This essay originally appeared in Revolution John on March 19, 2015
He was my father, or so I am told. He was 23-years-old when I was born. White, from an English background, graduated high school, went on to a two-year technical college and lived one town over from Peggy, my birthmother, in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He was an electrician’s mate in the Navy and his name was Dick Sanford. Peggy had listed his physical particulars on my non-identifying information (the paper trail a birthmother leaves Catholic Charities before surrendering her baby). In Peggy’s near-unreadable handwriting my birthfather was 6’5’; 200 lbs.; big frame, blue eyes, blond hair, fair skin.
She could have been describing my two sons.
I can’t say I really cared who my biological father was; he seemed ancillary to my life; maybe because he walked away. I admit to being fascinated by the motherhood aspect of my adoption, mostly because motherhood was something Peggy and I shared in divergent ways. She was not motherly in the least and yet she was my mother by trade, having done the physical labor of having me. My focus had been on trying to understand the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of how a mother surrenders a baby. Not in a judgmental way, in a questioning way. The mechanics of surrender shall we say.
But as I got to know Peggy I realized I wasn’t going to be getting any concrete answers from her. My birthfather became the next logical piece of the puzzle. Interestingly, there was no mechanism with Catholic Charities to search for a birthfather, and as Peggy kept gleefully reminding me, “it was the 60s and anyone could have been your father.”
What I knew was this: a) I had a father and b) it could have been anyone. Therein lies another adoption paradox. How do you search for someone who could be anyone?
I thought about how to begin such a search for anyone who might be my father and figured the best place to start would be with the name Peggy had given me before she started to backpedal on her story. Before she offered up the patriarchal “anyone.”
One day I sat down at my laptop and typed in the following search parameters: Dick Sanford, Richard Sanford, Dick Sanford Navy 1966, Dick Sanford Ridgefield CT. My little search, which started innocently enough, turned into a sort of fantasy football league of fathering.
As you might expect, there were many Richard Sanfords. One guy was the Director of Space Initiatives Global Defense, Space & Security Group at Cisco Systems, Inc. He looked dweeby in his corporate picture, especially with the prescription glasses that I guessed had lenses that darkened in the sun and returned to normal when inside. Neither Peggy nor I would have found him attractive. I ruled him out.
There was Richard Sanford the writer whose bio proclaimed, “He has made his living as a short order cook, computer programmer, and freelance writer. He has owned a pizza restaurant with another aspiring writer while serving as an editor of a small press in the pizza empire of Chicago.”
This guy was interesting and good looking in a way I had always found intriguingly appealing: clear, tender eyes, slightly balding, open, honest face tinged with a hint of tortured writer. His black and white photo shows him with his head quizzically tilted in that way writers tilt their heads, as if to say “italics” or “brooding.” This guy had possibilities, but I saw no physical resemblance, other than a frayed madras shirt (man, are they soft), and no mention of the Navy. Plus, he was just too young. I ruled him out.
Now, umpteen Google search pages deep, I felt I was getting closer. There was a Dick Sanford in Napa Valley who seemed intensely promising. His photo showed him to be tall and good-looking in a Robert Redford meets Paul Newman way. He had swagger, if you can tell such a thing from a picture (you can). In the photo (zoomed in at the highest magnification with my eyeballs inches from the computer screen) he had clear blue eyes rimmed in a darker blue, a wide smile that creased the corners of his eyes, straight white teeth, and his pose (leaning forward with his left arm resting on his left leg with a glass of wine in his right hand) and outfit (worn Levi’s, light pink cotton button down and embossed leather belt) reminded me of someone at ease with himself. Traits I would ascribe to myself on a day when I felt good about my self.
This Dick Sanford was a sommelier, or rather the owner of Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards. The wine staff had had a guest-starring role in Sideways and their wines had also been featured in The Kids are Alright. This guy had it together in a way that made me want him to be my birthfather (he was elected to the Vintners Hall of Fame!). His wife, Thekla, in her picture (again, zoomed in, eyes inches from screen), had a similar build to both Peggy and I. She was solid and authoritative looking with wispy blonde hair and a thin-lipped smile. She was wearing a white t-shirt, a chunky turquoise necklace and a jean jacket. I took this as a sign that he liked women of our type, temperament, and build. Coupled with the fact that his bio said he served in Vietnam in the Navy, I took this to be very encouraging. I began to fantasize about life on a Napa Valley vineyard with my handsome father, cool stepmother (with whom I would, of course, bond completely) and unlimited Pinot Noir. I let myself ride the fantasy until I scrolled down to the part in his bio where he graduated from Cal-Berkeley in 1965. He was immediately drafted into the Navy and served in the war until 1968. Wrong coast, wrong timeframe, case closed, fantasy sunk. Not my father.
