Imagine holding a party and giving each departing guest a party favors bag with a stick of dynamite in it. That’s what my daughter-in-law Anjali did. To be fair, many guests never lit their stick of dynamite, or if they did, it fizzled out soon.
It started off with the best of intentions, as these dynamitings often do. Anjali and my son David invited us to the “gender reveal” party.
Anjali was an adept hostess, making sure to introduce her guests, even though most of us had met a year ago at their wedding. She swanned about, saying, “This is my father-in-law, Professor Joe Magnusson, dean of arts and science at Broadstone College.” I confess, it pierces me with pride but also a little anxiety, lest I not live up to expectations. Nonetheless I enjoyed mingling with the wide range of people at the party—everyone from hospital administrators to playwrights.
I spent much of the party kibitzing with my sister Cecilia and my brothers John and Matt. We had recently moved Dad to an upscale long-term care facility and have begun the task of clearing out the family home. Mom died long ago in a car accident and Dad suffers from dementia. Although David and Anjali wanted to “invite the patriarch” (as David put it), the gathering would have been too disorienting for him.
The theme of the party was “Roots.” The couple had made up a family tree banner showing Anjali’s side and David’s. Our side, the Magnussons, have a long and storied history. David had researched names back to the 1700s. I had never given it much thought, but my chest expanded and I stood a little straighter as I studied the banner. They sent each of us home with a pink-and-blue bag that included the usual bonbons, a small plant (from Anjali’s shop), and a DNA testing kit from the company FamiliesRUs. “Send in your cheek swab, Dad,” David said, “and they’ll connect all of us Magnussons online.”
* * *
Two weeks later an email arrived from FamiliesRUs.com. The link showed I was a half-brother to Cecilia, John, and Matt—and no relation to Anders Magnusson, the man I called Dad.
Obviously the test was inaccurate. What did I expect from a two-bit fly-by-night gene-testing company with a jokey name like FamiliesRUs?
The so-called results were completely at odds with the family I knew. My parents were devoted to each other. My mother was highly principled—and constantly busy, with us four kids. John and Matt both have Dad’s sandy brown hair and wide-spaced slate-gray eyes. My sister Cecilia and I take after Mom’s side, with our high foreheads and mouse-colored hair. Our family of six was more close-knit than any other family I knew because we were nuts about camping. My parents instilled in us a tremendous love of the national parks system. I don’t mean to sound cheesy but there’s nothing like huddling six in a tent during a raging thunderstorm to make you appreciate the blessed warmth of family.
* * *
“Redo cheek swab test” went onto my To-Do list. However, it was quickly overtaken by other, more urgent tasks. For starters, Anjali delivered early and baby girl Gigi had heart problems. Meanwhile Dad’s health continued to go downhill and soon my siblings and I were taking turns visiting the long-term care facility and, eventually, the hospital. We were still getting ready to sell the house. I felt jet-lagged and could barely concentrate as the new dean at Broadstone.
My unusual status on the family tree—as half-sibling, not even half-Magnusson—was never mentioned. My siblings are all business types, Cecilia with her cheese factory and John and Matt with their C-suite jobs. They’re pragmatists, who tease me about being the “family brain.” I had to set FamiliesRUs straight, but it felt no more serious than, say, a typo on LinkedIn.
* * *
Baby Gigi came home from the hospital, apple-cheeked and bright-eyed. “You’d never know it was once touch and go with her,” my wife Francesca said, after our first stroll as proud grandparents.
A week later, Anjali called. “We’re sending out birth announcements and I need the address of your bio-dad.”
“Your biological father. Your bio-dad.”
“No? David and I would love to meet him. I’m sure he’d love to meet the newest—”
I lost my legendary cool. Anjali called again. I snapped back into character. “I’m so sorry, Anjali, I accidentally dropped the phone. … no, there is no ‘bio-dad’. The cheek swab was contaminated. I’ll get them to correct the website right away.”
There was so much else on the go—babysitting Gigi and preparing our daughter Nadia for studies in Paris—but finally I re-did that stupid cheek swab.
On Dad’s birthday, John, Matt, Cece, and I piled into his hospital room and sang Happy Birthday. I strummed on my guitar and Dad’s face brightened like sun going from thick cloud to thin cloud. We sang the old camp songs from when we were camping our way across America. This Land is Your Land; Little Brown Jug; Old Dan Tucker.
Over the next month Dad developed pneumonia and passed away. Things became a new kind of busy, as we planned Dad’s memorial and settled his estate. I remembered how he scrimped to send every one of us to a good college, so to honor him, I vowed my inheritance would fund a scholarship in his name.
* * *
The email from the re-test arrived. It showed the same results as before.
I stared at the screen, feeling like a bug on a racing car’s windshield. John, Matt, Cecilia—people who I had grown up with and trusted with my life—now seemed at arm’s length. The man I had revered as my father bore no more relation to me than a friendly acquaintance. I felt unmoored.
“What’s up with you?” Francesca asked that night. “Tomorrow’s our thirtieth wedding anniversary. You’ve never forgotten our anniversary before. I thought you’d suggest a party … something to reunite the family after our annus horribilis.”
