first person

Little Blondie

I don’t look anything like my father, and now I know why.

Photo: Courtesy of the Author
Photo: Courtesy of the Author
Photo: Courtesy of the Author

An early memory: it’s a Saturday afternoon in the late 1960s and my parents are sitting with friends in our New Jersey backyard. The flagstone patio is in dappled shade. A forsythia hedge spills over the next-door neighbor’s fence. The adults sip iced tea from green plastic cups and relax on the kinds of lounge chairs that leave marks on your thighs when you stand. Maybe there’s a bird feeder. I know this much: it’s Shabbos, which means no cigarettes for my father, no radio for my mother. Lunch is served cold, as it always is after my dad returns from temple. The friends are named Kushner. Many years later, their son will be arrested and imprisoned in a tawdry case involving hookers and embezzlement. Their grandson will marry Ivanka Trump. But on this day, the Kushners are just nice older people, quite a bit older than my parents. I’m young — five or six—and when I come outside to say hello to the grown-ups, Mrs. Kushner pulls me to her side. She’s a stout woman with a teased hairdo and a thick accent. I’ve heard whispers that she and her family dug a tunnel out of the Jewish ghetto in their Polish town during the war, enabling hundreds to escape. Mrs. Kushner runs her hand through my hair, which is white-blond, the same color as my eyebrows. She looks at me hard. What does she see? I am pale, blue-eyed, delicate. I have a heart-shaped face. She’s still gripping me when she says: We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.

I was an Orthodox Jewish girl who had the siddur memorized, who belted out the Birkat Hamazon with my father after every Shabbos meal. I spoke flawless Hebrew — a language that now, when I hear it, has the quality of a half-remembered dream. But I didn’t look the part.

I have very few childhood memories — really hardly any at all — but I have always remembered the backyard, the dappled shade, the green cups, and the lounge chairs that particular Shabbos afternoon. My father, still in his suit pants, tie removed, his shirtsleeves rolled up. An embroidered red velvet yarmulke covering his head. My mother is hazier — my mother is always hazier — but she certainly witnessed the moment with Mrs. Kushner as she sat at the table laden with sliced brisket and cold poached asparagus.

What was Mrs. Kushner really saying to me? What had she been thinking? I was being told: You’re one of us. And I was also being told: You’re not one of us. Which was it? And why has this memory stayed with me all my life? I’ve told the story of Mrs. Kushner before. I’ve written about it in other essays. I thought the story’s significance was the trauma of being told as a child that, had I been alive during the war, I could have saved people — and my guilt that I wasn’t able to. But now I know that it was the kernel of truth embedded in that memory that kept it intact for me. Mrs. Kushner meant no harm as she gripped my arm and assessed me. She spoke without thinking, and in so doing, said what everyone thought when they looked at me. It was the first time I recall — though far from the last—that I was told I wasn’t who I believed myself to be.

Another memory has more recently crystallized in my mind. It was 1988. I was twenty-five years old, and my father had been dead exactly two years. My mother had been badly injured in the car accident that killed my father, and I had spent the previous two years taking care of her. At the same time, I was in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence and I was writing my first novel as if my life depended on it — which, in a way, it did.

I didn’t want my mother to spend the second anniversary of my dad’s death alone. I invited her to come with me to school, where some of the graduate students were giving readings. I picked her up at her apartment on West End Avenue and we drove the half hour north together. I didn’t have much to say to my mother. I never really had. Our life as mother and daughter had been fraught and contentious, devoid of the easy love I felt for my father. As a child, I’d had the fantasy — a form of hope, now a staggering irony — that she wasn’t actually my mother. The silence between us was less companionable than tense and awkward. But we had entered strange new territory since the accident. She had recovered from her injuries far beyond her doctor’s expectations. Still, she was frail and walked with a cane. Her face had been smashed to bits, but now it was reassembled, her nose slightly askew, one eye a different shape from the other. As she often reminded me, I was all she had.

Before the reading, the students and faculty gathered for a reception in the living room of the house on campus where each of us would soon read from our manuscripts. It was at this reception that I introduced my mother to one of my classmates named Rachel.

“Rachel, where are you from?” my mother asked.

“Philadelphia,” Rachel replied.

“Oh, my daughter was conceived in Philadelphia.” Smooth, without missing a beat.

