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What Do you Say to Your Dead Father’s Mistress?

As I mentioned here, my father was having an affair with a Swiss woman when he died, and I’ve been trying to track her down. I want to know about her relationship with my father and hear another perspective on him. My sister, who met her in Ukraine the summer he died, gave me her name, and I’ve been poking around the Internet trying to find her for the past few months but haven’t come up with anything or anyone. 

The other day I was going over some articles about my father’s death that my mother saved, and I noticed his mistress actually contributed to one of them as a reporter. Turns out I had her name wrong by one letter. Though her name seems like it could be really common if you’re Swiss, when I typed in the correct spelling of her name, I found her, and her email address, immediately. Sometimes the internet is scary.

I’ve been drafting an email to her for two days, struggling to get the tone just right. I want the email to be friendly and honest, without being too long or intense.  I’d like to keep it short and simple, but if I’m too short, she might think I’m angry or crazy. But if I go on and on in an attempt to forge a connection, soothe her fears, or explain why I want to talk to her, she might think I’m a more complicated crazy. I need to get this email right because I need her to respond. I know there’s a good chance she won’t respond no matter what I write, but it still feels important to have a strategy.

It’s taking a lot of effort to not write her a “complicated crazy” email. I want her to sympathize with my plight, trust me, and maybe even like me. I found a bunch of information on her and she seems really cool and—here comes the creepy part—like someone I might be friends with…? I always thought she was closer to my father’s age, but it turns out she was only 25 or 26 when they met, which means she’s only nine or ten years older than me. She did humanitarian work for well over a decade, but just went back to school for a degree in industrial design. Also, we both like kayaking.

Though I know a bit about her, I don’t know anything about her relationship with my father, and that’s working against me. I have no idea how she feels about it, or how important it was to her. Was their relationship a defining part of her 20’s, or just one of the many crazy things that happened to her? Maybe my father was just an interesting extended fling. Or maybe she was in love with him and was devastated not only when he died, but when she couldn’t claim her grief. And how did she feel about having an affair with a married man—did she harbor guilt or shame, or was she totally fine with it?

I hope she’s okay with what happened. I am, and I want that to be clear in my email.  But even though I state that directly, I’m worried that no matter what I say, she won’t believe me. I’m trying to imagine how I would feel if I received this email, but that’s not getting me very far because I can’t imagine being anyone but myself, and If I got this letter, I would be intrigued and excited and would call me up and gab for ten hours straight. 

What I really want to tell her—but won’t—is that when I was younger than her, I had an affair with a married man named Bud, which is an even sexier name than George. I was 19 and spending the summer waitressing in the US Virgin Islands, something I’d decided to do on a whim one particularly cold New York night—I’d never wiatressed, been to the Caribbean, or spent so much time on my own, but I got the idea in my head and decided to do it because wanted to know that I could, and I knew something I couldn’t do was spend a summer at home with my mother. I arrived, completely terrified, and was stuck camping on the beach until someone from work mentioned they knew a contractor who was also a caretaker at a gated community where people like Bon Jovi had houses. He needed someone around during the day. I decided I wanted to be that person even before I met him or saw the place.

When I finally did meet Bud, I was attracted to him immediately. He was hot, and he was dirty and sweaty from a day at work, and he was leaning against his pickup truck. We chatted for 20 minutes and he mentioned his wife and kids, who lived in Virginia, where he spent a lot of his time, right away—not in an attempt to “warn me,”—he just talked about them a lot. I liked that he was “ruggedly handsome,” I liked that he was older, and I am pretty sure that liked that he was married, though I wasn’t actually aware that I was at the time.

That trouble was brewing was obvious, but I was at a point in my life when I didn’t know how to stop things from happening. Everything felt inevitable. So I moved in to the loft in his little caretakers place, which was pretty sweet and not little. It was a million degrees because it was the Caribbean in May, so it was way too hot to sleep up that loft.  It was too hot to even breathe there. I ended up in his bed that first night, though I no longer remember how. He may have offered up his bed in a friendly way without directly coaxing me. He might have always known that I wouldn’t be able to sleep in the loft, and that I’d have to migrate. Was there also a couch? Probably. 

