Finding My Father
Early in 2013, I connected with Marie, the founder of a search agency specializing in finding adoptee birth parents, and she quickly located my birth mother. Irene Stevens lived in San Jose, California, about 50 miles from my home in Orinda. After 50 years of separation, our reunion was awkward, but afterwards we stayed in touch and tentatively got to know each other through infrequent phone calls. I wanted to achieve a similar type of relationship with my birth father, a man named James Zanow.
Finding him was proving to be much more difficult. The only thing I knew about him was what Irene had entered on my adoption forms: he was from Wisconsin; was of German and Slavic origin; and his religion was described as “inactive.” Unfortunately, Marie hadn’t uncovered any other useful information. His name was uncommon enough that only a few people with it were listed on the internet. She found a likely suspect born in 1931 who had lived in Chicago in 1996. But that was it. There was nothing indicating that he had died and nothing indicating that he was still alive. Given her sophisticated tools, it was disheartening that after a month of searching, she wasn’t able to discover more than that.
My motivation to continue searching vacillated. It didn’t help that in comparison to my mother, I couldn’t generate positive feelings for my father. Both parents had abandoned my twin brother Mike and me, but at least Irene had carried us to term and successfully arranged for our adoption. Although abortion was illegal in California at the time, if she really didn’t want us, she could have used a coat hanger. However imperfect our childhood had been, it could have been a lot worse. I was grateful for what Irene had done, or perhaps had not done.
Contrarily, from my adoption papers, a two-page questionnaire that required less information than forms used by the SPCA today, I knew that my father had done nothing to help me.
One question summarized his actions:
Do both parents know of the placement of this child for adoption?
No. Natural father did not acknowledge the mother’s letter advising him of her pregnancy.
I knew almost nothing about this man except for his betrayal. Obviously, I didn’t love him. How could I? But, I also didn’t hate him.
Despite the resentment, a desire had long simmered to meet and know him. His complete absence from my life had created an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual vacuum that nothing or no one else could fill. Certainly not my adoptive father: our personalities, interests, and beliefs were too different. And, he’d been mean; by today’s standards he’d abused me. His actions had accentuated my sense of paternal deprivation.
But this wasn’t about having a male role model or mentor. It was too late for that. At this point in my life, it was about identity. Without knowing more about him, countless questions, the answers to which held the key to critical parts of my humanity, would forever remain unanswered.
I wondered what physical characteristics we shared. Did we look the same, sound the same, or share similar mannerisms? What could I learn from his personality, interests, successes, and failures? Did he ever think about me? I wanted to know his health history, not just for the intimations of what might lie ahead for me and my children (or what had already happened—gout, kidney stones, etc.), but also to simply complete the family history section of a goddamned medical form without writing, “N/A.”
I also wanted to know my ancestry. When Irene had told me about the origins of her grandparents, I was immediately proud of my Basque, Native American, and German/Jewish heritage. I excitedly texted a Spanish friend, with whom I had once celebrated the festival of San Fermin, a photo of Irene and me with the caption, “Mi Madre Basque!” Even though I didn’t learn many details, to simply identify with a specific part of the world, its history and culture, made me feel part of something larger by providing greater context to my existence.
Finding James would enable me to complete the missing pieces of this puzzle. It would be wonderful to discuss my origins without either having to make them up or even worse, explain why I didn’t know them. How I hated bringing my adoption into a casual conversation. How I longed to be like almost everyone else.
James was described as “German and Slavic” in my adoption papers. Obviously, this information came secondhand, and I yearned for something more reliable and as specific as possible. From where exactly in Germany? I wondered. I had travelled there many times. I was familiar with the largest regions, Prussia, Saxony, and Bavaria. I was ready to take sides. And if I were Slavic, was I perhaps Russian? Did I cry solely from admiration when I visited Dostoevsky’s home in St. Petersburg, or was it something deeper?
Even though my father had abandoned me, he was as much a part of my identity as Irene. That he would be much more difficult to locate and generated conflicting emotions may have hindered my search, but it didn’t cause me to give up.
Marie’s parting advice was that I should find out everything Irene knew about James. That turned out to be difficult. Irene avoided questions that probed too deeply into her past. She had forgotten or repressed many things and she didn’t want to dredge them out. Anything I asked that touched upon the poverty and abuse she had suffered or the addiction and promiscuity that stemmed from it caused her to retreat behind a cascade of religious incantations.