A party? My stomach soured as I recalled that awful pink-and-blue party favours bag. “Too soon,” I said. “And I haven’t forgotten our anniversary. Sheesh.”
The next day at lunch-hour I rushed out to buy Champagne, high-end chocolates, and diamond earrings. That evening over dessert, we exchanged gifts. She gave me a first edition of Swiss Family Robinson, which I’d practically memorized as a kid. After she opened her gift, I sensed vague disappointment. Later I realized the earrings were for pierced ears, which she doesn’t have.
* * *
Above, I wrote that my siblings were indifferent to my halfsie status. That’s not quite true—Cece and I did speak about it. We dined at a fancy Swiss place and, over the dim glow of the fondue burner and the tableside candle, she gave an interesting perspective. “Our parents were quintessential suburbanites, Joey. Remember the Friday night barbecues? What if they did, like, ‘swingers’ parties’?”
“You mean, like wife swapping?” I said with a nervous laugh.
“Yeah, maybe some ‘key party’ got out of hand.” She laughed too and poured us more wine. “What a burden technology is. You officially know too much. To me, Joe, you are always my blood brother.”
“The others feel the same way. We wouldn’t want you any different. You know that, right?”
The contents of Dad’s house included a box of old photos. He was the self-appointed family photographer, so there’s shot after shot of us four kids and Mom, usually with our “woody” station wagon in the midst of unpacking at different campsites. Mom looked perennially pleasant and neatly pulled together, even in the rain, portaging a canoe.
I asked Cece if she had any idea why? As top lawyer in the county, my father could be overbearing and paternalistic—but he was also charming and well-informed.
“My ‘iceberg’ theory,” Cece replied. “Mom must’ve kept her resentment hidden. He wounded her some way and she wanted to get back at him.”
* * *
At home, I took to watching Francesca. I wondered what signs of unfaithfulness about Mom I had missed. How much of my own wife’s true self was submerged? “Don’t look at me like that,” she said one night.
“Like I’m a… specimen.”
“Oh. Sorry.” I tried to lighten up. In the meantime, I emailed FamiliesRUs, asking if they could test hair. The next morning, I went into my daughter Nadia’s room, looking for her hairbrush.
* * *
I received an email via FamiliesRUs titled “Possible family connection.” They requested permission to pass along my contact information to a client. Feeling devil-may-care, I gave my permission.
* * *
Yes, I would be interested in exploring family connections. Let’s meet for lunch. Below are links to three possible restaurants. Your choice. My treat, of course. - Joe Magnusson
* * *
Before meeting her, I investigated Edith Kulnick’s background, or more accurately, her “web presence.” Her LinkedIn photo resembled mine—same high forehead, same brown eyes. She teaches guitar. Of the places I suggested, she chose my favorite, an Indian restaurant near campus. I felt unaccountably nervous as I waited for her.
We began a little stiffly. Although she arrived late, she didn’t apologize or explain. I felt overdressed because I wore my usual suit whereas Edith appeared in hoodie and sweat pants, the type of outfit Nadia might wear while studying for exams. Edith’s teeth were bad. We made small talk about where to eat lunch and she seemed to know only fast food joints. She chose Indian food because “it’s different” but worried about the spiciness.
“Do you enjoy teaching music?” I asked.
“Oh, you saw the stuff on the innernet, eh? We did that in my job placement. I was an itinerant teacher with the public schools, but they’ve cut all music and art programs.”
“What a pity,” I said. “Are you performing these days? I’d love to take in your show.”
“Nah, nothing special.”
A silence widened. The server, mercifully, brought our curries.
“So, how is that for you—being deacon at the college?” she asked.
“Dean at the college,” I gently corrected her. “A deacon works at a church.” Then I kicked myself for being so pedantic. I’m not a snob; I just try to set things straight. She was unfazed so I continued. “It’s an administrative position although I have to maintain my research, too. I study old manuscripts. Next year I’ll travel to Andalusia—” I broke off when I saw her blank look. We buried ourselves in the food.
“So there’s five of us now,” she said. “We’re all different moms, you know that, eh?”
“No, I didn’t know that.” I gulped water to stop the choking of my throat. Five kids, what the hell?
“See, I tole you the spices would be strong,” she said.
“Could you tell me about… your … our father?” I asked.
She started with trivia, some childhood grievances. I listened, feeling alternately curious and repelled. I realized I had embraced the “brief affair with a neighbor” scenario for my mother’s infidelity. I had assumed my half-sister came from a background similar to mine. One with access to decent education, good nutrition, rudimentary manners. Dentist.
“I took his name. Kulnick,” she said. “George Kulnick married my mom for a couple years. Mom got fat and he dumped her for another girl. I’m the oldest of all us kids. So far’s I know.”
“Is he alive? Where does he live? What does he—”
She held up her hand. She smiled, showing those terrible teeth. “Hold yer horses.” She looked smug: she was holding the information—while the college man was flailing about for any crumb of knowledge. “I have the deets. But first—do you have a picture of your mom?”
