I’m sitting in an upholstered armchair Jerry reserves for his clients, worrying the gray rubber brain from his collection of stress toys – the same ones I fiddle with while waiting to hear the size of my refund. But it’s November – too early for my annual pre-April 15th appointment. In a few minutes, when Edward arrives, we’ll discuss record keeping in anticipation of submitting our next return as “married filing jointly.”
The truth is, I don’t give a chewed number 2 pencil about that. I’m here to introduce my new husband to Jerry, my surrogate father, and get his approval.
Jerry and I went back to the early eighties, when he still made house calls. A cabinetmaker friend hired Jerry to do his business taxes and recommended him. Back then he pored over my ledgers and receipts for art supplies at the kitchen table in my tiny Houston Street apartment.
During one of those early meetings Jerry announced with proud, moist eyes the birth of his son. He was starting a family and building a business. I was in my twenties and dreaming of living life as a working artist. Jerry knew about my aspirations, and my jobs cleaning houses, bookkeeping and managing an office for an interior designer. He advised me on deductible expenses: tuition for graphic arts classes, used clothing donations and subway rides between jobs. Jerry also did my then-boyfriend Robert’s taxes, and was sympathetic when our long-term relationship ended. Later came stints as a Wall Street temp, a recruiter at a Swiss bank and unemployment. Jerry knew how hard it was for me to cover the cheap rent on my stabilized apartment, and then the much higher one, after I was evicted.
I swore that I’d never leave Manhattan, but in 1996, after working seven years of steady overtime to pay for my expensive Water Street place, enjoying few luxuries beyond basic cable, I was worn down. The chance to house-sit and write in an upscale Pittsburgh suburb with my latest boyfriend appeared, and I reached for it as if it were a shining gift.
That year, I mailed Jerry my totals and W2s. He mailed back forms to sign. It didn’t feel right. Knowing me the way he did, he must have scratched his head about my move to the culturally denuded burbs.
One year later, I returned alone. “What happened?” he asked. I noticed his head of untamable fuzz was streaked with gray. I unloaded about my 12 stressful months with a man who hid his drinking problem until I moved to Pennsylvania. “That wasn’t all,” I said. “You could walk 10 miles and not find a newspaper or a cup of coffee.”
Jerry smiled his philosophical half smile and told me that since I returned with a job waiting for me, I could deduct the United Van Lines bill. His tall, bearish presence was comforting, but I was nervous before all of our appointments because I wanted him to see I was doing well – or just better than the previous year. I even took special pride in presenting my papers, organized in a three-ring binder with vibrant section dividers.
Sometimes there was good news – a raise at my day job and a trip to Italy financed by sales of my artwork. Other times were leaner. Jerry scolded me for wasting money on color printer ink but never said, “Isn’t it about time you grew up?”
Tamara cut my hair to hide the two-inch scar on the back of my head. Angelo hammered taps onto my heels because I walked so much. John hemmed my pants knowing my left leg was longer than my right. They all understood parts of me, but only Jerry had the complete picture – career struggles, romantic entanglements and personal growth.
He would be surprised to learn I’d made him a fill-in father, but why not? My biological one knew nothing about me after I turned 16, two years after my parents divorced. My father remarried and had a son with his new wife. When she grew to feel threatened by his contact with my siblings and me, my father chose peace with her over contact with us.
In 2000, after not seeing my father since his mother’s funeral 10 years before, I wrote him announcing my engagement. He never wrote back. I remember being happy that life had sent me the opportunity to appear courteous, and at the same time, show my absentee father how I thrived without him. I spared no detail in describing the accomplished family into which I was marrying. I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t hear from him.
But every January Jerry sent his “Dear Friends & Clients” letters, reminding me to organize my records and updating me on his year’s activities. In his latest, he joked about the extreme temperatures in his office, then segued into the recent turbulent weather and the natural beauty of the Hubbard Glacier he saw on his cruise to Alaska. How starved was I for familial warmth that Jerry’s form letters made me feel as if I could show up uninvited for dinner?
“Four days in the Louvre.” I’m telling Jerry about my Paris/London honeymoon, when Edward walks in, swathed in exquisite Italian tailoring and carrying his doctor’s bag briefcase. I beam with pride at this self-assured, self-employed designer, who wears suits with the ease of pajamas. They smile and shake hands.
Edward, in his sociable, mid-Western way describes his business as if he’s asking Jerry for my hand. “We’ve started a real estate fund,” I add proudly. Jerry leans forward with his hands on his knees and grins approvingly – because he knows I won’t starve – and because at age 46, I’m providing well for myself.
“Congratulations to you both,” Jerry says with outstretched arms. We button our coats, shining under his blessing. My teenager-from-a-broken-home shame falls away as I see there’s no dishonor in searching out a father substitute. You need only feel grateful when you find him.