“Oh, I can’t remember any of that,” she would say. “I know that whatever I did, it was part of His plan. I trust in the Lord and I know He will provide. He has forgiven me. I’m in His hands now.”
As much as I wanted her to speak, I was reluctant to push too hard and jeopardize our nascent relationship. It was frustrating, but I had to be patient. After skirting around the issue several times, she surprisingly opened up.
She recalled meeting him in San Francisco when she worked as a cigarette girl at the Rafael’s 150, a nightclub in the Tenderloin frequented by sailors.
“What was a cigarette girl?” I asked. I wasn’t so naive, but I couldn’t let this pass without some elaboration.
“We carried a basket of cigarettes around the club. We sold them to customers.” Then she paused before continuing. “I had a nice figure back then. I never finished school. That was one job I could do.”
I had heard enough about Irene’s bleak childhood that this statement wasn’t surprising. I half expected something like that. It aroused obvious connotations, but she said it so matter-of-factly that I tried to keep my mind from wandering and simply accept that she sold cigarettes, nothing more. I encouraged her to continue.
James was in the Marines, part of the military police, passing through town. They met at the club and he asked to see her after work. They fell in love and Mike and I were conceived. He told her that he would be discharged soon, planned to return to Milwaukee, and invited her to join him. At some point, perhaps in a letter she received after he departed, he asked her to marry him. A few months later, she scraped together enough to buy her first airplane ticket, her mother and sisters saw her off at the airport, and she flew north to visit him in the dead of winter. She recalled her elation at landing such a capable, handsome man, a sentiment that was underscored by her sister Ruth, who sincerely asked, “Why did he choose you?”
She arrived to a half-furnished apartment with an unstocked kitchen, empty bookshelves and not a photograph in sight. Greeted by the man of her dreams, she overlooked the implications of his barren abode and simply sought to please him and strengthen their relationship. Her most prominent memory involved admiring his exercise routine.
“He liked to lift weights. He was very muscular,” she said. “I remember that I liked his muscles.”
But his dark side slowly unfolded. He had few friends, outside interests, or even favorite TV shows. On a rare evening out, he almost got into a fight with a man who had accidentally bumped into Irene.
He went off to work each day, leaving her alone in the apartment. She befriended a family with young children in the building, but James didn’t want to socialize with them. His antipathy toward this family, particularly the children, about whom he commented caustically, helped cause their relationship to sour and after a few weeks Irene left without saying goodbye and returned to San Francisco. She never told him that she was pregnant. Later, at the behest of her mother, she wrote him a letter.
That was all she remembered, but it provided a few more clues. I turned to the internet in the hopes of finding something that Marie had missed. My search was haphazard and mostly limited to googling James’s name along with words like “Milwaukee” or “marine” or “military police.”
After a few weeks, I found a reference to a man who might be James about five pages into a Google search. It was a wire service story from 1953 about an incident in Milwaukee that was picked up and reprinted in local newspapers across the country. Buried on page 67 of The Avalanche Journal from Lubbock, Texas was what I suspected was the first thing I ever read about my father:
Strong Man is Overpowered by Six Milwaukee Policemen
MILWAUKEE Wis., May 9—UP
Self-styled strong man James W. Zanow, 21, enjoyed the admiration of his fellow citizens Saturday but admitted he got a little carried away when he tried to prove his strength. Zanow was fined $50 for heaving safety island lights and street barricades into the air. However, he couldn’t quite handle the six policemen who loaded him into a patrol wagon.
That was quite an introduction. I wasn’t sure what to make of the man depicted. Sure, he was a bit of a rogue, but he was only 21, so his loutish behavior could perhaps be excused. On the other hand, when I imagined the scene, he came off like an action hero. Like his “fellow citizens,” I thought there was something “admirable” about heaving street barricades into the air and fending off six policemen. I couldn’t be sure, but he certainly seemed like the same “muscular” guy that Irene recalled.
So my dad was a tough guy, he got a bit rowdy, I thought. I wasn’t like that, but it was cool that he was. I was proud of him.
I found another reference to him on a website for Korean War veterans who had served on the USS Laertes, a repair ship that sailed the Pacific servicing other ships off of Japan and Korea during the war. A veteran searching for information about his former shipmates had posted this on the site’s message board:
Looking for any shipfitters and anyone that went to the Bee-Hive bar on tit mountain in our past drinking days and kept Zanow out of the ship’s brig so he wouldn’t toss any more quarter deck officers over the side or things that we still laugh about now.
