My Real Father

It was a Saturday morning and I was outside watching my son Richard play. It felt quite warm for May and summer was definitely on its way. At the time of this story, Richard was not quite two and I was pregnant with my second baby. I lived in a nice two bedroom home in a good neighborhood inLanham,Marylandand my husband had gone to work for the day.

Next door to me lived my Uncle Ray. He was my uncle on my grandmother’s side and he and his family were renting from neighbors who had moved out of state. Uncle Ray had four children and he and my Aunt Neomi worked during the day. I didn’t get to see them much, mainly just on the weekends.

While I was standing there watching Richard, Uncle Ray came over and asked me if I had read the obituary column. Everyone in my family always read the obituaries, especially my grandmother. I usually didn’t because, at my age, I didn’t concern myself on a daily basis with who was passing over.

So I told Ray that I hadn’t seen the obituary page and he immediately replied, “Well, go read it because Bert Wheeler has died.” Bert Wheeler happened to be my father, though he was not someone I was close to. I hardly knew him, in fact. I had only ever spoken to Bert Wheeler when I was a very young child and I knew very little about him because my family did not talk much. They told you only what they thought you needed to hear.

In one of our conversations I was told that Bert and my mother divorced because of his interest in an older women. I also knew my mother loved him very much because I had an old diary that belonged to her and she mentioned him several times. She kept this diary updated after their separation in 1940, before I was born. I find it very interesting because what she wrote and what I know are quite different. My mother died of leukemia two years after I was born, but I was told she died of a broken heart.

After talking to Uncle Ray for a few minutes, I picked my son up and went into my house to get the newspaper. Leafing through, I finally found the obituary page and saw the paragraph on Bert’s death. I stood there stunned. It said “no surviving children.” How can that be? I’m his surviving child. I sat down and read it once more trying to comprehend what it was saying because it certainly wasn’t making any sense to me.

I more or less pulled myself together and got on the phone to call my Aunt Rita, my mother’s sister. When she answered I asked if she had read the obituary column and she told me that she had seen it. Well, what is this about I asked, the paper saying “no surviving children?” Rita told me to come over to the house and she and my grandmother would explain. I grabbed Richard and headed for my aunt’s home. I needed some answers.

 I remember walking up the back steps of Rita’s house to go into the kitchen, holding Richard out over my pregnant belly. I was every bit of twenty one years old. Rita’s house was “home” as far as I was concerned; it was where I was raised by my aunt and uncle. After my mother died, my grandmother had taken care of me when I was very young, but Rita took me in when she married. I had been in the fifth grade at St. Anthony’s School inWashington,D.C.when she transferred me to St. James inMt. Rainier,Maryland.

I had no idea what was in store as I walked into the kitchen and saw my grandmother and aunt sitting there waiting for me. I could see the expressions on their faces and they were not too happy, to put it mildly.

I put Richard down to play and sat down in the chair. “Well, what is this all about?” I asked. Rita spoke up first. She told me outright that Bert Wheeler was not my father as I had always been told to believe. Just like that.

Rita always said it like it was with no sugar coating, that’s for sure. I just looked at her and said, “Not my father? Well then, who is and why didn’t you tell me this before?”  It really floored me because I sat there thinking of the couple of times that I had spoken to Bert on the phone, not because I phoned him but because Rita had. Rita wanted me to ask Bert for money because things were tough for her at the time and she needed help. I never forgot that because I didn’t understand why my aunt didn’t ask him herself. The second time, at Christmas, Rita told me to let him know what I wanted and ask him to get it for me. She had called him herself and once more handed the phone to me. These memories flooded my mind as I sat there listening to her.

I then asked about Grandma Wheeler. I really had loved her. Rita and I would go to the market on Saturdays and I remembered always running into Grandma Wheeler’s arms. She was tall and stout and I loved the warmth she had for me. It had felt real. She maintained a fruit stand and homemade fudge was her specialty. She would put the fudge in a small box for me and I carried it home to eat later.

Once this news about Bert Wheeler sank in I asked Rita again, “Who is my father?” My aunt spoke up and said my mother told them it was Ed Rippeon and that they had been dating for quite a while before he went off to war. I found all of this so interesting but I was quite upset because no one had told me any of this. When I asked why they hadn’t said anything until now, they said it was because they wanted to protect me.

When you are twenty-one years old, as I was then, what do you know? I said “Fine,” picked up my son and drove home. My question to myself was – what were they protecting me from? That question stayed with me for a long time.

The years passed and I did nothing about learning who my real father was. I had put it to the back of my mind so I could review it at another time. It was almost fourteen years later when the situation surfaced again. My oldest boy was almost sixteen and my youngest was fourteen years old. What made it different was that I had divorced my husband and was in a relationship with someone totally different and we had a daughter together.

I don’t remember now what bought the subject up, but once more I was walking up the steps to the back door of the home I was raised in. This time I was with my younger son and one-year-old daughter. As I walked into the kitchen where my grandmother and aunt sat, I decided to ask where Ed Rippeon lived. They let me know he was inDamascus,Marylandand had an automotive repair shop. It was the only body shop inDamascusso I shouldn’t have a hard time finding it. Having heard that I said, “Thanks” and left to go in that direction.  

It wasn’t hard to find Ed’s body shop. I got out and took Maiteland and Chris John inside with me. When I looked around the shop, I saw three men working on cars. One looked up at me with an odd expression on his face and asked if he could help me. I told him I was Janet Reynolds, that Maitland was my mother’s name and that I was looking for Ed Rippeon. He acknowledged that he was Ed and would I please come to his office.

