The morning before I entered first grade--kindergarten had yet to reach small-town Indiana--my parents drove me to the county courthouse in Valparaiso. In a room with an impossibly high ceiling, the judge granted me a new last name to replace one I didn’t even know I had.
After court, we stopped at an ice cream parlor. As I gobbled a mocha chip sundae, my parents instructed me not to tell my little sister my mother had been married before, or that I was only her half-brother. Instant glee! I had a secret to hold over her.
Except for that day, my parentage was never openly discussed. My mother, Lee, had been married to a silk-screen artist named Milan when I was conceived. We received child support from him for a few years, even though she had gotten remarried to Bill, the only Dad I knew.
Still, as a teenager I realized my evolving looks were being scrutinized for a family game of “Who’s Your Daddy?” Unlike Milan, I didn’t look Serbian. Unlike Bill, I didn’t look Eastern European Jewish. Both of them had dark hair. I resembled my maternal uncles Bud and Norman —light-skinned, light-haired, with ancestry they called early American.
Vlae, Bill, Tempra, Lee, Christmas 1962
Bud, Dad, Norman, my Grandfather Lyle --When lapel pulling was the height of style
Once a great-aunt on Dad’s side, visiting from Canada, remarked on my similarity with blond relatives she remembered from Ukraine. But Aunt Freda, a practical immigrant who had little use for my artistically minded Mother, couldn’t see any resemblance to their family.
I can’t say I wondered about it much, except for this: If Dad wasn’t my real father, was I still half-Jewish, or all Christian? Neither of my parents was religious, but they had relatives who were, and the two families were never invited over at the same time.
One night when I was a teenager, my father came home from a long day at his import crafts store. Mother was just back from a horseback ride. Dinner was not being prepared. A vodka martini or two later, the fight began. A hand-crafted Tonala serving dish, bought back from Mexico by my father, flew through the air and shattered against the wall.
“You know she was married before, right?” Dad yelled. “She doesn’t work and she doesn’t keep house either. She acted the same way with her first husband.”
My sister ran to her room, crying. The secret was out. A few years later, they divorced. Neither remarried.
In the 1990s, Dad retired to New Mexico. He had house built and furnished it with Mexican and Native American crafts. Mother visited him for extended periods in the winter. They liked to cross the border at Juarez, shop for hand-crafted furniture and decorations, and hit up Chihuahua Charlie’s for margaritas. They would return buzzed to Las Cruces, get into an argument, and retire to separate floors. She wanted to move in. He said no.
Dad, who had started smoking as a nine-year-old dead end kid, developed lung cancer. That summer, he finally brought up the unmentionable subject.
Genetic testing was just becoming readily available. “I thought about getting the test and having you get one, but at this point it doesn’t make any difference.”
I agreed. Milan had rejected my inquiries when I was a young man, so screw him. Either way, I only had one Dad.
After Dad died, Mother moved into the house my sister and I had inherited. She made it even more of a showpiece as well as a shrine to him.
In 2011, when she was eighty-two and I was fifty-seven, she poured my coffee into a Tonala mug on the deck overlooking the saw-toothed Organ Mountains.
“Vlae, I had the test done and I paid for one for you too.”
For the first time, she told me the story. During World War II, she, Bill, and Milan began working together at Chicago’s Polk Brothers electronics store. A love triangle developed.
At seventeen, she married Milan, a decade older. She didn’t love him but was taken by his Old World courtship and her desire to get out of the house of her autocratic father. Her mother cried.
Still, she never lost contact with Bill. When he returned from the Army, they picked up on their old affair. In July 1953, she packed up her bags and they hightailed it to a summer hotel in the Indiana Dunes.
I arrived the following Easter Sunday. The timing was such she didn’t know if Milan or Bill was my father.
Now, she wanted an answer before she died. A company called 23AndMe promised to identify one’s ethnic heritage. I spit into a barcoded tube and mailed away the sample.
Three weeks later, I opened the envelope.
“Forty-three percent Northwest European, forty-three percent Eastern European Jewish, fourteen percent other.” So Dad was my Dad. I fist-pumped “Yesss...”
What would have happened if we had known when I was growing up? Maybe he wouldn’t have been so distant. Maybe I would have felt Jewish instead of celebrating Christmas and ignoring religion the other 364 days.
I phoned Mother. She started to cry.
“I wish Bill could hear this,” she said. “It would have meant so much to him.”