It sounded like the same guy. I replied to the posting stating that I thought that James Zanow was my father, I was searching for him, and asked if this veteran or anyone else had any information about him. I never received a reply. But from these stories, I at least had something to go on. James Zanow had indeed been in the Navy (or the Marines), he likely served on a ship in the Korean War, and he was, at least at times, a hard-drinking, surly dude.
Those newspaper stories, the few comments from Irene and the cursory records Marie had found were all I uncovered over about eighteen months. They were like drops of water in the desert, just enough to sustain me. But without anything more concrete to pursue, I was losing hope that I would find him.
Then one day in September of 2014 I got a break. I was gazing out the window from my desk on the trading floor of a bank in San Francisco. I watched a boat steadily chug across the calming waters of the bay towards the Ferry Building. Around me, a cacophony of ringing phones and voices swirled, courtesy of my colleagues, hard at work behind barricades of black boxes of technology. I was supposed to be researching a client’s portfolio, but my mind was elsewhere.
I pulled up Google and took another shot in the dark, typing the first thing that came to mind, “Zanow family Milwaukee.” I had done a variation of this so many times to so little effect that I expected to be back inside my client’s portfolio after a few seconds. But this time was different. I spotted a genealogy posting about the Zanow family created by a woman named Fawn Mazelwitz. She was James’s niece and apparently a self-appointed family genealogist. I was amazed that such a trove of information had evaded me for so long, but finding it was dependent on typing just the right combination of words.
From Fawn’s posting I noticed immediately that James was still alive, at least as of the last update of this site. He had two brothers, Fred and Eugene; the latter was also still alive. The family tree traced all the way back to my great grandparents who came to Wisconsin in the 19th century by way of Pomerania, a part of what used to be Prussia, in northern Germany.
Oh my God, I thought, eyes wide, mouth slightly agape. Surrounded by bankers jabbering into the emptiness of their headsets, I sat staring in wonderment at one of the great discoveries of my life. But it was too personal to share. I still hadn’t told any of my colleagues about finding Irene. I’m not sure anyone even knew that I was adopted. Like holding a winning poker hand, I felt obliged to keep my news secret from those around me. Amidst the commotion, my mind went into overdrive.
Ever since I had first seen my adoption papers, I had thought I might be part German, but it wasn’t certain until now. Having a Jewish upbringing, a Jewish wife, and some Jewish ancestry, I had already considered how confirmation of this might connect me to the dark side of German history. But, as was likely given my age, my family had come to America long before the atrocities that might make one ashamed. I could comfortably feel that they, we, had nothing to do with that. Immediately my mind raced on to more positive thoughts that arguably related to my newfound heritage. No wonder I’m so fastidious, I thought . . . Isn’t that a good thing? And yes, ya, we sure kicked ass, I mean kicked ass! in winning the recent World Cup. I stood up half smiling, but restrained my desire to shout, pump my fist, or even look anyone in the eyes.
Discovering Fawn’s work answered some of my questions, indicated that James was still alive, and offered the opportunity to contact someone who knew him. At the bottom of the page in tiny print was her address and phone number. Perhaps I would have been able to find her anyway, but this made the next step nearly instantaneous.
Being a salesperson, I was used to making “cold calls”. But this was different than calling Irene a few years ago; in a way it was more sensitive. It had taken more than two years to find someone who knew my father. If I couldn’t convince Fawn of the authenticity and sincerity of my search, if she thought for any reason that I was up to no good, I would lose her and not only that, she might warn others in the family to avoid me. If I later reached another family member—a possibility for sure—those contacts could be contaminated if I blew it with Fawn.
I thought it would be best if I knew something else about her than simply that she liked genealogy and was James’s cousin. I googled her and found two entries. One concerned her daughter Buffy. She had died recently of breast cancer. It was possible that Fawn and her husband Jan were still grieving her loss. I also saw that Jan had recently taken a job fixing bicycles that were offered to Vietnam Vets struggling with emotional issues. Learning of their troubles made the call seem even more precarious.
I couldn’t call Fawn from my desk on the trading floor. I could easily imagine some people nearby staring straight into their screens while listening intently to every word. I went into my office on the other side of the building, closed the door and savored the silence. For a few moments, I simply stared out the window at the Bay Bridge and watched it whisk commuters back and forth across the bay like widgets on an assembly line.
