THE BOY BEHIND THE DOOR
Words by Emma Kertesz
Photography by Emily Maye
Emma Kertesz recently published her first book, recounting her father's life.
She also ran the Atlanta Olympic Trials.
This is her story of running and writing.
My Dad was born in 1951, as a Navajo Native American, but two weeks after his birth, he was adopted by a white family. I grew up knowing that I was Navajo, and knowing my Dad was adopted. My Dad wasn’t afforded that luxury. I know my biological grandmother; a Navajo woman who raised cattle and sent her biggest steer to be sold the day after I was born as an homage. She sent the proceeds to my parents to start my college fund. But I didn’t understand how my Dad found out his true identity while being raised by a white couple, and then had a relationship with his biological mother. His story was missing a cohesive timeline, and I wanted to piece it together.
When I began writing The Boy Behind The Door, my plan was to write about the process of my Dad’s enrolment in the Navajo Tribe. But I couldn’t enrol him without unsealing his birth certificate, which was buried in the state offices of Gallup, New Mexico. What started out as asking questions about my Dad’s adoption, turned into hour long conversations about my Dad’s life growing up. I felt the pull to write it all down, and began to understand my Dad not just as a father, but as a person who was robbed of their true identity until they were 18 years old. My Dad’s adoptive parents did not reveal to him that he was Native American or adopted until he was 18 years old, and revealed that his biological mother was someone he had known all along.
I typically write in the mornings, when the world is asleep and quiet enough that I can tease out my thoughts without distraction. I read my writing out loud to myself, because it’s easier for me to catch grammatical errors when it’s spoken out loud. While writing The Boy Behind The Door, I would wake up early enough to write, and go over my previous day’s notes while drinking coffee and rolling my feet out. After consuming the prerequisite amount of pre-run coffee, and finding a good “stopping point”, I do some leg swings, put on my watch, and open the door. I breathe in the cool air, and breathe out all the work I had just done, so I can begin another kind of work: making the switch from word combinations to numbers. Stories aren’t just written with words, they can be written with numbers too. There is a lifetime of stories behind my numbers: 2:40:56, 1:15:37, 32:51. Those stories are forged on these mornings.
“My Dad wasn’t able to accept the revelation of his adoption. With no one answering his questions about it, he felt lost. No matter how often he brought up the topic to Millie, she gave him the same answer: he needed to be adopted, so they adopted him, and they thought it best not to tell him. My Dad couldn’t understand that Millie, Frank, and Mary thought they were doing the right thing. He felt the emotional reckoning of being an outsider, and the missed opportunity of being a part of the Navajo culture. 50 years later, it still pains my Dad to talk about how he was excluded from his true heritage and culture while growing up in Albuquerque. The memories of going to the Indian School with Mary are painful as well, because he didn’t comprehend that Mary was trying to give him a gift in her own way: she was exposing him to his culture. But how can you appreciate exposure to your culture if you don’t know you belong?” - The Boy Behind The Door
Writing is subjective, and nuanced. I write to tell stories, and how I use language matters, and can change an innocuous meeting between two people into a grand, serendipitous moment, or a fateful encounter of the worst kind. When I’m running I go over specific sentences in my head; and ask myself, what emotions am I conveying? Then I look down at my watch. Another mile within a 10 second range of the last one. When my head is full of five different ways to write one sentence, it is so satisfying to have one specific time for a singular mile. Both writing and race results utilize print, and I love the similarity yet that’s not where it stops; both hold infinite possibilities for what is to come.
“My Dad’s alcohol consumption increased dramatically during this time. I can think back to 1995, and place myself in our front yard. I remember the feeling of thick, Midwestern summer air sticking to my skin, running barefoot in grass, screaming with my sisters, and the chorus of cicadas announcing dusk. We lived on a cul-de-sac; right on the curve, so you could see the cars coming down our street if you stood in our driveway. I saw my Dad’s car coming, and I remember feeling excited. But when the car pulled in the driveway, it was all wrong. The car pulled in askew, and my Dad drove onto the grass, and then tried to straighten out, but the car was off kilter. I ran up to the car. His window was down, and he stuck his head out to say hello to us. But that was all wrong too. His eyes were bloodshot, and his voice was wavering and slurring, but still somehow his voice. I didn’t understand. It scared me, to see my Dad distorted in a way I hadn’t seen before. I backed away from the car, confused, and I felt hot tears start to sting my face. I looked back at my older sister. She yelled my Mom’s name, and it was as if my Mom flew out from the front door. She started yelling at my Dad, who in turn, started yelling at her. Both of their faces were twisted with anger; red, hot, loud anger. My Dad backed out of the driveway as erratically as he drove in.” - The Boy Behind The Door
I don’t just read; I consume. I have notebooks filled with sentence structures, word pairings, flow charts, crossed out synonyms and adjectives, and in the margins of these notebooks are other notes: “2:37:00-2:35:00?” Then suddenly I am outlining a spring racing schedule on the next page. Inspiration will spill over into other areas of your life if you’re not careful. Writing fills my head and my heart, and running provides the perfect conduit to organize my words. Just as my writing inspires my running, my running reminds me to continue to write with passion, but edit with practicality. Just as I would run a race with passion, but pace with practicality.
Running and writing began in similar fashions: you have a goal, and it begins with physical action: running the first mile, writing the first sentence. In between the beginning and the end is the hard part. It requires discipline, a plan, and investment in your goal. I’ve been here before, over countless national and international roads. Writing a book was new, but the process was not. Running is ingrained in all my actions, and for that, I am thankful.
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