Who's your daddy? On finding, and losing, a father
The black and white photo from 1964 shows an infant, me, sitting in between my father's father and stepmother. Though I have not seen this photo in many, many years I can call up every detail of it; my grandfather's stiff white button down shirt and black, slicked back hair, his wife's winged shaped black glasses, 50's hair-do and circle pin above her left breast, and the fact that they are both smiling. I never knew either of the people in that photo, and it is the only photo of the three of us together because that was the first and last time I saw them. The picture lived in the bottom drawer of my mother's dresser, along with aged and fading photos of her mostly deceased family, dozens of other photos of me as young child, a few photos of my parents, one of me on my father's lap, and my parent's wedding album. Everything was stuffed together in torn and crumbling manila envelopes, my mother's family on one side of the drawer, the wedding album and any photos relating to my father on the other. It was this pile that I turned to, often, spreading the photos out on my mother's bed and looking at each one, again and again and again. Like a traveler with a map, I kept consulting them, hoping they'd lead me to my destination.
When I used to tell the story of my family, it always started in the same way: I didn't know my father growing up, he left when I was three and I don't know where he is or even if he's alive or dead. People would usually look at me with a mixture of wow-that's-weird and wow-that's-too-bad. Most would ask whether I ever wanted to find him and I'd usually say I don't, because I don't see the point. I'd only have one question for him: Why did you leave and never come back or even call? And there really isn't an answer for that.
But it was a lie. I did want to find him. There was not a day that went by when I did not think about him, about where he might be, what he might look like. His absence was a presence, a weight that I carried every hour of every day of every year. I knew from my mother that he'd been from northern California. I knew he'd been an artist. I knew he'd been more or less abandoned by his mother and had been raised by an abusive and indifferent father -- not exactly a recipe for success in the parenting realm! I knew that he liked to cook. I knew that he liked to drink, and that drinking became the thing he liked to do more than anything else. From the bits and pieces my mother told me, I constructed stories about him, about the way his life might have turned out. The narratives were mostly positive, but good or bad, at the end of the day all of them left me with feeling that something had been taken from me, ripped out, and in its place was a hole that could never be filled. It's a paradox that the absence of someone or something can be a weight, but it was. I was heavy with emptiness.
I graduated from high school, and college. I eventually got married, had a child, bought a house. As own marriage started to fall apart we tried to save it by having another child. Neither effort was successful but it was in the midst of trying to figure out my life, that I realized I needed to find my father, and that no matter what I found it was better than living with this void.
After forty years of thinking about it, all it took to locate him was the help of a law librarian, a man from an agency called Searchers, and a bit of luck. Standing in the spare upstairs bedroom of my house, with the door closed, even though I was the only one home, I dialed the phone number that had been linked to my father address through various records. My hands were shaking as I paced around the small room waiting for someone to pick up.
The voice was deep and smooth and as it entered into my ear it actually reverberated throughout my entire body.
I asked his name and he told me, then I told him mine and said I thought I might be his daughter.
"Oh my God."
"I've been wanting to find you for a long time. I've had a very good life, but I always wondered where you were and whether you were alive. I thought about you, all the time. I just didn't want to wait any longer and end up finding a tombstone."
"Oh my God. Lillian?"
"It's me, dad."
My father started crying – sobbing.
"My God," he said, over and over.
Many times, these stories of long lost reunions do not end well. There is the initial rush of excitement which is inevitably followed by a string of accusations and disappointments and emotional letdowns. That was not the case for me. I cannot say it was easy, but over a period of years, my father and I established a very deep and gratifying relationship. The Why's of how he could leave and never come back came out, and were resolved, in their own time. But from the moment of that conversation, for the next weeks, my body felt different, lighter. My back and shoulders tingled, the way they do when you take off a heavy backpack. The weight of not knowing had been lifted.
Our reconnection gave us both a lot to process, but one thing that kept jumping out at me was that my father looked nothing, and I mean nothing, like the photo I had of his own father. He would have been about the same age as the man who held me in that picture, and yet, there was absolutely no resemblance. I filed the thought away, for several years, actually --- there was so much to catch up on. On long walks, and over coffees and teas, my father and I shared our stories. I'd known that his childhood had been very hard, and he filled me on many of the painful details. His father had been from Germany, from a farming family in Bremen. He came over before the war, but several of his brothers had stayed behind and one seemed to have been an SS officer. His father, Klaus, was never deported from the U.S. because he was married and had a child, but even after the war, my father never had any contact with anyone from his father's family. Klaus was hard drinking, neglectful and stone cold. My father's mother had been mentally unstable, had never married his father, and had died when he was quite young. Over the course of his youth, my father grew up in the back rooms of bars in San Francisco, lived with various people from Paradise to Oakland to Grass Valley. He ended up in reform school, and then jail, in and out of a number of professions, wives, and battles with substance abuse before getting treatment and pulling his life together.
The more I got to know my father, the stranger his relationship to his father seemed. My father is a musician and an artist and has an adventurous and open spirit. He speaks four languages, is exceptionally well-read, has travelled all over the world. From all accounts, his father's idea of a great afternoon was to sit in front of a television and drink beer. His father had dark hair and dark eyes resembled Grampa Munster. My father had blonde hair and has blue eyes and resembled Steve McQueen. These men had nothing in common, not in looks, temperament --- anything.
"Dad," I asked one day. "Did you ever think that maybe Klaus wasn't your real father?
"I have wondered about it, especially after I stopped drinking and had other children. I could never figure him out, and it's always plagued me."
"Well, there's one way to find out," I said.
I suggested we take a mail order DNA test. When the results came a few weeks later, they confirmed our suspicion. My father is predominantly Irish and Scottish and Scandinavian, the remaining percent is "other Europe" --- a mixture of Dutch, English, French, etc. If my father's father had indeed been Klaus, my DNA would be at least 50% German, not 2%, which is what it was.
"His behavior makes some sense now," I said when I told him. "The façade of having a family enabled him to stay in the country, but he didn't want you. You were never really his son."
"It's painful, but just knowing the truth has lifted an enormous weight off of me."
I knew that finding my father would answer questions for me, that, whatever I found, I'd be able to put some issues to rest. I never imagined that our reunion would do the same for him. Of course, there are uncertainties, mainly the newly uncovered mystery of who my father's father really was. We may, with help of the DNA results, be able to uncover more about his biological roots, but whether or not that happens, at least he knows one essential truth.