A Father Discovered

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 10, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- The ''granny-dumping'' story took one of those odd twists. One daughter discovered the father apparently deserted by another daughter.

In Tennessee, Nancy Kingery Myatt caught John Kingery's picture in the paper. He was the father she had not seen in 28 years. He was the father who ''just slipped away from us,'' after divorce, after remarriage.

The father who just slipped away from five children.

The pathos in their nursing-home reunion is hard to overstate. A 55-year-old woman tearfully and gratefully greeting an 82-year-old father who could no longer recognize her. ''I didn't have a dad for all those years,'' she said. ''Now I have one.''

One who does not know his own name, or hers. But a father all the same.

What a mix of family dramas in this sad tale. Granny-dumping and kiddie-dumping. Children who abandon their parents and parents who abandon their children. But what my ear picked up in Nancy Myatt's words was the simple, endless hunger of a child of any age for the father who disappeared.

Some 70,000 elderly Americans are abandoned by their families each year. But that figure is overwhelmed by the numbers of deserted children.

Today, about one-third of all American children -- 19 million -- live away from their fathers. Among the children of divorce, half have never visited their father's home. In a typical year, 40 percent of them don't see their father. One out of five hasn't seen a father in five years.

There are millions of adults like Nancy Myatt and her four siblings who simply graduate to the next stage of fatherless life.

It is no wonder that the search for a man missing in the action of parenthood is such a recurrent theme in our culture and conversation these days.

In Nora Ephron's wonderfully funny and emotionally rich film, ''This is My Life,'' two daughters go off to find their father. They do not find the father of their fantasies but, rather, a man of disinterested and limited emotional means. A man who was not looking for his daughters.

In Mona Simpson's new novel, ''The Lost Father,'' a medical student in her late 20s, living a life filled with her father's absence, embarks on an obsessive search for him. She finds him and discovers neither the best she imagined nor the worst.

''He was only a man with his own troubles who didn't manage to keep track of his wife and child. After all those years, I was wrong about him. He was only a man.''

The search for father, the longing for father is at the root of Robert Bly's ''Iron John,'' and at the heart of ''Boyz N the Hood.'' It's on the mind of nearly every child whose father simply ''slipped away.''

Today's favorite image may be that of the ''new father,'' says David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, but ''the real direction is toward fatherless children.'' He cites this absence as ''the most socially consequential fact of our era.''

It is not simply an economic matter, though the public conversation about missing fathers revolves around money. We speak less about the missing man than about the missing child-support payment. We call them deadbeat dads.

But the children who talk about their missing fathers are less calculating than yearning. In both fiction and real life, they speak about the ''disappeared'' in the language of emotional loss, not financial. One thought burns a hole in Mona Simpson's central character, the thought of a deserted child: ''Why you are unwanted: that is the only question.''

A sense of longing carries over to Nancy Myatt's reunion with her father who is now present but literally absent-minded. ''The more I see him,'' she says, ''the more I want to see him and talk to him.''

There is an unhappy symmetry to the Kingery story of loss and reunion. A father abandoned by one daughter. A father discovered by the daughter he abandoned.

How many ways are there to destroy a family? How many portraits as sad as the one of a woman ''finding'' her father only after he is lost.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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