 I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I do remember him fading in and out several times as he was thinking about how to answer my questions. It was like he was putting pieces of a puzzle together one thought at a time. He would look at me and then he would space out. This happened several times. I couldn’t tell if I was upsetting him or exactly what my presence was doing to him. I never did bring up the subject of fatherhood.

When I think about it now, it seems strange that I didn’t ask him outright if he was my father. That was why I went there in the first place. At any rate, he finally pulled himself together, stood up and said to me as I was leaving, “As long as you are alive, your mother will never be dead.” I have never forgotten that statement. When you look at me, yes, you do see my mother. I am a perfect image of her, of that there is no doubt.

I left the D.C. area two years later to move toFlorida, so I’m sure that’s why I went toDamascusthat day. Instinct or fate seems to have a way of putting you where you need to be when you need to be there. At different times, I inquired about Ed Rippeon through my aunt. I found out he had suffered a heart attack right after I had gone to see him. That concerned me quite a bit because I had never let him know ahead of time that I was coming. I just walked into his shop. I’m sure that was a jolt to him and that was the reason for his spacing out while I was there. He was having many “flashback” memories and that had to have had an effect on his heart. Two years later he passed over.

I did see a psychologist about the responsibility I felt in possibly causing Ed’s heart attack. But I learned that my visit had nothing to do with it and I guess I always recognized this, underneath it all. I also understood that talking it through with my counselor was a way for me to let it go, which I finally did.  

A while before he died, I had learned that Ed was in a nursing home and my aunt had asked me if I wanted to go see him. I did not do that because I felt that bygones should be left as bygones. I knew Ed had four children and that his daughter’s name was Janet Lee to my Janet Marie. I had never met his kids and, when I think about it now, I feel bad about that. At the time, however, I felt it was all in the past and didn’t need to be dug up after the fact.

What makes me feel different about it now has to do with the entries in my mother’s diary, which raised many questions about the identity of my birth father. My mother’s diary came to me long after I saw Ed Rippeon. I have read it many times and it still really intrigues me.

My mother had many friends, both male and female. They met up all the time, most evenings, in fact. She married at age seventeen and was separated from her husband, Bert, by the time she was twenty-one. On one page of her diary, datedJanuary 1, 1940, she started out by saying, “Bert and I are separated.” She wrote that sentence diagonally across the page twice – once in pencil and then in ink. I thought this was odd because the rest of her writing is done correctly on each page after that.

On January 27th she wrote, “Started going with Ed Rippeon” and she continued to date him for half the year. On May 9th she wrote, “Still think the world of Ed.” The days went by quickly for her and she continued to see many of her male and female friends. Even though she was dating Ed, other men did come into her life. On June 8th she wrote that Ed was upset with her because of her dating others so she cut Ed off and wrote “Last date with Ed.” He was not mentioned any more in the diary.

In July an entry said that she was very much in love with Butch and that he had been the only one since Bert. As the days passed my mom stayed busy working and partying, but mainly in a group.

There were quite a few entries in which she mentioned going out with Bert again, but never said a word to indicate that there was anything serious in it. On August 24th my mother saw Butch by accident at her best friend Margaret’s place. She wrote how crazy she was about him and that she hoped to see him again. September 4th rolled around and she was told that Butch had been severely injured in an accident and on the fifth of September she learned that he was not doing so well.

Once more my mother continued to work, play and travel with the crowd. On September 12th my mother was met by Bert at her door. She wrote in her diary that she had stayed all night with him but, when morning came, she asked him for a divorce, which Bert agreed to. Whatever happened that night with Bert she did not speak about and she continued to live her active life. The day of September 26th she broke down and cried and did not get home till5:30 in the morning. Most nights my mother stayed out till2:30 and3:00pm. I don’t know how she did it, but on that day she did go to see Butch, who was still not in very good shape. I’m sure this had something to do with her tears. That and the impending divorce from Bert.

On October 12th my mother celebrated her fourth wedding anniversary but with several of her male friends, her mother, but definitely not with Bert. I found this a little odd. In the entry for October 30th my mother described once more bumping into Butch at one of her favorite taverns and she wrote that he was still her baby. She hoped Butch would come around more because she didn’t feel she could ever go back to Bert. This all had to do with the fact that she was having a good time with her life. From October 1940 toJanuary 1, 1941 Bert and Butch still played a big part in her life, even though she had many male friends at the time.

My mother’s diary covered the year 1940. I was born in 1941. The question still looms: “Who is my father?”

I was born prematurely onSeptember 22, 1941only because my mother tripped over the curb while she was pregnant. I weighed in at three pounds, thirteen ounces at birth and, aside from being a “preemie,” I was quite a healthy baby.

I don’t believe Ed Rippeon was my father, not that it makes any difference. I should have followed through years ago but I didn’t. Somehow I just couldn’t ask Ed Rippeon when I had the chance. How do you ask someone if they are your dad? Would he have told me the truth?

My birth certificate had been signed by Bert Wheeler so the question that lingers is: “Why did he sign it?” Did he do it to protect my mother and me? There are a lot of unanswered questions and I know now that they will never be answered because I waited too long. Anyone with truthful answers is now in spirit. Maybe I’ll find out when it’s my time to go.

I’m sure my relatives were just trying to protect me but I’m not sure that I agree with the way they handled it. Some family skeletons are best kept in closets while the people involved are still alive, with a revelation many years later. And sometimes I wish someone had left me a letter in their will or something, telling me the truth about my parentage.

For now, however, I must be content with what I know and what I don’t know because there’s no bringing the information back at this stage. From my perspective it’s all water under the bridge… and I’m flowing forward with the river, not backward.