The story I’ve convinced myself of since I heard the name Sanford and father in the same sentence goes like this: My best friend in high school was named Sheila Sanford. We grew up a quarter mile from each other in West Redding, Connecticut. The town her relatives helped found. I imagine that she had an Uncle Dick who lived in Ridgefield. As the imaginary pieces of this puzzle fit together I wonder if Sheila and I weren’t cousins all along. That would explain a lot, I tell myself, like how we were close as sisters. Inseparable. This is a fantasy I play out loud. I begin telling people that this could, in fact, be the case and “wouldn’t that be insane,” to find out my best friend in High School was really my cousin. There were so many ways in which this story could be correct, the dates line up, Dick Sanford lived one town over in Ridgefield, the Sanford family in Redding was huge. In telling this story it got more plausible each time. I could see how Peggy’s stories could materialize as real over the course of years of her telling them. Because, the more I kept repeating this story as a possibility, the more concrete if felt to me until I mustered the gumption to send a Facebook message to Sheila.
“Hey, I have had an insane story in my head that goes like this . . .” and I explained the story to her.
“LOL, nope. Can’t be. I don’t have any uncles named Dick,” she replied.
Case opened. Case closed. Wrong story. Not my father.
There were two Dick Sanford’s I thought might be very close to the guy who could be my birthfather. When asked to describe him again, Peggy said, “Oh, I couldn’t even conjure his face now. I remember he was big, good looking and stupid.” I remember her saying this in front of my two boys, which made me wince.
The first fictional father was the one who popped up when I searched with parameters like “Navy” and “1966” and “CT.” He was retired from Pratt & Whitney and coached American Legion baseball in West Hartford. This guy could be a fit I thought. The age group is correct; Pratt & Whitney supplies the military and the Navy is part of the military and surely a guy would have to know about electrical systems to work at a huge company that makes turbine engines, right? American Legion meant he’d seen action in some war in some division of the military (for my purposes I assign Vietnam and The Navy). He was from CT, he was in the Navy (in my imagination) and if he coached baseball I thought he may be big, good looking and stupid. I must be getting close I think. This could be my father!
I copied his contact information off the American Legion coaching staff website, right down to his address, e-mail, home and cell phone numbers. But now came the hard part. How do I contact him in a way that would elicit a response, any response?
I started futzing around with the concept of letter writing to my would-be father. I thought that this would have to be an old-fashioned letter, one on real stationery, written in ink. It seemed to be that this style of letter might be harder for him to refute and easier to connect with. I worried he wouldn’t be able to read my tragic handwriting and then I worried he would connect with my handwriting to Peggy’s, which was also sprawling and unreadable. I realized that in deciding to begin a search for my birthfather, that search would have to start with a letter that begins with a salutation and ends with sincerely. Then, I would just have to sit back and wait for a reply.
Hi Mr. Sanford,
I am doing some fact checking for a client of mine who is writing a book. I am an editor and proofreader and you can see my qualifications online at my website …
No, that didn’t work. The salutation was too familiar in its tone and it begins with a lie since I was pretending to be my own client. No one should start a relationship with that big of a lie.
Dear Mr. Sanford,
I found your name after an Internet search and am wondering if you wouldn’t mind helping me with some genealogical research I’m conducting. I am interested in finding a Dick Sanford who was in the Navy in the late 60s in Florida. I’m putting together a family tree and am trying to fill in some missing pieces.
The particular Dick Sanford I’m looking for grew up (or lived for awhile) in Ridgefield, CT, went to a technical school and was an electrician’s mate in the Navy from 1966 onward.
I would very much appreciate your help in filling in some information for me. I grew up in Redding CT and the Sanford family essentially founded the town there. You can imagine this is an important genealogy of a prominent family who founded Redding, CT. There has been quite a lot of research done already, it seems.
I won’t take up much of your time, but I would like to understand if I’m on the right track here. I would appreciate a response even if you are not the correct person. If you’re able to suggest further leads, that would be helpful.
Feel free to email me any time.
Thank you so much,
Ok, this query was plausible, placid and even true if you don’t count the sin of omission (Hiiiiii, I might be your daughter). I was not lying. I was not even curving the truth. I was carving the truth. I had a poker face in this email, I was not revealing my true motivations (that would certainly scare him away, it already did once), and I was not threatening or asking for anything. What was the point of that anyway? The message above was a whole lot better than this one . . . which certainly sets a tone.
Dear Mr. Sanford,
Remember back in May or June of 1966? You were dating a woman named Margaret ‘Peggy’ Herman before you went into the Navy in Florida? Remember her? She got pregnant. You remember, I bet. It may not be a happy memory for you, but I’ve had a happy life. I have every indication that you may be my biological father and I would really love to meet you. I’ve met Peggy.
