PERSONAL ESSAY

"Dear Father" letters and DNA tests

Fathers have always been prickly territory for me, a Métis child of the Sixties Scoop adopted by Mennonites

By Brittany Penner

Published December 4, 2021 7:30PM (EST)

Dear Father... (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Dear Father... (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Sunday afternoons feel so much slower at my parents' house, an old two-story country house on a hobby farm in Southern Manitoba that has been remodeled more times than I can count. Water still leaks through the plastered walls on the first floor, and ladybugs and old flies resurrect like clockwork in the windowsills of their unused second floor with the thaw of each spring.

Over the years, I have developed a habit of inspecting my childhood room whenever I visit their home. I do not know what I am searching for, but like the predictable bow of my father's chin whenever he motions to pray, I walk up to my old room minutes after I arrive at their house for a visit, days away from my 32nd birthday.

My parents bought the double bed, still sitting on that old steel bed frame, second-hand from my friend's grandmother when I was 10 years old. Rigid and firm, I would layer it with three thick folded blankets to offer my body more support. The winters were always trickier. I'd have to decide between lying on the extra blankets for comfort or using them to keep me warm in the dead of our cold nights after our outdoor wood stove had broken down again. Eventually, I learned to roll the blankets around me like the Fruit Roll-Ups I'd seen in other children's lunchboxes at school. (Mom would always help, tucking my feet in at the end.)

Across from the bed sits a dark brown cabinet with wicker drawers that Mom dragged in after I left for school at 18. Dust lies on top, so thick now I don't bother to wipe it off. There used to be so much life in here. I place the palm of my right hand against the base of my throat, as I inhale the stale scent of the room before I turn to leave.

The stairs creek as I walk down to reach my parents sitting at the kitchen table. Mom has prepared a small lunch — faspa, as is said in Low German. Unlike Dad, she was born Catholic, but was baptized into his Mennonite faith after the two of them married. She learned Low German by listening to his parents, his 11 siblings, and their spouses and children converse at Sunday faspas at my grandparents' farm.

I grab a handful of plain chips and place a few pieces of garlic sausage onto my plate, and I sit next to Mom. I hand her my phone after opening it to a photo of the man she'd asked to see.

"He cute." A giggle escapes her carefully burgundy-lined lips.

I hear a loud crunch as Dad bites into one of the sour pickles left on his plate. Mom holds my phone in one hand, resting her chin on the other, as she inspects the man's face. I thought his almond-shaped eyes, which tilt upwards as he smiles, looked kind when I first saw the photo a few weeks ago.

"John, look at him." Mom pushes herself from the table and shuffles a few steps across the room to Dad. I immediately regret showing her.

"No, Mom—" I hesitate. My ears immediately grow hot. "You don't have to…" my voice trails off.

"What am I supposed to do with that?" Dad says, shooing her with his left hand. He appears burdened by her suggestion. It's his first response to most things.

She huffs like a toddler and sits back down next to me. Her childlike nature had been captivating in my childhood. I took pride in her eagerness to engage with my imaginary friends like cherished family members. With her plump cheeks and infectious, girlish laugh, she is cute. She has always been cute. But I stopped needing cute from her a long time ago.

Some days, though, she still manages to make me laugh like we did when I was young and she'd cross her legs and wave her hand in front of her face, exclaiming she might pee herself. Those are the days I really love her.

She slides the phone across the table, the reptile-greens of her eyes meeting the yellow-browns of mine.

"So, your birth mom thinks he's your father?"

* * *

At 16, I sit at the counter in that same kitchen, crying. After spending a week working at a camp for children from a nearby First Nations reservation, one of the dams I created and maintained throughout my childhood broke. I'm a child of the Sixties Scoop, a period that lasted into the 1980s, in which Canadian government agencies routinely separated Indigenous children from their birth parents and placed them with non-Indigenous foster and adoptive parents, severing their ties to their cultures, languages and communities. The pain of knowing nothing about who or where I come from flows heavy and uninhibited.

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"I just want to know where I come from," I tell my bewildered parents. I snort back the water running from my nose. I am embarrassed to be crying in front of them. I'm too old to be acting like this, I reprimand myself, but it does nothing to corral the tears.

Mom stands closest to me, an arm's length away. "I know," she says. But she looks more like my cat trying to make sense of another cat meowing on TV than a mother readying herself to comfort her teenage daughter.

"Tough." Dad's voice has always had a barking quality. Sharp, making me feel soft like lard when it cuts.

"You may never know," Dad says. The tone in his voice grows firmer, louder. Small beads of saliva spring from his mouth as he speaks. This happens when he becomes upset.

"You may never know, Brit." He shakes his head and throws his hands up. They slap loud against his thighs as they fall. "You have to accept that. It's foolish. The way you're acting is foolish."

Then he walks away.

Mom gives me a knowing glance, as if those green eyes are saying, it'll be OK. Then she turns, shuffling right behind him.