Before I dialed, I tried to imagine my cousin Fawn. She was a few years older than me, lived in a suburb of Milwaukee, was probably working class and may be struggling with grief. I tried not to overthink my introduction. Just tell her the truth, I thought, be sensitive and don’t talk too fast. How hard can that be?
“Hello.” A man answered the telephone. I was certain it was Fawn’s husband, Jan.
“Hello. May I speak with Fawn Mazelwitz?” I asked.
“My name is Matt Ginsburg and I was adopted as a baby in 1960. I believe that Fawn’s cousin, James Zanow, is my father. I found Fawn’s name at the bottom of a family tree that she posted on the internet. I have been unable to contact James, but I hope that perhaps Fawn can help me. I would like to meet James.”
I’m not sure at what point he decided that this didn’t involve him, but he heard me out and simply replied, “You had better talk to Fawn.” He called out for her as if I were just another caller, perhaps a plumber or the cable guy. A few moments later, Fawn picked up.
I repeated my lines, hoping that even though they were rehearsed, I still sounded sincere. I offered to send her copies of my adoption papers and described Irene’s recollection of James serving in the Marines and passing through San Francisco in the winter of ‘59.
“She visited him in Milwaukee, so he was living there in early 1960. She said he was really strong. He liked to lift weights.”
It was just enough to pique her interest.
“What else do you know?” she asked.
I continued with the newspaper articles that I had uncovered.
“He was arrested when he was 21 for throwing barricades into the street. It took six police officers to stop him.”
“I know that story,” she said. “He was quite the strongman. He was a bodybuilder. I have a calendar of bodybuilders with him posing in it. It’s with some other documents that I have in a family archive.”
Strongman. Bodybuilder. Holy shit! This is surely the same man Irene described. I pushed a little harder.
“It sounds like he’s the man my mother visited, the man on my birth certificate. My father.”
She wasn’t convinced, perhaps because this had happened so suddenly. But she had warmed up to me. She told me a bit more about him. She used to see him at family reunions though he hadn’t attended any recent ones. He wasn’t one who kept in touch. She spoke occasionally with his brother Eugene and said that he was the key to making contact. As our conversation wound down, I promised to send her information about my adoption and she promised to approach James through Eugene and ask about me.
I emerged from my office oblivious to whatever was happening in the markets and returned to my seat in a daze. I had found my father, learned of his ancestry and had taken the first steps towards possibly meeting him. I pulled up some inane financial news site, pretended to read it and imagined discussing all of this with my wife, Jan, later at home.
A few weeks later Fawn sent me a photo of James and his mother. Judging how they both looked and their age difference, he must have been close to 40 years old. This was the first time I had seen him. I searched for some photos of myself at a similar age and compared them. Jan thought there was a strong resemblance, especially to my twin brother Mike. I wasn’t so sure, but I agreed that we looked enough alike that it was certainly possible that he was my father.
Finding Fawn, the family tree, and receiving the photo were all things I was excited to discuss with Irene. Since she had told me everything she remembered and knew I was searching for more, I thought that she would be interested in hearing that I had made some progress. When I told her what I had discovered, she was impressed that James was in a bodybuilding calendar and quite keen to see the photo that Fawn had sent. She had always told me that she couldn’t remember what he looked like; perhaps his face would trigger something.
I sent it to her and her immediate reaction was only partially helpful. She didn’t recognize him, perhaps because he was about ten years older than when she knew him. However, she was adamant that he looked just like me.
“Oh sure,” she said when I pressed her. “His cheekbones, his whole face. It’s not just a resemblance. He looks like you.”
I asked if she could recall any more details about him that might help me convince the family that I was telling the truth. However, the photo didn’t remind her of anything. She persisted with the comment that the thing she remembered most about him was his muscles.
I tried to find a copy of the bodybuilding calendar. I googled his name along with the words “body builder” and anything remotely similar, but nothing came up. Then Jan took over and tried the name Jim instead of James. Immediately, she came across a bodybuilding booklet featuring James and others from the 50’s for sale on EBay. After I stopped feeling stupid, I realized that he must have used Jim as his performance name. Maybe he even went by Jim. I subsequently googled Jim Zanow and a lot of other combinations, but the bodybuilding booklet was the only thing this produced. Although this wasn’t a calendar per se, I thought it was likely a copy of the same thing that Fawn had mentioned. I chose the option to “Buy it Now,” and waited anxiously for it to arrive.