In twenty-five years, I had never heard this. I pictured a hotel, a romantic weekend getaway. But my mother had already moved on to extol the virtues of the City of Brotherly Love.

“What do you mean, I was conceived in Philadelphia?” I asked.

“Oh, you don’t want to know,” my mother replied. “It’s not a pretty story.”
That night, I drove my mother down the Saw Mill River Parkway in the winter darkness. “Mom?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Mom, you can’t just say something like that about my conception. You need to tell me what you meant.” Both our eyes were trained straight ahead. The car a confessional, a vault.

“There was a doctor — an institute — in Philadelphia,” my mother said. “Your father and I were having trouble conceiving.” She stopped there. We were twenty minutes from her apartment. “He had slow sperm,” she added. And then, after another beat: “I’d had several miscarriages. And I was in my late thirties by then.”

“So what happened?”

“I would go to Philadelphia — this was a world-famous institute — and they would monitor exactly where I was in my cycle. Then, when it was time, I’d call your father on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and he would race down so we could do the procedure.”

“What procedure?”

“Artificial insemination. I told you. Not a pretty story.”

What sharpened my senses that night to such a degree that I would be able to retrieve the conversation in its entirety, 30 years later? At the time, I found the whole thing odd, slightly discomfiting, but of little consequence. Really, what difference did it make how I had been conceived? I was here. Who cared how my father’s sperm got to my mother’s egg?

Now the details are so clear to me, as if contained in a time capsule that had only just cracked open: the Hudson River in the darkness; the lights strung across the George Washington Bridge; the even timbre of my mother’s voice; the high plane of her cheekbone. Her long-fingered hands clasped in her lap. Institute. World-famous. Philadelphia.

After dropping my mother off at her apartment, I went home and called my half-sister, Susie, my father’s daughter with his first wife.

“Did you know anything about Dad and Irene having fertility problems?”

“That sounds familiar. I was a teenager, but I knew something was up.”

I told Susie what my mother had said. Philadelphia, the institute, the famous doctor, the slow sperm, her biological clock tick-tick-ticking, our father’s mad dash from New York so they could make a baby.

Susie paused. “And she told you it was definitely Dad’s sperm that was used?”

My hand tightened around the phone.

“Of course it was Dad’s sperm!”

“You might want to look into it,” she said. “They used to mix sperm in those days.”

Mix sperm. Once you hear a phrase like that you never forget it. Two words that crash against each other, like a nonsensical Mad Libs fill-in-the-blank. Susie said it the way she said most things — in a practiced, seemingly casual way. But beneath it was a current of something alive. She was telling me that I should look into the possibility that we were not sisters. That our father was hers — not mine.

I did bring it up to my mother the next time we were together. Here is where my memory becomes hazy. We might have been walking the streets of the Upper West Side. She walked a lot in those days to strengthen her legs.

“Mom, I heard something — going back to what you told me about what happened in Philadelphia—”

My mother was unreadable to me. She never let her true self be seen. Her dark eyes often quivered disconcertingly, and when she smiled it was a careful smile — as if smiling was something she practiced in private.

“I heard that sometimes they would mix the sperm … ?”

I may not remember whether we were on Broadway or West End or Riverside Drive, but I am clear on one thing: there was no ripple, no tensing, no quick blink. Not a glimmer of surprise or distress crossed my mother’s face. She exhibited no confusion at the bizarre phrase.

“Do you think,” she responded, “that your father would ever have agreed to that? It would have meant he wouldn’t have known if his child was Jewish.”

My father’s life had been shaped by the rules of observant Judaism. He was a black-and-white thinker. Good, bad, right, wrong. He was also a person who was clearheaded and interested in the truth. Mixing his sperm with those of any stranger would have been unthinkable. But a non-Jewish stranger would have been impossible — I was sure of that. His religion was the deepest and most abiding part of his identity.

“You knew your father,” my mother went on. In my memory, she is looking directly at me. “Can you imagine such a thing?”

Here’s something I didn’t remember, not until I was reminded of it. I’d traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend a large annual writers’ conference where I ran into an old friend whom I hadn’t seen since we were in our early thirties. Just before I was about to move on to the next booth, she mentioned the long-ago summer when we first met as young writers with fellowships to Bread Loaf, a conference in Middlebury, Vermont.

