Unfolding Inheritance

My Two Dads

This is Unfolding Inheritance, a column by Kristen Gentry exploring mother-daughter relationships, the impact of parental addiction, and the journey of finding and loving yourself through it all.


Both of my fathers have shown my boyfriend their guns. 

My stepfather, let’s call him Daddy D, did it by way of introduction. Joe and I were seventeen and prom-bound. We’d been together for two years by then, but lived an hour apart and neither of us drove so we rarely saw each other during my weekend visits with cousins in Louisville. Our communication was mostly a mix of phone calls and handwritten letters. The letters were old school even then in the late nineties, but now they and the phone calls seem archaic. The calls were made on community house phones, not personal cell phones, and almost always while I was in Louisville because a call from home in Brandenburg was long distance and cost extra. 

Until Joe arrived in our driveway laughing loudly, incredulously at the cows lining the fence of our gravel road, Daddy D had only known him via the scrawl on the envelopes he’d carry from the mailbox to my eager hands, the shaky voice asking for me when Joe received permission to call. In his white tuxedo, tails and all, Joe followed Daddy D on a house tour that began and ended in the hallway with the gun cabinet showcasing a collection of rifles. Joe nodded knowingly, gravely. 

Twenty years later, long after Joe and I had broken up at eighteen but not too long after we’d reunited as thirty-somethings via the magic of Facebook, my biological father, let’s call him Daddy J, pulled his shotgun from under the sitting room couch. He let Joe hold it, shared its history, and told him he’d inherit it when he married me. It was a heartwarming bonding moment, yet  the unspoken sat amongst the room’s framed portraits of me big-toothed and smiling at seven, Daddy J standing tall and proud with his freemason brothers: “Don’t play with my daughter. I know what to do with the body.”


Mama bagged both of her baby daddies at the same soul food restaurant. 

Jay’s Cafeteria closed in 2008, but the day she met Daddy J, Mama was with my auntie and he came strolling over in that smooth as hell way I imagine he must have approached women back then since he already had four kids and just as many baby mamas. When Mama shared the story, she rolled her eyes and laughed at his weak game about her anklet and its meaning. I pucker my lips in sarcasm. Whatever he said must not have been too lame because I popped up a year later. I’m guessing his curly hair and pancake bright skin did the work where the words failed. Daddy J has told me many times, “Your mama said she couldn’t have kids and then here she go talking about ‘I’m pregnant.” He raises his voice to a shrill pitch in an imitation of Mama that sounds nothing like her, grins that grin I’m sure had a lot to do with getting me here so I know there are no hard feelings. It says he loves me; he’s glad I’m here though I wasn’t supposed to be. 

He and Mama didn’t make it far, but he speaks of her fondly with respect for her “nice shape,” work ethic, and independence. They were broken up by the time Mama delivered the news of her pregnancy. When Daddy J tells their story, he acts out that moment, speaking Mama’s part in the same horrible imitation, “‘You don’t have to worry about taking care of her. I don’t want your money, I just want you to be in her life.’”  

Here, he sits upright in his chair and shifts firmly into his own voice. “I told her I take care of my kids. She ain’t got to worry about that.”


Daddy J admired Mama, but Daddy D loved the shit out of her. I mean, absolutely fucking adored her from the very beginning. They met in the hospital where Mama worked as a nurse, caring for Daddy D’s father. Grandmother (Daddy D’s mother) has told me a million times that the first time Daddy D laid eyes on Mama he said, “I’m gonna marry that woman.” I never tired of hearing that fairy tale “once upon a time” even after I’d lived the sad ending.  

I was there at Jay’s for their second fateful meeting and saltier than the fried drumstick I scowled over. Who was this blue-jeaned, cowboy-booted man stealing Mama away from our lunch? Even the five-year-old hater in me couldn’t deny my fascination with his hair, a thick braid that hung to the middle of his back. I had never seen anybody with such beautiful hair. 

Soon after that meeting, Mama drove us what seemed like forever to his house where he introduced me to his three dogs and showed me the cows, chickens, and pigs on his farm. He sat on the toilet while Mama stood above him unraveling all that hair. She massaged it with moisturizer and brushed it into a shiny black river that she let me dip my fingers into. I listened to him talk while Mama rebraided and hated him a little less. 


