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Second-Chance Family

What's the most loving memory you have of your dad? For Kate Simonson, orphaned at 17, it was the moment Mike Fieseler took her in and became the new father she so desperately needed.

By Kate Simonson with Meghan Daum
Mike Fieseler and his adopted daughter Kate Simonson Jessica Wynne

The summers of my youth were filled with the kinds of activities that were common to every kid in the 80s but are considered almost death-defying these days: tree climbing, bike riding without a helmet, and daylong road trips spent in the backseat of the family car, where we bounced around like Super Balls, nary a seat belt in sight.

Still, my mother was safety-obsessed about some things, like swimming lessons. Year after year, she forced me to take them at our local pool in Iowa City. While I liked the water as much as the next girl, I soon tired of the classes. Having to go against my will seemed all the more unfair to me, since my mother could not swim and was actually afraid of the water. But my mother reasoned that if water came between her children and their safety, she would be helpless. “I can’t save you,” she would calmly state in answer to my pleas to bow out of the lessons. “So I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure you can save yourself.”

It’s no wonder she embraced this philosophy of self-reliance. She knew how unexpectedly life can rob you of someone you care about. My parents adopted me as an infant and went on to have a biological child―my brother, Jason―a couple of years later. My dad was an electrician, and he died in an accident on the job when I was three. After his death, my mother had to raise us alone, and she was acutely aware that she was truly on her own, with no backup plan. She was fiercely strong and yet constantly fearful.

“When your dad died, it was the worst time in my life,” she would tell me. “I had lost my mom, and then, just months later, I lost him. He was the only one that I could turn to, and then he was gone. All I had was you and Jason. If I hadn’t had you…” Her voice would trail off as if the thought were too much even to contemplate. But, I imagine, she did think about it. She thought about it a lot.

I have almost no memories of my father. Instead I remember Mike Fieseler. He was a former industrial-arts teacher whom my mother dated off and on for much of my childhood. Jason and I weren’t his biggest fans. He was a man of strict rules, while my mom’s approach could be more properly deemed overindulgent leniency, a philosophy that was fully in keeping with our adolescent sensibilities. We resented having to share the spotlight with him―a sentiment that was particularly strong every Christmas morning, when we had to wait for him to arrive before we could open gifts. (There is little a man can do to endear himself to children less than delaying Christmas-morning gratification.)

All this to say: Whatever my mother’s affection for him, it didn’t rub off on me. And when they stopped dating, when I was 15, I wasn’t unhappy to see him go.

Read More About:Inspiration & Motivation

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