WHITESBURG, Ky. On a warm, bright Sunday morning last fall, on a steep eastern Kentucky hillside, two men I'd just met knelt and used their hands to finish digging a hole for the urn containing my father's ashes.
My father's nephew preached, hymns were sung. A few people cried a little.
They told me it was the family grave site. Beautiful corner of the world. But I didn't even know it existed until that September day last year.
I never knew my father, but I drove all the way from Florida for the memorial service, along with my sister and our spouses. More out of curiosity than to pay last respects to a man who bolted before I was old enough to formulate even the slightest memory of him.
So there we were, standing on the side of this hill, sweat beading on our backs, surrounded by kin who were strangers two days earlier when we pulled into town.
Three of my half sisters and a half brother were there. That made six of us, sons and daughters of Jim Stacy who had never been together in the same state, let alone in our father's tiny hometown deep in the craggy folds of Appalachia.
When the dirt had been patted smooth on his grave, somebody spoke up, one of his favorite nieces.
''He's back in Kentucky with his mama,'' she said.
After James Edward Stacy left Kentucky as a dirt-poor high school dropout, he fathered 10 children by six different mothers, a fact that dashed any romantic notion I ever had about dear old dad wondering where I was because he yearned to play catch with me in the back yard.
He married most of the women, and there was a serial nature to how he left them behind with small children. He was a chef, and a pretty good one, by most accounts. Some of the women he took up with were waitresses who worked with him, including my mother. They worked together at a country club in Dayton, Ohio, when both were 20 years old.
They drove back to Kentucky to get married in October 1960, two months before I was born and about three months before he hitchhiked to California for Army basic training. My sister Kristin was born a year after me.
Our father was out of our lives before we were potty trained. Soon, our mother went her own way, leaving us for our grandparents to raise. From then on we saw her rarely, usually just at Christmas.
My sister and I started searching for our father about 10 years ago. We had his birth certificate and some other documents, but never any luck, even after the Internet came along. The intensity of our efforts waxed and waned through the years.
One day last year, on a whim, I dug out the documents again and sent all the details off to an Internet search company. When the results came back a couple days later via e-mail, I was working alone on the overnight shift at the AP bureau in Atlanta.
They got a hit on his birth date this time, providing an address in a Las Vegas suburb. With adrenaline surging, I began working the Net for other clues and planning what I might say to him the first time we met.
At the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper Web site, I punched his name into the archives. Seconds later I was staring at his obituary.
He had died five days before.
Emphysema claimed James Stacy on Feb. 18, 2002, three months short of his 62nd birthday. (They say he was a three-pack-a-day man.) He'd been married to his last wife for 26 years. Before he quit working several years ago, he was an executive chef in a Las Vegas casino. Somewhere there's a draft of a cookbook he was writing.
His last child, a daughter, is the only one he raised, although other children he fathered came in and out of his life. Perhaps understandably, his youngest wanted nothing to do with the gathering that came together around the memorial service.
Remarkably, the mothers of some of his children still speak fondly of him. Nice guy. Smooth talker. Would give you the shirt off his back.
Some of the kids who found him before he died tell stories of lovely dinners in Las Vegas and gambling binges financed with $100 bills peeled from a wad in his pocket. He tried to make amends the best way he knew how.
I don't regret that I never got to play the slots next to Dad at the Lady Luck. I don't even regret that I never got to hear him explain how he could hold me as a baby and then just leave. I know now he was a deeply flawed man, like many. He was nothing more and nothing less than I expected.
I'm just sorry I never got to look him in the eye, never got to see how he held his cigarette, never got to hear the sound of his voice or hear him laugh or just be in the same room with him long enough to search for shreds of myself in his quirks and mannerisms.
People raised by their by biological parents can never fully understand how the rest of us yearn to know where we came from. It leads adults who had perfectly fine upbringings and I had a happy childhood with loving grandparents on extensive and expensive searches for parents who left them as unceremoniously as James Stacy walked away from most of us.
My sister Kristin gets all the credit for the dogged detective work after we learned of his death. She found all the brothers and sisters, located our father's only surviving sibling, and cajoled everyone to come for the memorial service.
My father's wife agreed to ship the ashes to Kentucky for burial but didn't want to come herself. She wasn't much interested in the people from Jim's past, especially since he had neglected to mention that most of us existed.
At a motel in Whitesburg, the six of us kids then ranging in age from 28 to 42 and coming together from five states shared what we knew of our father, pored over each other's snapshots, laughed, watched football on TV, drank too much and stayed up late.
We couldn't stop telling each other how we felt and had trouble finding the words. We vowed to keep in touch. A family Web site now keeps us up on everyone's comings and goings.
My sister Judy has visited us in Florida a couple of times now. A year older than me, she was reared by adoptive parents in Ohio just miles from where Kristin and I grew up. My father's sister, Ellene, and her family are driving from Memphis, Tenn., later this summer.
My brother Ed and his fiancee joined us and our families in Florida last Christmas. In March, Ed and I sat in the sun together at a couple of spring training baseball games, eating peanuts and drinking beer, talking up our favorite teams (Indians, me; Pirates, him) and doing what brothers do.
Ed likened it to that credit card commercial: Priceless.
This September, one year after that surreal scene on the Kentucky hillside, I'll be standing up with Ed at the front of a church in his Pittsburgh hometown as a member of his wedding party.
James Stacy's name is bound to come up that day, but probably only in passing. We'll all be toasting the future instead of looking back.
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