A Simple Man, by Tyana King

It all started about twenty-one years ago, at an army base in sleepy Imperial Beach, California. There was a small, serious man named Carrol (yes, Carrol) James Kloster who helped build fighter planes, but always dreamed of being a baker. He went by the name of Jim for obvious reasons. He grew up on a farm in Minnesota and was raised by a hard-working German couple who barely spoke a word of English. He met a young woman named Janice Marie King, a loud, outspoken woman with two young boys name Ronnie and Kevin. She joined the army at the age of 18 to get away from her strict southern mother, who believed the only proper career for a woman was that of a full-time wife and mother. Her second husband, Ronnie Harrell, was horribly abusive. She was on the run, and Jim Kloster was happy to be her knight in shining armor. He had just gone through a nasty and bitter divorce and had full custody of his teenage children, one girl and one boy, Julie and Andrew. Jim and Janice fell in love. When Janice got pregnant, they tried to make it work, but Jim didn’t want to raise another baby at the age of 55. Janice moved to Milwaukee to care for her dying brother, confident that she could raise her three children—Kevin, Ronnie, and Tyana on her own. This is the story I heard all of my life.

Growing up I always wanted to meet my father. I fantasized about him swooping in and taking care of me, about living in California and about living a care-free, privileged life. I fantasized about not worrying about money or dealing with my mother’s crazy mood swings and outbursts. I fantasized that, if only he were given the chance to know me, he would be enamored, that I would be his golden girl, and that we would be a father-daughter team the likes of which the world has never known. I fantasized that some day he would come to his senses and rescue his long lost daughter from the horror he had left her in. I waited a long time for that day—until I became a teenager. After 13 years of waiting, I was pisssed off at everyone, really, but especially at my father—that low down snake in the grass who abandoned me, and who I imagined was living it up somewhere in California. He used to send me a birthday card every year, and every year it had a crisp 20 dollar bill in it. My mom would take me to Toys ‘R’ Us and I could get whatever I wanted. But eventually the cards stopped coming. I wondered if he had forgotten about me, if he had a new family that he was showering with love and crisp 20 dollar bills. I imagined a young girl my age who had my ideal life and my father on the other side of the country. I blamed him for everything that was wrong with my life.

When we arrived in San Diego International Airport, I felt sick to my stomach. Suddenly, I couldn’t remember all the things I’d rehearsed in my head to say to him. My tongue felt glued to the bottom of my mouth. I thought that upon seeing him, I would explode with emotions. I thought something might be triggered, informing me that, yes, this is your father. He is connected to you. I thought I would at the very least recognize him. I thought I would feel something. But, after stepping off the plane and seeing this short, stern man with leathery skin, all my built-up emotions vanished. In its place was curiosity. Was this the mythical man I had seen in my dreams? This was him? Looking back on it now, I can’t help but chuckle a little.

The first day consisted mostly of small talk. No one wanted break the thin ice that existed between me and father. My father was nearly 70 years old, and his mental sharpness was wavering. His wife, who was a bubbly, six-foot tall Dutch woman, explained he’d had a stroke years back and his brain never quite recovered. Often when you spoke to him you had to say things twice. He thrived on routine. Every morning, he ate a breakfast of potato bread toast, two poached eggs and a seemingly bottomless mug of black coffee. As he ate his sensible breakfast on their outdoor deck, he’d work on the daily crossword until he was satisfied it was complete and correct. Then he would hop on his bicycle and ride for two hours, stopping only once to visit a coffee shop where the staff knew his name and his order by heart. It was hard for me to believe that this incredibly ordinary man was the same man I had demonized for so long.

One day, my father told me about his parents. He told me that up until they passed a year ago, he used to visit them every summer in his RV. This seemingly charming piece of information made me explode. I wondered why he’d never stopped to visit me. I couldn’t believe that we were in the same state at the same time on so many occasions. Suddenly the distance was no longer regional. He just plain didn’t think about me too much, except on Christmas and my birthday when Sharon reminded him to mail his yearly cards. I told him how his absence had hurt me, how volatile my mother had been while off her medication we could no longer afford, how my step-father only spoke to me to yell at me. I said some things I didn’t even mean. My tongue was no longer glued to my mouth. Once I started I couldn’t stop. He stared at me with a concerned look on his face.

Finally, he said, “I had no idea your life was so difficult. I thought your mother had it under control. I thought she had married a good man. I didn’t want to interfere.” Somehow, this answer was enough for me. He was simply following his routine. He was not the type of person to reach out to a child thousands of miles away if he thought everything was okay. He was not the warm, loving father I’d always imagined when I was a child; he was not the cold, distant millionaire I’d created as a teenager. He was just a man. An old, simple man who liked predictability and routine. He liked to follow a plan. I was never part of his plan, so I never became part of his routine.

Staring out the window of my father’s tan Chevy pick-up truck, I felt a sense of calm and relief. I was returning to Milwaukee. For the first time in my life, I knew who I was. I no longer fantasized about this glorious life I could’ve have with my father if my parents had only stayed together. I was no longer split in half-one black, one white. I was not my mother’s daughter or my father’s daughter. Finally, I was a whole person. Although my father could never give me the relationship I’d always wanted, meeting him brought new meaning to my life.

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