My Father Unknown by Laura Shaine

Photo of old brown door from exterior
Door by perriscope ( CC license.

How do you knock on a door that, all your life, you imagined opening? I stood at a fateful address on the edge of the historic district of Old Cloverdale, in Montgomery Alabama. I had never been to Alabama before and until now, had only one important contact here—Harper Lee. Before my first memoir was published, Harper Lee had read it and written to me, “A beautiful story I shall cherish for years to come.”

I was thrilled, of course, but still uncertain—

what was my story? Ever since I could speak I had searched for answers regarding my father, Larry Moore. I was led here to  Cloverdale by the shred of DNA evidence that tied me to this house, where my father Larry Moore had lived, and where his sister Frances, was now waiting to meet me. For decades, I had longed for this date, and feared it.

Now, in our edgy time, I could not resist the genetic testing offered by 23andMe. Even though the case was cold, and my more rational self was dubious of what this father had to offer—a now 100-year plus-old Alabama man who had most likely abandoned my then thirty-three-year-old mother during her pregnancy and never shown any interest in me. Yet, my mother had named me after him. Her voice had gone soft and breathy when she mentioned him. Surely, there had been love?

They were an unlikely romantic match—she of Ashkenazi Jewish Russian descent, New York City born and bred; he was Deep South, Scots Irish, English Southern Baptist. I had to know more. Growing up, I wondered about Alabama; to me the South was Gone with the Wind, and the plays of Tennessee Williams. I had imagined a father, sipping mint juleps on the portico of a plantation. The Glass Menagerie was more than a play for me, with the vanished father “who fell in love with long distance.” The play inspired me to write for the theater. Who was I to resist “Blow out your candles, Laura”? But now the Deep South was Red States, and Alabama was MAGA country. I wondered if my biological family might be right-wing? Racist? And was there a genome?

I spit in the vial 23andMe provided to begin the journey to learn the answers, to find him, at last, or whatever traces of him remained.

I traveled from my home in New York, landed in Birmingham, and then drove to Montgomery. Montgomery is famous for two museums, the Hank Williams, Sr. Museum, which contains the baby blue Cadillac the twenty-nine-year old singer/songwriter died in of heart failure, in the back seat, and the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, which is the home where Zelda wrote Save me The Waltz and Scott wrote Tender is the Night. They did not last much longer, throwing themselves into delicate frenzies of regret within these now hallowed rooms. I was enraptured with  the songs of Hank Williams, Sr. and the writings of both Zelda and Scott. But I was following the final GPS direction—“round Magnolia Curve. . . .” It happened that as I was rounding Magnolia Curve to make this fateful visit, it was a day of great suspense for all of Alabama. December 12, 2017, was the special election for the Senate which pitted Roy Moore, an arch conservative Trump favorite and alleged pedophile, against Doug Jones, an ardent Democrat. The odds were heavily against Jones. A Democrat had not been elected to Alabama Senate in a quarter of a century.

This was my first trip to the Deep South (discounting my childhood vacations to see my grandmother, then in geriatric Miami Beach, which was so much an outpost of New York City it didn’t seem like the South, other than South Beach, a depository of so many Jewish Bubbies and Zaydas).

Nearing my genealogic Ground Zero, 919 Cloverdale Road, I recognized, courtesy of previews on Google satellite, the white camellia-bordered one-story house at the end of a narrow driveway, guarded by twin pedestals that supported ornamental multicolored ceramic-tiled balls. This was the house where Larry Moore had lived and, now, where his sister Frances waited.

God help me if I hit those balls.

I had found my father’s sister Frances through the single relative who had popped up as a little flag on my 23andMe DNA map, my third-to-distant cousin, Briana Felch, who, as luck would have it, was also an ace genealogist. She connected me to another Alabama woman, Sandy Smith, a volunteer with a group with the improbable name of Acts of Random Genealogic Kindness.

I never knew my father, other than as a legend related by my mother to explain his absence. When other children asked: “Where’s your father?” I had my mother’s answer: “He’s fighting in the war.”

His name was Larry. His hair was blond, his eyes were blue. My mother stressed the superlatives: he was the handsomest man she had ever seen; the best dancer. His hair was “so blond it looked white in the sun.”

He could fly a plane, fire a machine gun. He won more medals than anyone. And this was my favorite detail—he flew with his own war dog, a canine copilot named Butch who was a gentle pet when he wasn’t ripping apart the enemy.

