When Our Fathers Left
I couldn’t watch *Mad Men*. I couldn’t even really listen to people talk about *Mad Men*. So much of the talk was about Don Draper, his hotness and his promiscuity, and while I can appreciate Jon Hamm’s blue eyes and sharp jaw, I could not deal with his character. That’s because Don Draper and my dad are pretty much the same guy.
My dad didn’t come from poverty, like Draper, but his childhood was rough. His mother died when he was young, after having five children in quick succession. His father, by all accounts, was an abusive, alcoholic asshole. My father’s older brothers and sisters all left home as soon as they could, leaving my dad and his brother Peter, the two youngest, to fend for themselves.
My dad left home early and finished school on his own. I don’t know all the details of his young life, because the stories I’ve been told conflict with each other, and many of the players are dead now. But I do know that when he and my mother went to get my grandfather’s permission to marry (my dad was under 21, the legal age at the time), it was the only time my mother ever met Thomas Halpin Sr. It was the last time my father ever saw his father.
Like Don Draper, my dad maximized his good looks and charm to get through the world. He was smart — Ivy League–educated — but it was his Steve McQueen–meets–Mr. Brady vibe that made an impression on people. These were the qualities that made him successful, and he expected them of his children. Straight As, good at sports, and good-looking. My dad assessed my outfit for my first formal dance and suggested different shoes, bemoaned my braces when I got them, and commented on every haircut. I did my best.
> Like Don Draper, my dad maximized his good looks and charm to get through the world.
My dad didn’t restrict his comments on appearance to me and my siblings. When I was thirteen he told me my friend Sherry was pretty after she came over for a swimming date. We took my friend Jan to a Dodgers game when I was eighteen; he thought she was pretty too. I went to Weight Watchers while I was still young enough to appreciate a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us for a present if I’d lost a few pounds.
In my teens it felt as if everyone in my family retreated to some other world, one free of judgment: My brother got into Dungeons and Dragons and became a born-again Christian; my mom became a super-feminist and was off at N.O.W. meetings and protests; my sister, always an animal fan, expanded her pet collection and did biology experiments in the garage. I took the bus to Hollywood to punk shows and spent the rest of my time in my room feeling vaguely angry.
I didn’t figure out how much my dad cheated on my mom until I was in my freshman year of college. I suddenly realized my memories weren’t innocent. Once in third grade he took me on a day trip to a playground “in the city” and sat with a lady while I went on the jungle gym. I’m just going to call her “the lady” because I can’t remember her name. We went to the lady’s house for iced tea after that. Driving home, he said, “I know we had fun today,but we don’t have to tell Mom about the lady, OK?” I nodded. When I think back on this, I have a stomachache. I think I had a stomachache at the time, but I’m not sure if I did. I remember sitting in the front seat of the car — a rarity — and nodding.
> I suddenly realized my memories weren’t innocent.
I suppose I took that secret pretty seriously, because I never did tell anyone. My dad was around less and less, but I went along with the premise that it was work-related. After college, I had a fellowship and got an apartment on my own in Venice. It was still the era of landlines — so when I got the new phone book, I looked myself up to see my name on the page. It was there, right below my dad’s. His had an address that was not where my parents lived. You always feel psychic in retrospect, but I knew instantly that this was not some other Lawrence Halpin, and that it was bad.
I called the number and he answered. “Is this the voice of the woman I love?” he asked, gaily. “No. It’s your daughter,” I said, and then I *definitely* had the stomachache that I have right now. I’m not sure if I hung up the phone and he called me back or if we stayed on the line as he began making excuses.
Here are some of them: He was in New York at our apartment there on a business trip, with a colleague, and he thought the colleague’s wife was calling, so he was pretending to be her husband as a joke; the Los Angeles phone number was ringing in New York because they had a corporate apartment in downtown LA near the office and had had the number forwarded.
I was in shock, but even in the numbness I realized that, although he had obviously been lying to us for years, right then he was being the worst liar ever. His scrambling around to make excuses just made it more and more clear that I had caught him doing something really bad. I had to hang up to stop his babbling, but the conditioning to believe one’s parents is strong. Just in case, I called the phone company to ask if what he’d said could possibly be true. I pretended I’d called a number forwarded to New York and was worried I would get the long-distance charges and got the guy to check the line. That number was definitely in Bel Air, he told me, and it was not forwarded.
> I was in shock, but even in the numbness I realized that, although he had obviously been lying to us for years, right then he was being the worst liar ever.
I rarely attended family events because I was worried I’d be deemed a failure — not successful enough, not pretty enough, not something enough — but I went to Thanksgiving that year. My mom, my brother, my father, and I all showed up at the restaurant in separate cars. (My sister was away at school.) At the table, my dad explained, awkwardly, that he was going to move to a “corporate apartment” to be closer to work. My mother cried and said she didn’t know what was happening.