It was the strangest thing, a type of soft gay porn from that era. Inside were individual black and white photos of a dozen musclemen flexing, their oiled muscles smoothly rippling. Some were wearing bikini bottoms. Their physiques lacked the grotesque extremes of modern bodybuilders. Their muscles were pronounced, but not extraordinary. They looked more like Jack LaLanne than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Like the male equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the men were positioned against trees and rocks, bending and flexing in every which way, but nothing was exposed, and by today’s standards it was pretty tame stuff. On the one hand, it was just a celebration of the male body; on the other, it was obviously sexual, and therefore I was a little creeped out by looking at it. I had never enjoyed gay porn before and seeing my father in this context didn’t change that.
There were two photos of James. I guess he was good looking. He wasn’t tall, but rather stocky, very muscular with a chiseled chin, pointed nose, and eyes and hair that matched the dark color of his briefs. I wasn’t exactly proud, but I wasn’t ashamed. I liked the fact that it was sort of strange; in fact it was really quite bizarre. It added a little spice to my story.
Just when I was convinced that I had found James, Fawn called to say that Eugene had approached him and he had denied everything. He said that he had never known a woman named Irene Stevens and he suffered from a low sperm count and had never had any children. Furthermore, Fawn said that James was an alcoholic and a recluse and his mental state was fragile. The family was concerned about his health and did not want to bother him with this issue again. I told her that the photo looked like me and offered to send her a comparison. I asked how Irene could possibly have stayed with another bodybuilder named James Zanow. I respected his privacy and the family’s concerns, but it seemed certain that he was my father. She listened sympathetically and then reeled off a list of extraneous problems, reflecting on the loss of her daughter, financial difficulties and her own numerous health problems. After she had finished, she held firm to her original intent. Her message was clear: Go away.
Disappointed, even angry, I turned back to Irene. I sent her a copy of the bodybuilding photos and mentioned that James had denied paternity. It wasn’t surprising that she wasn’t buying his sperm-count story and she also had a comeback for his amnesia.
“He said he never knew anybody with your name,” I told her.
“I didn’t always go by Irene when I was working.”
“You used another name?”
“Yes, Roxanne. I used my sister Rose Ann’s I.D. to get my job. Because of that I used the name Roxanne. For about 10 years I worked under that name.”
Really? I thought immediately of the song about the prostitute by the band, The Police. I must have heard it a thousand times. For God’s sake, I thought, this isn’t happening. Roxanne! After a deep breath or two, I moved on. Of course, it’s a coincidence; it’s only a name.
“Then he might have known you as . . . Roxanne?”
“Yes, that’s possible,” she said. “But it’s also possible that he can’t remember or doesn’t want to remember.”
Irene’s explanation held out hope that James might remember, if he remembered anything, the name Roxanne. She went on to say that the photo “rang a bell” and triggered the memory of another key detail. During her visit to Milwaukee, she had sent a letter from James’s apartment to her sister Belle in San Francisco. Belle had kept the letter and the envelope and given it back to Irene several years ago. The envelope was clearly postmarked Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 7 PM, February 9, 1960, about seven months before I was born and about two months after they first met. It also provided a return address: Mrs. J. W. Zanow, 611 No 29th St. Apt #6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This proved that she had visited James Zanow, a man she referred to as her husband, a man she independently remembered as a bodybuilder, at the time that she was pregnant. Like Cupid’s arrow, this new evidence cut to the heart of the matter and validated her love story. She sent me the envelope with the enclosed letter.
I was hesitant to approach Fawn. She didn’t seem willing to stir up family trouble, however compelling my new information. Fortunately, I thought of another angle. I recalled that she had mentioned a relative named Rhoda, who had helped with the genealogical work. I discovered that she was 86 years old and lived in the Sunset district of San Francisco, only a short distance from where I was attending university in pursuit of a creative writing degree. I thought that if I could persuade her to help me, we might meet over coffee, giving me a chance to develop a personal relationship with her.
When we spoke, I amended the introduction that I had used with Fawn to incorporate the envelope and letter as proof that Irene had visited James. She didn’t immediately buy my whole story, but she was interested, open-minded and unlike Fawn, intrigued by the mystery at stake. It helped that we discovered that I went to U.C. Berkeley at the same time as her son and that she too had graduated from Cal. We agreed to meet for lunch near her home before one of my classes.
