Skip to main content



The Unquiet Daughter


I have been looking for home in my house again through these windows that are my eyes. Home comes and goes, like thoughts, like the clouds drifting over our slightly wild blue garden. It doesn’t make sense, for I am loved by my husband and our children who scamper in and out during the day. I am loved by the dog even, who likes to listen with me to opera in the evening. Still, the feeling that home is somewhere in general and nowhere in particular returns, quite predictably, when I remember my mother. 

She was beyond liberated in the feminist sense; a maverick. She did what she wanted to do, discarding convention – and, often, motherliness – like a dancer peeling off clothes. Her ex-husband called her the Dragon Lady, for she was dangerous, especially when she was bored, and she was easily bored. She could inflict pain and, just as readily, radiate charm. In a thick French accent she would say, Who cares what zay sink, Dani? And then she would laugh, throwing her head back. It was a laugh that drew close those who loved her, or sent them scattering, me amongst them. Even now, as the ashes of her remains play in the wind in France, the thought of her threatens to shake the center of me. Yet I prevail. 

I lived for decades in mystery. What she did and did not do and what she did and did not tell me – about who she was, who I am, our past –made me a writer. Even as a small child, I could sense that something was missing; what was evident didn’t quite fit together. This formed me. Made me spend my life learning to find the words and arrange them, to be ready, poised for the answers. Made me curious, driven, to find out what I needed to know. Made me haunt, when pieces of truth emerged, my dear England, that I had inexplicably always loved. 

And then, after I found out as much as I could, I floated for a while, like a ghost, if there are ghosts. Resting, reflecting, recuperating. I wrote about anything but what I knew I was born to write, avoiding the subject, hiding, for years. Then I had children. Aha. Then came some perspective. As they passed from stage to stage, developed, I became struck by the contrast between their experiences and mine when I was their age. The realization, like a vague picture coming into focus, became stark, and I knew it was time to tell. It has taken me more than half a century to get here, tapping at the keys of my life, for I have been embarrassed, ashamed and afraid, afraid that I might die once I tell the story, as if it is all there is of me. But that is not so. 

Finally, I asked them. The children – well, teenagers. What will your friends think? I asked my daughter on the back porch and later, my son while driving in the car. I was startled by their separate answers. They said: Who cares what they think, Mommy? 

Something happened in Saigon. For most of my years I knew only that I was born there. Later I learned that the English author, Graham Greene, was there many times when my parents were living there, gathering material for his classic novel, The Quiet American, which became two movies; the second one, released in 2002, starred Michael Caine. It’s about a love triangle in Saigon between an older British man, his young Vietnamese mistress, and a young American Foreign Service Officer who falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. I came from a love triangle much like the one Greene describes in this novel. I am a sequel he never wrote. 

From what his authorized biographer says, Greene knew much more about my beginning than I did – he knew about my three parents. 

Greene first arrived in Saigon in January, 1951, during the war between the French and the Vietnamese communist revolutionists – the Vietminh. Since long before the American war there, what we now know to be Vietnam had been part of French Indochina, which was part of the French empire, later called the French Union. Since the late 1800s, for the most part, France had ruled Indochine and infused it with its culture, so much so that French was not only the spoken language, it was taught as the primary language in the schools.

It’s a war story. Vietnamese communist-instigated bicycle bombings, grenades exploding in restaurants and sidewalk cafes and assassinations were common in Saigon at the time. When I was almost three months old, the 100th U.S. shipload of military aid to France arrived at the downtown dock there. When I was in utero, there was a spectacular suicide-bomber double assassination outside Saigon. Greene wasn’t there for that. The bomber mortally wounded, amongst others, a French brigadier general and a South Vietnamese governor, which at the time was more significant to some than murdering a French editor or publisher, which was also not unusual in those days. 

Greene left, then came back to Saigon just before I was born and then again and again. He was very interested in my parents. This is evident because his authorized biographer says Greene heard about them when he first arrived. But also Greene knew details about them that only someone who had followed their story for the better part of two years could know. 