Who was the enemy?  My father was said to be a pilot in the Air Force. I soon learned that while I waited for my heroic aviator father to come home to us, this country was not at war. Then came my mother’s news: Larry’s plane was shot down; he and every sign of him, medals and uniform, were incinerated. His dog co-pilot, the boxer named Butch, was “reassigned”. As an adult, I could laugh at my mother’s inventiveness—a dog co-pilot? And appreciate her compassion in sparing him while Larry had reportedly burned to a crisp, his medals melted.  Now I can guess that the day she told me he was “shot down on a mission” was the day he told her he would never come to New York to be part of our lives. She didn’t have to incinerate him so thoroughly if she had not been hurt and angry.

When I was eight years old and she was forty-one, my mother, Rosie, died. I was raised by her younger bachelor brothers who were indulgent uncles, if not expert in the domestic arts. I grew up eating popcorn for breakfast and doing what they did: writing. On Father’s Day at school, both uncles, wearing hats, would appear in Larry’s stead. They showed up on Mother’s Day too. When the entire class made decorative greeting cards for those holidays, I crayoned in “Happy Uncles’ Day.”

23andme posts your DNA RELATIVES map festooned with flags marking the locations of your living relatives—those who had also spat into the 23andMe tubes. On my map, there were dozens of flags for Ashkenazi Jews, living in New York and throughout the Pale, but only one flag in in the South that might connect me to my father.

There was a single banner in Alabama, a female “third-to-distant cousin.” A lone link to Larry. My “third-to-distant cousin,” Briana Felch, responded instantly. Within two days, she found “a likely father, your Larry Moore.” She e-mailed me in the pre-dawn dark wee hours and bristled with excitement.

“Your life is about to change! Prepare yourself before you look into your computer at 1 a.m.”

On my computer flashed a definitive image I did not expect to see: the flung-open gates of Greenwood Cemetery with its flat terrain of granite stones and plastic floral bouquets. Scrolled beneath this image was a cyber invitation to send virtual flowers. My father’s grave had been located by someone who listed himself as “Lonewalker,” who stalked Montgomery cemeteries for the forgotten dead.

Larry Moore died in l972, at age sixty. He was listed as an Army veteran who served overseas from ‘42-‘45, and afterward lived in Miami Beach where my mother worked as a “war girl.”

Larry Moore died alone in a VA hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi but as Briana cheerily interjected: “Someone cared enough to bury him at home in Montgomery.”

The major bulletin was that Briana turned up a sister who was eighty-six years old and still living in the family home in Montgomery.  Larry and this sister, Frances, had different fathers but Briana Felch had traced both of them; “my” Larry Moore was the son of William Diadem Moore “his unusual name was a big help,” remarked Briana, and Mentone Angelini, a tile artisan from Italy, was his sister Frances’s father. They shared the same mother, Irene nee Morgan, who had been a teacher “at two negro schools.”

In email,  Frances had readily consented to the 23andMe DNA test, which struck me as incredibly sweet and accommodating. After all, wasn’t I a total stranger, an alleged aged love child fathered by her long lost brother?  At that time, Frances was living happily with her ninety-one-year-old husband, Olin. We began to plan a visit. Then she vanished from cyber. Just when I abandoned all expectation that she would be in touch, she called.

Surprised in the shower by the ringing phone, I stood naked, wet and uncomprehending. Frances had the thickest Southern accent I had ever heard; Frances, like 23andMe, delivered her revelations as a series, after pauses—“Larry was always a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker. . . .” “Larry was jovial and did wander, working in hotels.” She then sent me a large envelope:

“Finally got Larry’s picture in the mail to you today. He is giving me away at my wedding sixty-five years ago. We had an all-white wedding at my home in the garden . . .    Fondly, Frances”

The photo showed a pretty doll-like brunette bride and a rather dapper man (white suit, spats) with dark hair. I couldn’t see any resemblance to myself. Maybe just a bit around the eyes.

Nonetheless, we agreed we had each found a friend and made plans for a visit, while the definitive DNA results were still pending.

Then came the report: There was no doubt. We were closely related. Ten days later, her husband died. I felt I should not visit while Frances was grieving; another year passed with only a single email from Frances. She no longer answered my emails or calls. Her address changed to a PO Box. My compulsion to meet her and find out what I could about my father grew in the vacuum. I decided to give this search one last try. I called Frances again, for perhaps the twentieth time,  and she answered. She said, “Oh I remember something about this.”  A female voice in the background asked: “Who is that?”

