People You May Know


In a 300 x 300 pixel square, a metal mask covered with what looked like the pelt of a small mammal—perhaps a mink—stared back at me. The animal’s face and teeth were preserved, wide-eyed, crazed. The eyes, empty.

When I saw that tiny square under “People You May Know” on Facebook, my stomach fell. Under that square was my father’s name. I hadn’t seen nor heard from him in twenty-seven years.

The only photo I have of him is one with his back to the camera, crouched down in front of me when I was little; in it, I’m staring at my feet even though his head is almost level with mine. I don’t remember his face—I remember glasses, a beard, nondescript sandy brown hair. The rest is diffuse, as if smudged with an old dry pencil eraser, making the attempt at erasure more obvious than just leaving the error alone.


It takes friends, even ones with whom I grow close, a while to realize I do not talk about him. When I talk about my family, it’s about my mother and grandmother, who raised me. I lived in the house my mother grew up in, in her father’s red brick and seven-green-gables dream house. I talk about aunts and cousins. I talk about friends who have become family.

It can be years before the silence becomes heard.

“Wait,” they will say. “How come there are no stories about your father?”

I don’t actively hide the facts; it’s not so painful I don’t have the words. I have few memories and facts associated with him. I have bits and pieces so filtered through others’ perspectives that few memories feel like mine alone.

“He was never around,” I reply, then recount the facts:

I never lived with him. After about a year of marriage, my mother left him just before I was born.

We lived with her parents; my grandfather, who I called Dada, died when I was four. From then on, it was my grandmother, my mother, and me. I have been told that my father was not around until after Dada died. My father had Sunday visitation rights. Six hours. Some Sundays he canceled. Some, he just didn’t show up.

He always smelled like Camels and Budweiser.


Staring at that profile picture, I couldn’t not click. My usual disinterest had been replaced by a surge of electricity fueling my fingertips. I read the “About” details. There’s little. It couldn’t be him. Yet, with each click, there were facts I found I remembered:

His brothers’ names.

His mother’s maiden name several times—cousins, perhaps.

The name of his high school.

The connection: an extended family member by marriage, on my mother’s side. My mother met my father through that person’s spouse, or so I was told many years ago. I spent the better part of a day clicking and searching to find something. What, I wasn’t sure of.

None of the photos featured his face.


When I give the brief history of knowing my father, people often say, I’m sorry, and that must have been hard. They ask, Didn’t you ever want to know more? and Didn’t you miss him? Some are angry, asking, Where the hell was he? and What the fuck? Who does that?

I appreciate their support, and I’m no longer threatened by their curiosity. But, I’m not sorry. I don’t know if it was hard. If he had been around, would he have even shown up? As for who does that?, it seems like plenty of biological parents do exactly this.

Still, the baseline for a “normal” family is two parents with kids. If something about the baseline is disrupted, the disruption must result in trauma. That can be true, of course, but plenty of families don’t look like the baseline. Plenty of children are raised in non-nuclear families that potentially result in less trauma than the nuclear family might have. For me, this was the case. The disruption seemed to be one less adult to manage. A bullet dodged. One less complexity in a life built on what was unsaid.

As I got older, there were times I was acutely aware of these differences. Moving into my college dorm on a hot August afternoon, I remember looking around seeing men carry everything, girls calling out, “Daddy!” and pointing at a box or a chair. The girls were tan and their clothes were not wrinkled; they barely perspired. I had my hair back in a bandana; I was sweating through my t-shirt. My mother and I lugged crates, my grandmother staying back with the car.

I felt distinctly out of place, and yet not once did I think, I wish my dad was here or even, more accurately, I wish I had dad who was here. If he had shown up on moving days, at graduations, or at my wedding, I wouldn’t have known what to say or how to act. I never missed him, because to miss someone, they would have to be part of the picture. There would have had to have been a relationship created and grown.


One of the memories I have of my father is the day when a man whom I didn’t know showed up to take me to the zoo. I was about five years old. My mother wept and told me to go with him, and to be good, and that she would see me in six hours. My grandmother closed the door and my mother turned away from the window. He yanked my tiny wrist. I demanded to know who he was, and when he told me, “I’m your dad,” I insisted that he wasn’t.