All that hair was gone when they married months later at Grandmother’s house. I can’t help but think of Samson and Delilah when I write the story this way, even though that’s not what happened. The truth is far more complicated. 

Mama’s depression and opioid addiction were nothing she planned or wanted; she loved Daddy D. His possession of extraordinary strength is questionable, but that strength is not in his hair, beautiful though it may be. His haircut was a choice, not a theft. I’m just losing myself in simple comparisons–a love story gone wrong, shorn locks, a weakened man, a collapsed house. 

I used to think men couldn’t cry. I am and am not embarrassed that I carried this belief until I was twelve; I’d simply never seen it. So when Daddy D came into my room, sat on my bed, and told me Mama was going inpatient for depression, I was shook. Not by what he’d confirmed was happening behind their locked bedroom door. That made her days lost to sleep make perfect sense. It was the tears that made a short creep to his red, pockmarked cheeks before he wiped them away, the choking sob that fell loud in the quiet when he hugged me. I felt that sob, the way it bent his back, folding him smaller like a major foundation had broken inside of him, the way it wrestled with him when he pushed it down to silence, unsteadied his words when he told me everything was going to be okay. 


Mama’s nervous breakdown and second inpatient stay brought Daddy J in his Lincoln Continental crawling down the gravel road. Daddy J had never driven to Meade County, and the occasion, which felt very city mouse visits country mouse, was set with a heaviness that made me fidgety. Having both of my fathers in the same room without Mama was weird. Everything was weird and had been for a while. Daddy D and Mama separated at the beginning of the summer when she and I moved back to Louisville. Since her breakdown, I’d been staying with Grandmother, half-attending school, caught in limbo unsure what would happen to me. The daddy meeting signaled more change to come.

Daddy D began. “Me and your mama aren’t together,” he said, “but this is your home–always–no matter what’s going on between me and her, you hear me?”

I nodded.

“If you want to stay here, you’ll stay here.” 

Daddy J shifted on the couch, stirring the scent of his cologne, as he spoke, “If you want to come with me, we’ll keep you in your school, get your stuff moved over to the house, get your room together…Whatever you want to do.” He held open hands before his chest to prove he held no tricks. “We’re here to support you.”

I was thirteen years old and they were trusting me to do what was best for me? 

I knew the decision was important, but the significance of them offering the choice didn’t hit me until years later. 

My grandmother (Mama’s mama) told Daddy J he needed to go get me; Daddy D and Mama weren’t together and I’m not his blood. It makes sense. But my fathers didn’t care about what made sense to most; they cared about what I wanted. Despite the false ”deadbeat” judgments others could have thrown against him–a man with eight kids and seven baby mamas–for leaving me in the care of another man, Daddy J respected and honored my decision to stay in Brandenburg with Daddy D to return to school with longtime friends. Daddy D took on responsibility he didn’t have to, sacrificing money, time, and all of the stuff that parenting takes from you. He sold his cows when he came home from his job at Louisville Gas & Electric to find them roaming the gravel road, the fence latch busted. He sent me to school in the morning smelling like bacon with crooked parts in my hair. He stirred his steak gravy to a silky brown with one hand on his hip, and I always wondered what he was thinking as he stared into the steam shrouding his face.


My fathers echo Mama’s advice not to depend on a man. Then–and now–the three of them round a ditty that goes a little something like this: “Make your own money. Be able to make your own way in this world.”

Daddy D and Daddy J are day and night. Country and city. Daddy J is matching short sets, a Kangol, pinky ring, slick talk in a loud bar on a late night. Daddy D is well-worn jeans, a black t-shirt, holster at his hip, a rock song floating from a truck window on a back road. But on the point of my self-sufficiency, there is unquestionable agreement. 

“Trust no one,” they chorus. 

I’ve lived my life heeding their words, yet reflecting on the ways they’ve rebuilt my faith, assuring me that, though few, there are people who can be trusted.  

They’ve protected me from my mother and the harm she did and did not intend. 


Sometime after the daddy meeting, after she’d been released from rehab, after she’d been staying with a friend for a while, Mama came to pick up some of her things. She stood in the house she and Daddy D had worked so hard to make a home–decorating a circus-themed nursery for my little brother, painting my bedroom babydoll pink, planting a garden where I plucked strawberries from the ground to my mouth, building a playset in the backyard, adding a wraparound porch–and tried to burn that bitch down. 