Because there are so many similarities between what happens in the novel and what happened in their lives, I have long engaged in the unique pastime of comparing my parents to characters in The Quiet American, characters who Greene insisted came from his “unconscious.” The first comparison I made is: Dad was too smart to get murdered. So were his friends at work, some there undercover for the Central Intelligence Agency. 


Chapter One 

In the beginning of what I remember, we seemed to be a typical American family – Mom and Dad, Evalyn, Patricia and me – as much as any family can be typical. I mean we had a lot in common with other American families. But even during the most normal part of our years together, I knew something was different. 

It is 1957 and we live in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a red brick house with yellow and white trim and a front lawn like a green apron. Jello glistens as it is shaken out of copper molds. The stink of canned spinach is proof that Popeye The Sailor Man is a traitor to us all. The sounds are of Wonder Bread popping out of the toaster mixed with me, age six, and Evalyn, age five, and Patricia, age three, shouting me first or crying in harmony oh noooooo, whoaaa, nooooo as we stand three abreast waiting for our spankings in the laundry room. Serious business is: How high we can swing in the back yard; getting a nickel from Mom for a popsicle before the jingling ice cream man’s truck leaves the block; getting to watch The Wizard of Oz on TV with a piece of red licorice; making the biggest snowman; and fighting sleep on Christmas Eve, for we believe with all our might that before long reindeer will be clomping on the roof. 

We are bored when Dad gives his slide show of Hong Kong harbor at night with its colored lights mirrored on the water and of Marilyn Monroe carrying me around on her hip in Fukuoka. We like to poke our fingers through the rice paper in the shoji screen in the living room; we do not like having to cut up pieces of it and glue it back on. The many Buddhas make lousy dolls; they’re all boys, you can’t move their limbs or dress them up because they’re made of iron, jade or ceramic – stuck in one position –like the geisha doll in the glass and lacquer box that Mom says a Japanese city gave to me; her hair is fixed into a bunch of chignons and you can’t comb it. Once in a while Mom lights incense in a porcelain boat and it smells nasty. The teakwood trunks, some carved, are fun because every once in a while Mom opens them and takes out beautiful embroidered Thai silk shawls and drawstring purses and silk brocade Vietnamese and Chinese dresses that were made for her, woven with crane, dragon and chrysanthemum images in them. There are bolts of silk brocade and beautiful scrolls – two of an emperor and empress of China. 

The trunks also hold boxes of photographs. There’s me with my Chinese amah in a studio portrait made in Saigon. My amah has scary very long thumb and pinkie fingernails, indicating, Mom says, that she doesn’t wash dishes or cook or do anything else but be a nanny to one child. Another amah, wearing a kimono and holding me and Ev, also looks scary, with gray, slicked back hair and a wrinkled face. My earliest memory is of calling to Boy, the cook’s son, to play with me but he ran off into the tall grass behind the house in Bangkok, where Pat was born. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t play with me; maybe it was because I spoke Chinese, Mom says, like my amah, even for a short while after we came to the States. 

I still do not speak great English when I first go to Parkside Elementary School in Maryland because I really need the pictures in the books to understand what See Spot and See Spot Run mean. We have no idea what Mom and Dad are saying to each other because we don’t speak French and they do. Mom knows how to say many things in English, like eat, wee-wee, ca-ca, clean up, go play outside, toys, and I love you. But it takes her a while to speak at length in whole sentences. I know what viens ici and nonmean. We get most of our English from Dad, who corrects us. He tells us not to say ain’t when we bring it home from school. Eventually he uses phrases like: was to have been. We copy the way he speaks with no accent. For the most part, Dad is the apex of the family because he is fluent in both languages. He also speaks several others. When we go to Chinese restaurants the waiters are always surprised: he is a tall, very fair-skinned, blue-eyed, dark-haired man of Irish and English descent from Pennsylvania; he bears a resemblance, probably because of his large horn-rimmed glasses, to Clark Kent; but he orders, casually, in Chinese – I don’t know which dialect. 

