When I was six years old, I realized I had an extra grandmother.
I figured the odd one out was Nanny, because her name was different. It was pure coincidence that I was right. Nanny just never liked the name “Grandma.” It made her feel old. I don’t know why I didn’t make the same connection with my extra grandfather; maybe because his name was Grandpa, like the other two.
I came home from school thoroughly confused. Three grandmas. Grandma Wolfe – she was Dad’s mom. Grandma Beam was Mom’s mom. But whose mom was Nanny? I did all the same things I normally did that day. I watched some cartoons, I did my homework, I played with my Barbies. But it must have been clear that I wasn’t thinking about any of those things, because it wasn’t even five o’clock when my mom to ask me what was wrong.
“Why do I have three grandmas?”
Mom’s face went a little slack, all except her eyes. Her eyes seemed more alert.
She took me to the bathroom and sat me on the counter. Dad came along. It was there that I learned that an extra grandma was the least of my worries. I had an extra daddy, too.
His name was Dennis. He lived a long way away, pretty close to where Nanny lived, because Nanny was his mom. I’d only seen him once since he’d gone away, and I didn’t remember it because I’d only been three years old.
The shock was overwhelming. I stared directly into my mother’s eyes, awkward, hurt, above all confused.
“I have another daddy?” I repeated. My voice seemed much brighter than I thought it should, considering how dark I felt inside.
At this, my dad looked away, his lips shut tight. My mom answered.
“He’s your biological father. He is not your dad, do you understand? This is your daddy,” and she gestured at her husband.
“What’s biological?” I asked.
Mom looked a little shaken. She breathed deeply before she said “A biological dad means … the man who helped make you. Everyone has one.”
More shock. Everyone had an extra daddy? The next day, at school, I stared quietly at my friends instead of chatting like usual. I pitied them so much. When were they going to find out about their biological fathers?
I had an endless line of questions that needed answered. Who was he? What did he look like? How old was he? I was confused; a part of my identity had been stripped away, and I didn’t know how it had happened.
Mom hushed me at first. My younger brother, also Dennis’ biological offspring, wasn’t supposed to know about him, at least not yet, and when I asked her questions she was petrified he might hear. But eventually she recognized what she had to do. Nothing else would stop the questions.
“What color is his hair?” I asked, leaning my elbows on the carpet while she folded laundry. She didn’t take her eyes away from Maury Povich as she said, yet again, “Black.”
But then she paused. She set her half-folded shirt in her lap, looked me squarely in the eyes, and said softly,
“Do you want to meet him?”
“Yes!” I ran to her and put my hands on her knees, eagerness exploding from me, but afraid to hug her because she didn’t look as happy as I was.
“Okay, she said, pulling her lips tighter so it almost looked like she was smiling, and hugging me. “Go tell your daddy I need to talk to him, and then go play.”
I wasn’t hurt anymore. I wasn’t even confused. I was just excited. I was telling my friends. “I get to meet my new daddy!” Most of the kids didn’t know what I was talking about.
When my best friend Jessica came over to play the next afternoon, I was sitting at the kitchen table, working hard at an important project: a list of questions for Dennis.
“Who’s Dennis?” she asked, when I explained.
“My other daddy.”
“You have another daddy?” she asked, as though she thought I was stupid. I ignored her and continued to write.
Do you think about me?
What do you think?
How old are you?
Where do you live at?
Can I see your house?
I had written three pages now, and I couldn’t think of anything else, but still I was sure something was missing. I wanted to know more than what was written – not more questions, but something that mattered more.
“Does he like Pepsi?” Jessica asked, gesturing at the list. I wrote it down so that I wouldn’t hurt her feelings.
“How are you supposed to talk to another daddy?”
I looked up. Jessica’s chin was in her hand. She was just thinking aloud, but she had given me what I’d been looking for. I scrawled one last question.
Do you want me to love you?
Just then Dad walked in to grab a beer from the fridge.
“Dad!” I slid out of my seat and ran over, holding out my paper. “It’s for Dennis.”
“Did you draw a picture?” he asked, taking it. For a moment his brow drew together, but then he stopped making eye contact with me, like he always did when he was angry. “Honey,” he said to the counter. “Can I take this and read it?”
“Sure,” I shrugged, and Jessica and I ran upstairs to play with my Barbies.
Maybe twenty minutes later, he came to my room and handed the list back. “I changed it,” he said.
“What?” I scanned the pages and quickly saw what he meant; the very last question had been marked out. I looked back up at him, angry.
“We’re not going to discuss this,” he said. “You’re not allowed to ask him that.”
I scowled at his back as left. How would I know how to treat Dennis now?
It was that Saturday that we finally pulled up at the AM/PM in St. Helens. I loved this store because I knew it meant Nanny’s house was close, and it always had orange tic-tacs in stock. But today it was just slowing us down.
