The sunny September 1996 day that I signed a lease to move in with my boyfriend, my father said I was “a slut just like [my] mother,” disowned me, and forbade me from returning to the house. This did not prevent me from visiting my mom when I left, but it did affect the frequency and quality of those visits. Since he continued to tap their phone and monitor my mom’s odometer, I couldn’t call to ask if he was home or meet her elsewhere. More and more often as his alcoholism impacted his work ethic and the assembly line shut down at odd times of the year before locking its doors permanently, I was forced to fly past the house and hope that he hadn’t glimpsed my white convertible out the bay window. On the rare occasion that I could stop by, my mom and I sat on the porch swing and surveilled the road and Route 2 for his truck while I told her about my job, my relationship, my cats, and anything else that would keep her from telling me how nice my father was when they first got married.
Once my father tore down the chain-link fence that had always surrounded our back yard and replaced it with a 6-foot-tall privacy fence, I prepared myself for the inevitable phone call saying there’d been “an accident.” After all, he’d amassed May Company receipts and credit card statements that showed he was a loving husband who bought his wife ruby-and-CZ jewelry, a sunroof, and other gifts for birthdays and anniversaries, he’d stopped leaving visible bruises in 1989, when she began working on my brother’s school bus, he’d served as president of an archery club, where he taught my mom how to shoot and compete against members who liked and reelected him, he’d turned my parents’ field into a range with life-size animal targets, and now, to my amusement, he was taking theology classes. I figured it was only a matter of time before he shot my mom with an arrow, and the Dateline NBC anchor with the Dr. Seuss voice narrated my parents’ tumultuous relationship as a true-crime mystery.
When my phone rang July 25, 1998, and “PRIVATE NO.” appeared on my caller ID box, my boyfriend, who’d taken moo duk kwan for several years and sometimes sat in my parents’ driveway with his engine running while my mom and I talked, looked up at me with a worried expression. I’d tried to wish her a happy birthday on the third, but the number was disconnected. Fifteen days later, my birthday passed without a call or a card. Since then, I’d called the police department to ask officers to increase the number of drive-bys that I’d asked them to perform when I moved out, stared at the ceiling instead of sleeping, and called off from work to worry. I sat down and reached for the receiver on the last ring.
As my boyfriend strained to hear what was being said on the other end of the line and waited for me to break down in tears, my father asked me to meet him “face to face.”
“Why?” I asked, suddenly fearing for my own life in addition to my mom’s. He’d threatened all of us while I was growing up, and during my parents’ 1985 divorce, he ordered my brother and me to get in the Thunderbird and drove us one highway exit away from the house to show my mom how easy it would be to kidnap us as she stood in the driveway crying. Eleven years later, I moved into a secured building and began mailing my mom Christmas cards without a return address to avoid becoming part of a murder-suicide.
“I want you to take a paternity test,” he said.
I rolled the green eyes that his genes had passed down with his impatience, shook my head to let my boyfriend know this call wasn’t what we thought it was, and stopped myself from telling my father to go to hell, where he belonged. I didn’t want him to hang up and punish my mom for anything that I said.
“Yeah, I’ll have to get back to you on that,” I said.
When he threatened to get a court order, I reminded him that I was 23 years old, lived on my own, earned my own money, and everything he owned was going to my uncle when he died, so whether or not he was my father didn’t matter anyway.
“It’s nice that you believe everything your mother tells you,” he said. “But my brother’s only getting my hunting property in PA and my life insurance, in case you and your brother need anything.”
I laughed. “First of all, Bo’s medical bills would drain that money in one day, so I would never get a dime. Second, you disowned me when I moved out, remember?”
“And do you remember why I disowned you?” he asked.
“I guess I’d like to hear it again,” I said and tilted the phone away from my ear, so my boyfriend could hear how ridiculous my father sounded firsthand.
“Because you lied to me and collaborated with your mother,” he said. “And when I was tape-recording your mother’s conversations, I would lay my hand on a Bible and say I fast-forwarded past yours. But one time I stopped and heard you say, ‘When Billybob’s home, I’m not home.’ Do you think that’s something you should call the person who pays for the roof over your head?”
“I wonder if that’s the day you walked past my bedroom and flipped me off,” I said as I returned the phone to my lips and stood up. “Do you think a father should give his daughter the middle finger or call her stupid every day?”
“I called you stupid maybe 20 times in your whole life,” he said. “Did I ever tell you the nasty things my dad said to me?”
“Yep. Did you like it?”
“No,” he said. “But I survived.”
“So did I,” I said defiantly. “On the way home from Pennsylvania when I was little, you said I would either die like Karen Carpenter or blow my brains out like your sister. That’s never gonna happen.”
Instead of apologizing or expressing remorse for what he’d said, he played the martyr – an exit strategy that I would become accustomed to in my 30s while entangled with a man whose toxicity rivaled my father’s. “Well, it sounds like you don’t like me much,” he said. “If you change your mind, you know where I live, what I drive, and where I work. Have a good life, kid. Love ya. Bye.”
For a second, I felt sorry for him because my mom raised me to be a compassionate person and, as the Bible says, if you “train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old, he will not depart from it.” But the Bible also says a lot of things that my family ignored and, like other Clevelanders, Millers are good at holding a grudge, so I remembered all of the hateful things he’d said and done to my mom and me, resumed my resentment, and grabbed my journal.
“Thank God I’ve never wanted kids,” I wrote. “Especially since it’s my turn to have twins.” Instinctively, or perhaps from all of the TV and movie actresses who’d complained about turning into their hypercritical mother, I knew that I would someday repeat my father’s words. But as I vented about him interrupting my Saturday afternoon, I never considered that he had a legitimate reason for being so hostile every day of his life – or that he’d recently been given another, and that’s why he called.
Twenty-nine miles away, my parents’ marriage was finally coming to an end, and an arrow through my mom’s chest would have been quicker and less painful for everyone involved.