The Redhead

Published in the Wising Up Press anthology “Goodness” in November 2020

Guy found it vaguely unsettling that Terry was the child knocking herself out to help dear old dad transition to a new life. The two boys – the children he knew were his — were too busy or too distant to be of more than intermittent help. It was the daughter he’d never been sure about who rose to the occasion.

He’d never expected to need help. When he retired, he and Myrtle moved to a roomy cottage in a huge Florida retirement community. They made new friends, learned to play a sport called pickleball, bought a modest motorboat, and enjoyed life. For the first fifteen years, between taking his new pals fishing and inviting couples to evening drinks, they almost lived on the boat.

When they both began to have balance problems, giving up the boat wasn’t as big a deal as he’d feared: Getting aboard and ashore had gotten to be problematic for their pals, too. In any case, there were plenty of shorebound pleasures, and life continued to be good.

Nor did they feel cut off from family. Howie did enough traveling for his Seattle company that they could count on him to stop in for a night or two every year, take his parents to an expensive dinner and spend the evening regaling them with the adventures of modern-day corporate brass. Charlie and his wife Beth were huge cruise vacationers, flying down annually from Minneapolis. They often spent a day or two afterward, sharing their latest port conquests – often, in later years, with endless photo shows from their busy smartphones.

And Terry – Teresa, both the name and nickname Myrtle’s choice — brought her whole family to Florida for a whole week every year. She and Dick and their boys usually came during baseball spring training, renting a motel nearby, and took him and Myrtle to several games, which the kids never tired of. They also found nearby places where the boys could practice baseball themselves while their grandparents applauded.

*

Guy never expressed aloud his doubts about her paternity. Those grandsons were as vividly red-haired as Terry had been in her youth, though, and their visits never failed to remind him of a rough patch in his marriage.

He was born Guido, with dark Italian good looks; he made it Guy when he became the first in his immigrant neighborhood to be accepted at an Ivy League college. When Terry was born with blue eyes and flaming red hair, the marital tensions he’d thought resolved suddenly re-emerged, and came near the breaking point.

In the years before that birth, he admitted to himself and ultimately to Myrtle, he’d spent too much time climbing the rungs of the company ladder, devoting too little to her and the boys. She took to bitching about his absence; he reciprocated with a surliness that, looking back, he knew she didn’t deserve. Their love life suffered.

Then one night he came home late for dinner — again — and she surprised him by not complaining. Instead she was again the loving, sympathetic and supportive wife of the early years. She brought him a glass of wine to relax with while she warmed up dinner, then sat with him at the table, seeming eager to hear about his hard day.

Then, while he read the boys their bedtime stories – at her urging – she took a shower and changed into a negligée he hadn’t seen in years. They spent the night like newlyweds – including, he realized only later, not bothering with the clumsy birth control of those days.

It didn’t seem long before she announced she was pregnant again. He had already resolved to be a better family man. A new child, he thought – maybe this time a daughter – would be a welcome incentive.

Myrtle’s labor pains started earlier than expected, but she said the ob-gyn had said that might happen at her age. The new baby was born without any problems, and was indeed the daughter they’d hoped for. But she didn’t look anything like the two boys. Myrtle claimed to remember an Irishman in her family, several generations back, famous for his Celtic red hair, whom she’d never mentioned until then.

He flogged his brain, trying to think of redheads he or she might have known. He went to the town library to do research, and learned that the gene for red hair is “recessive,” which didn’t tell him as much as he wanted to know except that red hair can skip several generations.

Still full of doubts, Guy finally went to see Father Antonio.

“You wanted a daughter?” the wise priest asked.

“Yes, padre. Partly for Myrtle’s sake, but I thought it would be great to have a little girl.”

“And if the opportunity had come along to adopt a baby girl, what would you have done?”

Guy remembered that conversation the rest of his life. “Padre, we probably would have adopted her. No, definitely would have.”

“And you would have loved her?”

“Of course, Padre.”

“Unreservedly?”

“Certainly.”

“My son, God has given you a daughter to love unreservedly. You must never give her any reason to think she wasn’t wanted, or to wonder if you are her father. She is your daughter.”

So Guy put the doubts out of his mind, making himself a better husband and a loving father to all three of his children. He decided he had reached high enough on the corporate ladder, and could stop climbing. He began attending PTA meetings with Myrtle, and volunteered to coach Howie’s baseball team. When Charlie took up soccer he boned up and coached that team, too.

And without slighting his sons, he made his daughter a special child. He attended her lacrosse and volleyball games, her glee club performances, even her spelling bees. If there was a Terry event he missed, he could not now remember when or why.

And it was this daughter who now came to his rescue.

*

Their Florida retirement village lost its charm in small steps. They had mostly done things in foursomes, with one or another of several couples in their circle of friends. When a few of those favorite companions died – a wife here, a husband there – it became awkward to arrange dinners or outings.