He is, at the moment, a United States Information Service Foreign Affairs Officer stationed in Washington but to us he is the handsome prince who takes Mom out all the time. He wears tuxedos with a fuchsia Thai silk cummerbund. She wears evening gowns – gold or purple or black – with twinkling necklaces, dangling earrings and beautiful gloves so long they go over her elbows.

When they don’t go out, the three Asian women wearing pale blue Mao jackets and loose black pants come and spend the day and evening in the kitchen chopping pork and ginger with a meat cleaver, making dough and steaming dim sum. The men with trucks come and deliver cases labeled Vat 69, Beefeater, Smirnoff and Piper Heidsieck. The cigarette boxes are filled and we are sent to bed, but later, after we see through the window the cars and limousines arrive, we creep down and peep from the staircase at the men in suits or tuxedos, the women in evening gowns or cocktail dresses. The living room and the downstairs recreation room with the big bamboo bar are packed with embassy and government people from France, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Washington. How can they see the tiny roulette ball through the cloud of smoke? It clicks and clatters all night in the black wheel on the round red lacquer coffee table. You hear ahhhhs when it stops, laughter and excited chatter in English, French and Southeast Asian languages until at four in the morning Mom and Dad go to bed, leaving the brass ash trays full beside Foreign Affairs and Time magazines. It seems they have parties or go out many nights in the week. We think this is what marriage will be like when we grow up: evenings in Cinderella dresses with a husband as handsome as Dad. 

We make up games. We flip through Mommy's Vogue or Harpers Bazaar and as soon as we turn the page, we each point to a model and say: that’s me. The winner points at the prettiest one the fastest. We make evening gowns for our dolls out of toilet paper. We make tents with sheets between our beds and go to The Arabian Nights.

I take Ev to Sunday school and afterwards I vacuum the whole house. I have to do a lot of things my sisters don’t have to do because I am the oldest. I have to take care of them. One day Ev and I are late for Sunday school. We are too scared to go into the classroom because Sister will be mad. I decide we should go to Mass in the big church because we have been learning in catechism that if we don’t go to Mass on Sunday we will have a black mark on our souls and if we get hit by a car and die, we will go to hell. The ushers in the back of the church say, come in, come in. But when we get home we get in a lot of trouble because Sister called and said, Where were they? How come they didn’t come to Sunday school? Mommy is mad and when she’s mad I get so that I can’t talk. Then she gets madder because I can’t answer her and I put my arms up to fend off a slap. 

I figure slapping is very French because Dad never does that. He makes a speech first, saying, Now I want you to know why you’re getting a spanking. Though we moan in fear, again in harmony, he then makes us march down to the laundry room, turns us over his knee and spanks us, in an orderly manner. Then, just as predictably, we cover our behinds with our palms crossed and facing outwards, fearful that it might happen again, and continue to moan as we go up to our rooms with his words following us: This hurts me more than it hurts you. 

Except for spankings, I love everything about Dad. The way he taps his unfiltered Camel against his wrist to pack the tobacco. His corn cob pipe. His face that feels like sandpaper when you kiss him. His relaxed demeanor. His reserve. His stance that says all is under control. In the morning he sits in the living room in a brown jungle flower print sarong, as if this is the most natural thing for an American man to wear in a suburban Maryland house in 1957, as he reads The Washington Post. I climb onto his lap and put my arms around his lean torso and rest my head against the dark hairs on his chest and he says, What’s this?, and I say, I love you Daddy, and he says, You do? And then he gives me a squeeze or pats my shoulder and I feel safe. 

And then one day he does not come home to watch the news and eat dinner or to take Mommy out to a ball. 