“When I think of you, I think of one particular night,” she said. “A bunch of us were sitting around a picnic table after dinner — the fellows and the faculty — do you remember?”

She paused and looked at me searchingly. The faculty at Bread Loaf was made up of literary giants. Had something happened that night?

“Mark Strand stared at you across the table and said, You aren’t Jewish. He declared it. Like it was a fact. In front of everybody. He wouldn’t let it go. He just kept staring. You aren’t Jewish. There’s no possibility you’re Jewish.

“There was such an edge to it,” she went on. “He was a poet, a man who knew precisely the value and import of language. He was totally aware of the impact of his words. It was like he was stripping you of who you were. He just kept repeating it over and over again. He got angrier and angrier, as if he thought you were lying. I’ve never forgotten that moment. You were so poised in your response to him. You didn’t give away what you must have been feeling. I wondered what that poise was costing you.”

“I don’t recall any of this,” I said softly. Little blondie.

As it turned out, Mark Strand knew something about me that I didn’t know. He set his gaze on me as if applying a contour map. It wasn’t just my blond hair and blue eyes. No — this had to do with angles, bone structure, skin tone — this was data that didn’t add up. My dismissal of that clearly offended him. Here was a highly perceptive person — a onetime Poet Laureate of the United States, whom I admired to such a degree that I later used a line from a poem of his as an epigraph to one of my novels — demanding that I take a good hard look at myself.

How was it that I had never suspected? Not even after my mother had let slip the method of my conception? That summer at Bread Loaf, I’d already learned from Susie about the practice of mixing sperm. It seems a sliver of doubt would have wedged itself within me. But there was none, none at all. I staunchly ignored the evidence. Instead, I sat, glib and certain under the starry Vermont sky, incurious about why this kept happening, why Mark Strand felt moved to speak with such conviction.

The author with her father in Israel.

In the winter of 2016, my husband had become curious about his origins. Michael knew far less about the generations preceding him than I did about mine. Do you want to do it too? he might have asked. I’m sending away for a kit. It’s only like a hundred bucks. Though I no longer remember the exact moment, it is in fact the small, the undramatic, the banal — the yeah, sure that could just as easily have been a shrug and a no thanks.

The kits arrived and sat on our kitchen counter for days, perhaps weeks, unopened. They became part of the scenery, like the books and magazines that pile up until we cart them off to our local library. Finally one night, Michael opened the two packages and handed me a small plastic vial.

“Spit,” he said.

I felt vaguely ridiculous and undignified as I bent over the vial. Why was I even doing this? I idly wondered if my results would be affected by the lamb chops I had just eaten, or the glass of wine, or residue from my lipstick.

Two months passed, and I had all but forgotten about it until one day an email containing my results appeared. We were puzzled by some of the findings. I say puzzled — a gentle word — because this is how it felt to me. According to Ancestry, my DNA was 52 percent Eastern European Ashkenazi. The rest was a smattering of French, Irish, English, and German. Odd, but I had nothing to compare it to. I wasn’t disturbed, even though that percentage seemed very low considering that all my ancestors were Jews from Eastern Europe. I put the results aside and figured there must be a reasonable explanation tied up in migrations and conflicts many generations before me. Such was my certainty that I knew exactly where I came from.

So that 52 percent breakdown was just kind of weird, that’s all. I thought I’d clear it up by comparing my DNA results with Susie’s. They arrived on the eve of a trip to San Francisco. Michael sat next to me on the small, tapestry-covered chaise in the corner of my office. I felt his leg pressed against mine as, side by side, we looked down at his laptop screen. On the wall directly behind us hung a black-and-white portrait of my paternal grandmother, her hair parted in the center, pulled back tightly, her gaze direct and serene.

Comparing Kit M440247 and A765211:

Largest segment = 14.9 cM

Total of segments > 7cM = 29.6 cM

Estimated number of generations to MRCA = 4.5

653629 SNP’s used for this comparison

Comparison took 0.04538 seconds.

“What does it mean?” My voice sounded strange to my own ears.

“You’re not sisters.”

“Not half sisters?”

“No kind of sisters.”

“How do you know?”Michael traced the line estimating the number of generations to our most recent common ancestor. “Here.”

