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On Being a Mutt

Had I not heard God being addressed as “Father,” I would never have equated my father with him.

My father was a large man, as most fathers are to sons. Mine was more so. A thick, burly man who could raise his voice to shiver the timbers. His skin was olive and he often wore a beard, usually on the bushy side. Grooming was not one of my father’s strongest traits. He’d served in the Marines and proudly displayed the tattoo of a naked woman entwined in an anchor on his bicep. His name was Bill, but friends and relatives called him Willy. Although my father did not do much work around the house, he was a hard-working man. I knew this from his sporadic presence at home and his smell. He worked at a cement factory and when he came home, he always brought the scent of cement dust and sweat with him. A perpetual tan line creased the back of his neck. He worked all hours, but I often remember my mother yelling at us to be quiet during the day because my father was sleeping.

Later on, my father would become the union president at his plant. Because I had some artistic talent, he occasionally recruited me to draw picket signs. On Strike! and Support Labor! It didn’t seem like a waste of talent; primarily because it was one of the few times he seemed to actually appreciate me. Sometimes there would be a union meeting at our house that involved lots of smoking, drinking, and foul language. My father seemed energized by such affairs, telling stories and rallying the troops with over-sincere union rhetoric. He was that way with people, always keeping a joke handy or, if all else failed, a lampshade.

I sometimes wondered if his gruff, yet flamboyant exterior wasn’t a cover for something more fragile.

The truth about my father’s past came in increments, like debris from a shipwreck strewn along the shoreline over time. I walked for years gathering shards of wreckage from the surf, assembling a working knowledge of our family history.

One such bit of info was about our last name. “You don’t look like a Duran,” became a common observation after introductions. It made me wonder what Durans were supposed to look like and why we didn’t look like them. My father offered no insight, which became his MO, and forced me to go through grade school forming awkward responses to the question “How’d you get that name?” to which my typical reply was, “My dad gave it to me.”

It wasn’t long before I learned that Duran was not our real last name.

As most things in our household, this too came out in stages, each revelation marked by a new wall of silence. By the time I reached adulthood, after discussions with various relatives and family members, I learned that my father had been orphaned as a child. He’d been born somewhere in the Ukraine and abandoned by his real father. His stepfather moved them to America. Apparently, the surname Duran was either given, changed, or mistakenly attached. But for now, my real last name is awash in history.

Which is fitting, I think.

My father would never have described himself as having been abused. To him, whining was for wimps. He always wanted me to grow up with a similarly tough exterior, and did his best to ensure I did. My father was old school in this regard. Not only did he use a thick leather belt to apply corporal punishment, he had me pull down my pants when he did, making sure no shred of clothing would absorb the impact on my bare backside. I learned later that his stepfather, a rather mysterious figure referred to as Pap Duran, had been a violent abuser. My father would have never divulged this, of course. It was my Aunt Mary who told us about finding my father, as a boy, locked in a closet once. Such was Pap Duran’s disciplinary technique.

My dad managed to escape his stepfather’s house and lived on the streets of Monessen, Pennsylvania, where he was eventually raised by Roman Catholic nuns. He loved to tell stories to my brother and me about his time as a street urchin. How he started smoking at the age of eight, and how his buddies swam the Monongahela River and braved water moccasins, not always successfully. And how he saw a man die in the gutter with his brains hanging out from a bar fight. I was sure it was intended to make me appreciate my own beatings. It didn’t.

However, it did make me wonder if our move west wasn’t part of that existential flight.

Learning that your last name isn’t your real last name and that your father’s family history is better left alone, is rather disconcerting.

Ancient mapmakers, when reaching unexplored territory, would often sketch some mythical monster, a griffin or Cyclops, along with the warning, “Here there be dragons!” Likewise, if I peered too far back into my foggy genealogy, I feared what other monstrosities might be discovered. Apparently, my parents did too, for they never spoke of that diseased branch of the family tree. I never met my grandparents on my father’s side, neither my real grandmother and grandfather, nor my step-grandfather; I never saw pictures, I never heard stories.

However, we carried their culture with us.

For example, on holidays or family get-togethers, our meals always consisted of old world Eastern European cuisine—cabbage rolls, kielbasa, sauerkraut, pierogi. It’s a tradition us Durans still carry on today. However, the natural connection between Duran and pierogi escapes most people. I can still remember the puzzled look of a visitor, a young friend of mine, who approached the table at my parent’s house with his dinner plate, staring bewildered into a pot of steaming cabbage rolls. Apparently, he was expecting something more… Duran.

My mother’s lineage is far less hazy. Her family can trace themselves all the way back to one Stephen Caudill, who came to America from Scotland around 1720. Along the way, my ancestors on that side of the family fought in the Revolutionary War, built log cabins in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and organized churches. This “spiritual lineage” is quite fascinating to me. In my office, I have a pamphlet my great grandfather’s brother, who was part of the Caudill lineage, wrote entitled “The True Church.” He was a Methodist minister, joined Boston University in 1925, and became its fourth president.

On my father’s side, the rumor was that we were related to Genghis Kahn.

Either way, my genealogy is a road that can be traced to multiple forks, swampland, and occasional dead ends.

Which is probably why I’ve always thought of myself as a mutt.

In a way, we’re all mutts — a collection of nationalities, traditions, and cultures. Even those of royal blood inevitably encounter traitors, vagrants, and heretics in their lineage. None of us is “purebred,” because no one is pure. Somewhere along the way, there is a Pap Duran in your history, a dark closet with secrets that, you hope to God, doesn’t hold a child.

The Church, I’ve learned, is very much the same.

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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • R.J. Anderson August 27, 2017, 3:09 PM

    Powerful writing, Mike. Thank you for having the courage and honesty to share it. And I’d love to see a follow-up further unpacking the thought you introduce in your last sentence. What specific aspects of the church, historically or presently, are you thinking of?

  • Jay DiNitto August 28, 2017, 4:06 AM

    Looks like Willy grew up not far from where I am now. Same county – practically the same neighborhood, globally speaking.

    The Eastern Euro cuisine thing really is a big influence here. I had some canbage rolls last night, coincidentally. I noticed there a lot of influence on on the Italian cuisine here: cabbage rolls, lierogies, pork and sauerkraut, city chicken (I think that counts), lots of onions in everything…you’ll see those pop up at Italian gatherings here. You don’t see that as often in non-eastern Euro-influenced Italian places, like in eastern Massachusetts.

    • LINDA CLARE August 28, 2017, 9:52 AM

      What a beautiful painful story, Mike. Trusting anyone or anything to be loving after what you went through in your formative years would be so hard. But you managed. Love wins, but sometimes the battles are fierce.
      Carry On,
      Linda Clare

  • Dawn Shipman August 29, 2017, 12:20 AM

    An amazing, heart-breaking story, Mike. Thanks for sharing and being so vulnerable. As Linda says above–“love wins,” but yes, sometimes the battles are fierce indeed.
    In His Love–Dawn Shipman

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