Then Myrtle died; he was desolate. All three of the kids came for the funeral, and Terry stayed a few extra days to help him ease into single existence. Even with her help, it proved a hard transition to a life that no longer felt good. He had not been a bachelor in six decades, and being one now felt as though his right arm had been torn away.

And on top of all that, it seemed as though every few months another of his pals died. Life in Florida was gradually, inexorably, becoming intolerably lonely.

His stroke was the final blow. He was alone when it happened, but the village’s system of routine checks found him soon and got him to the hospital in good time. Both the boys harried the doctor and nurses by phone, insisting that he get every possible help to overcome the affliction, and Terry came to reinforce the message in person.

He got the attention his children demanded, and it by and large worked. With Terry helping and prodding him to maintain a demanding exercise regimen, he made great progress walking and talking, visible even during the week before she went back to her family.

The stroke had also affected his eyes, though, too. He could only focus at the periphery of his vision, like people with macular degeneration, which meant he could hardly read. He had to “watch” television mostly with his ears. He felt isolated, abandoned in an empty cottage that he could barely navigate, let alone manage. The Florida place was for people capable of independent living. He needed more help.

Terry found a place near her in Connecticut that had the right level of assisted living, and the kids rallied again. Charlie flew down from Minneapolis to join her in getting him downsized. His new lodgings, less an apartment than an efficiency bedroom, would be a third the size of the Florida cottage, so a lot had to be sold or given away. Charlie and Terry than got the rest of his stuff packed up to be trucked north.

Howie came from Seattle, just before the three of them flew to Connecticut, to take over selling the Florida place and managing financial details. Then both the boys flew their separate ways home, and Terry was again in charge.

*

She had chosen well: It proved to be a place with a competent and caring staff. Except for the vision, the effects of the stroke dwindled to almost nothing, and even the vision was improving. It turned out that his right eye, which had lifelong been the weak one, wasn’t as affected by the stroke. His new aides devised exercises to help that eye strengthen and take over.

And in other ways this new place was better: He was far from alone in suffering the afflictions of age; he had plenty of company. And his new neighbors set him good examples of making the best of what God or fate or Charles Darwin (as one resident skeptic put it) had left them. There were daily group activities that he actually enjoyed, and to his surprise he soon found he had several real pals, both men and women.

And best of all, Terry kept coming: For dinner every Friday night, drop-ins for an hour or so during the week, usually Sunday mornings to drag him to the chapel service and stay for what they called brunch.

Yet the paternity thing kept popping, unbidden, into his mind. Did she know or suspect she wasn’t his? Did she know who sired her? Was she in touch with another father?

It was an itch. He remembered when a six-year-old Charlie hadn’t known about or recognized poison ivy, and suffered a head-to-toe rash that he and Myrtle took turns slathering with baking soda or oatmeal or some white commercial liquid whose name eluded him now. “Don’t scratch it, Charlie,” they’d urged him, “you’ll only make it worse.” The little boy couldn’t resist scratching, of course, and made it worse.

Even remembering that history, Guy couldn’t resist scratching. Father Antonio might have talked him out of it, but the priest was long gone. He kept rehearsing, in his mind, how he might broach the topic with Terry.

Finally, one Sunday after the service but before they left the chapel – spontaneously, unstoppably, with no finesse whatsoever, he blurted it out. “Terry, did you ever wonder where you got your red hair?”

“Oh Dad,” she said, with a kind of mournful resonance that seemed appropriate for the chapel, “Mom wondered if that question chewed at you. She never knew if you’d guessed.”

“You asked her?”

“We were learning about genetics in my senior year at Waverly High. I wasn’t worked up about it; it just seemed a logical question.”

“And she told you? Confessed?”

“You could call it that. She could have fobbed me off with that Irish ancestor story. Instead, she told me how lonely she’d felt because your work seemed more important than your wife or family.”

“It’s true. I was a jerk.”

“So it just happened. You were away at some conference, and she met a guy from out of town at a church meeting, and . . . .”

“She fell in love with him?”

“Daddy, she never loved anyone but you. She never wanted to see him again, and didn’t.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

“Did you?”

“I didn’t want to, at first. Then, at college, I began to think I ought to. Mom resisted. Let sleeping dogs lie, she said.”

“But you persisted?”

“Yes. Maybe there was some genetic disorder I should know about, I argued.”

“So she told you his name?”

“Yes. That was almost all she knew.”

“Did he know about you?”

“Absolutely not, Mom said. She’d never spoken another word with him.”

“But you looked him up?”

“It wasn’t as easy as it would be now, with the Internet, but I found him, out in the Midwest.”

“And . . . ?”

“Daddy, I never contacted him.”

“After all that?”

“I realized, finally, that he didn’t mean anything to me. I had a real father who loved me, and who I loved. That’s what matters, isn’t it?”

There was a catch in her voice. He couldn’t see her, which had nothing to do with the stroke. He wondered, as he reached out for a hug, if her vision was blurred, too.

“It is,” he murmured. “It’s the only thing that matters.”

-End-

 

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