I told her I would be coming to Montgomery and would like to take her out to lunch or dinner.

“That won’t be necessary,” she said, “we’ll have a visit here.”

The approach to her house was promising, almost as enchanted as my fantasies. The street was draped in Spanish moss. I passed the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum and I wanted to stop by, but my GPS was saying I was only two minutes from my destination. I parked in the driveway of 919, careful not to hit the ceramic balls and knock them off their pedestals. I walked up a path lined with camellia bushes. Even though the previous night’s temperature had been below freezing, the flowers didn’t seem to die in Old Cloverdale—their petals just withered a bit and became edged in brown; they looked like cut flowers, a day past.

I peeked in what appeared to be a glassed-in Florida room—I could see a lit large screen TV and some wicker furnishings. I tapped—no answer. I moved down the path alongside the house and saw another door and tapped on that—the response was immediate—a large Doberman threw itself at the door, which opened a crack. I could see a sliver of a black woman who was saying: “She bites.” The Doberman snarled and growled, drooling at the possibility.

Two tiny Yorkies rose up, yipping at her feet.

I explained I had come to visit Frances.

“She’s resting.”

“It’s kind of an important visit, it was set for 1 p.m..” I took a breath and added. “I’m her niece.”

I could hear someone calling out from another room: “Who’s there?”

The woman at the door repeated, “She’s resting.” Then “Come back at 3. Or 3:30.”

The delay didn’t upset me as much as it might have. I did not feel quite ready to meet my Aunt Frances.

I had planned to pick up some little gift and hadn’t had time. I returned to my car and backed out, very slowly, nicking a camellia bush.

I found the Cloverdale bakery and bought a blackberry pie. They had already cut the pie in slices, but I suggested they arrange them nicely and the bakeshop girl obliged and handed me the reassembled pie in a shocking pink box.

At 3 p.m., I returned, parked at the Cloverdale Theatre at the end of the road to avoid the challenge of the tile balls. I fixed my hair and applied lipstick in the rear view mirror and changed into my nicer but less comfortable shoes, and walked, careful not to drop the cake box, up the side path to the garden. There, a tall very handsome man whose hair was so fair, it looked white in the sun, was standing alone. He looked up as I approached and said, “I’m Larry.”

I was startled. Of course, he was not the Larry. . . . He was Frances’s son, named for his uncle. We headed inside; the Doberman slunk back and neutralized, plopped on a floor cushion in front of the TV. The tiny, skinny black, health aide was introduced as Lily; she whisked away the big pink cake box, then settled into a red recliner.

The room was homey with shelves of porcelain birds and family photos, and a basket of stuffed toy Santas.  Through an open inner doorway, I could see into the kitchen. I was aware of other people in the room, but my attention was instantly riveted to the elderly woman who had to be Aunt Frances—propped up in a corner of the couch. She did not look well: her face was swollen and bruised, with large dark shadows under her eyes and I wondered at once if she was sick or injured. (I learned later that a few days before she had fallen from her bed and hit her head, hard). She looked at me, blinking. Beside her, a pretty younger woman with dark hair who was identical to the doll-like bride in the wedding picture—I felt as if I was simultaneously meeting the elderly Frances and her younger self. The same sweetness emanated from Frances but filtered through confusion:

“Who are you?” she asked.

Feeling foolish, I explained. “I’m your brother Larry’s daughter. You’re my closest genetic relative in the world.”

I noticed another woman across the room. She was fair-haired and pretty, about fifty, but she regarded me with a knit brow: She asked “What do you want?”

“Just to learn a bit about my father, Larry Moore, and if you have any other pictures. . . . ?”

“I’d have to look around for them,” Frances said. “I don’t know how much I can tell you; Larry was much older than me. Eighteen years older. He didn’t get along with my father. They fought, and my main memory was of him was coming and going away for periods of time, then he’d come back and go into the kitchen and have confabs with our mother and always come away with money. He drank. And when he was about seventeen, he took the car without asking and went for a joyride with the boy across the street and they were in a terrible crash and the boy lost most of his arm, and a leg. . . .” He was sliced vertically but survived. “The boy’s father wanted to sue my father and take everything he had.”

