, but perhaps for more honorable motives than we had thought.
Then he said, "I neva forgot ya, ya know...I still got the baby pictures of ya". I literally dissolved in tears at that point. I didn't even know there were any baby pictures of me! I certainly did not think a man who last saw me nearly 50 years ago would have them!
He said he had always wondered what happened to me and whether I'd turned out all right.
I told him about my life and my family and that how wonderful it was that he had not only found me but also a daughter in law and my 3 children. He now had a family that he didn't know about.
There was a long pause, a sigh and he said, "Yea, yea...ain't that sweet".
The emotional toll of this conversation was almost too much to bear and we had to finish it with my promise to write to him immediately and to send some photos and my intention to come down and visit him as soon as I could. I sensed that everything between me and him was "gonna be awrite!"
AFTER THE PHONE CALL
I put the phone down and rested my head on the desk. In those few minutes my whole life had changed and would never be the same again. I had a father who was alive and well and living in Louisiana!
In the office...I wandered around "shell-shocked". But now I had to go home. How was I going to handle that? I got in the front door and said to my wife, Rita "It is him! I must go and tell Mum" and rushed past her and up the stairs to my Mum's apartment.
A FRAGILE OLIVE BRANCH
There was no other way to do it as I poked my head around the doorway and looked in at my Mum and said "You'll never guess who I spoke to today". As she looked quizzically at me, I said slowly, "I spoke to Herbert Angelo Myres".
She was surprised, shocked, speechless. I quickly explained how I had given Graham the go-ahead to look into it only because I thought it was impossible and the whole thing would be finally laid to rest. But it was not to be that way because Graham had found father's phone number and just a few hours earlier I had spoken to him.
I explained as best I could. That Dad had said how sorry he was for what happened and that he thought we'd be better off with Gran. He was really ashamed--he had nothing back then: no education, no job until the 1950s when he became an ironworker in construction. He lived in a wooden shack down by the Calcasieu River. What kind of life would that have been? "Yes," said my mother, "but why didn't he write and tell me? I wrote and wrote and never ever got a reply." This was a difficult one for me to answer. I felt I was treading where the ice was very thin and I had to get through this if there was to be any hope of reconciliation between them. I had asked him this very question, since I had known from a long way back that Mum had written to him many times during those early years of my life.
My father had responded to my question by saying that he had written to Mum to try and explain things but he never received any letters from England. What was the real truth of the matter? That we would probably never know and it would have to be consigned to the vaults of unsolved family mysteries. The key thing for me was that he had been found and although for me there was great joy in that, for my mother, it brought to the surface long buried feelings, a co-mingling of love and hate.
DAYS OF UNCERTAINTY (FOR ALL OF US)
There followed some days of what I would call "uncertainty" and "unease". I was in a bit of a daze and wanted to pick up the phone and ring him every few hours to make sure it was true. I actually called the next day and it was a very emotional call for both of us. I remember my Dad saying,
"Y'uall crying son? Thass awrite, you go ahead. A'm crying too. A'm so shook up I juss can' t speak!"
Just knowing we were there for each other was enough.
A couple of days later my Dad called me. He said, "I just had to call ya. I jus'...jus' wanna be sure its true". A slight pause and then he said, "I wannit to be true...cuz if it ain't, I think I'm gonna die." I assured my Dad that it was indeed true--there were letters and photos in the mail to prove it—and I was on the point of buying the airplane ticket and I would be down to see him very soon.
For my Mum, she was clearly thinking about him a lot and wanted to talk to me at every opportunity. I sensed the jagged edges of hate were being rounded and smoothed out just a little bit.
For me the whole thing was a cloud of uncertainty. I did not know how things were going to turn out. I was a "go between" and I was afraid that after having made the connection I was going to make some terrible mistake and there would be no reconciliation after all.
SEEING THROUGH DIFFERENT LENSES
As I pondered and thought about how it must feel for both of them I suddenly had an insight and it began to dawn on me that my parents were operating from different bases and seeing the situation through different lenses. My mother was assuming my father just wanted to be in contact with me and not her, while my father was assuming that my mother, because of what he had done in the past, would not want to have anything to do with him. I really was "caught in the middle".
STEP TOWARDS RECONCILIATION
I guess the talking it out with Mum helped because she was coming round to saying things like "it would be nice to hear from him" and eventually she asked me to tell Dad next time he phoned to "drop her a line". Dad and I seemed to be calling each other every other day, so on the next phone call I took the opportunity to say, "You know, Mum would really like to hear from you. Could you write her a note?" I could hear a sigh of relief and then out of the blue he said, "Is your Momma there?"
"Yes," I said. "She's upstairs in her apartment."
"Well then," came the response from Dad , "jus' you put her on the line."
Absolute chaos suddenly erupted at my end of the line as I wandered back and forth to the limits of the extension cord frantically trying to attract the attention of my wife and children. I eventually got their attention and asked my wife to hurry up the stairs and go and get Granny because my dad wanted to speak to her.
My wife seemed to have been upstairs forever but eventually my Mum appeared at the top of the stairs looking very worried. I gestured to the phone and mimed the words "He wants to speak to you." She came slowly down the stairs and I handed her the phone and went to move away. "No I want you here," she said, as she took the phone in one hand and my hand with the other.
