By Anne Stanton
Over the years, Pier Dannals Wright, a painter and a rather quiet
sort, would impulsively pick up the phone and dial information of a
random big city. Hed ask the operator for a listing of his dad, a man
with his own name, whom he hadnt seen since the age of five. The
operator would always say the same thing. Nothing.
Years went by, and Wright would make a couple of calls a year.
Sometimes hed get a lead, send a card with an inquiry, and get
nothing back. Then in the summer of 2001, he was getting ready to
launch a website of his artwork while living on Old Mission Peninsula.
His fiancé, Lainie Milliman, (they were married for seven years), was
checking various search engines to see if Wrights website would pop
up, and thats when she found Pier Wright in Middletown, California.
For those like Wright, finding a biological dad or mom can be a
lifelong quest. A recent article in Time magazine talked of parents
and kids finding almost instant success in connecting with each other
by using social networking, such as Facebook.
Yet what happens when a connection is made?
Indeed, it can mean pain at the other end of the search. My family,
years ago, took in a gentle young woman named Paula. She was born with
a severely deformed face, and her mother immediately gave her up,
putting her in Lapeer State Hospital.
My own mother assisted Paulas plastic surgeon and got to know her.
She was able to get her out of the home at the age of 22 and we
quasi-adopted her while she learned to navigate the real world. Paula
eventually married, and, when middle-aged, tried to find her
biological family. She tracked down her brother, who told her, in no
uncertain terms, to never contact the family again.
Wrights dad story, though, is of the inspirational sort with twists
and turns he loves to share. He tells of his odyssey while sitting at
Wright Gallery, which he opened eight summers ago with exuberantly
colorful works of art. He greets visitors who congratulate him on the
gallery surviving another year in this miserable economy. He gives
them his trademark, half-circle Cheshire smile. Thank you.
Pier said he was inspired to find his dad, in part, by his mom. All
while he grew upwhen trying to explain why he did something he
shouldnt havehis mother would say, You sound exactly like your
father. And his grandpa would reminisce about the time he and his
dad, both who worked at Cape Canaveral, launched a test rocket on a
deserted Florida beach.
It made me so curious, Pier said. He was always the great mystery
of my life.
A YOUTHFUL MARRIAGE
Piers parents first met at a weekly dance in a fashionable hotel when
his mother, Judy, was 16 and attending Melbourne High School. His dad
was 18 and stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in Gainesville. They
were immediately smitten with each another. Judy was in the process of
completing her high school degree a year early, while Pier had
recently graduated in a class featured on the cover of Time Magazine,
with the headline: This is the new Air Force.
They married just after Judy turned 18, Pier was 20, and she was pregnant.
Soon after their son, Pier Dannals Wright, Jr., was born in 1954, they
left their life at Satellite Beach to begin classes at the University
of Florida. Their goals differed. Judy envisioned a traditional
lifestyle with a nice home, a successful husband, and weekends at the
beach club. Pier was in love with ideas, and somewhat drawn to a
The couple lived in a home donated to the university by author
Marjorie Rawlings. The rent was free in exchange for upkeep, but the
14-mile drive into town on a sandy two-track was long, and they only
had one old car.
Judy spent many winter evenings alone with her new baby and no heat
while her husband stayed late in Gainesville attending classes,
studying, and meeting with friends. Things began to fall apart. The
couple separated when their son was three. Judy and young Pier moved
back to Melbourne to live with her parents. She got a job at Cape
Canaveral where her dad still worked as an engineer.
Pier Sr. (whose nickname was Poody) eventually left Gainesville and
settled in Orlando, where he married for a second time and had a
child. The young Pier remembers his last visit at the age of five when
his dad drove him to their home in Orlando. He has vague memories of
holding a new baby girl. After that, little if anything was heard from
his father; the child support stopped.
Four years later, two FBI agents came by the house in Melbourne. Pier
Jr. was playing in a neighbors yard when his mom ran over. She said
these men had driven a long way just to talk to him. When the agents
saw the boy, they laughed. It was his father they were looking for; he
had disappeared from a top secret job somewhere in New England. There
was a rumor he may have been kidnapped.
