It was a white Spanish-style house that sat on a hill in what had once been the rich section of town. I had only been there a few times—with mom when my father had been late with his alimony check and occasionally when I had visited him—but that had all been long ago. By the time I was 16 it had been over five years since I had even seen my father, and I seldom thought of him or the white house. When I did, the recollections weren’t pleasant. Mom always left there tight-lipped and pale, and though she never said anything bad about my father or the house, I gained the impression that it was not a pleasant place to be.
It was a gorgeous spring day about a week before school let out for the summer when my father and the house came barging back into my life. I intended to call my best friend, Marge, and go down to the corner for a pop before I started my homework. I picked up the kitchen phone and put the receiver to my ear without even realizing mom was on the extension in the bedroom. The first thing I heard was my father’s voice.
“Cathy is my daughter,” he was saying. “I don’t think a week of her summer vacation is too much for me to ask.”
“I know,” mom answered, “but I have to leave the decision up to her …”
I hung up the phone quietly and went upstairs to my room. My school books were lying on my bed. I opened one and pretended to study, but my thoughts were far from algebra. My father wanted me to spend a week of my summer vacation with him. I didn’t want to. Why did he have to keep barging into my life and messing it up? I’d just get things straightened out, and suddenly he’d appear again to jumble them back up.
I was only three when my parents got divorced, but I could still remember the guilt I felt when mom told me my father wasn’t going to live with us anymore. I thought it was my fault. I thought I’d done something wrong. For months I tried to be as perfect as I could, hoping that if I was a good girl he would come back, but he never did.
Then mom met Edward. I liked him immediately. He smiled a lot and brought me candy and tickled me to make me giggle. When he asked mom to marry him, I was happier than I had been for a long time. I even started calling him dad, a name I had stopped using for my real father long before. Edward wanted to adopt me and have me sealed to him and mom. I loved the idea. Then I overheard mom talking to Edward.
“It was my mistake,” she said. “I should’ve talked to John before I said anything to Cathy. I don’t know how I’m going to tell her, but John simply refuses to let his daughter be adopted by another man.”
I cried myself to sleep that night.
After that, I still called Edward dad. I waited outside the temple while he and mom were married. Edward baptized me and took me to all my daddy-daughter parties and treated me just as if I were really his own daughter. And when he and mom had children of their own, I was excited to finally have brothers and sisters. But every once in awhile, I would look at them and realize that they were a family—all of them sealed to each other. I wasn’t sealed to anyone, and it was all my father’s fault.
Mom tapped on my bedroom door. “Cathy,” she called.
“Come in,” I replied, pretending to be deeply engrossed in my studies.
Mom entered and sat on the edge of my bed. “May I talk with you a minute?”
“Sure,” I said trying to sound nonchalant. “But I have a lot of homework to do.”
“Your father just called,” mom said in a voice that displayed no emotion. She always talked of him that way, trying not to prejudice me against him.
“Oh? What’d he want?”
“He wants to see you. He’d like you to come visit him for a week over summer vacation.”
“What’d you say?”
“I said it was up to you.”
I pretended to think for a moment, but my mind was already made up.
“I don’t think I can, mom. I’m planning on getting a job, and I don’t think anyone would hire me if right off the bat I said I had to have a week off.”
“Yes, I can see that, but he does want to see you. Maybe you could work something out. Maybe go for a weekend.”
“I don’t know …”
“Cathy, he is your father.”
“I know he’s my father,” I had to struggle to keep back the resentment that statement contained, “but I’m going to be really busy this summer.”
“Too busy to go for even one weekend?”
I looked at mom. She could see right through my transparent excuses. “Well, maybe one weekend,” I conceded.
“Fine, you pick the weekend, and I’ll call your father tomorrow to make arrangements.”
I often thought it was odd that my father lived in the same city we did, and yet we never saw each other. But it was a big city, and we lived at opposite ends of it, and I really didn’t care if I saw him or not.