I’m not looking for an extended relationship (unless you want that) or to upset your life or your family in any way. They don’t ever have to know about me if you don’t want them to (although I don’t see the shame in it, since it was the 60s and all). I just want to meet you and talk with you and see if we resemble each other because that’s important to me. I have two boys, almost grown teenagers, and I bet they look like you. I feel like it would put me at ease to know who my birthfather is and to see a resemblance in your face.
I’ve been trying to write about this experience and have started work on a collection of essays and I figure the least I can do is offer you the opportunity to have a voice. Peggy has her voice and I’m trying to figure out where I fit in the grand scheme of the story as she tells it. I’d really like to hear your version of events in order to understand you better so I can understand myself better. That’s all that really matters to me, although if you volunteered to pay for my MFA I’d surely let you (that was a joke, okay a half-serious joke).
The last, and most promising candidate is the guy who owns Richard Sanford Electric in Norwalk, CT. It would make sense that, as an electrician’s mate in the Navy, you might come home to start a business in electrical contracting. What would be insanely weird about this scenario is that we have probably already met. Sanford Electric was a place where my Dad (a contractor after his stint as a high school English teacher) would have stopped to get supplies while we were on the way to my Grandparents beach house in Rowayton, CT. I remember spending a lot of time in such places, pawing through plastic junction boxes and miscellaneous parts (sometimes sticking one in my coat pocket). I especially loved the lighting stores where my sisters and I could cavort around, flicking chandeliers on and off and pressing doorbells wired for sound – ding-dong, sing song – so a potential buyer could choose how they wanted guests to make their presence known.
Contacting this Dick Sanford might require a simple phone call, but how weird would that be?
“Hi, is Richard there?”
“Senior or junior?”
“The father, please.”
“He’s retired. May I ask who is calling?”
“Oh, it’s the daughter of a friend he knew back before he went into the Navy. I was just trying to get in touch with him.”
This was the part where the guy would tell me that this particular Dick Sanford was either in the Navy or was not. If he answered yes, I would ask, “Is there a way that’s best to reach him?”
The impact of a father on a girl’s life is a profound and well-documented matter. If the relationship goes sour into emotional or physical abuse, or was non-existent to begin with, people will accuse a girl of having “daddy issues.” Google it and you can feast on time-worn images like: girl posing with a stripper pole; girl with her tits hanging out; girl showing pussy in a crowd; girl draped across a pool table/fast car/biker dude; Princess Leia with Darth Vader. Girls with Daddy issues, according to the male fantasy, are easy conquests. I admit to being one of those easy conquests; a college girl who traded sex on the hopeful idea that I wasn’t just some one-night stand (which I always was); who faked orgasms to please potential suitors; who allowed herself, with her first real boyfriend at 20-years-old (how ironic, that he was in the Navy and well, stupid) to lose her virginity in a furtive fuck on Compo Beach (in advance of an oncoming downpour) in which said stupid Navy boyfriend came just as she was starting to think about it not hurting like hell (and thinking ‘thank God, at least I had my diaphragm in’); allowed said boyfriend (because he lived at home with his parents) to fuck her doggy style in his childhood bed; give her what he called a ‘nose job’ through her jeans in his parents bedroom while they were eating on the screened-in porch downstairs and suggested she borrow his mother’s nurses uniform for Halloween so he could dress her up and sneak her into a bar with him even though she was under-age (how humiliating it is just to be typing this!)
Those are Daddy issues. Trying to please a man when you have a father who is unavailable to please or unappeasable. All this because I wanted someone to stick around. None of them did. All those men did was plant seeds of doubt and walk away.
Just like Daddy did.
I am not discounting the positive impact my adoptive Dad has had on me, nor am I counting the issues I have with him here. That is not what this essay is about. It is about exploring Daddy issues surrounding a biological father I never knew; wondering why I never wanted to know him; realizing that the little I’ve been told (minus the ‘stupid’ comment) about who he is, is a near perfect description of my two sons; and getting around to getting serious about search at a time when he could most likely be dead. Timing is everything.
Today I Googled ‘Dick Sanford Obituary,’ and got this:
Richard A. “Dick” Sanford Sr., 72, died Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, at his home in Ledyard, surrounded by his loving family and cat named Munchkin after his courageous battle with cancer.
Dick was born June 13, 1941, in Lockport, N.Y., the son of Charles Sanford and Mable (Robinson) Sanford. He honorably served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years until his retirement in 1990. Afterwards, he worked in the maintenance department at Waterford Country School.
Dick was predeceased by his wife of 45 years, Charlotte (Grant) Sanford, two brothers, and a sister.
The timeframe fits. The extent of his service in the Navy fits. He lived in New London CT and died there. True story or false story? I don’t know. And I never will know, because you can’t write a letter to a dead person and expect a reply.