I walked into a small café on a windswept avenue not far from the Pacific Ocean and immediately spotted Rhoda. She appeared surprisingly robust for her age, with white shoulder-length hair, vibrant blue eyes and a wry smile. We quickly ordered and she wasted no time getting down to business. She had come prepared with numerous materials depicting different aspects of the Zanow family. She had a slew of family photos, mostly of her generation or older, pictures of the town of Zanow (Sianow), in what is now Poland, and a family tree dating back to the early 19th century. She pointed out how she and I were related; she was my second cousin once removed. She had also prepared a list of famous Pomeranians, at the top of which was the painter, Casper David Friedrich.
“I can’t believe this,” I said. “He’s one of my favorite artists. I’m very moved by his work.”
I proceeded to tell her how I first saw his paintings decades ago at a museum in New York. They had left a lasting impression. His haunting landscapes, often depicting somber people absorbed in contemplation before a serene backdrop of natural, eternal beauty, evoked a spiritual sensation. On a recent family holiday in Berlin, I had broken away from the others while visiting the National Gallery to spend time alone on a floor devoted to Friedrich’s works.
Other prominent people on her list included Immanuel Kant and Thomas Mann, brilliant thinkers whom I had studied in school. I felt more Pomeranian by the minute.
We met again a few weeks later. I showed Rhoda all of the information I had gleaned from the internet, summaries of my conversations with my mother and the envelope and letter than Irene had mailed from James’s apartment. She was impressed. It seemed believable, indisputable, that my mother had visited James the bodybuilder while she was pregnant. Rhoda felt that my story added up, and though she was still hesitant to get directly involved, all of her comments indicated that she was in my corner. Before long, she was actively helping me.
Rhoda spoke occasionally with Fawn, but was in closer contact with James’s bother Eugene. However, she didn’t want to ask him to approach James again. She shared the family’s concerns about his health and thought he was unlikely to change his story. She had another idea.
She had spent her career as a medical technician at U.C.S.F. and was somewhat knowledgeable about DNA testing. She suggested that it should be possible to prove James’s paternity through a link to Eugene. We didn’t need James to participate. I contacted LabCorp, the big testing company, and a technician confirmed this. She said that if Eugene, my mother, and I took a simple cheek swab, that would be enough to prove that Eugene and I were related. Rhoda suggested that I first write to Eugene and present the evidence. She offered to contact him and vouch for me.
I stated my case, carefully describing the facts and Irene’s recollections and supporting them with a copy of the envelope with the February 1960 postmark from Milwaukee. I described how we could easily establish his brother’s paternity and offered to pay and arrange for the test. I concluded by suggesting a visit to Milwaukee, possibly with Rhoda, if he were willing to meet with me. Rhoda, as promised, also sent a letter reinforcing many of my points and added: “I find Matt’s case compelling and deserving of help.”
Eugene’s response came quickly. In a four-page, handwritten letter, he introduced himself and described his immediate family. Then he told how James had responded angrily when he was first asked about me and stated that a clinic had determined he was sterile. Though James had been married three times, he had never had any children. The Zanow family was laden with alcoholics, including many directly related to Eugene. He wasn’t one, but James was tentatively recovering. He lived as a recluse and often read from the Bible. If he found out that Eugene had conspired against him, he might start drinking again. Even though Eugene empathized and wanted to help, he couldn’t risk pushing another family member, especially his brother, over the edge. He said he would gladly take the test after James died.
Disappointed by the outcome but nonetheless encouraged by his friendly tone, I asked Rhoda if I should visit Eugene, just to meet, since he was probably my uncle. After all, meeting Rhoda had worked wonders. My hope was if he met me, I might then be able to dissuade him from waiting to take the test. Both of us thought that if I offered to travel to Milwaukee, he would be amenable to meeting. Who knows what might happen after that?
In a follow-up letter, I mentioned a hike that I had recently completed on Father’s Day. Some friends and I climbed up Half Dome, the famous rock formation that towers over Yosemite National Park. From the top, I had admired the natural splendor of Yosemite Valley, one of nature’s finest creations, while some other guys whipped out their cell phones and bragged to their dads. I asked Eugene if it would be okay to visit him. He graciously responded with a list of possible dates and offered to take off from work if necessary.
Just before Labor Day, 2015, I flew to Milwaukee with plans to visit Eugene the next morning. I stayed at a refurbished Queen Anne Victorian painted like a gingerbread house. It was located in what was described as a “transitional” neighborhood, but conveniently was less than half a mile from Eugene. Once the home of a 19th century coal baron, an enterprising local couple had converted it into a small hotel. Each room was stocked with antique furniture and esoteric artifacts. Oriental carpets lined the floors and the wooden walls were inlaid with geometric flourishes and interspersed with stain glass windows framed by velvet curtains. It reminded me of the home in the board game Clue and seemed a fitting stage to mount my next discovery.