"Hello, Rookie," she said smiling, as she used the nickname she must have used during the war. My hand held hers and I could feel the tension leaving her as she spoke. Although I was only listening to one end of the conversation I sensed by the nature of Mum's responses that he was apologizing to her for what happened. Then they began chatting as though they had known each other all their lives when, in effect, their total married life together had only been for a few months almost fifty years ago. As Mum handed the phone back to me after saying goodbye, she turned to me smiling and said, "D'y'know, 'ee sownze jus' the same as ever!"
The seeds from which would sprout forth reconciliation were now sown! I picked up the phone and he was very emotional. He said he felt happier now and he thought Norma did too. Afterwards my mother told me that he had said he was so sorry for leaving her. That he had wanted "our son" (her emphasis on "our") to have a good start and a good education and that he couldn't have given her a decent life in Louisiana. She said that all the hurt and resentment she had carried for all those years was now lifted and they had chatted away as though those 48 years of separation had not existed.
RECONCILIATION AND RENEWAL
As the time got nearer for me to go down and see my Dad there were more phone calls from him and I remember one in particular when he said he felt lonesome and nervous and wanted to hear my voice. He was worried and nervous—"all rattled up" he called it and he couldn't sleep properly.
"I ain't gonna sleep proper 'til you git down heah! When I see ya at th'airport I'm gonna grab ya by the butt an' shake ya all about!"
He still couldn't quite believe it was true. He even told me what he would be wearing at the airport so we wouldn't miss each other. ("I'm gonna be wearing ma best blue jeans with ma silver dolla buckle belt and ma best red shirt.")
As I got ready for my trip down I began to think..."How do I encapsulate 48 years of my life? Now I could not wait to get down there. I remember having a great fear that he might die before I got there.
As you can imagine it was a very emotional reunion. There he was waiting for me at the airport...as he said in his "best blue jeans with ma silver dollar buckle..."
It was like love at first sight—we just put our arms around each other and held on and we were both in tears and I can remember saying over and over again, "My Dad, my Dad—I can't believe I found you". Back at his house we talked and talked and talked late into the night. He told me all about his life—too much to retell here (that could be another talk in itself!). Let it suffice to say from the time he was born in the Atchafalaya Swamp in 1916 to the time he joined up in the US Army in 1940 life was pretty tough. His mother died in the flu epidemic of 1918, his father died when he was 10, his stepmother mistreated him and ("thank God for Grannies") his grandma Dora (my Italian connection) stepped in and essentially raised him, eventually settling in Lake Charles in 1933.
It was a wonderful reunion and over the next week I was introduced to many of his friends. In particular there were a number of families of Syrian origin who welcomed me as if I were their long lost son! There were many friends at the American Legion of which my Dad was a longtime supporter. He was very proud of me and when we entered the Legion building he announced, "This is ma boy that I haven't seen for 48 years!" I had a strong physical resemblance to my Dad which brought forth comments like, "Yep, Herb—there's no denying it—he's your boy!" I did have a tremendous welcome from the veterans and there was a many a tear in their eyes as I told the story of finding my Dad.
Eventually I had to return home and when I did I was thrilled and delighted to find that my mother wanted to come with me on my next trip to Louisiana. So a few months later I flew down with my mother and my eldest son, Eugene. When we were met at the airport by my Dad (and quite a crowd of well-wishers) I could say that this was the first time that I had been with both my Mum and Dad together (well, since I was 1 year old). Actually the timing of this visit coincided with the 50th anniversary of when Herbert and Norma first met in April, 1943 so we had a celebration of that. There was one more trip to make to complete the circle and that was to bring my wife and my other two children, Graham and Meghan, down to see my Dad which we did in the summer of 1993.
FINALE: So the circle was complete—the missing piece of the puzzle was found—the final brushstroke completed the picture. However one wants to describe it there was now a sense of completeness and wholeness in my family. But also there was a sense of newness and a new beginning—because it was the beginning of a new relationship for all of us.
It is a wonderful story, full, I believe, of many miraculous elements, since there were so many decisions or turning points. I like to think of them as "hinges in my history" which could so easily have gone the other way but turned me in the direction and on to the pathway that I finally took which led me to find my father.
It is a simple story about ordinary people. It is also a story with great Christian themes running through it of searching and finding; repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
It is even a story about death, resurrection and new birth, because for my mother and father it was, back in 1945, the death of their relationship, and for me and my mother it was as if he were dead. Now there was the birth of new relationships—for me, for my mother and a whole series of new relationships between grandfather and grandchildren.
These relationships were to be short-lived because, after the three visits I referred to earlier, the next time I travelled down to Louisiana was to attend my father's funeral. He died, aged 77, just under 2 years after I found him. Within a year of my father's death, my mother's health started to decline rapidly and from 1997 we were not able to keep her at home with us. She died, aged 73, in 1998.
I believe I was given, relatively late in life, a brief "window of opportunity" to play a role in healing a wound in our family. All my achievements in the secular world pale in comparison to it. It came about because of the power of love.
The love of my wife and children who "loved me into action" (albeit unwillingly for me at first!), the love of my mother and grandmother who together raised and nurtured me during my childhood, and a love that we never knew about—that of an elderly gentleman in Southern Louisiana—a man who carried a picture of me and my mother around with him for nearly 50 years.