The numbers, symbols, unfamiliar terms on the screen were a language I didn’t understand. It had taken a fraction of a second to upend my life. My mind began to spin with calculations. If Susie was not my half sister — no kind of sister — it could mean only one of two things: either my father was not her father or my father was not my father.

There are many varieties of shock. This is something you don’t know until you’ve experienced a few of them. I’ve been on the other end of a phone call hearing the news that my parents were in a car crash and both might not live. I’ve sat in a doctor’s office being told that my baby boy had a rare and often fatal disease. But this was something altogether different. An air of unreality settled like a cloak around me. I was stupid, disbelieving. The air became thick sludge. Nothing computed.

“Maybe they got it wrong.” Michael just looked at me. “Switched vials? Mislabeled the results?”

It was the thinnest of threads, but it was all I had. Human error. It seemed possible, in that moment, that all of this would turn out to be a big mistake, something that would become a crazy story I’d tell someday, after I’d recovered from this needless distress.

“Let me see if I can get someone on the phone,” Michael said.

He paused in the door to my office.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine.” My voice was reedy, stretched taut. Alone in my office, I went back to ordinary things with a vengeance. I unplugged my phone charger from the wall and wrapped the wires neatly around it. I packed up my travel-size toiletries and checked them off the list. I looked up the San Francisco weather and folded an extra sweater into my bag.

Susie and I were not related.

Somewhere within me, I knew what this meant, if it was true. If it was true being something that I would repeat to myself again and again. If it was true being something that I might always cling to, in a disbelieving, childlike way, part of the thick sludge.

If it was true that Susie and I were not half sisters, my father was not my father.

That he was Susie’s father was without question. She looked like him. She had his eyes, and the shape of his face. She even sounded a bit like him, her cadences those of a born-and-bred, yeshiva-educated New Yorker. I, on the other hand, looked nothing like my father or like anyone in his family. All my life I’d deflected comments about not looking Jewish, but I had no reason to question my biological connection to my dad. He was my dad. But now — in a minefield of doubt — there was no doubt in my mind about Susie’s paternity. Only about mine.

Thirty-six hours. That’s all it took. Thirty-six hours later, Michael sat next to me once more — this time in a hotel room in San Francisco — as we both stared at a YouTube video of a white-haired, blue-eyed doctor giving a lecture on medical ethics in Portland, Oregon. His name was Benjamin Walden, and he was almost certainly my biological father. It had been insanely easy to find him, based on just a few data points and a hunch. I was lucky. I was conscious of this staggering good fortune that had come hand-in-hand with staggering shock.

“Jesus,” Michael said. “Jesus Christ.”

“What?” I asked. What I was seeing — or rather, who I was seeing — was something new: a recognition, a reflection. I had never looked at my own father and seen the familiar. Familiar: belonging to a family. The white-haired man tilted his head with a small smile as he called upon an audience member in the back row. His voice — that of a stranger — was like a fragment of a dream. Later, when I send Ben Walden a carefully-written note telling him that I have something to say that may come as a big surprise, I will also direct him to my website, where he will see that I am his spitting image.

What do we inherit, and how, and why? Who was Benjamin Walden to me? And who was my father? I can’t ask myself these questions on this day.  But these are the questions that have been hiding in plain sight all my life. Mrs. Kushner knew it. Mark Strand knew it. As a girl, I searched for answers in the mirror. There had been worlds inside me, invisible, floating.

In several weeks, once I’m back east, I’ll meet my best friend from college for dinner, and when I walk into her apartment, I’ll realize I’m afraid that her feelings for me will have somehow changed, that I am now unknowable to her. I’ll stand in her living room, tears streaming down my face, and ask: “Do you still see me as the same person?” And she will look at me, bemused, compassionate. “You are the same person,” she’ll say.

But on that morning in San Francisco, I encountered my own face in the mirror and understood for the first time that the information reflected back at me had always told a different story than the one I had believed — no, known. I didn’t feel like the same person. The white-haired, blue-eyed doctor from Portland was now staring back at me. He had always had been. And it wasn’t only a physical thing, certain common features. Watching him on YouTube, I felt with my entire being something I could barely understand. Come from him.

This is a work of nonfiction. In some cases, names and identifying details have been changed in order to respect and protect the privacy of others, and to keep a promise I made from the very start.

From the book Inheritance by Dani Shapiro, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Dani Shapiro.

An Uncomfortable Inheritance