* * *

March 4, 2010

Dear I'm-Pretty-Sure-You-Are-My-Father,

I'm not too sure how to start this. My birth mother became pregnant with me when she was seventeen, after she and you were together. I have connected with her already and she gave me your information. I'm not sure if this will maybe be weird for you or if you're comfortable with this, but I guess why I'm writing you is to learn more about you (if you'll let me). My name is Brittany and I think I am your biological daughter.

Brittany

I am 20 years old when I write this letter, inexperienced enough to assume that certain sentiments need not be explicitly stated. I imagine my letter will be received with the same intention that goes into my writing it. I take for granted that he will be naturally aware of my simple desire for the facts of my heritage. He is my father, after all.

I have only just met my biological mother months earlier. The relationship with her is new, still taking in its first few breaths of a reincarnated life. But I become greedy. I want more. More of where I came from. More of who I might resemble, after spending years in visible contrast to my blonde, fair and freckled adoptive parents. More of the grandparents and aunts and siblings I have not yet met.

It does not occur to me to specify that the man need not make any attempts at comforting me. Comfort, although I am happy to offer it to him, is not what I am searching for. I also do not think of telling him that I am not looking for money.

I am proud of this letter. I write it and rewrite it until I do my best to sound emotionally stable. I will impress him with my coolness, I think. When I am finished the letter, I look at it, the page shiny and polished in front of me. Like the tooth Dad first cajoled from my top gums when I was seven years old, I feel gratified staring at it.

"It's so tiny," I exclaimed, holding the tooth in the palm of my right hand. Dad looked proud, like he had offered me something substantial in that moment. It was no small act to me. I felt proud seeing him look so proud. Finally, a tooth, I thought. So many of my classmates had already lost their first tooth, some had even lost their second or third. The flash of the camera left little green dots floating in my eyes, when Mom told me to pose with the tooth held beside my broad gap-toothed smile.

The man responds with a friendly email. He was waiting for my letter, he tells me. He won't get into a long explanation, he says, but "let's chat."

My feelings are complicated. Dad and I are barely on speaking terms by this point. Although, I wonder if we have ever truly made it onto "speaking terms" in any sort of conventional way?

I have always been a strong-willed, introspective little Métis girl. He is a tight-lipped, emotionally stringent Mennonite man, raised in an era and culture where fathers were both authoritative and inaccessible. No one had ever perceived our pair as a father-daughter duo, even in an area where adoption and fostering are relatively common. We simply aren't the kind of father and daughter who look, act or regard each other as inherent family. I am unsure if the two of us will ever know what that would look like, even if we knew how to try.

In the coming years, I will go to medical school and eventually start a clinical practice. I will recognize how intergeneration trauma has impacted our relationship. How it will continue to impact every relationship I have with any man. Fathers have always been prickly territory for me. I think they always will be.

The man and I exchange a few brief emails. I am surprised when he assures me that he would have supported my biological mother in raising me, had she not relinquished me to the care of Child and Family Services. The only information Mom and Dad had ever received from my social worker stated that my birth father had denied paternity and disappeared months before I was born. 

I am not one to have an emotional reaction in real-time, instead, opting for a straight-faced, rapid assessment of my circumstances. I am neither angry nor confrontational with this man. Sweet and cheerful have always been safer.

I apologize. I assure him I mean no harm.

"But," I say. "Are you sure you're remembering this correctly?"

My biological mother maintains that he made it clear when she was 17 and pregnant that she was on her own. I suppose disappearing and moving two provinces away at a time when it was much easier to remain untraceable would feel pretty clear.

"Totally, no worries though."

This is the last we will ever speak.

In the same way Dad knew how to precisely wedge the nail of his index finger in the crevice between my loose tooth and gums, the perfect position from which to flick it free, he has always known how it would play out with this man. He is not surprised when my attempt at a relationship with him goes nowhere. He is not surprised when the relationship with my biological mother eventually becomes so murky, I am unsure if I am angry or heartbroken or relieved when it seems to dissolve. He shrugs his shoulders and tilts his head slightly to the right when I tell my mother about this email exchange.

"It happens," he says. He stands up from his chair at the kitchen counter and walks to the front door, throwing his feet into his rubber boots. The cows and the pigs need to be fed. Our wood stove needs to be loaded so the house can be warm again.

* * *

I like to think Dad has tried over the years. Perhaps it is too painful to bear otherwise. Mostly, I think he does try, in his way, and we speak different languages. The languages of trauma, I suppose.

"He grew up in a house where they didn't say I love you a lot," Mom says. "You have to try too, honey."

Sometimes I smile at her because it is easier.

Other times, I try harder with her. I explain how I have tried with him, too. I remind her of the Winnipeg Jets hat I bought him for his birthday this year, the first he has owned. He looked proud the day I handed it to him, as he met me outside on their driveway on another Sunday afternoon. He immediately slid it onto his bald head, glistening in the sun from the chores he just finished.

I remind her of the sweaters I buy him for Christmas each year. Of the times I ask him to help set up the Ikea closet in my bedroom or to drill the curtain rod in my living room. I ask for his help, even though I know he will make at least two unnecessary holes in the wall, and I will have to stare at them, willing them to migrate the two-to-three centimeters to merge with the correct ones.

