The Man Who Gave My Father Back
Doug types too much...
March 2, 2018
My mother had numerous relationships with men. Some she told me about, others I figured out on my own. Some were detrimental presences, but some saw a little red-haired boy being pulled around against his will. Occasionally there was one that did something fatherly. Kindness was welcome.
My mother had a habit of announcing things without an introduction. Depending on the day, she might announce we were moving – usually to escape an angry landlord. Or if you were lucky, it might be something less unsettling. Didn’t matter. Announcements were never good.
When I was ten, we briefly lived in Camden, Maine. I remember it was a summer Saturday. 1965. Sunny. Warm. My mother announced we were going to spend the day with “a friend.”
We walked across town to a man’s house. I’d never met him before, but he seemed nice enough. He didn’t have a scowl on his face. He wasn’t gruff.
He asked me right up front if I wanted to earn some spending money. Of course I did. I was the kid with nothing going for him. Including spending money.
He walked me outside and told me he needed his yard mowed. It was a spacious lawn. I accepted the job with confidence.
He sized me up and asked what I made an hour. I went bold.
“A dollar an hour.”
Tough talk for a 10-year-old.
He shook my hand to seal the deal.
“Alright,” he intoned. “A dollar an hour it is.”
I made 8 dollars that day. Yeah. It took me 8 hours to mow his lawn. In fairness to me, the deck was stacked a little from the outset. When the nice man I’d never met before shook my hand, he hadn’t revealed something critical – the lawnmower itself.
Before we clinched the deal, I mentioned in passing that I didn’t have a lot of experience mowing. Okay, no experience. I’d always been a city kid. I’d always lived in apartments without lawns. He told me that was fine – he had just the lawnmower for me.
He walked under his elevated porch and introduced me to a push-mower. Not one with an engine – a rotary push-mower. With dull blades. The non-adjustable high-up wooden handles were tough for me to get a grip on.
The nice man laughed and told me to come inside if I needed anything.
It was tough going. The height of the reach caused me to clutch the handle – cramping my hands and forearms – I had to use every muscle to move that barge of a lawnmower forward.
The nice man brought lunch out to me midday.
By the end of the afternoon, I was beat. But I finished. Sunburned and sweaty, blisters forming on my kid hands.
I went inside to claim my earnings. The man counted out my 8 bucks and invited me to sit at his kitchen table. He popped the top on a bottle of ice-cold Coke and handed it to me. I was still breathing heavy as I gulped.
That’s when he smiled and asked if I liked comic books.
Was he kidding? I loved comic books.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he said as he left my mother and me alone at his dinette table.
He returned, his arms loaded up with a towering stack of pristine comics.
He even gave us a ride home.
It was icing on the cake I hadn’t asked for or expected. I never forgot the gesture.
Even though I don’t remember his name and I never met him again, he taught me things. He planted seeds of doing the right thing, about being fair, about being kind to strangers. Even when you don’t have to. He was “Dad” for a day.
My real name is not Doug Bari. My real name is Douglas Bozidar Ivan Kunc.
My mother was a nurse working at Mount Sinai hospital in New York City when I was born. My father Bozidar Ivan Kunc, also known simply as Bo, was the musically-gifted brother of world-famous soprano Zinka Milanov who ruled the Metropolitan opera for decades until she closed down the old Met with her retirement performance in 1966.
Technically, I was born a bastard in 1955 because my mother and Bo were not married at the time. That brief union would come later.
The relationship between my mother and Bo was tortured. But back then, people worried more about what people thought, and a prime example of doing the right thing was giving a child its father’s name. They finally did get married to give me a level of legitimacy. During the summer I turned 4, my father attempted to live with us. It only lasted several months. Bo escaped the toxicity and married a woman named Dee.
By my mother’s own admission, even toward the end of her life, she was seized by the idea of paying Bo back for leaving her. Even after he was long dead. Even after my mother had freely admitted that she never really cared for my father and wasn’t sure why she married him in the first place. I have it on tape.
My mother wrote numerous deeply disturbing letters threatening Bo and Dee with physical harm. She sent letters dripping with emotional poison and never failed to make mention in her correspondence that I deeply hated my father because of what he’d done to me. She made sure he knew I never wanted to see him again.
While I did not “know” my father, I was constantly reminded about what kind of person he was when my mother would get sauced up and go on drunken tirades. Her destructive qualities were legend. She called him names. Derided his personality and musical talent. But most important, my mother always wanted to make sure I knew that my father never cared about me and that I was the primary reason he had deserted us.