After Lainie found a home address for Pier Wright on the website, Pier
Jr. sent him a postcard. One side of him thought his father had likely
passed away some time ago, but because Pier Wright was a family
name, he hoped to find a cousin. He never heard anything back. Soon
afterward, Lainie found another Pier Wright, also in California, this
time on a website for Harbin Hot Springs, a yoga retreat. Pier was one
of two artists employed by the retreat, which showcased some of his
art on the website.
Pier, then 46, sent him a Christmas card with an image of one of his
watercolors. He asked, How many Pier Wrights who are painters could
there be in the world? Might we be related? Pier wrote him back, and
said, Yes, so odd. And nice work, by the way.
The two exchanged brief, casual notes. About this timeFebruary of
2002, Pier Jr. was in Indiana caring for his stepdad, Vincent, who was
ill with cancer. During a few spare hours, Pier wrote his dad a
lengthy letter detailing his family history, an idea his step-father
encouraged as his mother died in 1984 and he had no siblings.
Piers stepdad had come into his life when he was a teenager, and they
got along well. Vincent introduced him to Italian cooking, art museums
in Europe, and his family in San Remo, Italy. He even paid for Piers
art college education.
Yet there were strong disagreements as Pier moved into his art career.
My stepdad was a very successful businessman, and he wanted me to be
realistic about the business side of art which Ive never been able to
do, Pier said.
IM YOUR FATHER
On the evening of his stepfathers funeral, Pier got a phone call from
Lainie who had returned home that day to their Northport farm. She
found a letter in the mailbox from Pier Wright in California and read
it to him over the phone. Im amazed to say this, but from
everything you say, Im your father.
So on the day I lost one father, I was given another, Pier said.
But Pier Sr. remained elusive. He didnt call or write for a couple of
months after writing, and finally young Pier grabbed a bottle of wine
and called him at midnight from his art studio.
He was like, Oh hey! like we had talked only yesterday. So glad
you called! And he was doing a crossword puzzle, and to me, that was
significant because Ive always loved doing crossword puzzles. That
first call was awkward, just telling each other the basic facts.
Pier was surprised, to say the least, to learn that his dad worked at
a clothing-optional yoga retreat, but it turned out to be just fine
(nudity is common around the hot springs, mind you, not in the actual
They began calling more often, once they reached a certain comfort
level. And eventually, they shared long, detailed emails about life
Pier learned that his dad had remarried and relocated to Omaha where
he continued to work at Martin Marietta as a physicist. After he was
awarded a job promotion to the East Coast, he packed up his bags and
told his wife hed send for her and their 18-month old daughter once
he found a house. But he made a pit stop in New York City and never
left, which explained the FBI visit decades earlier. He took up
bartending and painting full-time.
To his wife, ex-wife, parents, brother, sister and children he had
completely vanished. Pier explained to his son that he had an unhappy
marriage and didnt want, any longer, to design rockets that would be
used for military purposes. Hed rather make art and New York was a
great place to be doing that in the 1960s.
During those early exchanges, Pier asked his dad why he never got in touch.
He told me, I just always thought you were better off without me.
He was living the bar and painting life in New York. It was a single
scene. I told him, I wished I could have been there with you, and he
said that he wished I had been there too. Just hearing that meant a
lot to me.
Pier and Lainie visited his dad in September on a belated honeymoon at
Harbin Hot Springs. The retreat, north of San Francisco, was and still
is a mecca for spiritual seekers, with Buddhist temples, yoga classes,
workshops, and areas where people strip down and soak up the sun next
to large spring-fed pools.
The elder Pier, who worked as Harbins purchasing agent, lived in a
tiny, rustic, former Girl Scout cabin, in a court of cabins near the
Harbin was a very special place to him, but the first time for me was
really intimidating. The whole getting naked thing, said Pier,
Pier wanted to know everything about his dads life. He learned that
most of his dads art had been destroyed in an apartment fire just
prior to moving to Harbin. Pier tried talking to him about his rocket
development days, but his dad waved off his questions: I am just too
old. What youre asking me, theyre things I just dont think about
Interestingly, when he talked about his present-day life, his dialogue
was disarmingly simplistic.