We ask where Daddy is and Mom says, overseas. This is strange. He has not said goodbye. We have not seen suitcases or trunks. I ask where overseas is. Formosa, she says. Where’s that? I ask. Taiwan, she says. Where’s that? I ask. Overseas, she says.


Every time we see an airplane we say, It’s Daddy! Dad’s coming back. But he doesn’t. 

I take to walking in my sleep. The thing about walking in your sleep is that you don’t remember it, so I can’t tell you how many times I did it, or what happened until I woke up somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be and Mom would be trying to explain it to someone. 

We move to a basement apartment in a modern five-story building in D.C. and I walk in my sleep out the door. The door locks behind me. It is the middle of the night. The cold in the hallway wakes me up and I am bewildered, sitting on the floor outside our door. I imagine Mom will be mad at me for this because she seems to get mad at us for everything now. So I try to wake up Ev by whispering through the keyhole. Ev, open the door. Ev, open the door, damn it; open the door or I’ll kill you. This goes on for a while. Finally the man who lives next door opens his door and sees me on the floor in my pajamas with feet and says: What’s going on here? He reaches to ring our doorbell and I say, Oh, mister, please don’t do that. An incredulous look crosses his face and he, determinedly, rings the doorbell. I cringe. Mom opens the door and looks aghast, then starts apologizing to the man and says, She does not know what she does; she walks in the sleep. Finally, we all go to bed. 

We move to a big red brick house. Mom sleeps until noon. There is no heat. So I’m glad to get up at six o’clock in the morning when Fat Doris, the maid, arrives to warm up the kitchen by cooking herself pork chops and fried apples. She watches us get ourselves cereal and off we go. 

This house is in a good starting place for three little girls on foot because it is a little more than half an hour between frequent destinations: The White House is to the east, and to the west, our public school in Georgetown, an old neighborhood with lots of trees and pretty old townhouses, often fronted with tiny gardens. Both places make us feel good and the walking makes us feel free, grown up, on our own. 

We walk all over town, holding hands – I insist on that. On Saturdays we walk all the way past the White House to the movie theatre around the corner and down the street where we each buy a caramel candy for a penny. The movies cost 25 cents. One day we get there and the lady in the booth says it costs 50 cents. We look like we’ve just witnessed a murder. I say, But we just walked from 26th and K (about forty-five minutes away). She lifts her bag to the counter and lays out three quarters for us and says, Go ahead in, but now you know for next time. We skip into the theatre. I do not remember the movie, but movies then always seemed to be happy, like that blonde actress, Doris Day. 

Mom becomes a beatnik. We know this because she brings home bongo drums. She’s been out with some other students from the Corcoran Gallery of Art school and says beatniks go together with bongo drums. She wears tight black toreador pants and black sweaters with a straight neckline and sleeves pushed up. She starts painting pictures of me and not Ev and Pat and I wonder why I have to be the one to sit still for hours. Even in my striped Dennis-the-Menace tee shirt, she paints me. A long word, and smell, comes into our lives: Turpentine. 

She paints a guy named Tony smoking a cigarette. Who’s that? I say. Another student in the class, she says. She draws naked ladies and guys. But, Mom, I say, why aren’t they wearing any clothes? She says the models at school pose like that. Why? I ask. Because, she says, Zee body eeze beaut-ee-ful. We, too, do some painting. She gives us gray enamel paint and tells us to paint the kitchen. It’s boring so after a while we decide to paint each other gray enamel. She gets mad and sounds like an ambulance. I assure her that we won’t do this again – it’s hard to get it off with Turpentine. After she calms down, she shows me how to strip varnish off the buffet in the kitchen. I brush it on, and when it rises a little, it’s time to scrape. It burns my hands, so she gives me rubber gloves, but the stuff eats through the rubber gloves and burns again. This is the job I like least and I don’t care if it’s an honor to do because I’m the biggest. The stuff makes me dizzy, like the oven cleaner does. And so I’m pleased when she says to paint Evalyn and Pat’s room powder blue. 

