From Here to Paternity

randy on the lap of Elaine Garbin
Me on my mom’s lap.

My mother was fond of saying that I was a “happy surprise.” Married in 1952, my parents would then have two daughters, one in 1954 and another in 1956. Five years later comes Randy. At no point did I feel like a mistake. My mother doted on me, and as the youngest and the only boy, my sisters will begrudgingly confirm the advantages I enjoyed as my mother’s favorite.

My parents did not have the best of marriages by any measure, and they divorced a few months after my sixth birthday. Mom would later cite my father’s poor money management as a major point of friction. He always had a job, but money always burned holes in his pocket. Mostly he would buy things like the latest tool or gadget, leaving nothing for the milk man. She resented that even in the June Cleaver era she couldn’t stay home with her babies. My mother always worked, and mostly at very low-paying sweatshop jobs just to make sure we had money for groceries.

Nevertheless, she never spoke ill of my father after the divorce. Despite her own struggles, she never wanted to keep us from him. He chose to stay away. After we reestablished contact with him in the mid-1970s, she encouraged me to reach out to him. I would visit, but my father almost never reciprocated. The welcome was hardly warm. Not once did he bother to pick up the phone and ask me over. Eventually, I gave up trying.

I tried not to let father issues weigh all that heavy on me through my adult life. Mostly I adopted an attitude of apathy about it, while vowing my daughter would not suffer the same treatment. I made good on that, at least, but I could not ignore the positive effects a stable family provided most of my friends.

After my mother died, I began to sort though the hundreds of photos Mom took of me growing up, considering them against the photos of all my other relatives. I came to one inescapable conclusion: I look like no one else in my family — on either side.

I grew up tying my identity to my genealogical narrative. My father’s parents immigrated from northern Italy, and my mother comes from a long line of French-Canadians that began with the founding of Montreal. While my mother’s side of the family bulged with extended relations we saw at weddings, funerals and other family events, I had only my grandmother on my father’s side. His father died before I was born. We had no cousins, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

Despite this, I embraced my Italian heritage, at times with more pride than my French side. After all, Italians just seemed more interesting. No one was making movies about French-Canadian gangsters and poutine barely registered in the American diet like pizza or lasagne.

Looking at myself as an infant and toddler, I could easily pass as an Italian baby, and though I didn’t look like my father at all, I believed that somewhere over in Italy lived my doppelgänger.

The cracks in this belief emerged while studying the photographs. The belief completely shattered when I discovered my blood type. My parents are both type O. I am B-negative. Ninth-grade biology will tell you that two Os can’t produce a B.

Revealing this finding to my sister shocked her, of course. A paternity test could absolutely verify this, but my father died in 2009. My sister and I could take a sibship DNA test, but the results only provide probabilities that could range from 20 to 90%. The blood types close the case.

Except that the blood types tell me almost nothing about my actual father. With my mother gone, the process of discovery leads me to her few remaining contemporaries, my aunt, my godmother, and another childhood friend of hers.

How do you drop this bomb upon frail 85-year-old ladies?

After telling my cousin of my discovery, she did approach her mother who did indeed confirm that Mom was likely having an affair the year before I was born. Last week, I traveled up to Massachusetts and after pleasant conversation with my godmother, I braced myself and asked, “Do you remember anything unusual going on in my mother’s life the year before I was born?”

After a short pause to take a breath, she said, “Your mother had a boyfriend.”

Unfortunately, my godmother couldn’t remember his name, but she did remember him as dark with curly hair. When I said that he was probably my father and explained why, my godmother’s sparkling smile faded away. “Honey, it hardly matters now,” she said.

“I know,” I replied. “I’m just trying to connect the dots. I still love my mother more than anything. I know she had a bad marriage, and I can hardly blame her.”

In the grand scheme of things, I agree with my godmother. However, we build our identity upon the foundation of our family history. Right now, it feels like half my house just collapsed.

So many questions arise from this new knowledge. Who was this guy? Did my mother know? Did my father?

Mom knew how to suppress her feelings, and I think that while she may have considered the possibility, I think that she buried that suspicion deep enough to completely forget about it. I can only wonder how the conversation would have gone had I figured this out before she died, but I suspect she would have told me the truth without hesitation. I’m afraid, however, that only she would have known his identity, and therefore half of mine.

My father may have suspected, but if so, he also likely suppressed it. A basic tenet of evolution says that infants look like the father to prevent infanticide. I looked more Hispanic than Alpine Italian.

I know I face extremely long odds of finding my father after 55 years. Some might say that my “real” father is the guy that raised me, except that my mother’s husband abandoned his children in 1967 and barely looked back. He had almost no involvement in my life from that point on, and now I realize that I wasted decades fretting about “father issues”.

My issues now involve not just heritage, but health, and for the sake of my daughter, I feel a responsibility to pursue this. Stay tuned.