We never had sex, but we did make out a lot. I loved that I was hooking up with him, partially because I knew what we were doing was “bad.”  I understood we were being naughty and I got off on it, even though I really had no idea what was happening. I told some friends from work—people I’d known for a week—about it. “And,” giggle, “he’s married. Cool, right?” 

I can’t remember how I figured out it wasn’t cool at all, but I did. I think it was because he talked too much. He told me again and again how much he respected his wife, how she was smart and an amazing mother to his sons, and then talked about how painful it was for him not to be faithful to her. He was so pained to be in bed with an impossibly tan and game 19-year old! Poor him! Even I was like, “You sound pretty stupid right now, and I’m sure I’m the only person giving you a chance to be so pained, and that must mean I’m twice as stupid as you are.”

Soon, I started to feel like I was a young, wide-eyed woman who was cut off from everything and everyone that was familiar to her and was being taken advantage of, which was exactly who I was at that moment, so I moved out and proceeded to have one of the most amazing and important summers of my life—I made incredible friends, built a brief life out of “nothing,” and purged a lot of grief (and bile). I showed myself that I really could do whatever I needed or wanted to do, even if it was scary or painful.

Now that I’m looking back on everything, I think Bud had bigger problems than being in love with himself and cheating on his wife. He might have been a serious liar. He told me he used to be a Navy SEAL but I think he just wished he’d been a Navy SEAL, because he read fictional thrillers about them all the time, and I’m pretty sure actual Navy SEALS don’t need or want to do that. I believed him at the time because I was young, and because he was a very intense conversationalist and talked about places like Lebanon and had night vision goggles.

I can’t exactly put all of this in my email to my father’s former mistress, but I do want to say something like, “Hey, it’s cool, I get it,” even though I clearly do not. I feel bonded by our situations though they were very different. I didn’t have a real relationship with Bud, and Bud was not an “important man” in that environment. Bud also didn’t die in a car accident while we were involved, and I didn’t have to pretend we weren’t having an affair after he died. 

I have imagined, or maybe decided, that my father’s mistress and I are kindred spirits, even though she must have liked my father and I pretty much hated him. I’ve also imagined that she’ll be totally interested in talking to me and that we’ll have coffee while wearing cozy sweaters, which, for the record, I don’t wear, and that she’ll tell me everything about her relationship with my father (except the sex) in great detail. I want to know how they met, how she felt about him, how he treated her, what he said about my family, and how she felt when he died. I really see it happening, and even if I learn terrible or difficult things—like he manipulated her, or he had lots of other affairs—I think I’ll be okay with it. I just want to know.

I’m probably setting myself up for major disappointment. 

Anyway, here’s the most recent draft of the email. 

Dear X,

This might not the best way begin, but I feel I should start by apologizing for sending you what might be an overwhelming email.

I’m X’s youngest daughter. It’s my understanding that you were involved with him in Ukraine when he died. I’m contacting you because I’m trying to learn more about him, and because I’m curious about your relationship. I don’t have any negative feelings about your relationship or about/toward you, and I hope that you’re open to communicating with me. Oh, here’s another apology—I’m sorry if you actually didn’t have a relationship with my father and I’ve got it all wrong. I’m just going off  what my sister told me.

I was 16 when my father died, and I didn’t know him well, though I guess most teenagers don’t know their parents well, or care to. I certainly was not interested in knowing or being close to my father. We had a difficult relationship, and I was relieved when he started working abroad.

Now that I’m an adult, I actually want to know my father better. My mother passed away two years ago (my sister never told her about the affair), and since she died, I’ve been compelled to learn more about both of my parents as individuals. I’m sad that I realized so late that my parents were not only my parents, but were people who had rich and complicated lives separate from myself.

I’d love to ask you some questions about my father. I know everything happened a long time ago, and that you might have some complicated feelings about what happened. I understand if you have reservations about sharing your experiences with me.

I’d be grateful if you could at least write me back and let me know if you’re open to communicating.

Thanks very much.

— 2 years ago with 6 notes
#dad  #mistresses  #longreads 
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