I want my room to be blue too, but she says there’s not enough paint. Then she gets some white paint and paints gigantic angels on the wall over Ev’s and Pat’s beds. I say I want a big angel over my bed too but she doesn’t answer me. It is as if she doesn’t hear me. 

I am reading upstairs when I hear the outside front door slam. It is a sunny afternoon. A Saturday, no school. I am eight, Ev is seven and Pat is five. It is a big slam, and Mom is not yelling at Ev and Pat for it, so I am curious, about the silence that follows. I go downstairs and find Mom sitting at the dining room table in front of the big silver samovar. She’s staring straight ahead of her. I run to the front window. Ev and Pat are climbing into a big yellow taxi and Dad is standing there. He begins to fold himself into the back seat beside them as I run to the front doors. But by the time I get through the first one with its glass window and the second big wooden one and down the front stoop, the taxi has pulled away. Hey, I yell. I run down the walkway and out to the sidewalk. Dad, I yell. I wave my arms, hoping Dad or Ev or Pat will look out the back window, but they don’t. The taxi is a block away. They can’t hear me. I stand on K Street for a long time, watching the taxi get smaller. Then, I go inside. 

Mom is crying. I get scared and start crying too because I’ve never seen her cry before. 

I stop to catch my breath and ask, Why didn’t he take me too?

She shakes her head and cries some more. 

But I want to see him. What about me? I want to go with them, too.

You can’t, she says. 

But why? 

Because they are going overseas.

But what about me? Why can’t I go? 
Then who will take care of me? she says.

I feel the pulling inside, the tearing of allegiance. How can I leave her all alone? And so I say, I’ll take care of you, Mommy.

You were so much work, all of you, she says. 

I decide I am not going to be any work. I go upstairs. My sisters room is a mess of doll heads and legs, broken crayons and paper with Pat’s triumphant scribbling on it. I get a broom and sweep. I make the beds. Miraculously, it seems, the room stays neat for the rest of the day and night and for the next day and the next. Life, I think, may become less hectic and perhaps, finally, I will have Mom all to myself. 

Not exactly. 


We never lived together again, Mom and Dad and Pat and Ev and me. After what was to come, at least we knew what it had been like to share, for the most part, peace and predictability; thereafter that life would forever seem like a distant fantasy.


Chapter Two 

My mother lied to me more than once about my real father’s identity. I’m not sure which tale affected me the most.
 The first lie was perpetrated for my first dozen years. I believed Jim Flood was my father from the time I could remember. Because I loved him so much, it was for the rest of my life impossible to not think of Dad, Jim Flood, as my Dad even though my mother told me on a particular afternoon that someone else was my real father. She did this in timeless minutes that still feel surreal. 

She said my real father was a British intelligence officer in Saigon and so I thought he must be really intelligent. I felt proud and hoped I had some of his intelligence. She said it didn’t matter that they weren’t married – which I didn’t like. By then the idea, married and lived happily ever after, had become part of my sinew. She said he was very nice but she didn’t know where he was. She said she couldn’t look for him because she married Dad and had come to America. 

Being twelve in 1964, I was ignorant, naïve and gullible, far more so than someone that age normally would be these days. Then, more than fifty years ago, romantic relationships were generally not put before children in complicated ways on TV, in movies or in books that we saw. Children were children and grownups were grownups and as far as I knew, whatever grownups said was true. 

I absorbed all this and thought: what a romantic, sad story. I sort of felt sorry for her; sort of, because I was aware that I had also lost out on this situation. Then she gave me a photograph of a handsome man who did not look like me, but who did not look very unlike me. I accepted this as proof that what she was saying was true. I kept this black and white photo in my jewelry box for almost twenty years. Though it was an insufficient replacement for Dad, it was the most precious thing I owned. 

For years after that, in Manhattan, in London, even in Paris, when I stood waiting for the light to change to cross a street, I studied men’s faces. Looking at them, I would wonder: Is it you? 