I ran inside, grabbed my tic-tacs, and slammed them on the counter before my parents even entered the store. I waited, kicking my feet and sighing loudly. I looked back and caught my dad’s eye. He looked away.
“I’m going to meet my new daddy!” I said to the teenager behind the counter, unable to hold it in. “Today! Right now!”
The girl smiled at me and snapped her gum. My parents finally made it to the front of the store and set down their snacks. The girl ran her ray-gun over the bar codes and set them down. I snatched up my tic-tacs, yelled, “Bye!” and ran back out to the car. It was locked. I looked up. Mom was walking outside, but Dad was loitering in the store, reading a Field & Stream magazine.
“Dad!” I yelled, cupping my hands around my mouth, the best I could while holding tic-tacs.
“Brittani,” Mom snapped, and I felt my whole demeanor change. The venom in her voice had shocked me; I felt as though I’d shrunk an inch or two. She looked back at Dad, but I couldn’t see her face.
She unlocked the door for me and I jumped in and buckled up as fast as I could. She sat in the passenger side seat and waited. Dad took forever, flipping pages of his magazine, but he finally came to the car. I was silent.
We began driving, and before we’d even left the parking lot, the knowledge of two things had snuck into my mind. First of all, there was no backing out now, and the finality of the decision suddenly weighed on me. Second of all, I understood now that the adults in my life were scared of what was going to happen today, and because I trusted them, I was scared, too.
Normally, the clanging sound of Nanny’s screen door excited me. Today it filled my feet with lead.
And there he was, a dark, thin man sitting by the fireplace. I looked right at him, finding myself unable to smile. He stared back at me for a moment, with an expression I couldn’t identify then, and still can’t now.
“Brittani!” my Nanny said when she saw me, and she stood and wrapped me in a titanic hug. My grandpa smiled at me from the La-Z-Boy, as did all my other relatives. My aunt Carmen – Dennis’s sister, I realized - sat on the end of the couch, her three children, Christopher, Megan and Lindsey, sitting at her feet. Other family members had come to see the meeting, too. I smiled and hugged them all. And then I turned to him.
“This is Dennis,” my Nanny said, as though I didn’t know who it was. Everyone in the living room was sitting now, except for me. I was facing him, feeling an imaginary limelight burning into my skin.
“Hi,” he said. I jumped. His voice was deep, deep enough to belong to a monster, shocking on such a thin man. Were they trying to trick me?
He extended his arms. I sensed motion behind me as my dad bristled. I walked over and hugged him, and I was surprised that he didn’t feel like a daddy at all. He was unfamiliar and he scared me. He smelled like cigarettes, thick and bitter. He didn’t seem like he should feel warm, but he did. I stepped back and mustered a smile.
I turned and sat down on an ottoman. I pulled the folded list out of my back pocket and put it in my lap. My hands shook as I read them out:
“Do you think about me?”
“Every day,” came the vibrating, cavernous voice.
“What do you think?”
“I wonder what you look like,” he began. I set my list in my lap and sort of listened as he elaborated for a while. When he had finished, I read on, and I continued to pay polite attention to his answers. More than that, though, I tried to find the common ground between us. How could this stranger be responsible for my existence? It wasn’t fair, and it didn’t make sense. I didn’t like him.
I don’t really like Dad, either, I thought, but then realized something was still different. Dad doesn’t scare me. Dad knows me.
When I reached the end, I looked up from the paper and found there was nothing else to say. I’d seen him now, and I didn’t need any more than that. In fact, I kind of wanted to leave.
“Could I have a moment with her?” he asked, and almost every head in the room popped up with surprise. Mom looked at my dad, who was determinedly studying his hands. She turned back and nodded curtly. He reached out and took my hand. I took it, but reluctantly.
He walked me into a side room and talked to me for a while. I nodded obediently, not absorbing a word of what he was saying. The list was still in my hands. I was clenching it uncomfortably, crumpling the paper. He glanced down, quieted for a moment, and suddenly looked sad for me, like he understood my frustration from before – like he assumed my frustration.
“I saw the last one,” he said. I instinctively hid it. But it was too late. “Why didn’t you ask?” he pressed, leaning closer to me.
“I … I wasn’t supposed to,” I said, inexplicably understanding that I shouldn’t name my dad. Dennis smiled resignedly.
“The answer is yes,” he said. I felt my skin crawl a little bit.
Dad poked his head around the corner, and Dennis pulled away from me as though he’d been doing something wrong. I met Dad’s eyes and saw a little shining tear, and with that I understood the real difference between the two men. He swallowed.
“You done?” he asked. Apparently he could bear it no longer.
Dennis nodded, looking down. I stood and took Dad’s hand, followed him to the living room.
Mom was right. Dennis was my biological father. I only had one daddy.