Visiting my uncle was a novel experience, but I slipped into my new identity with ease. Taking in a baseball game that night, I sprang for a good seat and settled in with the season ticket regulars. I sat next to a mother in a Brewers’ cap and her pre-teen son who clutched a mitt in one hand and a program in the other. We traded some small talk about baseball after which I commented on the limited food selection in comparison to the ballpark back home. She asked me why I was in Milwaukee.
“I’m here to visit my uncle,” I said, as if I saw him on a regular basis. “He’s 86.”
“All the way from San Francisco. Oh, I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you.”
“I certainly hope so.”
The next morning, I enjoyed the hotel’s advertised “candle-lit” breakfast with the only other occupants, a young couple from Utah and their infant son, the flickering light just illuminating the oil paintings and other period décor surrounding us. After marveling at the opulence, we got acquainted and soon my visit became the focus of the discussion. Andy, the hotel’s owner, was serving breakfast, but he stopped to listen and got caught up in the conversation. It was the first time I had told the whole story, feeling safe to do so among the comfort of strangers inside this exotic mansion so far from home. After I checked out, I had a small cheering section waving and wishing me luck as I drove away to meet my uncle.
In his last letter, Eugene had described his neighborhood as “rough.” Sure, it hadn’t seen an abundance of gardeners and painters for some time, but it didn’t strike me as impoverished. However, his modest two-story home and small lawn were surrounded by chain-linked fence that he later told me was put up after a bout of neighborhood violence many years ago. I knocked loudly as he had suggested and was greeted by a tall, thin, vigorous old man with a wisp of hair and a gap-toothed smile. Dressed in a plaid cotton shirt and blue jeans, he looked like a happy version of the farmer in the famous painting, American Gothic.
He exuded a Midwestern humility that reminded me of the men who surrounded my adoptive father when I was growing up in the Central Valley. He had no big city pretentions; his tone was warm and friendly, and I quickly grew comfortable thinking that we were related. We exchanged photographs and discussed subjects as they randomly occurred. He told me that he still did his own yard work and rode his bicycle to work where he did some engineering tasks for a small businessman named Mike, a good friend he had known for many years. I was pleased for him and for the good genes I had inherited.
We discussed James only briefly. Eugene visited him occasionally, taking him DVDs that they would sometimes watch together. He made a reference to the location of James’s apartment in a senior housing complex and I made a mental note to find it on Google Earth, just in case it ever made sense to reach out to him again.
We went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant planted amidst the same gas stations, liquor stores and fast food joints that line the commercial streets of every American city. Except for the winged roof design and the exotic lettering, it could have been a Denny’s. The food was served buffet style; I was not surprised that it didn’t match the quality I was used to in San Francisco. We filled our plates, Eugene exhibited a hearty appetite by grabbing almost as much as I did, and took a table in the back corner. I was ready to wash down our mediocre meal with a steady stream of small talk when Eugene surprised me by offering to take the DNA test.
He said he had discussed my visit a few days ago with Mike, perhaps the person he most respected. And Mike had convinced him that despite his concerns for James this was the right thing to do. Having met me, he was even more comfortable proceeding. My body felt a warm glow. I wanted to hug the old guy. I was so grateful to this man who hardly knew me and was doing so much to help.
His offer was so unexpected that I feared I hadn’t heard him correctly, or that he would change his mind. I didn’t want to do anything that would startle him so I thanked him without acting too excited. I briefly outlined the logistics involved, underscoring that it could be done quickly and restating that I would pay for everything. It wasn’t long before we returned to small talk and got up to sample the selection of puddings, cookies, cakes, and other sweets that were laid out for dessert.
At work the next day, I excused myself from my colleagues at midmorning, went into my office, and called Rhoda to convey the good news. She was thrilled and as eager to hear the outcome as I was. I reconfirmed all the logistics with LabCorp, establishing the earliest dates and times that we could proceed. I still feared that Eugene might change his mind.
Then I called Irene. I was sure she would also welcome the news and had never doubted that she would participate in the test. I was wrong. She recoiled at the idea. She was offended and angry and refused to participate in the strongest terms, concluding her diatribe with something like: “I don’t care if we ever speak again.”
