What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

From A 4th Course of Chicken Soup for the Soul

What’s in a Name?

He who raises a child is to be called its father, not the man who only gave it birth.

Midrash, Exodus Rabbah, 46:5

I was 11 when Mom remarried. When I was four or five, she and my father had divorced. We’d gone from a bright and cheery ground-floor apartment in a safe, middle-class neighborhood, to a fourth floor, cramped and darker apartment in a poorer area of New York City. My brother and I often felt lonely and frightened, listening to police and ambulance sirens piercing the night.

In the six years we lived there, I remember envying those friends who had fathers. It was my dream to get a father for myself. My own father had completely left my life—his whereabouts a mystery. I thought that, if I had a father, he would be a powerful guardian who would magically defend me against the many perils I felt that I faced in the streets. Somehow, in that childhood fantasy, my new father would not have to work. He’d just be there for me, whenever I needed him. If other boys menaced me, Super Dad would appear and chase them off. It was pure wish fulfillment, but nonetheless a powerful dream for a frightened little boy.

Suddenly, Frank McCarty appeared in our lives. He was exciting and interesting because he was a New York City police captain of detectives. He had a gold police shield and there was a gun in a holster on his belt, under his suit coat. I don’t remember the day he first appeared, but I do remember the general time and its feeling of excitement and drama. Police were the stuff of movies. Police weren’t people you actually knew. I told all my friends about him. Their eyes widened as I described his gun and the stories that he told me about capturing some bad guys.

He didn’t like to tell these stories, but my mom wanted him to be accepted by her sons and she knew what kids liked to hear. She’d cue him to tell a certain story and he’d acquiesce and patiently tell the story. As he got more deeply into the story, he became animated and the story took on mythic proportions.

One day, Mom asked me how I would feel if she married Frank. By this time, I was really hooked. He had taken me to the Giants game at the Polo Grounds. He had taken me to Coney Island. He talked with me. He gave me advice on how to fight back when confronted with bullies in the street. His gun gleamed darkly from under his coat. I could have a dad, a protector, someone to take me to the game. “Wow!” I said, “I’d love it!”

The date came. We went to a rural resort hotel whose owner was a friend of my mother’s. Another friend of Mom’s, a judge, presided over the wedding. I had a dad. Everything was going to be all right now.

I didn’t know, as a child of 11, how profoundly my life would change with that one moment.

A bachelor until that point, my new dad had very limited experience with children. He didn’t have the opportunity to learn his new parenting job in the natural, step-by-step way that fathers usually do. He never held a baby of his own, shared in the delight of that baby’s first steps, or had to take turns feeding that child, dressing him, changing diapers, or any of the countless tasks that parenting means.

He was suddenly thrust into the role of parent, and he retreated to what he knew. His experience with kids had been limited to arresting some. His memories of parenting were of his own father’s turn-of-the-century methods. He assumed that he could sit at the head of the table and issue orders that complaisant children would instantly obey.

Unfortunately for him, my mother raised us to be more independent, more participatory in dinner table discussions. We were encouraged to have opinions. She taught us to speak up as well as to listen. We weren't taught to be impolite or rude, but we were contentious.

Complicating all of this was the onset of puberty. Frank McCarty became a father, with his need to be in control, all-knowing, the leader—at the very moment that I was becoming a teen and was in the throes of the adolescent search for independence and self-authority. I was so attracted to him, I almost instantly loved him. Yet, at the same time, I was angry at him almost constantly. He stood in my way. He wasn’t easy to manipulate. My brother and I could masterfully manipulate our mother. Frank McCarty was immune to our tricks.

Thus began eight years of pure hell for me and for my new dad. He announced rules and I tried to flout them. He sent me to my room for rudeness or for my attitude. I complained bitterly to my mother about his dictatorial practices. She tried hard to be the peacemaker but to no avail.

I must admit that there were many occasions in my life from age 13 until I was 20 that I was stuck in a state of anger and frustration at some perceived slight by my father. Passionate as these times were, they were punctuated by great moments with him. Going shopping with him, every week, for flowers to “surprise your mother,” he’d say. Going to a ball game. Sitting in a car with him, late at night, watching a house. He’d take me on a surveillance, when he became a private detective back in New York City, if the case was an insurance fraud or something similarly nonviolent. We’d sit there in the darkened car, sipping coffee, and he’d talk about “the job,” as he called his career in the police department. I felt so special, so loved, so included at these times. This was exactly what my fantasy had been. A dad who loved me, who’d do things with me.

I remember many, many nights, sitting in front of him on an ottoman and he’d rub my back as we watched TV together. He gave great hugs. He wasn’t afraid to say, “I love you.” I found the tenderness this rough-and-ready guy was able to express remarkable. However, he could go from these intimate moments to red-faced yelling and sputtering anger if I did or said something that he thought was rude. His temper was a natural phenomenon akin to a tornado. It was a fearsome thing to watch and it was even scarier to be the target of it.

In high school, the angry moments increased and my closeness with him decreased. By the time I was in college, I was mostly alienated from him. I got a lot of mileage in terms of sympathy from my friends, if I put him down in my conversations with them. I’d tell stories of his latest “atrocity,” and stuck in adolescence just as I was, they’d murmur sympathetically about how much we all had to put up with from our dads.

It was my last year in college. I don’t know if there was any one event that precipitated it other than my getting a year older and going further along on the road to maturity, but I started rethinking my relationship with him.

I thought, “Here’s a guy who falls in love with my mother and he’s stuck with two teenage boys as the price of being married to her. He didn’t fall in love with two kids, just my mother. But we came with the package.

“And look what he does: He doesn’t just relate to her and ignore us. No, he tries his very hardest to be a real father to me. He risks the relationship all the time. He tried to teach me a set of values. He made me do my homework. He took me to the emergency room at two in the morning. He paid for my education without a grumble. He taught me how to tie a tie. He did all the daddy things without thought of payback. That’s really something. I guess I’m a lucky kid to have him in my life.”

I knew that my dad had come from an old New England Irish family. They were never famous, powerful or wealthy, but they had been here a long, long time. He felt sad that he was the last to “carry the name.” “It’ll die with me,” he said. His brother had died without children and his sisters, having married and taken their husbands’ names, wouldn't carry on that name either.

My brother and I still carried the name of our biological father; the man who sired me, but didn’t stay around for the rest of the job. The thought troubled me that the man who really was my father, as I understood that word, would not be celebrated by having a son with his own name.

Ideas occur to us and gradually coalesce into behavior. The idea got stronger and stronger. My thoughts were increasingly taken over by this idea. Finally, action was inevitable. I went to an attorney and then to a court. Secretly, I had my name changed to McCarty. I told no one. I waited three months until my dad’s birthday in October.

He opened the birthday card slowly. Usually when I gave him a card, it was attached to a box with his gift. This time there was no box, just the envelope. He pulled out the card and, with it, a certificate from a court.

I wrote on the card, “No store sells true gifts for father and son. You gave me roots, I give you branches.”

It was one of only two or three times I ever saw my dad cry. Tears came unbidden to his eyes. He smiled and shook his head and sighed. Then he got up and enfolded me in one of his famous bear hugs. “Thank you, boy, thank you. I just don’t know what to say. Thank you.” My mom was stunned, too. And very happy for both of us. The war was over. I’d brought the armistice agreement, wrapped in a birthday card.

Hanoch McCarty

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