Monday, June 16, 2014

Celebrating Fathers' Day with my Sister and the Ghost of Our Father

This weekend, I finally met my sister. Not my sister-in-law, or my stepsister or even stepsister-in-law, but my actual, honest-to-God sister. (Well, technically half-sister, since nothing dealing with my family can ever be that easy.)


In any event, Kelly Frost and her husband Paul and her sons Doug and Tyler are part of the bizarre patchwork of marriages, divorces, remarriages and legal actions that make up the branches of the family. I swear, my roots must look like a Banyan Tree in the middle of Bali by now. I'd love to see Alex Haley dive into this one.

Some of you met me as Raymond Werfel, my mother's maiden name and the name hoisted upon me when she and my father divorced scant months after my birth. The Werfel name, besides belonging to a famous German/Austrian writer Franz, was the family name belonging to my maternal grandfather, Richard Werfel, by all accounts a very angry, bitter man, prone to violent rages so bloody, the state of Pennsylvania granted my grandmother a divorce in a time when such things were so rare as to be impossible. Why that name was kept 30 years after that ground-breaking divorce and passed down to me, I'll never know.

Some of you met me as Raymond Jones, when my mother's second marriage in 1984 to Edward F. Jones, Sr., a.k.a. Butch or Pop, put me into an instant family with Rob Jones, Edward Jones, his wife Maryann, followed up with Rob's children Kari, Catherine Airington and Donnie. Sadly, my mom and Butch divorced before I could ever really get to know Ed and M.A.s son Trey, and their daughter Katie was born years after the papers were signed and the family split. I still keep in contact with them from time-to-time, but it's been 20 years since the divorce and almost half that since Butch passed. Time does let things fade though I loved having stepbrothers who loved me and teased me as though the "step" never existed. .

Most of you know me as Raymond Bradley, since, by all rights, it's been my name since 1973. Thanks to my mother's flawed belief that you can just change your son's last name without a court order, while I went to school as either a Werfel or a Jones, I was always in the eyes of the law a Bradley. Raymond Werfel and Raymond Jones should never have existed, and, in 1992, the State of Maryland told me so in as many words, and thus the arrival of the name that should never departed. However, you can't blame my mom - my father, Larry Edward Bradley, signed away all parental responsibility as part of the divorce settlement. Why *should* I have the Bradley name when he didn't want to be my father? There's logic in her thought process.
So, after 1992, either you heard it on the radio before a traffic report or on a random mid-market morning show, or you met me at Towson State University, or in my short-lived career as a stand-up comic, or in my real grown-up adult life as a hard-working Government video engineering contractor or Senior Sales Engineer. Or, perhaps you have me confused with the MIT scientist of the same name; if so, I apologize, but trust me, I am SO much funnier than that guy. Dude can not do a Family Guy impersonation to save his life, let alone anybody from the Simpsons. And he smells.

No matter when or how you met me, no matter the name, there was always something I was missing - the connection to the Bradley side of me. I found it ironic that Maryland insisted I use the name of a man who left me with my mom, never to be contacted again. Butch and I had our issues, no doubt, but at least he stuck around for a few years and taught me how to ride a bike and throw a curveball. That's 100% more than I got from my own father, and frankly, I liked the last name of Jones. It seemed less Wehrmacht-y than Werfel, and the Jones family was around and present. Uncle Artie, Aunt Henrietta, Grandma Ruth, Ed's in-laws on Kent Island, Rob's kids, even Spooky and Sam the cats and Bud the Chow Chow. I had *connections* to those people. Why should I be something I wasn't *ever,* rather than something I just wasn't *anymore?*