Eventually, I tell her that I do not think it is me who needs to try anymore. But believing that, let alone saying it out loud, is something that is hard for me to learn.

* * *

It has been over a decade since I last spoke to the man my biological mother told me was my father. She and I have been getting closer lately. Perhaps the pandemic has had this effect on many mothers and daughters.

She has been sending me photos of herself as a child, of my grandmother as a young woman, of my great-grandmother whom I never had a chance to meet. I give myself little time to digest each photo before I ask for another. Pace yourself, I think. But I am greedy with these photos. I already know I will never have enough. My hunger will exist forever.

In the photos of these women, I notice the roundness of their cheeks, the shape of their mouths when they smile, the olive tone of their skin. In these women, I see myself. And I wonder about my father. I wonder if I look like him, too. 

I googled him years ago, when I first learned his name. The best I found was a social media account of his wife and, luckily for me, she had poor privacy settings. I google him again in the months leading up to Christmas this year. Again, her privacy settings are open.

But his nose is too sharp. I cannot calculate the angle of his jaw or the color of his eyes. I can see myself nowhere in the landscape of his face. Photo after photo, I do not recognize this man.

And it is more than not knowing him. My husband gifts me a DNA kit for Christmas.

I make mention of the question of my paternity to no one. Alone, I reprove the thought as fantasy, a secret desire to sever myself from the man who has abandoned me twice.

It is an exceptionally cold December. I pull on a pair of leggings, tugging up my socks before I open the sliding door to our bathroom. I read the instructions on the box I left on the counter the night before: do not eat, drink, smoke, or chew gum 30 minutes prior to giving your sample. Done. Fill the tube with saliva to the black wavy line. Done. Shake the tube for at least 15 seconds. I shake it for 30 seconds, for good measure.

My first kit is lost in the mail. I am sent another one after I correspond with the company. Days later, I am sent an email telling me they have located my kit.

"We had to throw it out," they tell me, since they have already mailed a new one.

A part of me intuitively wonders if the results of this test will surprise me. It is as though the gods of recreational DNA testing are saying to me, "Are you sure about this?"

A few months later, I call my birth mother. "So," I say. I hesitate, trying to determine how to ask her this question. "I took a DNA test."

"Oh?" she asks. She sounds intrigued.

Our relationship still feels fragile. I fear that something such as the question of my paternity will blow a tiny breeze, enough to dismantle the building blocks we have only just begun to carefully stack on top of each other.

"My DNA results are a little confusing," I manage. "They don't really make sense. So, I was wondering —"

"I know where you might be going with this," she interrupts me. Thank God, I think. "And there is another man who could be your father but there's no way I ever thought it was him. The timing just didn't make sense."

As it turns out, some 17-year-old girls aren't aware of the fact that pregnancies can last for 42 weeks.

I sit on the floor of my office to draft my second "I-Think-You-Are-My-Father" letter. Although, this is more of a "I-Thought-Someone-Else-Was-My-Father-And-Now-I'm-Not-So-Sure-But-You-And-I-Are-Somehow-Related-Based-On-a-Recent-DNA-Test" letter.

It has taken months since receiving those DNA test results for me to feel mildly comfortable writing this letter in its entirety, which, admittedly, is not very long. But the prospective length of the letter is not what has kept me from writing it.

I find myself thanking my 20-year-old self for her sincerity when I wrote my first letter, and how it has shaped my writing of the second. I suppose, something like this can serve as a stake in time, a specific moment in my life whereupon I can reflect on what I have learned. It's a little funny, in a morbid sort of way.

I must not expect a confirmation email, I promise myself. Fathers seem to forget this part, I have learned. I will repeat it so many times it becomes my mantra. I must not expect a confirmation email.

After spending one day in limbo, wondering if he has received it or if he's hiding it from his partner or if he has deleted it, pretending I do not exist, I ask my biological mother to ask him if he has received it. It is useful that the two of them, unlike the previous man, are still on speaking terms.

"Yes," she responds later that day. "He has received it. I have asked him not to leave you hanging."

Another day passes with no response from him. Then two. Then a week. Then two, then three. But the sting feels only mild this time. Like the bite of a sand fly, compared to an infected cat bite or a broken ankle. The first letter prepared me for this. Dad's words throughout the years prepared me for this.  

I read and reread the letter. I am satisfied with it. Satisfied in a way that is different than I was with my first. I am myself in this letter. I do not write like I am needy, because it is true. I do not use exclamation marks or reassuring phrases to make him feel more comfortable. I am understanding, but his comfort is not my concern. I am concise. My writing is clear.

This time, I make sure to mention that I am not searching for a relationship with him, nor do I need any money. I think Dad would be proud. But I know I will not tell him about it. It is another promise I make to myself. And I can't help but think Dad might be proud of that too.


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Brittany Penner

Brittany is an Indigenous Canadian writer, a practicing family physician and lecturer with the University of Manitoba Max Rady College of Medicine. She is currently a candidate for an MFA at Harvard and working on her first memoir. Her personal essays have appeared in The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, Huffington Post Canada, This Magazine, and The Canadian Family Physician.

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Adoption Canada Essay Family Fathers First Nations Indigenous