I don’t know why she was so mad. I don’t know what she was thinking, if she was thinking, if she’d been on something then, if she realized that if she’d succeeded her children would’ve been homeless or worse. I’ve never asked her about it.  

Her rage was stunning. It kept me rooted to the couch as smoke unfurled from the phone books she’d sat on stove burners cranked to high. My brother screamed with the smoke alarm and I followed him outside to get Daddy D, glancing behind me to catch her splashing bleach on the curtains. Later, I watched the burgundy bleed backwards into blank splotches. 

That day, Daddy D called the sheriff and let the law and somebody else’s gun do the talking.


Last year, Daddy J answered my call on the first ring after Mama and I had a big fight. 

I was moving from Rochester, New York and staying with her while I searched for a new place in Louisville. She was perfectly pleasant and drove with me to see houses, but mothers, even the ones who are a decade clean and free of a depressive episode, can work your nerves when you’re a grown person used to being in your own space. I went for a walk to vent to my cousin. Upon my return, Mama asked if I was okay. I said yes. 

She said, “I hope you weren’t talking about me.” 

I said nothing. 

She said, “Oh. So you were talking about me?”

I said, “Not anything bad–”

She slammed a book onto the kitchen table and screamed, “I’m so sick of this shit!”

“This shit” being, I guess, me expressing my feelings about her to others. 

Whenever I spend too many days under the same roof with Mama, the past rises, thickening the air with so much unsaid, the little me who shrunk herself to appease, to fix problems that weren’t hers to solve. I tried to explain this to her, but she scoffed like I was being dramatic. “Am I supposed to pay forever for my mistakes?”  

I sat on the porch crying with Daddy in one ear and Mama’s accusations, floating from inside the house, in my other: “You’re wrong, Kristen. You’re wrong.”

“Get your stuff,” Daddy said. “Your room is ready. I’ll be here.”


The premise of the late eighties sitcom, My Two Dads, is that two men, total opposites, get joint custody of their ex-girlfriend’s daughter when she dies. 

That’s not what happened, but it felt like it. Mama didn’t die but she slept days away and zombied around like she was dead.

In the show, neither man knew who fathered the girl. Of course, I know who my biological father is, but I’d argue that both daddies made me. 

Daddy J is in my face, the fat cheeks I wore as a baby, the signature we share with the swirling tail of the “y” in our last name swinging up and to the left to cross the “t.” He is the me talking much shit with cards fanned in my hand, the throaty kee-kee and pink flash of tongue.     

Daddy D is the me in thrifted Levi’s boasting a faded wallet imprint and vintage tag on the back pocket; the me blasting Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits in the car, my left hand riding the waves of the wind; the me on the porch in my rocking chair, face to the sunset’s raucous beauty in the day’s quiet close.

I know I’m lucky to have two good dads when too many don’t have one. 

Both maintain confidence in my choices, even when I doubt.  Nights after I left my tenured teaching position, I sat up in bed worrying about bills and what I was going to do to pay them. I voiced these concerns to Daddy J as we sat in matching recliners.

“You smart, girl!” he exclaimed, flashing that grin, fat with pride like my intelligence would fix all my problems, like I am all I need in this world and he had to yell so I’d hear him, smile so I’d know that –I am–a good thing.

When I called Daddy D, he said, “You’ll be alright,” and it wasn’t one of those flimsy, nothing things people throw around. It was a beefy, full-bodied sentence that I wrapped my arms around and held tight.  

I tried to gain strength from that daddy meeting decades ago, the two of them listening, waiting, knowing I’d choose the right path. I wanted to share their certainty, but, honestly, thirteen-year-old me had an easy choice. With Daddy J on one side of my decision and Daddy D on the other, the decision was a win-win. 

Filed under: Unfolding Inheritance


Kristen Gentry is the author of Mama Said. She received her MFA from Indiana University. Her award-winning fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Jabberwock Review, and other journals. She is a VONA and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference alumna, former Director of Creative Writing at SUNY Geneseo, and a member of the inaugural Poets & Writers publicity incubator for debut writers. She lives and writes in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.