I was especially nervous when we traveled, for a year was a long time for my mother to stay anywhere. How could my father find me, I wondered, if I kept being moved around from this school here, to that summer camp there? I thought: He must be trying to find me. I decided that one day when I could, I would stay in one place for a long long time, so he could find me. Meanwhile for nineteen years when I traveled, in every city I was in, in every new phone book, I looked for this man. Nothing.

I discovered in the early 1970’s that phone books were for free, at least in Manhattan. I ordered, gradually, so as not to cause alarm at the phone company, the phone books of dozens of cities in the world. At the most, at one time, I had 73 phone books. I kept them in my brownstone apartment on West 74th Street in the kitchen cabinets, under the bed, in the bookcases, in a big wide basket. They were comforting somehow. I especially liked the Paris phone book. Though John Orr was not listed, I liked to think he might be living there, wearing a beret, saving lives under cover, like James Bond. 

During these 19 years I coveted other people’s fathers, though not in a personal way or with ill will. I never wished someone else’s father was my father. But in school, when I saw a friend’s father come to a function, I wished I had my own coming to a school play or picnic. Even today, in social situations, when I meet someone’s father, I am often silently emotional. I want to say, What a great guy you are for staying by your son or daughter as long as you have. Later, when I hear of sperm bank conceptions or of mothers making the single parent decision and sometimes not telling the father he is a father, I wonder: Why is it that how the child might feel about such conception appears to be of little or no consideration? As if the child were a pet. 

There was one slight moment, 18 years after my mother told me about my secret agent father, when I felt that she knew more about him than she had let on. I had shown her a story I was proud of – a magazine cover story. In it, I wrote that I am middle class, when I meant to say, that I was an average citizen. My mother objected to this. She said: You are not middle class; You are high class. I said, How do you know this? 

I stared at her. Did she know something more? Where he was? More than what she had told me? It felt like the answer was circumnavigating my head, invisible, intangible –and I couldn’t capture it. She said: I just know. Then I thought about men she had dated – they were all somewhat genteel. I guessed that was it. That he had been a genteel intelligence officer. After all, I thought, gazing at her middle-aged but still beautiful face – she wouldn’t dare withhold information about my father from me. Who would do that? 

I was almost 32 the third time my mother lied to me about who my father was. This time she said she had lied about the secret agent and that my father was a Swedish businessman in Saigon. She was not sure about the spelling of his name. She said she didn’t remember his first name. 

By then, almost two decades after the your-real-father-is conversation, she had done so many things that made me feel excavated I was wary when she phoned. I knew her much better at this point in my life. I knew she was lying again. 

My mother didn’t sleep with just anybody. After the Mexican divorce from Dad, she’d had a heavy affair with one man and a relationship with another; they had lasted years. I am sure that she never slept with a man without knowing his name, rank, serial number, bank account numbers, education, real estate holdings, parents’ names, parents’ education and real estate holdings, siblings and blueblood ties. Ex-wives? Ex-wives were too expensive. My mother would not blink at someone with an ex-wife. 

I felt like part of a TV game show called: Your Real Father Is. Years later, I found a photo of this businessman. He was wearing a kilt. On the back of the photo she’d written that he was from Hong Kong and that he was “Norwaygian.”

Your Real Father Is: Swedish or Norwegian, in a kilt, in Saigon, during wartime in French Indochina. 

