It beckoned, that black, rotary-dial telephone hung on a wall.
In the back of a small-town store near where my mother, step-dad and three brothers lived, it became a life-line.
In 1975, I was a teenage jumble.
My step-dad, Gary, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at the crux of his youth, age 30.
When the initial verdict was given, we lived in central Washington. Doctors thought extreme weather conditions between hot and cold exacerbated the disease. As a result, Gary was transferred with the national department store he worked for to an arid place: central California.
Not long after our move from verdant climes, my mother turned 30. Our family were Pacific Northwest natives. Moving to a near-desert climate that stank of sulphur emitted by never-ending oil pumps dotted across sage-brush decorated clay-dirt, something ugly triggered in my mother. She wasn’t a warm and nurturing soul anyway, but the change of environment seemed to wreak havoc in her psyche.
Mother, who would later be diagnosed with a schizo-affective personality, swung from happy to diabolically angry in a heartbeat.
Being the oldest, and the only girl of four children, I was the target of her wrath. My step-dad, probably frustrated at his illness and volatile wife, also took his anger out on me.
Gary was mostly chair-bound, but as the obedient child I’d been raised to be, I stood still while he whacked me with his walking cane, threw cigarette trays at me, and insulted my femininity in myriad ways.
I remember a time when he stood in front of me, gripping his aluminum walker, enraged because I’d had a phone call from a boy. I was in front of the stairwell in a hallway while he berated me. Gary lunged forward and ripped my dark blue t-shirt from neck to hem. Horrified, I covered my breasts and tried to run up the stairs. But my mother followed, kicking my buttocks and ribs all the way up the dog-leg stairwell.
In the midst of this chaotic existence, I remembered that I had another daddy somewhere that I hadn’t seen since I was five years old. Cautiously I asked my mother about him. In return, she forced me to eat an entire chocolate cake by myself. Curiosity about my birth father increased.
My mother told me that my dad didn’t want me. When she married Gary, my father gave up all his rights to me and my two younger brothers who were his offspring, she said.
“He married someone else and has other kids,” she told me. “He didn’t want you.”
In junior high school a counsellor spent time with me. I ran with a crowd of peers who had dysfunctional families. I had come often enough to school with bruises inflicted by my mother and step-dad to be excused from physical education classes. Although it was likely against protocol, the counsellor suggested I attempt to contact my birth father.
“Try calling an operator,” she said.
I knew he lived in a certain city in Washington and decided to take a shot.
But how to contact him? I couldn’t afford long-distance phone calls from home or a pay phone.
While shopping one day with my brothers for daily rations on a credit account at the neighbourhood store, I saw the black phone at the back of the store.
I took a chance.
When no one was around, I dialled long-distance. To my surprise, it went through. I spoke with an operator and asked for the phone number of the man I knew to be my father. I was shocked when she gave it to me.
I waited a few days, to make sure I wouldn’t get in trouble for the first phone call. I tried the new number. No one answered. I tried again a few days later; a man answered the phone.
“Hello?” My tremulous voice asked more than I could say. “Is Tom at home?”
“This is Tom.”
“Are you my dad?”
“Heidi?” the man asked. “Is this Heidi?”
“Yes,” I answered, suddenly anxious.
There was a silence, followed by a sigh. “I’ve been waiting for you to call me.”
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