It was like both our parents had abandoned us and had not even bothered to get their stories straight. I knew my dad was lying — there was obviously a woman involved — but I didn’t say anything. I felt guilty, because I was the one who had busted him and made all this happen. I had just turned 23, and I didn’t want to see anyone at the table ever again. I guess it’s a testament to our collective inability to get into anything emotional that we spent the rest of the meal discussing other topics. After dinner, we all got in our cars and went to our various homes, scattered around LA.
|||PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
My brother and sister and I spoke on the phone a few times over the next few months and into the spring (I think we all skipped Christmas), trying to piece together what had happened, what was happening. My brother, who is nicer than me and my sister, went to the Bel Air apartment and met the girlfriend. My sister and I both stopped talking to Dad, although he showed up, skulking, at her college graduation. “He’s like paparazzi, taking sneak pictures,” said my friend Skip. “Can’t he just own up to it?” I was too busy pretending not to notice my dad’s presence, which my mom was doing masterfully. She hadn’t said a word about the entire situation since that night at dinner. I guess she was pretty good at ignoring things by then.
At first there were mixed reactions to the divorce, which isn’t surprising in my huge family. The divorce was actually the issue more than the cheating — we’re Catholics, so, of course. But when my dad tried to get the marriage annulled as well, there was a real schism. Most of his sisters were horrified and angry. They called me to say they were disappointed and disgusted, but that I should remember that I still had a true family with them. Some of his sisters are still in touch with my mom, because Irish Catholic ladies from New York have a strong bond, I suppose. His brothers mostly sided with him. My Uncle Tim is still kind of pissed at my sister and me for cutting off our dad. “Why can’t they let Larry be happy?” he complained to my cousin Mary Ellen.
At some point he married the woman I had caught him with, who seemed to think we were all teenagers. She sent me and my sister matching pink sweatshirts from Nordstrom. Back then you could exchange gifts for cash, which we did immediately. My dad called regularly: on his birthday and on Father’s Day. I realized he was doing it so he could tell his friends that he had talked to his kids. It made me a little sad for him, but not enough to pick up the phone. He didn’t call on my birthday.Then what I’d call the Draper years truly began — they’d been going on for my dad all along, apparently, but things were out in the open now. I kept up with what he was doing mostly through my brother, and it seemed like he had a new girlfriend every few months — but my brother isn’t big on details and I didn’t really want to know. In a moment of weakness, I invited my dad to a work event, where he hit on a novelist and writer I idolized.
I moved to New York in 1996, and after 9/11 he called, breaking his twice-yearly schedule. I answered, because it seemed like you should at least reassure your parents that you are OK after something like that. He told me he was coming to New York with his wife. Not the sweatshirt one. “That didn’t work out,” he said sorrowfully. “But I’m really happy now.” I didn’t ask for more information. I imagined a series of women like my mom: charmed, and then traumatized when he left. My friends asked if I was worried he would have more kids, but I knew he had had a vasectomy. I wondered if he had done it so he could seduce with abandon, without fear of leaving a trace. I told him I didn’t want to see him.
> I wondered if he had done it so he could seduce with abandon, without fear of leaving a trace.
He got married a couple of times after that, but apparently the last one stuck — he was with her for ten years, until his death, and helped raise her son. At his memorial, my brother created a slide show of my father’s life, which, amid golf shots and basketball games, flashed images of all the weddings. The second and third wives went by pretty quickly, but there were multiple pictures of him and my mom, happily cutting the cake and posing outside the church, along with proud pictures of them with my brother, sister, and me as babies and toddlers.
I felt mean and triumphant, thinking that his last wife, sitting front and center watching the slide show, was seeing the truth for the first time. She had known him for only ten years — I had known him for more than 40. She thought of him as the love of her life, but I knew him better than she did. My friends and I, huddled in a corner, smirked bitterly, comfortable in the coven we’d formed when all our fathers left.
Later on I asked my brother what he had been thinking with all the wedding photos, and he looked blank. “I just put in all the pictures of Dad I had,” he said. He had truly loved our father, and that’s why I even went to the memorial: to support him. He hadn’t meant to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I was glad he had. I was glad that everyone there had seen *my* family, the family my dad bailed on, and they weren’t just seeing my country-club dad who they’d met in later years, the one who called me on Father’s Day in order to lie to them.
By the time *Mad Men* ended, it seemed like everyone was more obsessed with Sally than with Don. I almost started watching, for that, but too much time had passed to dive into it. I feel the same way about my dad, for the most part. When I was younger, I did the usual and dated men just like him, compulsive seducers, able to slip in and out of love like going from room to room in a hotel.My dad’s generation went through something at the same time that my mom and her contemporaries were discovering feminism. My theory is this: white men were beginning to lose some of their power, and they reasserted it by sleeping around. I know it’s also related to the pill, and divorce, and the aftermath of the sexual revolution, but those were all things that passed my parents by, at least initially. They got married at 18 in 1960 in order to have sex. Divorce almost got my dad thrown out of the family. The sexual revolution wasn’t present in their Simon and Garfunkel record collection. Cheating on his wives was my dad’s rebellion.
I’m over that now. I’ve realized these guys are often the sons of men like my father, who wanted to be happy and who assumed it was the job of a woman to make him happy. If she didn’t, on to the next. I wonder if he figured out by the end that that wasn’t true.
He committed to his last wife, and didn’t cheat on her, as far as I can tell. Maybe he’d realized you can get more out of staying than out of leaving, sometimes. I guess I’ve realized that too. I was speaking with him sporadically when he died and considering actually meeting up in person. I talk to my mom and my brother and my sister much more regularly than I used to. And if he called me this Father’s Day, I think I would pick up.
*Mikki Halpin is Lenny’s editor at large.*