Did I wish to have father in my life? It was never a question of wanting my parents to reunite. I never existed in a space where they, together, meant anything more than fragmented conversations after which my mother would weep, shake with rage or fear or both, or walk away and lock herself in her room. Dada wasn’t my dad—I knew that he was my mother’s father—but he was closest thing I had to the form of a nuclear family.

Once I had met him, I called my father by his first name. He lived with his mother, and my mother lived with hers. It was never his house, but where he lived. It was never our house, either; it was the house I grew up in. These were things that were facts to me; I had no idea they were strange until friends and teachers asked questions—and until I was told not to talk about these differences.

Others’ curiosity is what made me realize the peculiarity of my situation. Why do you live with your grandmother? Where’s your dad? I look back and wonder whether these questions were asked with the nosy malice I, and my family, perceived them to be. Mostly, they broke the silence. We were not supposed to name the differences we pretended did not exist: addiction, mental illness, abuse, divorce.

Those questions weren’t supposed to exist, because we were just fine, thank you, and the answers weren’t supposed to exist, either. I wasn’t supposed to draw attention to my family, but the overwhelming silence did just that.

And yet, I knew. Knowing some of the answers, however, and being able to name them are two different things. The taxonomy of relationships—whether by blood, community, or choice—is far messier than the words I had been allowed as a child.

Facebook’s neat labels and algorithms cannot begin to account for all the forms of kin, community, and history among people. The complexity of relationships flattens with the ability to find out what an old flame is up to, or what the bully does now, to rekindle old friendships, settle disputes, or start new ones. Facebook was built on the core assumption that everyone wants to be connected, that every single human interaction and connection matters and has value.

Maybe they don’t. Maybe they don’t have to. Maybe that’s okay.


I don’t know what I was like around him. I wasn’t a troublemaker. I wasn’t hostile. I remember existing quietly in dim rooms in his mother’s house or having dinner with his mother. Often she was around more than he was. I remember waiting to go home. Was he hungover? Drinking? He was not supposed to drink in front of me.

Sometimes on Sundays he took me on hikes. That I liked, though I never knew what to say to him, nor him to me. He was at one point going to build me a treehouse in an oak tree in his mother’s yard; I remember thinking I was too old for a treehouse, but that it still seemed like a kind gesture, and “kind” was not a word I associated with him.

He built most of the platform, but accidentally nailed his thumb, and stopped. Was that shortly before he left? Is that actually what happened or a narrative transition I’ve filled in somewhere along the way? I’m not sure. In those moments I wondered if maybe we would have an actual relationship, as much as a nine-year-old could imagine. He seemed less angry. More together. And yet I was never excited to see him. I never talked to him during the week.

Looking back, I’m not sure whether he ever hugged me. I was afraid to say much about anything because my mother was afraid of him. I don’t remember what we talked about. He knew nothing of my day-to-day life. He knew nothing of my teachers, or homework, or piano recitals, or what I liked to read. I don’t know how much of this was my mom and, by default, me, wary and skeptical, and how much of it was him not caring, or simply accepting the silence. The one thing I knew for sure was that silence was safe.

He wasn’t always distant. He made attempts. Sometimes we’d go to K-Mart and he would let me pick out a toy. My mother, however, would get angry, thinking he was trying to buy my affection, and thinking that I was actively manipulating him. I stopped telling her about the toys, and either left them at my father’s house or kept them hidden. It was just easier. I see these toys as small kindnesses, attempts to build something between us when neither of us knew how. The toys made Sundays a little more bearable; the trips also didn’t last long. He wasn’t ever around enough for me to understand who he was to me, and what I was to him.

The empty space of what he represents was part of something bigger: keeping quiet and not asking questions for fear of what those questions may provoke.

Having to unlearn silence has been hard. There are days when asking for help, or sharing a good moment at work, gets stuck in my throat. My husband talks through everything. He wants me to as well. We clash, but he isn’t afraid to push me to talk despite every inclination I have not to—to say what I’m thinking, to say what I need, what I want, to engage with him in conversation, in arguments, in the world.