My mother’s birth certificate was handwritten in elaborate script in French. It says a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, decorated with the Croix de Guerre, and chief of medicine in the hospital in Vinh, Annam, in the French colony of Indochinewitnessed the birth of Suzanne Marie Eugenie Clara Jullien, the daughter of Aymond Damien Henri Charles Jullien, entrepreneur, and his wife, Marie-Jeanne Jarno, without profession. My grandfather left France in 1896 to serve in the military in the Boxer Rebellion in China and made his life for more than fifty years in north French Indochina as a civil servant and sometime entrepreneur. My grandmother, who was half-French and half- Vietnamese, had been the tutor to the children of a wealthy French family in Annam when she met her employer’s friend and married him. They had five children and lived in Tonkin with, usually, five dogs, some pet monkeys and birds, and employed a chauffeur, a cook, two gardeners, an amah or several amahs, a laundress, a seamstress and a young servant called Boy; my mother said you had to have many servants because the laundress wouldn’t cook and the cook wouldn’t clean; she said the test for the cook to work for her mother was a perfectly-made Baked Alaska. When I was a little girl, my mother told me that when she wanted her shoelaces tied, she called for Boy to do it. Her father hunted with three German shorthaired pointers; she said the wastebaskets in the house were elephant feet and the paperweights were rhinoceros tusks. He shot three panthers on different occasions who were sometimes drawn to the back of the house by the dogs. My mother helped her older sister, Nicole, cut up the skin of one of the panthers to make a bikini, which their father didn’t appreciate. Her brothers said my mother was born headstrong which didn’t mesh with a strict French Catholic household. She and her older sister Nicole were sent to boarding school in Hanoi for their teen years – to the Couvent des Oiseaux, modeled after the one in Paris. Their mother, Marie-Jeanne, had lived in a convent from the time she was three until she was 19. Once, my uncles confirmed, my grandmother went to retrieve the pierced earrings from my mother and her sister after a nun in their school ripped an earring out through another student’s earlobe. I knew many nuns of yesteryear and I doubt they liked the way my mother looked. 

Barefoot, she was five-foot-eight, and beautiful to the point of inconvenience. Years later when we lived in New York, it was difficult to walk down the street without some gentleman passing by, stopping, then running back to catch up with her and asking if she would have dinner with him, or if she was a movie star, or if he could have her phone number, or autograph, or once in a great while, if she would marry him. She would laugh, if she was in a good mood, or continue walking as if she’d heard nothing. It was best, when going out with her in a heavily populated urban area to quickly shove her into a taxi, and then into a building or vice versa, otherwise it would take forever to get anywhere. It was easier in southeast Asia, where we had an entourage of servants, or when traveling, a slew of airline stewardesses to carry us children. And it was easier when we had Dad, who was taller than our mother was in four-inch heels and Clark Gable handsome. 

I tried to comprehend the meaning of these lies. I guessed that they meant she had no idea who I was, or am – or how understanding I could be. That she had no respect for me as a person. It was a pity – this penchant she had for doing whatever she wanted. She was sometimes talentless when it came to second-guessing how people might react to what she did or said. In my reactions to this third lie, it crossed my mind, ridiculous as it might seem, that there ought to be a law. Knowing who your father is should be a right. She knew who she was, who her mother and father were; I knew instinctually that this gave her at least a part of her sense of self. How could she not understand that I needed that too? That knowing my father and who he was would help me to know and understand me. 

I realized I would have to question the first of my not-fathers – Jim Flood, which meant that I would have to take a big emotional risk. 

For two decades, I hadn’t asked Dad, Jim Flood, who my real father was because I thought he was the British secret agent. It never occurred to me that Dad knew about any other father I might have had. Dad never brought it up and I figured if we never talked about anyone else being my real father, then Dad would stay my Dad. Having a stepfather you loved even though he was overseas most of the time was better than having an unknown father, I thought, until I learned of the third lie, about the Scandinavian businessman, which was so preposterous I had to know, finally, why she was creating these not-fathers. 

If I asked Dad to tell me what he knew, would I lose him, his love, his role- playing as my real father for all these years? Would I lose the safe feeling that I was part of him and his family in so many ways? And if I did that and found my real father was dead or didn’t want me, would I be left without any type of father? 