The house was the same as I remembered it, except for new furniture in the living room. But there was still the same stale odor of smoke. Though he never did it in front of me, I knew my father smoked. It was part of the reason why he had never taken mom and me to the temple. My father was just about the same too. He was still tall and thin with a receding hairline, except that what hair he did have was now speckled with gray.
“Hi, Cathy,” he said when I arrived at the white Spanish house.
“You’ve sure grown up the past few years.”
“Yes, that does have a tendency to happen,” I replied dryly.
He laughed nervously.
“Can I put my stuff away?”
“Sure. Put it in the second room on the right down the hall. I should have dinner ready when you’re done.”
I went to the room he indicated. It had green carpet and green, blue, and white striped wallpaper. It reminded me of a hotel room. I hadn’t brought much, so it didn’t take me long to unpack. When I was finished, I wandered into the kitchen. My father was taking a casserole out of the oven. “I’ve become a pretty good cook,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
We didn’t talk much during the meal. He made several attempts at conversation, and I answered as simply as I could.
“What are you doing this summer?” he asked.
“I’m getting a job.”
“At the Chicken Barn. I’m waiting on tables.”
“Going to make a lot of money, huh?”
I shrugged. “Just enough to help pay for my school clothes and cheerleading uniforms.”
“You a cheerleader?”
“Well, I guess I’ll have to come to the Chicken Barn and donate to your school wardrobe.”
I shrugged again.
“You’re pretty active at school, aren’t you? You starred in your school play last year, didn’t you?”
“How did you know?”
“Your mom told me.”
“I came and saw it. You didn’t know that, did you?”
I looked up startled. “You did?”
“Yes, opening night. You were really good. I even sent you some flowers. Did you get them?”
“They were from you?”
“I didn’t know that. The card wasn’t signed. I thought they were from Robbie Fletcher.”
“Are you disappointed they weren’t from him?”
I just shrugged once more. “I’m kind of tired tonight,” I said. “Do you mind if I go to bed now?”
I’d just settled into bed when I heard a noise outside. I peered out the window and saw the silhouette of my father on the porch. In his hand I could see the glowing ember of a lighted cigarette. He never smoked in front of me, almost as if he didn’t want to admit to me that he did it. How dumb did he think I was. “What a hypocrite,” I said to myself. Then I laid back down in bed.
When I woke up Saturday morning, there was sun streaming in the bedroom window. It took me a few minutes to remember where I was.
When I did, the brightness of the day seemed to dull a bit.
I found my father in the kitchen fixing breakfast.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Here’s breakfast. I hope you like your eggs sunny-side up.”
“What shall we do today?”
“I don’t know.”
“We could run down to the amusement park.”
“I’m kind of old for that,” I said, determined to be as uncooperative as possible.
“Well then, how about going to the beach?”
“I’m kind of tired of that. Edward takes us there all the time.” I hoped my reference to Edward would bite a bit, but if it did, my father gave no sign of it.
“Then I guess we can always just stay home and visit. I’d like that. This house is kind of lonely just me here. It’d be nice to visit.”
“If you’re so lonely, why don’t you get married?” I asked bluntly.
My father was good at not acting surprised by my frank comments. “Well,” he replied, “I guess I never met anyone besides your mother who I loved enough to marry.”
All the bitterness I’d ever felt welled up inside of me, and it was impossible to keep it out of my voice when I replied. “If you were so in love with mom, why did you desert her?”
My father put down his fork and looked across the table at me. “I don’t know what your mother has told you about me and what happened …”
“She hasn’t told me anything. In fact, she’s bent over backwards to keep from portraying you as a villain.”
“Well then maybe it’s time someone did tell you something.”
I expected him to tell me a real sob story with him as a poor picked on man and mom the domineering nag of a wife, so I steeled myself to defend her. But I was surprised when he spoke.
“Cathy, your mother and I, we’re human.”
All kinds of sarcastic replies raced through my mind like, “Oh, I’ve waited all my life to glean this bit of wisdom from you.” But I kept my mouth shut and my father went on.