For a moment, my father Larry was real to me—the wild boy, dark-haired and blue-eyed, running into the kitchen, to cadge money from his mother and avoid his stepfather. . . .

Frances continued, “But Larry went away . . . later, he joined the Army, it was the only time my mother could be proud of him. He was a master sergeant and went over to Germany and drove a tank in the Battle of the Bulge. Then he came home and just drifted, it was the same thing. I was showing my friend a picture of him and she cried out, ‘Look at the stripes down the sides of his pants. He’s a bellhop! Your brother is a bellhop!’  I was horrified!”

What a crash landing for the fictional aviator father. Did this family know anything of my mother, their romance, my existence?

No. Nothing.

Wanting my mother to exist, I held out my iPhone with her photo and watched as they passed the iPhone round. I was  thinking how sad and small her picture looked. I had an impulse to defend my mother, Rosie. “She was very shy, very ladylike. She was very in love with Larry. My mother was not one for casual relationships. It was a very respectable family. . . . ” I heard myself then and realized I was trying to legitimize the circumstances of my birth and I couldn’t stop.

They asked some questions and I answered. My mother had been 5’10”. Tall for a woman at that time, and it made her self-conscious. I remembered how relatives spoke about her being thirty-three and still unmarried.

“She’s too particular,” they said. She turned away a dentist suitor. “I won’t settle,” she said. She sang romantic songs, “The Isle of Capri-—he wore a plain golden ring on his finger. . . .”  And danced alone, or with me, around our studio apartment in the glow of Yankee Stadium. Now, the mystery of my unknown father was replaced with the mystery of my mother—why had she described him as so blond? Why an aviator? Why Butch, the dog copilot? Why had she killed him off so violently? Was it in anger?

“ . . . he wore a plain golden ring on his finger . . . ” yes, that may well have been true. His records list Larry as “separated” when he entered the service. Frances finished her Larry story—“He died in Biloxi, but we went and got him—we had the station wagon then.”

The station wagon?

Okay, so we were in Southern Gothic now: My father’s corpse in the back of the station wagon. I had seen a similar plot twist in a movie—Alan Arkin played a family corpse trundled into the back of a VW bus. Not the Glass Menagerie or Gone with the Wind, but that very black comedy, Little Miss Sunshine.

Now, the present Larry, my cousin, asked, “Have you ever been in Alabama before?”

There was something pointed in the way he asked, but I didn’t understand why until it was time for me to leave.

The conversation seemed to warm after I said, “No, never.”

Amy’s husband appeared, another tall handsome man.

We began to chat, I thought, as any socializing group might and discuss the election. Larry said there was no doubt, if it were not a special election, Doug Jones would win, but few people voted in special elections and he felt, as the family did, that Roy Moore would still win. They were all Republicans, but Larry said, “Roy Moore is a sham.” They all agreed: “That Jim Crow stuff is over.” Larry’s son had worked for a super Pac to video Roy Moore and catch him saying untoward things, “which is every time he opens his mouth,” Larry added. Larry himself was a lobbyist. He had offices on Zelda Road, named of course for Zelda Fitzgerald.

They asked me about my daughters, my life, and I told them. I thought we were at ease, then Karen, Larry’s wife, said, “You could see why we would be worried.” And it hit me then: They had been suspicious of me, of my motives in seeing Frances. I now understood “come back at 3.” The family felt they needed to be there when I arrived. . . . I could understand it—after all they did not know me; apparently Frances had not filled them in on our many emails, her call and invitation to visit. My most recent express letter, advising her of my visit, was still sitting unopened at Larry’s office.

I tried to joke about my showing up. “I don’t want anything; I don’t want money—I’m not like Larry. I can understand how you might worry—my showing up, a stranger, this ancient out-of-wedlock child, on your doorstep. I wouldn’t know what to think . . . either. . . . But now?” I was fishing for a relaxed answer. “Oh of course, now we see how you are. . . .” but all she said in a flat tone was “It’s been interesting. . . .”

I felt she did not represent the others who seemed warmer toward me and Frances herself held my hand then said, “and now tell me again—who are you?”

Soon after, I rose from my chair and said, “Well, I should be going.” I had been there for almost two hours. The gentlemen escorted me out to the street, and we spoke as we stood between the two tiled balls.

“They’re so ugly, we think of taking them down,” Larry said.

“I was afraid I’d hit them,” I told him.

“Oh, many people have.”