He had turned into a very sweet old man, said Pier, who wanted to
make water colors and have conversations with his cat. He had quit
drinking years before, and he reminded me of the old monk who lives
simply beside the mountain.
A couple of months after his visit to Harbin, Pier received an email
from Victoria. She was the tiny baby he had held 40 some years
earlier. Like Pier, she, too, had searched for her fathers name on
the Internet. This time, she had come up with his name on the Wright
Gallery website and figured that he must be her half-brother.
I dont know if youre interested, but Id like to strike up a
dialogue. I was trying to find Dad and I found you, she wrote to him.
Victoria and Pier were soon emailing, discovering they had majored in
the same areas of study in both their undergrad and graduate
degreesarchaeology, anthropology and art. Victoria traveled to
Harbin Hot Springs to visit her dad, and delighted in their shared
mannerisms and likes.
Whats your favorite book? Lord of the Rings? Oh my God, so is
mine! When we look at maps, we sit down, cross our legs, and flip out
our glasses in exactly the same way. It was just weird.
But mostly, the three found they are nonconformists, which raises the
interesting question of whether this whole making money thingor
notis somehow genetic. Pier lives on artist wages in a smaller
apartment connected to his gallery. Victoria, who fondly remembers a
childhood of traveling the world, writes a blog, smallerliving.net,
which promotes social change and living a downsized life style. She
lives in a small house in Phoenix, and rides her bike and a light
rail-line to get to work.
I was already into the smaller living thing when I met him. When I
pulled up to his 300, 400 square-foot cabin, I thought, Youre
kidding! He thinks the same way I do. We are all definitely
nonconformists. Not one of the three of us is swayed by peoples
expectations. And thats a really interesting trait, said Victoria.
And it appears, ironically, that Pier and Victoria have struggled with
the whole issue of children and marriage as much as their dad. Neither
Pier nor Victoria, currently single, has children. All three have
lived lives devoted to art, travel, and good conversation.
Nobody goes into archaeology to get rich, said Victoria, who works
as a historical consultant. I got into it because I wanted to travel,
and I have much of my mothers gypsy feet. I have moved dozens and
dozens of times.
The next few years were unremarkable with periodic visits and lots of
long, loving emails back and forth. But maybe they were remarkable in
the sense that the emails were written as intimate friends minus the
emotional baggage from adolescent years never spent together. Happy
Birthday, my Son. Well, time marches on, dont it? It seems from my
remote, but connected, location that you are using your piece of it
very well indeed. I am very proud of you. I love you and respect you,
my son. Your father, Pier
By 2008, Pier Sr.s emails turned inward toward movies, meals, his
beloved cat, and his failing health from throat cancer. Victoria and
Pier both traveled to California to say their good-byes as he lay
dying from respiratory complications.
For Pier, finding his father was a mystery solved; both he and his
sister have reached out to their cousins on his fathers side. He
discovered that Piers father was a U.S. Senator, James Wright, who
served in the 1940s. Life hasnt changed much, but he feels more
grounded. For Victoria--who never really knew her dad since she was so
young when he left--well, shes still happy to get some questions
I had all these parts of me that didnt fit with my moms family,
that I didnt understand. I wasnt a black sheep, but I was different,
she said. The rest of the family was blue collar, Southern, and didnt
go to college. When I said I wanted to go to college, they always
looked at me, like, Huh? They were amused by my interests. They were
supportive, but didnt get it. My mom did, because shed been out in
the world. So, me wanting to meet my dad was trying to understand
where the rest of the stuff came from. After getting to know him and
Pier, it made sense for the first time, and thats the gift that was
As I started writing this story, the phone rang. At the other end was
a thick and halting voice of a disabled man. He asked if I was Anne
Stanton. Yes, I am, I said.
Well, I think you might be my mom. I had to tell him I only had
three kids and they all live at home.
So you didnt have a fourth child in 1989? he asked plaintively.
No, I said. Im sorry, but Im not your mother.
He asked me if I was really sure.
Im sure, I said. Good luck.
He said okay, good-bye, and then he hung up.