As friends asked questions, I realized I had trouble describing what I felt when he popped up on FB: bewilderment? A flicker of an imagined life that would not have existed under any circumstances? A longing for certainty? A scent memory of Camels and Budweiser?

The story of the long-lost reunited father and daughter never had much pull for me, except perhaps in the Victorian garrets and gardens in Frances Hodgson Burnett books. On daytime talk shows, books, and movies, there is always a reckoning, an absolution, an explosion, a completion—a resolution no matter how beautiful or ugly. For me, any desire to connect that may have once existed was long gone. What needs resolving if something never existed in the first place?

Still nagging me, however, is that strange mask that popped up in “People You May Know.” Why this? Why now?

With no meaningful links, online or in real life, how?


“Can you ask your mom to come out? I need to talk to her,” he said as I got out of the car.

“Okay. See you next week,” I said. He didn’t reply.

She went out and I watched them from the kitchen window. She came back in five minutes later, unburdened and stunned.

“He’s not coming back,” she said. “He’s letting go.”

I acted happy and relieved because my mother was happy and relieved. She did not need to see the embodiment of her fear every week or send her daughter off with him into the unknown, simply because the court said so, and she may have been more afraid of the court than of him. Her relief was my relief, as far as she could imagine.

was relieved. I was relieved I didn’t have to act, that I had one less landmine to avoid, that my life might be simpler. I didn’t feel much more than that. I didn’t feel loss or anger. I didn’t ask questions. I went to school the next day, and the next. I didn’t talk about my father, so nobody knew he was actually gone. Nobody really knew he was around in the first place. He faded out.

One question spun for a while: letting go of what? I had nothing to let go of in the first place; did he ever have me to lose?


Seeing his profile brought me back there, to those questions, and to wonder what I even felt then and now. Bewilderment? Meaning? Divine signs? I wanted to impose a narrative to connect the dots. Maybe I can have a narrative, however messy, that settles the bits and pieces fluttering about my mind.

I stared at that stupid profile square. In two clicks, I could reach out. This afterimage seemed a little more real. I started cataloging the questions and imagining the situations.

What would I write to him?

I have some medical history questions since I’m staring down forty. Can you tell me about any chronic health conditions that run in your family? 

P.S. Do I have half-siblings? 

Or: Was watching the Superbowl, and passing out early, worth missing my eighth birthday—the one birthday I had on a Sunday, when you had insisted on keeping your visitation day?

You weren’t at the hospital when I was born. My mother said you told her to take a cab home, even when she wasn’t sure where exactly home was—was she living with you, or with her parents? Sometimes I wonder, would it have been worse if you had stayed? Did you think you were doing me a favor? 

Why did you fight my mother for custody, especially since you ended up disappearing? What would you have done if you had won? 


A part of me wants to be able to define what he did and who he was. That part of me wants him to acknowledge me, just once. It wants him to own up to his choices. It wants him to look me in the eye when he says it. It wants it in writing. It wants it mounted on a wall.

I want it named. I think I always have. But I doubt breaching the ephemeral boundary of “People You Might Know” would result in a definition of what this lifelong afterimage really is. He used to live 4.5 miles away from the house I grew up in; I never ran into him around town. Now, his profile says he lives in another state, 450 miles away. To track him down when I was younger and impulsive, I would have had to drive to his house, considering the magnitude of my actions, of imagining all the situations. I would have had to look him in the eye if he answered the door.


Many marriages in my family have fallen apart. Some never should have been; others, who knows? Men were mostly absent during my childhood beyond neighbors and teachers, but men still were believed to be the ones who could fix things. After all the heartbreak and fear they created in my family, men were still the ones to be relied upon, even when these men were anything but reliable.

It’s easy to say, those were the times; that’s how women were raised back then, and it’s true. Also true, however, is that it’s a cop-out when you’re an adult with responsibilities. The implicit operating system was that nothing could be fixed because there were no men to take care of things. It created a murky purgatory where door locks were left unfixed, where overcharges on bills mostly went unchallenged, and the obstacles of everyday life were not mere annoyances but unmovable boulders that diverted lives in what seems like permanent ways.