Then we spoke as relatives might regarding Frances’s forgetfulness. “We had a big birthday party for her just before thanksgiving and she loved it and the next day she didn’t remember a thing.”

Larry looked into my eyes and said, “She told us you had been here several weeks ago.”

“No,” I said in surprise. No wonder they suspected me.

“She has these dreams,” Larry explained. “And she thinks they’re real, that these things really happened. That’s why we were all here to meet you. We thought you’d been here before” . . . to rip her off?

I thought of the blackberry pie in the bright pink box. How silly I must have looked on that doorstep—this old lovechild come to find her unknown father, long dead.

I drove a few blocks away to an Airbnb apartment I had rented, but the lock box was hard to find, on a black second story porch, hidden behind a pillar. And then the lock didn’t open. Darkness fell and so did the temperature. I began to shiver and the shiver escalated into shaking. I called the Airbnb owner and he said, “I’m at a function for my father and I can’t come over.” He sent his girlfriend who couldn’t open the lock box either. “We meant to get this fixed,” she said, “you can get your money back . . . ” and left. I flashed on a childhood memory of being locked out of the one-room apartment I shared with my mother. I had a key that I wore on a chain around my neck, with my dog tags, which my third grade teacher said were “just like your soldier Dad’s.”  The next door neighbor heard me crying.

Now, I was past the time in my life when I would have cried. I picked up my iPhone and booked a motel some distance from Old Cloverdale. This motel was in an all-black area and I had wanted to go to a black district to follow the election results there. As I parked outside the motel, the radio came on and someone announced, “Holy shit! Doug Jones won.”

I went inside the all-black motel and saw the pretty young black woman at the desk.

I announced: “Doug Jones won!”

Her face split in a brilliant smile and she said: “Thank you for telling me!” and I felt something very major had happened—to her, to me, to everyone, maybe. I hadn’t had dinner and it was too late to go out. I thought I’d buy some potato chips from her counter, but I had only a large bill.

“Here,” she said, handing me the chips. “You just have them!”

The next morning as I spooned up grits I suspected were instant, at a nearby deli, I checked my messages and there was an email from Larry:

“It was such a pleasure to meet you yesterday. So sorry we were not more prepared for your visit. You were quite a surprise. It was wonderful to learn about your life, family, career and hear the stories about your family. Please let me know if we can be of any help to you. If we find any photos of your father, I will certainly get them to you. Please send your address and contact info.

Let me know if you are ever in this area again. Sorry we were not more hospitable. We will do better next time.”

Photo of the box of a 23andMe DNA kit
23&Me by Scott Beale. CC license.

Larry Moore’s remains lay not far from the deli—I checked the navigation map on my phone and the GPS showed I was only five minutes away from the graveyard. I got in the rental car and saw the sign for Greenwood Cemetery.

As I drove past, a cheery Country song came on the radio and for the first time in many years, I began to hum along and laugh at the same time. It was Hank Williams, Sr.: Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?

Six years later, three weeks ago, I received a note from cousin Briana, subject line: Your Aunt Frances. The email contained her obituary. She had died several months before, peacefully, at age ninety-four in her lifelong home.

I sent a condolence note, addressed to Larry. I was surprised when he answered and asked for my physical address. They had just sold the house, he said, and found some things I might want.

Last week, I found a shiny black box in my mail, heavily taped. I buy a lot of books and thought it probably was from one of those third-party booksellers. I didn’t open it until the next day at breakfast. I cut through all the packing tape, lifted the lid and there he was: my father. Larry Moore. Fit, handsome, smiling back at me, an ornate white hotel and palm trees in the background. The box was packed with more photos and his documents from the military and nursing home,

This was the box I had wanted and waited my lifetime to receive. There were still mysteries: Why had he changed his insurance beneficiary from his mother to his wife, a character new to me named Minnie Kathryn? But for the most part, I knew this man, in his Master Sergeant stripes, then posed fit and smiling in a bathing suit, later aboard a ship. I could not help but return his radiant smile. Fatherless no longer, I could see, at last, why my mother had loved him and why I came to be.

Author Laura Shaine Cunningham
Laura Shaine Cunningham has published fiction and nonfiction in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Columbia Journal, and many other fine magazines. Her two memoirs, Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country, were excerpted in The New Yorker, the New York Times and the London Times. Her writing has been honored with numerous awards, including two N.E.A. and two N.Y.F.A Fellowships, a Yaddo residency, and many others.

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