I could not phone Dad I because in retirement he lived in a villa in the Algarve in southern Portugal and chose to have no phone. His last post was U.S. consul in Madras. By now Ev and I suspect he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency some of the time that he was supposedly working for the State Department or the United States Information Agency (USIA), but don’t tell anybody I said this because some people retired from the CIA, the State Department and USIS balk and/or get annoyed when you breathe the thought that anyone in State or USIS might ever have worked under cover for the CIA. It’s just that Dad was always someplace where a war, usually with Communists, was brewing or had been brewed, like south China, in 1949 before Mao Tse Tung took over, or French Indochina in 1951 to 1953, Taiwan in 1958, Korea for the first half of the 1960s, and Laos in 1966 and 1967. After he “retired,”he went on “holiday” in Afghanistan in 1976 or was it 1977? In French Indochina, two friends with whom he worked were career undercover CIA officers. Also, he wrote, under a nom de plume, a novel called The Jing Affair, with characters who are CIA officers or recruits. In keeping with a family bent toward mental over manual work, Dad’s father, Edward Houston Flood, a gentleman lawyer, was an intelligence officer for the U.S. Army during World War I. His mother, Evelyn, from Wisconsin, was often immersed in Foreign Affairs magazine and discussed politics with Dad, though she was offended by certain phrases in Dad’s novel: God-damned, bastard, and son-of-a-bitch. She was concerned with being proper. Properly, her family tree, on the Spencer side, published in a hardback book, goes back some fourteen generations to the Spencers in England, whose descendants came to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1630. But Dad didn’t care about stuff like that.

He cared about truth. It was a big deal when we were small children. He had been a reporter for the Associated Press in Singapore before he began working for the State Department in Saigon. Inaccuracy was his special peeve. I knew him to have told the truth to the best of his knowledge, except for one time, which I would learn of – which had to do with the recording of my birth. 

Dad wrote me a letter about Mom being involved with a married British air attaché in Saigon. He said Mom told him the attaché took her on holiday to Hong Kong where she met a British intelligence officer who had been in a bad motorcycle accident and had burned both legs. Dad said Mom said that was the man who was my father. 

Your-Real-Father-Is...a British intelligence agent in Hong Kong with burned legs from a motorcycle accident. 

After I read this letter I had a great desire to be anyone but me. Someone in Leave It To Beaver land would have been fine. I wanted to crawl into the television set. I saw myself tapping someone’s shoulder in an elevator and saying, Excuse me, could I borrow your body? Or saying, On second thought, could I borrow your mind? 

It occurred to me, considering the ways to tell this story, that it might be easier to write it in the third person because I kept feeling like all this was happening to someone else. 

My mother was 24 when I was born. Jim Flood was 27. I can see him, amused, watching her intently as she created this fantastic story in the fast French that flew between them about the man with the burned legs. My mother was allergic to maimed people. Physical beauty was so important to her that in her late forties she had her toes shortened so that her feet would be smaller. Why would a woman, who so cared about appearance that she spent hours preparing to go out, have sex with a man with burned legs? She probably felt sorry for him, the way Americans feel sorry for Osama Bin Laden. And, in this story she’s with one gentleman while visiting Hong Kong and then she betrays him with a stranger there? That’s a very funny idea. Really. She would never do that. She didn’t hop from man to man. And she would never risk being stranded in a foreign place by deceiving her host. She watched out for her well-being first and foremost. 

I remember asking Dad once, a quarter of a century after their divorce: You loved her even though she was a liar? And he said: Yes. To complicate matters, she didn’t always lie, so thinking about why she would lie in any given situation was helpful when searching for the truth. But sometimes figuring out whether or not she was lying was futile. 

My real father. Dad’s letter gave me hope. Sometimes you don’t really know how much you miss someone until you know that the idea of him could be a reality. 

The past was still alive in me – bewildering me. For years Dad as my father was an overseas dream. My real father was a figment full of whys. The decades without him became a whisper and a roar. I needed him – perhaps because life with my mother was so unusual, sometimes bizarre. 


Copyright © 2016 by Danielle Flood Morin

The Unquiet Daughter
by by Danielle Flood