After my father left, I was registered in Kindergarten as Douglas Bozidar Ivan Kunc. It’s what’s on my birth certificate. Okay, one of my birth certificates. Unlike most of you, I have two I can choose from. One lists my father as Bozidar Ivan Kunc. The other official document lists my father as George Bari. Back then, if you worked in a hospital before computers, you could apparently get one of your doctor friends to write anything you wanted on a birth certificate.
George never existed. Nor did the last name Bari manifest itself in our family until my mother changed her name to Ruth Bari. Not legally. She just started calling herself that. She loved the name Bari because she was a fan of an actress named Lynn Bari who played sultry man-killers in movies that came out in the 1940s and 50s.
I used my real name until I switched schools in the 6th grade. That was the summer we moved to Camden. The summer I met the lawnmower man with the comics.
My mother was going through an especially intense period of wrath when she told me she wanted me to stop using my father’s name. It made sense to me. All I’d heard was bad stuff about him. I never heard anything from him, not even at Christmas or on my birthday. Why would I want to carry the name of a man who hated me?
I agreed with my mother’s reasoning and she walked me into the school registration office and signed me up as Douglas Bari with no middle name. No questions asked. No paperwork required. They just believed the adult because why would your mother lie?
Depends on the mother.
From that day on, I was known as Douglas Bari. To everyone. At 16, when I got a Social Security card to work at McDonald’s, no paperwork was produced. My mother marched me down to a government office and they just typed a card up for me based on her word.
The first time I was asked to show my birth certificate was when I joined the military. I got some raised eyebrows. My names didn’t match. They asked me to explain.
“Well, when I went into the 6th grade, my mother registered me with the name Bari because she hated my father so much, she didn’t want me to use his name.”
The recruiter had me sign a statement that told everyone from that day forward that the name people knew me by was Douglas Bari, that my name had never been legally changed, and that I was not using a different name for nefarious purposes like evading law enforcement.
The last time I saw my father was in 1959. I don’t remember him. He died 5 years later on April Fools Day in 1964 when I was 9.
At the time, my mother was in an unmarried on-again/off-again relationship with my brother Burt’s father, known as Big Burt. Big Burt had a lot of problems, especially when he and my mother drank together. At least on those occasions, the invectives weren’t being hurled at me – they were too busy vocally duking it out with each other.
But here’s something else I’ll say about Big Burt. At his core, he was a supremely decent man. And he loved me. He acted like a father who cared. A Dad. He only knew my mother for a couple of years before it became impossible for them to co-exist.
I remember my 9-year-old-self coming home from school one afternoon to find my mother sitting calmly in a chair, holding a newspaper article in her hands. Calm was never good with my mother. It wasn’t a normal state to find her in. It was never a build-up to anything good.
“Dougie, if you had a choice, would you rather Big Burt died or your real father?”
I didn’t need to talk it out in my head. The answer was obvious. My real father hated me.
“I’d rather have Big Burt as my Dad.”
“I thought so,” she said. Then she read Bo’s obituary to me. He’d died right after giving a concert in Detroit.
It meant nothing to me. Because he wasn’t my father. At least, in my mind.
My mother made other choices in men as I got older, some more calamitous than others. All I knew was I wanted to get out of the house as soon as I could. The moment I turned 18, I was gone.
As I got older, got married a couple of times, and had kids of my own, I attempted to not mirror what I’d endured. I wanted to be a real Dad. I wasn’t always successful, but I’ve yet to meet a Dad that thinks he totally nailed it.
In 2005, I made my most personal film LOST AND FOUND. Most people have never seen it. It was initially going to be a search for my father. Judy encouraged me.
“People don’t live forever, Doug. You need to talk to the people who are left who knew your father. Go now.”
I ended up flying around the country that year, filming interviews as I went.
I went to Maine. In what would end up being my last time sitting across from my mother, I interviewed her for 2 days straight. The first day was all hers. She got to tell her history, including stories about my father – none of them good. The second day I got to ask questions. From what I could tell, she was sober those 2 days – a shell of the person who’d tormented me for years. It was interesting to watch her rewrite her history in front of me, sometimes revising mid-sentence. At one point, she mentioned my father and said, “Well, he did kind of like you.” That was the best I got from her.
I flew to New York City and interviewed Dee. She told me wonderful stories about my father. She said over and over again, “He loved you so much. He was so worried about you. He spoke about you until the day he died.”