I was shocked and confused. She is certain that he is my father. Why would she refuse? Why was she so upset?
I was beside myself, trapped and out of options, infuriated that after all this, I would never know for sure about James. I wanted to throw my cellphone against the wall. Then it passed, my emotions turned inward and an intense sadness crept over me. Life goes on, I thought, meaning that only in the most literal way. Things would continue as they always had.
I called LabCorp to cancel my appointment and told them that my mother would not participate in the test. To my amazement, the technician said that Irene’s participation was preferred, but not necessary. How did I not know this? Rhoda hadn’t thought of it. I asked the woman to repeat it, to clarify her statement, then again a third time to be sure. It was still possible, the science was still valid, that only Eugene’s DNA and mine were necessary to establish a relationship between James and me.
The test was back on. I finalized the arrangements for both of us and called Eugene to provide instructions. He was wholly cooperative, commenting only that the laboratory was so close he needn’t miss any work. It seemed too simple that 50 years of mystery would be unveiled by a 15-minute test. Within a few days, we had both completed it and awaited the results. I expected to hear from LabCorp in about a week.
Over the weekend, my oldest son Daniel joined Jan and me for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. I have long found the “Ode to Joy” inspiring but had never before heard it performed live. That night, a cool autumn evening, majestic choral passages rang out, reverberating across the outdoor arena, each magical note triumphantly reinforcing my expectations. I felt embraced by the ages, wrapped warmly inside a culture that could produce the sumptuous sounds swirling around us.
I was at work talking to a client and watching a boat depart from the Ferry Building when my cellphone signaled that a new email had arrived. I saw that it was from LabCorp with an attachment, but I didn’t want to read it until I completed my call. When I was finished, I clutched my cellphone and walked into my office. Outside the window, the Bay Bridge was still shrouded in morning fog. I breathed deeply and opened the attachment. It was filled with boxes and numbers and took a minute to decipher. My heart pounded as I read it over and over and over.
A cold realization washed over me. The test results were negative. I couldn’t believe it. My spirits deflated like a tire punctured by a steel spike. I was crushed. Suddenly, issues that I had pushed aside rushed to the front. James’s low sperm count, his childless marriages, and my mother’s refusal to be tested. Why had I dismissed these things? Now they stood out, I couldn’t even see anything else. It seemed so clear now. I had always, blindly wanted to believe her; but now I believed him.
I called LabCorp and offered to pay for another test. Surely it was possible to have a faulty result. The woman explained in great detail the different levels of care that were taken in processing our samples. A precise protocol was observed with virtually no margin for error. Don’t waste your money, she advised.
I felt numb. My mind went blank. The familiar emptiness quickly returned. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t find the energy.
More than two-and-a-half years after it began, my journey to find my father was over. The next day, I called Rhoda and Eugene and thanked them profusely for their kindness. In our short time together they had been like family. But they weren’t family and that part was sad too. In a letter to them, I apologized to James for dragging him into this mess. Whatever he had done, or not done, he didn’t deserve that.
I never told Irene. I didn’t want to talk to her, couldn’t stand to hear her voice. In the succeeding months, from time to time, Eugene’s advice, which he had added to the bottom of his last letter, made me think otherwise.
“Be gentle with your mother and still hold her in high esteem,” he wrote.
Perhaps he was right. She would always be my mother. Just as there was no substitute for my father, there was no substitute for my mother. Still, we didn’t speak for over a year. Our first discussion was brief, but after that we slowly began to resume contact. I wanted to ask her if she knew all along that James was not my father. But what difference would it make? And I knew she didn’t want to speak about that.
What happened between Irene and James? A love affair? Probably. The conception of twins? I’m afraid not.
My mother died in September 2017, taking any secrets that she had with her. Whose babies was she carrying in the winter of 1960 when she visited James? Given everything I have learned, my guess is that she didn’t know. Even more likely is that I never will.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Ginsburg is a candidate for an MFA degree in Creative Writing with a concentration in playwriting at San Francisco State University. His work often explores his interest in business, economics and politics. Matt has written several short stories, monologues and comedy routines in addition to his focus on playwriting. His full-length play, Eight is Great, has been read or performed at the Greenhouse and Fringe Goes Long Festivals at SFSU and the PianoFight and Breach Once More Theaters in San Francisco. His full-length play, Holy Cowboy, was read at the Poetry Center at SFSU last year. Woke Wash, his third full-length play, was recently read at Z Space in San Francisco.