Saturday, March 17, 2018

Building A Relationship With Dad

This week's post begins a recurring series featuring the reminiscences of my maternal aunt, Diane. A longtime genealogist, her years of family history detective work piqued my own curiosity, which laid the foundation on which everything Family Sleuther is built. This week, Diane takes us on a journey of discovery as she seeks out her father (my grandfather) after a years-long absence following her parents' 1959 divorce, and builds a father-daughter relationship.

A Telephone Rings In A New Beginning
I met Dad just before my 20th birthday in the summer of 1973. Mom and Dad were divorced when my sister Donna and I were very young, about four and six. We didn’t remember him. Donna learned that Dad lived in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and mailed him her high school graduation announcement. He didn't attend, so we made plans to go to him.

A quick roadside respite on the journey to Oklahoma, 1973
I took a two-week vacation from my job and our odyssey began. We left our Colorado home in a 1963 celery green VW Beetle (with a 260 air conditioner - two windows rolled down at 60 mph!). We stopped in Plainville, Kansas a few days to see our maternal grandparents before heading on to Muskogee.

The night before our departure from Plainville, I called Dad's home. A woman answered (his wife, Dorothy) and I asked to speak to Charles Upton. While inwardly scared senseless, I was grown up and proud of myself as I forthrightly told him, “This is Diane. Donna and I will be there tomorrow.

Okay,” he replied.

That brief conversation was the first of many years of catching up and getting to know each other.

An Oklahoma Odyssey

We left Plainville the next morning with the same 1958 road map that Grandma and Grandpa had used when they visited Oklahoma over a decade before. We didn’t know about interstate driving that would have cut our trip considerably. They didn't exist on the map! It took us about ten hours driving small county roads going through many little towns with funny names like Sapulpa.

With many miles and hours before us, Donna and I talked of all we would ask him and wondered why he had stayed out of our lives for so long, not even a phone call. The questions we talked about asking were pointed and somewhat disrespectful, I think. But, as our destination was soon before us, we each lapsed into our own private thoughts and became anxious. Many what ifs.

Diane's first photo of her father Charles Upton
[Author's note: Donna reminded me that our sisters road trip was much more stressful than I remembered. She recalled that we fought like cats and dogs and at one point I pulled over to the side of the highway and told (ordered?) her to get out. She flatly refused.]

We pulled up into the drive of Dad's home. The front door swung open and a ten-year-old boy greeted us with an Oklahoma drawl, "Hi! I got sisters." In that moment, Donna and I learned that we had a half-brother.

Dad was quiet as he hugged us both, and brought us out of the muggy heat into his air conditioned home. He laughed when he saw the outdated map we used to navigate our way from Kansas.

We were in Muskogee among family that had known us when we were very young. Most of our hard questions fell by the wayside as we were swallowed among new family and somewhat new culture (the South, Oklahoma style with fried food three meals a day).

Making Up For Lost Time
Over the course of the next ten years Dad came to visit me in Kansas and Donna in Colorado and we traveled to Oklahoma. Each time I found the questions easier and gleaned more information.

Diane, James Upton "an old man"
and Donna
My first family history question to him was, “Tell me about your Dad.

His quick somewhat irreverent reply was, “He was an old man that died.

I asked him if that was what he wanted me to tell his granddaughters about him. He answered as best he could. To be fair, Grandpa James Upton was an old man that died. Grandpa Upton was born in 1877 and my dad was born in 1930. Dad was the first child from the second marriage. So, to him, his dad was an old man that died.

Over the course of the next many years there were a lot of opportunities to visit with dad about family history. He shared what he knew but it often ended with his, “I don’t know.

The closest Dad and I became was during the last six weeks of his life. He had a five-year battle with cancer and his mortal journey was ending. He was young, only 63.

We had talked about afterlife and our vision of what it would be. He was stubborn in his belief and I was positive in mine. As the time became close he was in his recliner chair (where he’d been for the past eight months) and kept looking up to the corner of the living room ceiling.

Who is that?” he asked.

Who?” I replied.

Up there, all of those people," he answered.

Dad, that’s your people, all of those I’ve asked you about. You don’t think you’ll go to God without your family gone before to take you to meet Him do you?

I think it brought him a sense of peace and there were more contemplative moments that last week. For both of us.


  1. Lord I just boo hooed! I am so glad she was bold and full of adventure and was so open and willing to go on this Journey with her Dad and Sister and for Genealogy Sakes! Thank You Aunt Diane for this....It means so much more than you know. She was truly a Genealogist at heart. I hope more folks get in their celery green VW and venture out and get the stories. You are carrying the baton Family Sleuther. What a Legacy that got you started. xoox's!

    1. True, you're awesome! Thank you for your kind words. Aunt Diane will get a kick out of your comment.

      Here's to more road trips in celery green VW beetles!

  2. What an incredibly moving story. Did they maintain a relationship with their half-brother? And I have some long lost family that lived in Sapulpa so that cracked me up. Thanks for sharing, Michael!

    1. Happily, yes, they do still keep in touch. We last saw him in 2014 during a road trip that meandered just enough to include a stop in Muskogee.

  3. Mike thank you again for the opportunity to post and Odyssey of Two Sisters. I grew up being very talkative. Always. My sister Donna was as quiet as I was talkative. Actually more so I am very grateful that my sisters intense desire I am very grateful that my sister's intense desire and strong resolve served as the catalyst that reunited two daughters with their father. Hey sis, how about another road trip?

  4. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but
    after I clicked submit my comment didn't show up. Grrrr...
    well I'm not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted
    to say excellent blog!

  5. This is such a nice story I’m glad the both of you were able to create a relationship with your dad before he passed away and you both were really brave to embark on the journey to go see your dad without the thought of being rejected after all those years thanks for sharing your story