Dee insisted I go see Bruce. As a young man, Bruce heard my aunt Zinka sing one Saturday afternoon on a radio station that was broadcasting a live Metropolitan opera performance. Years later, Bruce sought Zinka out, became a close friend, and ended up doing years of painstaking work to compose a massive biography of my famous aunt. In the course of his extensive research, he found out a lot of things about my father.
I contacted Bruce. He was more than willing to see me, but he couldn’t travel.
I flew to Los Angeles to meet the man who would give my father back.
Bruce was in his early 60s when I met him and he was already suffering from a severe disorder that set every nerve fiber in his body on fire. Consequently, he couldn’t sit for longer than 20 minutes. Not on a plane. Not in a car. Not even at his own kitchen table where I interviewed him. He apologized before we started and told me he would make every effort to sit without twitching in front of my camera, but he would be forced to take a break every 20 minutes.
Like clockwork, every 20 minutes, he stood up and pressed his hands hard on the edge of the table. Trembling in pain, white-knuckling. Then he’d take a deep breath, compose himself, and sit back down for another interview segment.
He started with:
“I’m assuming you know precious little about your father. If anything. So what I’d like to do is tell you everything I know about him and I think that will take me 5 or 6 hours. Then you can ask questions. Is that okay?”
Not only did Bruce reiterate what Dee had revealed to me, he had some of my father’s letters that echoed what Dee had said – that my father loved me. Adored me. He was so distraught about me being left with my mother, toward the end, he lost 40 pounds. Bo and Zinka had both tried to wrestle custody of me more than once, but my mother just kept moving to places where she could hide me away.
Bruce told me that among the hundreds of people he’d interviewed over the decades for his book, he couldn’t find one that didn’t think my mother was crazy. He quoted a sentiment he heard over and over. “We never knew what she was going to do. She was dangerous.”
I live to tell.
Bruce shared a life with me that day. Photographs I’d never seen. Stories I’d never heard. He even knew the little things. That Bo liked his coffee black. That he smoked up to 5 packs of filter-less Camels a day. That he had a funny little way that he walked.
After we were done with the interview, we stood up and took a picture together. It was all Bruce could do to maintain through his discomfort, but you’d never know it looking at him smiling with his arm around me.
I left Los Angeles with my head turned around.
I had wasted a lot of time being angry at someone for no reason.
I’m glad I interviewed Dee and my mother. They’re both gone now.
Dee left me with a portrait of a loving father who had difficulty grappling.
My mother left me with a scrapbook she’d kept of all the cards and letters Bo had sent me when I was a child. All the cards and letters I’d never seen before because she’d censored them. All the cards and letters that proved he tried to be a good Dad.
I’ve gotten comfortable channeling him.
I try to be the Dad my father wanted to be.
When I interviewed people who knew Bo, I heard the same thing over and over.
“My God, you look just like him. You even walk like him.”
The day I flew back from my interview with Bruce, I made a decision to own my DNA.
I like drinking my coffee black.
And I look and walk just like him.
Dad is a state of mind.
In these days of rapidly-evolving technology, my name continues to mess with me. Don’t get me wrong. I like being Doug Bari, but when I go through airports, I can’t use all the cool bar-code reading kiosks that whisk you through to the gate. My official passport name of Douglas Bozidar Ivan Kunc doesn’t match my ticket issued to Douglas Bari. I have to go to the counter and point out the part in the back of my passport where it says, “The bearer is also known as DOUGLAS BARI.”
I was recently interrogated by a customs agent in Germany who demanded to know why I had 2 names. I didn’t miss a beat.
“Well, when I went into the 6th grade, my mother registered me with the name Bari because she hated my father so much, she didn’t want me to use his name.”
Her expression froze, her face fell, and I was waved through without further questioning. I still have to explain shit my crazy mother did. But nowadays, at least with the name thing, I don’t mind having to explain.
Because, hey, I got my Dad back.
And I like carrying his name around with me.
I hadn’t heard from Bruce in a while, so I wrote him.
Weeks later, his caretaker wrote back.
Bruce is 74 now. His health is much worse. He has evolved to spinal cancer that is so excruciatingly painful, the heavy medications he takes don’t seem to have any effect. He can’t do anything anymore. Not even read. His future prognosis is: Things get worse.
My most healing thoughts go out to the man who gave me my father back.
I wish I could take his pain away like he did for me.