Portland, Ore. — It has been dawning on me slowly over the years. But just the other day it came to me suddenly, like a quick breath, as I recounted my family soap opera to a new friend. It is time for me to know my biological father.
The divorce was a bit messy, or so I've heard. But I am fortunate. I was a giggly, pig-tailed toddler the day it went through – which became the eve of my mother's marriage to the man who would raise me. I have no memories of pain.
Photos show me that, throughout their courthouse wedding, my mother and soon-to-be stepfather have that honeymoon glow, and my twin brother and I are delighting in our tiny sailor outfits and shiny shoes.
Little did we know that our parents, both attorneys, were signing documents that our biological father, another attorney, had tried to keep from their eager hands. In a desperate bid that failed, he had appealed the divorce to the US Supreme Court.
For years I heard the stories of my new father's struggle to adopt us – I vaguely remember, at age 7, the paperwork going through. My parents rejoiced, and I remember mild confusion at their delight. To me, nothing had changed. The signatures held no meaning. We were what we had always been.
And I have heard the story of the day my father dropped us off at Sugarplum Day Nursery in Arlington, Va., and I bounded up the stairs, fellow toddlers as my witnesses, turned on my heel, and announced defiantly, "Bye, Daddy!" It was the first time I'd called him "Daddy," and I did it in a profoundly proud and public manner. And Daddy cried.
"Daddy" is now "Dad," or "Pops," and I am not just "Elizabeth," but "Beth," or "Baff," as I called myself in those early, toothless days. He and I have created so many nicknames and cute diminutives.
So it only seems fitting that I hardly know what to call my biological father. He went from "Daddy" to "Daddy Jim" to "Big Jim" to just "Jim," not one of which has felt quite right in my mouth. What do you call the man who fathered you but knows so little of you?
We used to visit, my brother and I, one weekend a month. We overheard heated arguments between our parents and biological father about methods of spanking, and grew wary of his fire-and-brimstone sermons. By the time I packed up for college in Chicago, I didn't think of him often.
But now I am married, and many of my friends are married or considering marriage. And when you enter the world of marriage, study its history, the way it plays out in the lives of those you know, you invariably study divorce, too.
And it has finally become clear to me what my biological father must have suffered so many years ago, losing not only his wife, but also any opportunity to raise his twin toddlers. His legal fight makes its own kind of sad, desperate sense.
We will never share a history as intimate as if he had raised me, and my personality has been shaped powerfully by a man whose blood does not course through my veins. But since I was young I have seen myself in this other man I hardly know. I move the way he moves, chuckle the way he chuckles. My eyes, my coloring, these things come so clearly from this semistranger.
And so passes a subtle, implicit understanding between us. We are linked in some inerasable way. It comforts me, somehow. And I think it comforts him.
And maybe that's all any of us wants, in the end. Confirmation that something we did was true.
• Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is a freelance journalist in Portland, Ore., and the editor of www.CommonTies.com.