As for my dad, I know almost met him once. I was about 6 or 7, and as was after-church custom, we'd go pick up a bucket of fried chicken from English's in Annapolis, where the Pier 1 is on West Street. I always loved fried chicken, and English's was GOOD crispy Maryland fried chicken. I was craving a leg as we walked in the door, but my grandma put me in a death grip I couldn't believe. She was practically breaking my shoulder yanking me back to the parking lot, and I was asking her "what was wrong? Was the place on fire? Where's Mom? Are they being robbed?" Grandma said something like "hush" but I can't clearly recall. Mom got back in the car a couple of seconds later, and she drove us off in a huff. "Why aren't we getting fried chicken?" I asked. She said "that was your father in there." I remember leaping to the back window straining to see him, crying out "DAD!! DAD!!!! DADDY!!!" hoping he'd hear me, and come running after me. I couldn't open the door, but oh I tried, in my mind pulling off a sweet shoulder roll down Riva Road and running over to be reunited with my dad, but the damned automatic locks kept me in the car...and probably keeping me from breaking my shoulder because when I was 7, I was many things, but "athletic" was not one of them. I saw a shadow in the door of English's, and that was it. I don't know if it was him or a random customer. I remember grandma reaching for me to drag me back down into the seat, but after that, it's a blur lost to time.

That was as close as I ever got to meeting him. My only memory of him was me clawing at the back windshield of some gas-guzzler like some sort of pet being sent to a farm to live out in the country.

I'd met my aunt on my dad's side once. She saw me playing in the backyard of the old W-5 grocery store, and introduced herself to me. She was my father's twin sister, and though I might have been 6 or 7 years old at the time, I recall the conversation as being very one-sided. She told me fantastic stories about the great things my dad did, and was doing. She was making most of them up, but to a frankly extremely naive child, they seemed plausible. In fact, in the years that followed, that's the only way I learned anything my dad - made-up stories by people coming into the store who either knew him, or claimed to do so. "He played soccer in England before wrecking his knee. You're named after one of his buddies there, you know." "He lived in Australia for a while." "I heard he's in South Africa." "Last I heard, he owned a bar in Florida.""He's got three kids living in Alabama." - these stories would come in every few years from random customers, and they were like trail mix to a starving man - not what I needed, but better than no food at all. I always asked the people with these stories "did he ask about me? Did he say anything? Does he miss me?!" Amazing that none of these drunken tales about my father's exploits involved any concern about me.

It was a bizarre day in 2002 when I got a phone call I'd never expected. I was in a condo in Henderson, Nevada, working for technical education sales company, about to perform a show at this technical conference, and then maybe meet up with some of my comic buddies in Vegas and see how many dirty jokes we could write and tell, and possibly even get paid for it. It was my second time in Las Vegas but the first time with more than 36 bucks in my pocket, and I couldn't wait to hit the casinos and see the sights. I've never been much of a gambler, but I know sports, and I knew I could make some money at the sports' books. But the call stopped all that. It was my mom, saying in a very stunned voice "Your father died." The first emotion was one of acceptance - he'd essentially been dead to me for all 29 of my years at that point. The second was one of profound loss of opportunity - why did he never contact me? He knew where we lived, he knew the grocery store, he knew how to find my mom. By that point, I'd been on a bunch of different radio stations and had performed at dozens of clubs, and had the raybradley.com domain - was he waiting for me to become famous? He never bothered to look me up after 3 decades, but now I'm in Vegas, where I know my next step is L.A., now he dies before he can hit me up for money??? Larry Edward Bradley, dead before 50 and leach off his soon-to-be-famous son he ignored for nearly 30 years.

 The rest of the Vegas stay was horrific. One person from the company I was working for asked me if my dad was Catholic, and, if so, did we put money in his coffin. This is maybe 3 hours after the call, and I asked "I don't know. Why?" He said "Because you Catholics have to buy your way into Heaven." I vaguely remember spitting in his coffee when he wasn't looking, but that might have been my own Starbucks. Either way, I was so furious at the guy that later that night at the club, I punched a guy. Hard. He shouldn't have mouthed off to me and the other comics, and after the jackhole at the conference, I was officially surly and looking for a fight. I was 29, I was working out, and I just lost my father. I wanted a bigger fight, to just kick his ass, but I was ushered out the door and was on a flight back east before I could even pack my clothes at the condo. That was my fantastic, career defining moment in Vegas - punching a Neo-Nazi heckler, and also why my comedy career came to a complete halt. Thanks Dad. Couldn't wait to die until AFTER I got on a Fox sitcom starring Tom Arnold first???

