Connecting with the Dad I Never Knew
Marci is a personal photo organizer and the owner of, Past Present Pix. She lives in Queens, New York, and had no contact with her father from the time she was two years old. She was adopted by her stepfather when she was four. It wasn’t until she was in her forties that she met relatives on her father’s side and saw photographs of her father and his family and ancestors. ~ Cathi Nelson
Connecting with the Dad I Never Knew
By Marci Brennan
My father left my mother and me when I was about two years old, so I never really knew him. I was raised by two stepfathers. My mother was an only child, so there were no aunts, uncles, or cousins. But my mother’s parents were a big part of my life.
My first stepfather, Tom, was the father of my three sisters. I knew from a young age that Tom wasn’t my father, because we didn’t look alike, and my sisters looked a lot like him. When I was about four or five, Tom legally adopted me, and my name changed. Neither Tom nor my mother ever discussed it with me. I had been Marci Ketchem, then all of a sudden, I was Marci Brennen.
My mother also never discussed my father. It was verboten. I didn’t dare bring it up. But my maternal grandparents really liked my dad. I’d do something and they’d tell me that my dad would do it also and that I take after him a lot. My dad was an avid reader, and when I went to visit them, first thing I would do is pick up magazines and leaf through them. They’d laugh and say in Italian to each other, “See? She’s just like her dad.” I’d ask them to stop: “I am not. I’m my own person.”
My grandparents loved my father and hated my stepfather. But they had to treat him okay because he was the father of their three other grandchildren, my half-sisters. My grandparents always kept in touch with my father, on the sly. They’d hear from him when he was in town, maybe have lunch with him. They’d tell him how I was doing. He had never paid child support and now I was adopted, so he couldn’t legally contact me.
In my forties, I started sleuthing on the internet and tracked down one of my aunts, my father’s brother’s wife. Her name is Sheryl and she was happy that I had found her, especially since they were in the process of selling the home my father and his siblings grew up in. She wanted me to see it before it was sold.
The house was a 1920s Colonial-style mansion. There were rooms full of photographs! My poor aunt could have used a photo organizer, had she known of their existence. I found some photos of my father.
Growing up, I knew something was off, but I didn’t know what it was exactly. When I got these photographs, I saw who my dad was as a young man. I was surprised and moved. I thought, “He’s really cute!” He had this sort of surfer boy, Beach Boys thing going on. My mom was quite beautiful, and I could see why they were attracted to each other. I could see myself in him in these photos. There was definitely a resemblance, especially in our profiles.
A couple years later, my husband Chris and I went out to the West Coast for a friend’s wedding. While there, we drove down to California where my father’s twin sisters live. I got to meet them and my cousins for the first time. Even though I knew nothing about them, they always knew about me. They called me “Marci mystery person.” It was very emotional in a nice kind of way. We’re Facebook friends now. They don’t look anything like me, but my father’s brother’s kids do.
My aunt had done some family genealogy, and she had photo- graphs of relatives going back to the 1800s. There was a picture of my great-grandmother, who was gorgeous. She looks just like my cousin Laura.
I found out about my father when I met my aunt on the East Coast and my aunt and cousins on the West Coast. They gave me the whole story of his marriages and his wives. Through the stories behind the photos, I learned all about his life’s losses and successes.
It gave me a sense of completeness and verified what I had long suspected. I saw where my nose came from! I loved sailing, and my father was an avid sailor. He was a tennis player also. I don’t play well, but I try, and I love ball sports. It was interesting to go down the list. I saw the ways in which I take after my mother and the ways I take after my father.
I can’t stress enough the importance of preserving images. They’re a physical lifeline to our past. We need to know the story of where we came from. If l didn’t have those photos of my father, I’d still feel sort of unfinished as a grown-up. Having these pictures is a tangible connection that can’t be felt any other way.
It’s your personal history come to life. I was a photo researcher at the Bettman Archives, which has eighteen million photographs. I was so lucky that I was able to do that as a career. I actually went through physical photographs and old glass plate negatives and I saw history come alive.
Discovering the similarities between my dad and me con- firmed what I knew subconsciously. I wouldn’t trade those pictures for anything. They’re precious. They’re more than just pictures. They put the pieces together for me: “Oh, this is why I am the way I am.” It’s unfortunate that I wasn’t able to connect with my dad before he died.
One of my aunts noticed that I walk like my father, and she told me he was always cracking his knuckles like I do. She was excited, “You’re so much like Dick!” I’m the product of a lot of things, but I’m also myself. All she could see was my father, because she loved him so much.
Finding my family and the photos had a far-ranging effect - on all those relatives from coast to coast, certainly on me, and on my husband who joined me in completing that item on my bucket list.