Perhaps that sounds unforgiving or bitter. My grandmother kept food on the table, got me off to school in the morning, and sent me to college, and I will always be deeply grateful for her care. Upon leaving home, however, I found a world of people and relationships and communities for which I was unprepared.

Looking back, I thought love meant a partner who would make me whole. Later, that shifted and I tried to “fix” others. Give me someone with trust issues, whose anger was simmering, who couldn’t quite get over his ex—I’d be smitten and determined to heal them.

As I lived out in the world for longer (and after a lot of therapy), I came to know that I wasn’t broken nor were others—we’re all flawed and scarred a bit. There was no inherent curse that doomed me to a miserable life. I had the ability to change, the ability to love, the ability to take care of myself. I didn’t have to fix anyone, either. I grew up. I found someone who is reliable, who shows up, who looks me in the eye, who speaks what he’s thinking; I try to do the same.

Did you think you were broken? Was accepting silence easier for you, too?


Later, after the day he left, my mother asked if I’d noticed anything different about him. She kept bringing it up, perhaps to see if I was angry, if I knew something I wasn’t telling her.

I hadn’t, because I generally couldn’t notice things about him because he was a ghost to me, even when seated next to me in a car.

“Has he been dating anyone? Have you met any of his girlfriends?” Once, years ago. She was nice.

“Did you notice his hands?” I furrowed my brow and waited for her to say what she was trying to get at.

“I think he was wearing a wedding band,” she said.

“Oh. Huh.” I’ll add that to the list: Had you gotten married, or was my mom imagining things? Was she concerned for the next woman? Did she think he would have been a better partner to someone else?


Returning to the image months later, I zoom in, and finally see that there may be a human behind the mask. There’s the semblance of lips, of eyes. But I can’t tell if that’s part of the sculpture, if that’s what it is. He may have made it; I’ve been told he went to art school for a time. A Google reverse-image search returned nothing. It’s not a reference to something I haven’t seen before. It is profoundly unsettling. It is the clearest shape I have ever had of him.

I went through the rest of the day dumbfounded, fumbling through questions that didn’t seem like the right ones. What was it, exactly, that I was feeling? What was it, exactly, that I wanted to know?

Michel de Montaigne wrote:

Men do not know the natural infirmity of their mind: it does nothing but ferret and quest, and keeps incessantly whirling around, building up and becoming entangled in its own work, like our silkworms, and is suffocated in it.

Of course, becoming entangled in his mind’s work through his essays is exactly what Montaigne did. It’s what I do, in life and in writing. All my brain does is ferret and quest for any number of things, but when it comes to the concept of my father, there was nothing threatening to suffocate my thoughts. That, it seems, may be why all of my questions feel so flimsy. I’m not trying to fill in the void, but rather, to understand why there isn’t one. I’m trying to bring something into focus that never was.

I didn’t acknowledge him by blocking him, or even clicking the “x” available to let the algorithms know that you aren’t interested. I tried to put my finger on what bothered me most: that an algorithm could punch me in the gut based on the naïve premises of connections always being a positive outcome? That the world I’ve constructed around the space social constructs designated as “father” is more vast than he will ever know? That perhaps the same is true for him? I have more access now, on a whim, for curiosity to overtake me and to reach out—a curiosity that never existed before. And, potentially, so does he.

Silence can be oppressive; it can also be comforting, familiar, safe.

But if he were to reach out now, not to nine-year-old me but to thirty-nine-year-old me, he’d find a much different answer. He’d find a woman comfortably settled in a life she built, who isn’t questioning whether the people in her life will show up because the ones who are let in are ones who do, and who isn’t trying to keep everyone happy all the time. If he magically knew and answered all the questions I don’t even know I have, if he said whatever it is he needs to say, what then?

There’s an assumption that something needs to be said, and I’m not convinced there is. I am unwilling to risk the certainty that is not knowing. His afterimage remains and flickers in the periphery.


Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.

Heather A. McDonald lives, writes, and teaches in Washington, D.C. Her writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction and was listed as a notable for Best American Essays 2012. More from this author →