A Father's Day 41-years in the making for Gulfport man

GULFPORT — On the day he got the phone call, Michael Turbe went to work early.

He locked the room he shares with his parrot and his pit bull and plodded down the sidewalk to the TLC convenience mart, where he works the night shift.

The owner greeted him with a how-you-doin'. Normally, Mike would have answered, "Just glad to be here." And he was.

Finally sober after 41 years, he had what he needed to get by: a job, a room, a phone. It was a good enough life.

But on this Wednesday, his answer was different. "Great!" he said, loudly. A grin grew beneath his gray mustache. Behind his bifocals, his blue eyes danced.

"Better than great. This is the best day of my life!"

A woman looked up from the beer cooler. A man in the snack aisle turned around.

"This morning, my daughter called," Mike told everyone in the store. "I have a daughter. And she wants to come meet me."

On the day she made the phone call, Janine Marks, 41, got up early.

She padded downstairs in the dark of her Long Island home, careful not to wake her two kids, and found the Florida number she had been dialing every day for almost a week.

So far, a machine had answered every time. "Hello, you have reached . . ." She couldn't just leave a message, not about something like this.

Now it was 7 a.m. Wednesday. It took Janine 30 minutes to work up the nerve to dial the number.

"Hello?" answered a deep, gentle voice.

Janine remembers being so startled that it took her a minute to stammer, "Is this Michael Turbe?"

"Yes. Who is this?"

"It's me. I mean, Janine. I'm Anne Kantor's daughter. I think you're my father."

• • •

Father.

At work that night, as he rang up six-packs and cigarettes, the word echoed in Mike's head. Father. He was a father.

He was someone.

Mike always said he wasn't anyone. Just an old hippie. A sober drunk. "I was a has-been," he said, "before I ever was."

In his 59 years he had lived in St. Thomas and Key West, in quaint cottages and homeless shelters. He had been a musician, hitchhiker, roommate, cellmate, painter, bartender, drinking buddy and deckhand.

But he had never been anything nearly as important as a father. He wasn't sure he was worthy. What did he have to give a grown daughter? He couldn't even afford to buy the plane ticket so she could come meet him. And what did he have to show her? A small room where the bed is the couch. A corkboard filled with faces from the halfway house. Snapshots of friends' kids. A corner convenience store in a quiet little waterfront town where everyone knows his name.

He wanted to tell his daughter his story, so she'd know him. But daughters are supposed to be proud of their dads. What if he disappointed her?

She said she'd be in Florida by Father's Day.

• • •

On the day he met her mother — a Saturday in November 1965 — Mike was playing guitar in her basement. His band, the Orphans, had been hired for her Sweet 16 party. His wheat-colored hair skimmed his shoulders. He was 17.

Anne was petite and slender. Thick raven hair spilled down her back. Her eyes were dark, almost black. "Absolutely beautiful," Mike said.

He learned she was an artist, a painter and clothing designer who sewed her own creations. She went to another high school and was friends with his bass player. She had promised to make some groovy pants for the guys in the band.

When she saw Mike singing, she fell in love with his voice. "And those blue, blue eyes."

Mike was Catholic; Anne's mother had survived the Holocaust. Their parents didn't approve. So for months, they sneaked around. They even talked about running off and getting married.

After six months they became lovers. It was a spring afternoon, Mike remembers, a school day while his parents were at work. They were both virgins. He used a condom. "But I didn't know what I was doing."

Six weeks later, Anne told him she could never see him again. She stopped going to clubs where his band played. She refused to take his calls. Mike was miserable.

"I didn't know what was wrong," he said. He lay on his single bed, listening to the Beatles' first album — over and over. I Saw Her Standing There morphed into Love Me Do, then Misery.

Finally, Anne showed up at a Holiday Inn where his band was opening for Gladys Knight and the Pips. "Please, Anne," he said, wrapping his arm around her. "Tell me what's wrong."

And she did.

• • •

Mike had saved enough money playing with the Orphans to buy two plane tickets to the Bahamas. During the days, he went to look for work while Anne hunted for a cheap apartment. At night in the hotel, they tried on baby names and held each other in the dark. Once, he felt a tiny foot kicking Anne's swollen belly.

On the day the cops came, they had been out buying silverware. An officer told Mike to come along peacefully, or he would cuff him and drag him in. Anne's father was waiting at the police station. During the long flight back to New York, no one spoke.

The next day, Anne's parents sent her to the Louise Wise home for unwed mothers. When the baby was born, Mike was allowed to hold her. He felt her downy hair brush the inside of his elbow, her impossibly small fist close around his finger. His daughter looked up at him.

She had his blue eyes.

Mike and Anne signed the baby away to an adoption agency. Their parents insisted. She would be better off, they said.

