Once Seeing What's Real This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

June 12, 2011
That afternoon on my way home from my mother's apartment, I ­remember stopping to sit on a stoop. I picked a handsome brownstone, one of the many lining the blocks of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. To people passing by I suppose it looked as though I was simply waiting for a friend. It's funny to think of it, when really it was one of the strangest moments of my life.

I was maybe three and a half when it began to sink in that my family didn't fit the pattern of mother, father, and children. I knew other families that were a bit lopsided, but the difference was that they had reasons; for us it just was.

“Uncle Steven lives with us 'cause Aunt Sally made him,” Sadie Jacobs had whispered to me as we entered her house one day.

And, “Grandma stays here because she has an Alzheimer's so she forgets to eat when she's alone,” Peter Koning had once explained.

“That's funny, 'cause you have an extra person in your family and in my family we're missing one,” I'd said.

My mother acted as if being fatherless was a mere product of chance; some kids have blue eyes, some have brown, and some have no fathers.

I knew all of two things about my father: that his name was Oscar and he was born in Hungary, like my mother. With absolutely no specifics about his life, not a single story or photograph, I developed my own sunny portrait of him. He was tall and slender. He had neatly combed hair, a moustache like Clark Gable, and dark eyes, like mine.

My mother and I were a sturdy pair. She compensated well for our lack of numbers as a seemingly destruction-proof woman, never expressing a drop of sadness or self-pity. I lived happily with her – I didn't want anything more – but it was my curiosity that drove me to inquire about my father's whereabouts.

“He's in Italy, bubby,” my mother
said quickly, as if it were common knowledge.

“Italy?” I stared up at her intently as she scrubbed the dinner plates.

“Well, he's in Italy right now. He ­travels all around Europe,” she paused
as she dried her hands on her tattered apron. “He's a businessman.”

This information barely satiated my growing desire to know more about him, but before I could make up my mind on a new question, my mother was telling me about some woman she had met at the grocery store that ­afternoon.

Shortly after, I had ­conversations with my mother's collection of eastern European friends during which they indulged me with reports of my father.

“So, Hannah, your mother tells me your father's in France now, doing some important business,” they'd say, their accents thick and their needles clicking as knitted clothing emerged from bundles of yarn.

I was ecstatic to hear any account. It was as if I had finally been let in on a big secret that had been of only faint interest weeks before. My father's story started to feel like a mystery, one that someday I'd solve when enough clues accumulated. However, after a few months, the reports dwindled and the mystery faded.

I suppose I was around eight or nine when it hit me that the kids I knew whose fathers were businessmen didn't live in cramped apartments in Flatbush, nor did their fathers disappear for years at a time. When I brought these quandaries to my mother, she confessed. “Okay, he's not in Europe. He's here.”

“In Brooklyn?”

“No,” she eyed the wall for a moment as if deciding whether to continue. “In Manhattan. In a hospital,” she said briskly, brushing crumbs from her skirt. “But he can't have visitors. He's too sick.”

The weeks following this explanation, I remember puzzling over it on my walks to and from school. I couldn't make sense of it. I wanted to know what type of sickness he had and what would happen if I visited, but there was no way to find out. My mother was too stubborn; she wouldn't succumb to my persistence.

During these weeks, my image of my father transformed. Day by day, he grew more shadowy and obscure; his radiant eyes darkened and his contours turned to silhouette. Soon it dawned on me that nothing my mother told me about my ­father would ever make sense, whether she was telling the truth or not.

I guess it was the nuisance of the obscurity that led me to develop my own transitory explanations. I flopped from one glum possibility to the next, and as my father's character transformed, so did his appearance. During my teenage years, he was a grossly muscular man. I pictured a blood-stained T-shirt and one grim expression that never changed. Later he became straggly and thin, resembling the men I spied through the window of the bar a few blocks from my house.

By the time I turned 22, my perception of my father became associated with a feeling of repugnance. I'd envisioned many frightening yet feasible versions of him, and now I was left with the unpleasant residue of shame and disappointment. Later that year when my mother died, I trekked down to Cobble Hill to clean out her apartment. Among the boxes of letters and tchotchkes, I found a photograph of an unfamiliar man. Though there was little to construe, my eyes eagerly scanned the photo.

I left the apartment, photo in hand, and on my way to the F train, had an impulse to take a seat on a stoop. As I ran my hands along the cold steel railing, I studied his benign smile. His hair was neatly combed, and he had a moustache a little like Clark Gable's. His eyes were a deep chestnut, the left eye squinting against the sun. Looking out at the street, I began to retrace my past, all the years of confusion and struggle over this man whose image now rested in my hands.

I suppose the photographed man could have been someone else, maybe an uncle in Hungary I'd never met. There's no way of knowing, but I can't say I'm sorry about that. I'd come to terms with the mystery years. Either way, my image of my father once again morphed, this time from dark to light, from discomfort to hope. I could believe he was a movie star almost as easily as a mobster. As long as he existed only in my imagination, he belonged to me.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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This article has 9 comments. Post your own now!

Lillie M. said...
Feb. 9, 2012 at 9:29 am
That is an amazing story.
ElkieLion This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm
katieheiserman This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jan. 31, 2012 at 7:42 pm
thank you so much!
Monkeygirl11 said...
Jan. 27, 2012 at 6:33 am
Really great job. This is the best book I have read on here so far.
katieheiserman This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jan. 27, 2012 at 11:39 am
Thanks so much! I'm really glad you enjoyed it
zhlen This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jan. 25, 2012 at 5:19 pm
That was wonderful! I was really happy you gave an ending, I was almost afraid you wouldn't. It felt so real, the story, that is.
katieheiserman This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Feb. 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm
thank you, I'm glad you liked it
meowers5 said...
Oct. 28, 2011 at 8:30 pm
katieheiserman This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Oct. 29, 2011 at 3:22 pm
thank you :)
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