“We make mistakes. Some mistakes can be corrected quickly; others haunt you for the rest of your life. When your mother and I were married, we were young and naive. We still clung to some of those silly ideas about finding beautiful princesses and handsome princes and living happily ever after. We didn’t realize that everyone marries imperfect partners and the wise spend the rest of their lives working together to become better. We both expected love and each other to be perfect immediately. My idea of a perfect wife was one who left me alone to do whatever I wanted. Your mother wanted a husband who’d take her to the temple. I always said I would, but I wasn’t going to be pushed. I figured there was plenty of time for that, and there were still things I wanted to do first. Anyway, one day we discovered we’d pushed and pulled ourselves right out of each other’s lives.” He paused and seemed to be thinking for a moment. Then he went on. “Oh, I guess if we’d been a bit more mature or if we’d really tried, we could’ve made things work. But it was easier to just call it quits. For a long time I blamed your mother, and by the time I realized how wrong I was being, it was too late; your mother had remarried. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that she’s found Edward. They seem to be happy enough.”
“Well, I guess what it boils down to is that you’re all I have left, Cathy.”
I poked at my food.
“Hey!” he said. “Why don’t we go shopping. I’ll buy you a new outfit.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I said.
“I want to. After all, why should I make my contribution to your wardrobe through the Chicken Barn when I can give it directly to you?”
I laughed. “All right.”
I watched my father that day as we shopped. I had always been under the impression that if I was around my father long enough, I’d see him sprout fangs and claws. He didn’t, and I realized that I had spent a long time looking at him through eyes tainted by bitterness and selfishness. As I pushed them aside, I could see my father as he was—a lonely man who’d made mistakes and was paying for them.
When we got home from shopping, my father excused himself to go outside. I knew he was going to smoke and watched out the window. There was a look of disgust on his face as he lit the cigarette. He smoked it hastily with short puffs. Then almost angrily he dropped it to the ground and crushed it out with his foot. I let the curtains drop then, so that he wouldn’t know I’d been watching.
The next morning I found my father in the kitchen again.
“What shall we do today?” he asked.
“Let’s go to church,” I said.
“Aw, no one at church wants me there,” he replied.
“I do,” I said.
He looked at me for a few moments, then smiled. “Okay. Let’s go.”
I slipped on the dress my father had bought me the day before and brushed my hair.
My father whistled when he saw me. “You look pretty as a picture. All the boys in the ward will be glad I came today and brought my daughter.”
When we entered the foyer at the church, a short stocky man came forward to greet us. “Hello, John,” he said, extending his hand to my father.
“Hello,” my father replied. “This is Cathy, my daughter. Cathy, this is my home teacher, Brother … ah …”
“Richardson,” the man said. “Nice to meet you, Cathy.”
“Nice to meet you, Brother Richardson,” I replied.
The man disappeared in the crowd but reappeared a few minutes later with a pretty brunette woman about my father’s age.
“John,” he said, “I have someone I’d like you to meet. This is Myrna Wilson. She’s a widow,” he said meaningfully.
Myrna Wilson blushed noticeably, and my father sputtered out a “Nice to meet you.” I suppressed a giggle.
I teased my father about it later that day when we were home from church. “You have to watch those Mormons,” I grinned. “They’re always trying to marry someone off. But I have to admit, Widow Wilson wasn’t bad, was she?”
He laughed. “Yes, you Mormons are always trying to marry someone off.”
“Would you do me a favor?” I asked suddenly serious.
“Would you quit smoking?”
My father’s face fell. “I’d like to, Cathy, I really would. I’ve tried a hundred times, but I can’t.”
“I’ll help you this time. Brother Richardson probably would too.” Then I grinned. “I’ll bet even Widow Wilson would help.”
He grinned back. “Okay. I’m not making any promises, but I’ll try.”
“Good,” I said. “I just know you can do it.” Outside a car horn honked. “There’s your mom,” my father said. “You better not keep her waiting. I’ll call you, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. Then I hugged him.
“Good-bye, Cathy,” he said.
“Good-bye, dad,” I answered. Halfway out the door I turned back. “Tell Widow Wilson hello from me.”
I could hear him chuckling as I shut the door and headed for the car where my mother was waiting.