Safely back east, I awaited some word from the Bradley family about my father's will or estate. Surely the man would have left me a note or a letter, justifying his actions in 1974. Maybe a trinket, a pocket watch or something from England like a soccer ball or from Australia like an upside-down soccer ball, or any other Commonwealth nation he was rumored to be residing in. That call never came; that trinket or patch or even a card didn't exist.

Two years later in 2004, as a good upstanding citizen who, thanks to the timely flight from McCarran International, has no criminal record, I went to vote at my local polling location in my hometown of Edgewater. I walked up to the election day volunteer, a man old enough to have voted for one Roosevelt and against the other, and gave my name. He looked over the list of registered voters and said "Larry Edward Bradley?" Surprised, I said "Um, no... wow... uh... that's my father. He passed a couple of years ago." The man pointed to Larry Edward Bradley on his list asking "That ain't you?" and that's when I saw the address. My father lived, quite literally, 30 feet from me for at least five years. For a while, our YARDS touched at the corners. And I never met the man.

Was he the one watching me mow the lawn a few years earlier? Was the man I said "hello!" to while running our broke-down Toro around our postage-stamp sized yard... was THAT my dad? Did my mom know? Did HE know? He had to have known, right? My mom hadn't aged much between `74 and `91; she still looked like herself. I'd grown at least 5 feet and gained at least 100 pounds.

With the backstory complete, you can see why it took my marriage to Siobhan for me to even begin to care about the Bradley side of my life again. Once we decided to get married, and we talked about the whole last name thing, I offered to take her name if it would be easier for her law license. I had no connection to the Bradley surname. He was essentially a sperm donor, and I've already been a Jones; why not a Smith?! Ray Smith! Sounds like a dude who fixes cars in Nebraska! I could do that! Ray Smith Motors! I could sell dependable vehicles to hardworking Midwestern families! Besides, the Smith Family instantly welcomed me into their group with open arms, and the rest of their wonderful family through the Smith Brothers and the Bastanzios and the Bellottis - it's like I gained three new families when I couldn't imagine having ONE!

As we would like to have kids of our own, it was important to find out as much as we could about my father's health, illnesses, genetic traits, medical history - typical things like that I simply did not know. The Bradleys are a mystery in this modern age - they simply do not seem to exist in a digital format. Thanks to a death notice, I learned my grandmother's name was Jeanette, that my dad had an older brother named Robert, an older sister and a twin sister. No forwarding address, no contact info, no emails. No nothing. It takes five seconds on a dial-up connection to look me up on Facebook or with a Google machine, and then filter the results to subtract the MIT guy. It took MONTHS on DSL and FiOS to find any sniff of people who share 50% of my DNA, and even when I caught a scent, it'd go cold. Certifications, colleges, Myspace, Flickr, LinkedIn, FarmersOnly.com ...it's like the Bradley kin didn't exist.

Until Donna Smith came along with her Ancestry.com information, that is. It took that website a couple hours to find a death notice for my father that I'd never seen via Google or Yahoo. This notice was different - it listed his immediate family's names, and - shockingly - his children's names! His TWO children...neither of one was me. Sure enough, both of them had Facebook accounts, and with a shot of bourbon-fueled courage in 2013, I emailed them both with a letter stating "I think I'm your brother...half-brother, to be accurate."

Sure enough, I am. Far too old to pull any fraternal pranks on my big half-sister; way too late to babysit my baby half-brother. My older sister did indeed remember me, her being in elementary school when I was born. She too grew up in Edgewater, and would come in to the W-5 when I was just a toddler. She was watching over me, no doubt curious as a young girl would be about a baby brother, half-brother or not. However, the scars of the divorce with our father were still raw, and my mom and grandma didn't want her coming into our grocery store anymore.

I am fairly certain that my younger half-brother did not know or didn't remember that I existed when I emailed him. Maybe Kelly told him, maybe his mother told him years later when she was married to our dad. Either way, it's weird knowing that all three of us have things in common, like sports and the water and the Navy and, according to Facebook, some friends in common before I ever sent out those emails. The world is small, and I've probably drank next to Kelly at Hammerjacks and Shawn at the Turtle.

