My paternal great-grandmother wanted to have 10 children, but she only had three. Her husband was too busy starting families with other women to give her more.
When my grandmother, her only daughter, was a baby, my great-grandmother went to her philandering husband to ask him to allow her and their daughter to stay with him. The temperature outside was around zero degrees, and she had no place else to go. He hadn’t been staying at home and wasn’t helping with rent. His family could no longer afford to stay where they had been staying. But he refused them. Another woman was already there with him for the night, and he didn’t want to be bothered.
My great-grandmother found a way to the home of one of her in-laws, where she and her husband’s son had been staying, and remained with them for years. One day during the 15 years she waited for her husband to return to her and to their children, my grandmother went looking for him. She had sent him letters and her school picture every year, but he never responded. She wanted to see him.
His in-laws had a rough idea of where he lived, but it took a day of walking through several neighborhoods and knocking on several doors before they spied a man who looked like an older version of my grandmother’s brother sitting on a porch. She approached him and told him who she was looking for.
He said nothing.
To his silence, my grandmother replied, “Well if you see him, you can tell him I don’t care whether I find him or not!”
He suddenly recognized her, but when my grandmother told me of this moment, she didn’t speak of an embrace, an explanation, or an apology. She spoke of their next encounter some time later, when she asked him for a jacket that cost five dollars. His new wife gave her the money for the jacket, told my grandmother she had been trying for years to get her father to call or visit her and her brother, and told her father he had better pay her back her five dollars.
He never apologized to her for not being there for her. He said, “I’m sorry,” when he called to tell her his daughter, the one he had with the woman he married without first divorcing my great-grandmother, had died.
His apology was in response to my grandmother’s outburst, “Your daughter?!” but his apology wasn’t so much, “I’m sorry I neglected you for nearly 20 years,” as it was, “I didn’t realize what I said would offend you.”
She cut him off, saying, “No, no you got it right. That was your daughter, cause that’s the one you did for!” And she hung up the phone.