All Mike had wanted was gone. He tried suicide by slitting his wrists. His mother committed him as a mental patient at a state hospital. When he got out, he hitchhiked across the country carrying his guitar, a Band-Aid box filled with cigarettes and $2.83. He copped rides, mostly in VW buses, and five days later landed in Haight-Ashbury.

But the summer of love was over. He never saw Anne or his daughter again.

• • •

For the next three decades he drifted around, trying to drink enough cheap beer to fill the hole inside him. He married once; it lasted less than a year. He wanted children, but never had another.

Every time he saw a dark-haired girl with blue eyes, he'd guess her age. Could that be her? He wondered what she was learning in school, what she'd want for her birthday. He wished he could get her a dog.

By the time his daughter would have been 15, Mike had started telling stories — to anyone who would listen. "Sure, I have a daughter. I raised her when she was small, but now she goes to boarding school." Or, "She lives with her mother."

He wondered if she ever wondered about him.

Two years ago, after living on the streets, after hitting rock bottom — he had forgotten how many times — Mike stopped drinking and started going to meetings.

He got an efficiency, a job, a parrot, then a dog. A couple of months ago, he got a computer.

And a phone.

• • •

Janine was adopted out of foster care when she was 10 months old, by a couple who lived in Long Island who thought they couldn't have kids. As soon as they got Janine, the mother got pregnant and Janine grew up with a younger sister.

Janine said she always knew she was adopted. When she was 7, she vowed to track down her birth parents. She didn't match her family. She needed to know where her blue eyes came from.

When Janine was 20, her adopted mother died of lung cancer, and she started searching for her birth parents. She found Anne through the home for unwed mothers, and Anne told her all about her dad. She wanted to know if he had loved her, if he had wanted to keep her. Anne told her the whole story.

"It must have been very hard on you both," Janine said.

Anne lives in Manhattan, a half-hour from Janine; they see each other all the time. Anne was at Janine's wedding, and she was there when both of Janine's children were born. For 20 years, they tried together to track down Mike.

"We were always five steps behind him. We'd find someone who'd seen him, or a restaurant where he worked, and they'd tell us, 'Oh, he just moved,' " Janine said. She started worrying; maybe he didn't want to be found.

In mid May, Anne typed Michael Turbe into an address search engine on the Internet. A Florida number flickered onto the screen.

For the first time in years, Mike was sober enough to pay for a land line.

• • •

He sent Janine a CD of his songs, some of the same ones he'd sung to her mother. She sent him photos of her daughter, who is 13, and her 8-year-old son.

After that first call he called her a couple times a day, just to remind himself that she was real.

Anne called Mike too, and they talked and talked. She told Mike she ended up marrying one of his friends; they had had two children together, then divorced. Anne was married again now.

She told Mike, "Janine wants me with her when she meets you. And I want to see you." They bought tickets to fly to Tampa on Thursday, June 12.

Mike had to tell them he didn't have room for them to stay with him. So they got a room in an inn across the street from his convenience mart.

He tacked the photo of Janine and her kids beside the cash register, so 700 people each day could see them. He told their story to anyone who asked.

• • •

On the day before they flew to Tampa, Janine and Anne got their hair done. They worried about what to wear, tried to figure out who should walk off the plane first. "I've been wanting this since second grade," Janine told her mom. "But I'm scared."

Mike cleaned his apartment and washed his old car. He shampooed the upholstery, vacuumed the floors. He bought a Celtic ring for Janine, sterling silver. Then realized he didn't have enough money for flowers.

"I don't deserve her," he said. "Or Anne."

Then he opened his mail, and found the government stimulus check.

Thanks to Uncle Sam, Mike was able to buy two bouquets.

• • •

The flight to Florida was late because of lightning. Mike paced around the terminal, from the tram to the arrival boards, clutching roses and daisies wrapped in bright tissue paper.

Every time the tram doors opened and a crowd of people poured out, Mike stepped closer to scan the faces. He watched dads pushing strollers, dads tickling toddlers, dads holding little girls' hands.

He had missed all that. Janine would never sit on his lap. Never call him Daddy. But now he had another chance, he knew, with her kids.

For 41 years, he had thought he was alone. He'd never even worried about life insurance — he had no one to leave money to. Now he had a legacy. Grandchildren, he decided, make you immortal.

At 3:32 the tram doors opened and another group rolled out. Mike stood on his toes. His face lit up and his hand shot into the air.

He hugged Janine first. Tightly, for a long time. When they pulled apart, Anne moved in. Then all three of them were embracing, laughing and crying and holding each other.

When Mike took off his sunglasses, Janine studied her father's face. "Your grandson looks just like you," she said. "He has your blue eyes."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

A Father's Day 41-years in the making for Gulfport man 06/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2008 7:27pm]

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