My father had a quiet secret. He never talked about it and I saw it only once, sideways.
His early life was difficult and without his father. His parents had separated when he was a baby and he only knew his father briefly. They attempted reconciliation when he was eight years old but it only lasted a few months until his father returned to his life “in the merchant marine.” Dad never heard from him again
I always knew his mother by the name of her second husband, not ours, which I found odd as a small child. She was Grandma M not Grandma C. That was as interesting to me as her first name, Gertrude. I've never known anyone else named Gertrude. My father called her “Mother” and my mother called her Gerry, not “Ma,” the name everyone including my father called my mother's mother. Grandma M lived in California and we in Minnesota and I met her only once, when I was three. My memory of that is taking a shower with her and my sister. She was the only adult I'd ever seen naked which I noticed but had no opinion about. I thought she was wonderful when she showed us how to dry our backs by slinging the towel behind us and pulling it back and forth. She had worked as a waitress on cruise ships in the 1920s and '30s, leaving my father to be raised largely by his grandparents but shifted among relatives at times. He had an aunt, Gloria, who was either nine or twelve days older or younger than he depending on who you talk to. Mother and grandmother are said to have been in the same hospital at the same time, having babies.
In 1933 his grandparents left Philadelphia, ultimately to land in California. I don't know why they moved but, given the date and their mode of transportation, imagine it had to do with the Depression. Dad was left with his mother's brother in Philadelphia to be there when his mother's ship came in to port.
After his mother returned to sea, Dad joined his grandparents' family, either in Texas or California, travelling across the country by train, all alone. He briefly attended a Seventh Day Adventist boarding school in Waco, Texas at Mount Carmel, the location that became famous for David Koresh and the 1993 FBI siege. He ran away from there so frequently that he was soon kicked out. At least one of the times he ran away, he rowed across the very big lake the school was on. He was between six and eight years old. I never learned if his grandparents lived in Waco during that time or if they had already moved on to California.
In his teens he lived with his mother and her second husband, an affluent executive, and attended Beverly Hills High School. From the few stories it that he told, it sounds like he was a problem child. He lost most of his teeth in a car crash and he wore a zoot suit.
He loved Cab Callowaywho is wearing a zoot suit
Aunt Gloria recently sent me a batch of old pictures
He was a cook's assistant in the navy and saw action in the South Pacific. He didn't talk much about that experience apart from his constant, violent seasickness, but was offended when I bought a Japanese car, from “... the people who tried to kill your father,” he said. Until the day he died, despite considerable recreational boating, he got seasick easily and he was always a good cook.
In 1990 my parents visited me in Maryland. One day they took a side trip up to Philadelphia. Dad had been dabbling in genealogy and they wanted to look up some family records. When they returned late that night I was reading in the family room and Dad laid a slip of paper on my book, his parents' marriage certificate. It took a long fraction of a second for it to register in my mind what I was seeing, at first I only recognized my father's signature. But in that long fraction of a second it dawned on me that it was not my father's signature – it was his father's, of course, and it was almost identical to his own.
It was the only document they brought back from Philadelphia.
Dad commented very briefly about his search and I only remember a part of what he said: “You always wonder ...” I don't know if he used the word “bastard.” I think he did.
His interest in genealogy lapsed after that.
As my mother suffered intense and dramatic shame over her premarital pregnancy, my father quietly carried a deep fear that he was, literally, a bastard. I sympathize but as a child of the sixties understand only on a cerebral level. I see now why my sister was sent to a Wage Home and then a Salvation Army Booth Home when she got pregnant in 1970 at sixteen* and perhaps why my father went so uncharacteristically berserk when he found out I was sexually active. (And when he heard that Larry Pfeiffer had given me a quick kiss on the cheek when I was six, come to think of it.) I expected my father's intellectualism to free him from my mother's rigid religious sexual superstition and on some levels I think it did. Apparently intellect could not protect him from his deep emotional scars.
* No idea what either set of parents was thinking when they forbade them from living together after they got married and it conjures a picture of such an impenetrable tangle of crazy I can't think about it for long. Out-Catholic-ing** each other maybe? No idea. Sympathy has to stop somewhere.
** "I hate sex way more than you do." (We only had nine kids, they had 12 or 13. You go ahead and figure it out, I can't.)