I slid forward an old camping photo of Mom.
Edith glanced at it. “Yep, that’s like my mom. Way back before babies, that is. You could say George Kulnick had a type.”
I felt disloyal talking about Mom like that, namely how she would appear to a prospective sexual partner. “Look, I just want info on … George, that’s all.”
“I wrote it down for you.”
“Wonderful, thank you,” I said. “How very thoughtful.” Suddenly it felt too close in the restaurant—I needed fresh air. I had seen my “alternative existence” and I wanted to run.
She pulled out a sales receipt. On the back, she had written “G.K.” and an address and phone number.
“I’m sorry, Edith, I must get back,” I said, settling the bill with our server. “Could I drop you off somewhere?”
She readily accepted. I dropped her off at Robin’s Egg Donuts, realizing only as she dismounted that she was carrying a knapsack of clothes and wore “sensible” shoes. She didn’t thank me for lunch or the ride. I don’t mean to be petty. But there are basic civilities.
* * *
I googled my bio-dad’s address and saw a penitentiary. I cleared the memory cache and burned the receipt with the address. But the mental stain will not leave.
* * *
To this point, I had not shared anything with Francesca. The more I thought of Mom’s indiscretion, the more I was filled with cynicism about male-female relationships. I began to doubt Francesca’s fidelity. But Nadia was definitely mine, according to the results from the hair sample. I was flooded with recrimination.
* * *
Edith sent me an email a month later asking, “how did it go?”
I replied, “I didn’t visit.”
“Family disgrace,” she wrote back. “Well you had to find out some time.” She added that a sixth half-sibling had been found.
* * *
The stick of dynamite exploded. Not literally, but slo-mo ruination of me, the guy who thought he had it made.
The night I had my car accident, Francesca raced to E.R. I’d never meant to keep my bio-dad a secret; it just turned out that way because I was too ashamed to tell her, my lovely high-born Francesca, that I was only a pretender to the Magnusson name. That would have been bad enough—but here I was, with my bio-dad in jail and half-siblings crawling out of the woodwork. In that moment, I loathed my mother: how could she have exercised such poor judgment? For all I know she’d hopped in the sack with George, the local dope-dealer, on a lark.
“Honey, speak to me,” Francesca pleaded under the harsh fluorescent lights.
“Could you call—unh—work and cancel my—”
“And Edith—unh—tell her no lunch.”
Cecilia showed up. I asked Francesca to go home, pack my hospital bag—“remember my moccasins, I must have them”—so that I could talk to Cece untrammeled.
As soon as my wife left, the floodgates opened. I bawled, the heart monitor went off, the nurse ran in. “I haven’t the guts to tell Fran,” I sobbed. The nurse interrupted, explaining she would be injecting a mild sedative.
“She’ll understand,” Cece said. “Really, she will.”
“I’m a fake.”
“Shh. Listen to what I found.” Cece dug around in her purse for a xeroxed news item. I couldn’t see well, because my glasses had been broken in the accident.
My sobs grew weaker as the sedative took effect.
“Hush,” she said. “I’ll read it. “It’s from the microfilm at the reference library. A small piece in the Tribune from fifty years ago. Here we go. Headline: Rapist charged…. George Kulnick pleaded guilty to unlawful break and enter and assault and rape of a sixteen-year-old girl…”
“Rape?” I felt woozy. “I thought he was a drug dealer.” Edith had been vague on a maddening number of things.
“He’s likely been in and out on a bunch of things,” Cecilia said. “I’m guessing Mom was one of his victims.”
“She never said anything…,” I say. “Dad never said anything….”
“Yeah, but you know—those days—culture of secrecy. Respectable women did not get raped… which really meant, they never let it go public.”
So now my mother was rehabilitated. Back to sainthood, where she belongs.
My self-loathing exploded. The son of a rapist. My heart monitor went off again.
The nurse returned and told Cecilia to leave immediately.
* * *
A week later, I am recuperating at home. Cece comes to visit and she takes my face in her hands. “You and I, we’re the Mom-clones. Remember? We always said ‘Mom got two’ and ‘Dad got two.’”
I smile weakly. “Focus on the Mom-side, got it.”
“Yeah. She bore her burden in secret,” Cece says. “Never wanted to disrupt the family. I can’t imagine how terrible that was, to carry her rapist’s baby. But look, she produced a wonderful man. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, Joe Mag, get on with the living.”
I look at her high forehead, her lovely mouse-brown hair. Protective coloration. I don’t feel like I’ve behaved like a wonderful man. I kept secrets from my wife. I’m judgemental. I’m lazy and overly status-conscious and prone to self-deception. The tears flow over. My sister listens and comforts.
“Listen, I’ve got the name of a good counsellor,” Cece murmurs. “You’re not the first one who’s found a nasty surprise hiding in the family tree.” She suggests, also, “don’t give up on the other side of the family.”
After she leaves, I call Broadstone College. I ask to change the name of the Anders Magnusson scholarship to Shirley Smed Magnusson. While waiting on hold, I open the window to the bright spring day. The breeze blows in, and the papers on my desk fly up and everywhere.