This weekend was Father's Day weekend, and I finally met Kelly in person. It wasn't planned this way, but this past Saturday was the first time I got to meet an actual link to my father - OUR father - when I met her at her condo in Ocean City, Maryland. There, Siobhan and I met Paul and Tyler, his girlfriend Gina and her parents. Kelly and I do have a family resemblance, mostly in the eyes. We're not dead-ringers, but we do look somewhat related, somewhat like a brother and sister, which is something I'd never thought I'd ever get a chance to say.

Kelly's been great in filling in the gaps between my dad's real life and the drunken tales told in Edgewater in my youth. Basically...my dad was a barfly. He DID run a bar in Daytona for a while; he used to manage a Hot Shoppes! in DC down Connecticut Avenue, a former local chain of coffee and pie places that took him through Chevy Chase, right where Bradley Lane almost intersects with Raymond Street. He did not play soccer in England; he never lived in Australia, South Africa or probably anywhere other than Maryland or Florida. To anybody who heard the "my dad played soccer in England" story - I didn't know! Sorry!! I was a trusting little kid!!! We didn't have the Google back then! (not like I'd be able to find him on it anyway...).

In a bizarre twist of fate, my father was a regular at Pat O'Briens in Downtown Annapolis, and was a manager at A.L. Goodies on Main Street. Where did I go nearly every day after high school in Annapolis? A.L. Goodies. What was the first bar in Annapolis I went to after I moved to Iowa? Pat O'Briens. I remember running into a girl I went to school with, Margaret Rose, that night at O'Briens. We talked about college and how long it had been since we'd seen each other. There was an older man in the background of my memory of that night, looking from the bar at us. Now, at the time, I assumed any man with a pulse would have been looking at Margaret because she was much prettier than I was, but now, I've got to wonder. That man in the background at A.L. Goodies, the man behind the counter I must have walked past a hundred times while Paul Gordon and I went upstairs to play video games in the arcade or sneak peeks at the adult magazines... was that? COULD that? Maybe? Possibly? Was he letting me get away with that, as a penance for his own absence? Between O'Briens and A.L. Goodies and the lawn...was he STALKING me?  Protecting me? Wondering if I was the son he once had? Did he even recognize me? Did he even remember me?

I'll never know.

I'll never know why he signed away his parental rights to me. No visits, no child support, no nothing. I'll never know if he was truly a bad guy or if my mom overreacted to the divorce or where exactly on the sliding scale the truth rests. I don't know why any of the Bradley proper family never bothered to contact me. For years, I assumed it was because he was doing something awesome, like playing for Manchester City in England - because that would be, by any definition, awesome - but I then wondered after 5, 10, 15 years had past, maybe he just didn't like me. Was he so mad at my mom that he lumped me in with her? I deduced that he didn't care about me, and I wasn't good enough. It made me an easy target for kids at school - I was "the boy with the weird last name because his father didn't love him, so let's beat him up." It was easy to believe horror stories about the man from my mom, aunts or grandmother because I never had any proof to the contrary. Even my uncles had beef with him, though my Uncle Jim once did admit the man was a hard worker, which, in his value system, is high praise.

Most likely, he was never more than 15 minutes away, trying to keep a bar stool from floating away in the breeze off the Bay.

So, while I'll most likely never get any answers as to why my father was the way he was, or will ever get an explanation as to why he just walked away, or even if he ever thought about me, the one thing I have learned is that family is what you make of it. I'm proud to call Kelly my sister, Paul my brother-in-law, Tyler my nephew, and I can't wait to meet Doug. They're fun people; ready to have a good time, ride a motorcycle or watch a game, eat some crabs. I can handle that. I'll probably never get to dip her pigtails in an inkwell or shoot up her Barbie Dolls with my G.I. Joes, but at least we can yell at the TV to make sure the dude in orange-and-black knows he needs to hit a home run. And woe to any bar that switches the TV over to a Steeler game during Ravens' season!

I'm going to like getting to know my newest, oldest sibling.

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