As parents, we hoped our kids were smarter than us and would be accepted at Stanford or the University of California, Berkeley but neither was. Instead, they attended the University of Southern California and Santa Clara University, USC and SCU as we liked to say.
In 1990, on a September Saturday, I flew down to the San Jose Airport for a Santa Clara University parent's day, six months after my profile 38-C retrofit.
Visiting Santa Clara University provided reconnection with my mother in law, Mom, and the habitat I grew up in. Silicon Valley, however, continued to morph into the high-tech center of the world. It was no longer my hometown. Housing prices continued endlessly to rocket up, our former house eventually worth ten times the impossible price we sold it for.
My father in law had passed away two years earlier, drinking to the end. He had my pity but not my respect until visiting my mother in law. His funeral was unattended except for the immediate family, life’s bad luck following him to the grave.
Dad passed on a year later with Mom somehow managing a Catholic funeral, her prayers before the saint's statute for funerals answered by an old priest who knew how to pull theological church strings.
Widowed, we’d purchased modest 2-bedroom homes in the Willow Glen area of San Jose for them, in our names, so they could enjoy old age without the wolf pounding on their doors. Our generosity was eventually repaid with rising home values. One brother mooched and lived with Mom. He provided Mom companionship and she was happy to coddle, make excuses for, feed and clean up after him, giving her a purpose to live. It being a small 2-bedroom house kept other siblings from moving in.
From the airport, I first drove to my mother in law's house to take her out for dinner without Mom as they didn't socialize. As a widow, she’d blossomed into a happier person. She confided in me after I kept her abortion secret and expanded her trust by telling me about her dates as a widow, details I didn't want to hear.
After dinner, we chatted over glasses of wine. On the second bottle, I learned she too had a secret puppet shadow. Her abortion was more complicated than first told. The abortion she’d passed off as a miscarriage, was not the complete story. It was worse, much worse. After the second bottle of wine, I joked.
"Gee Mom, it’s good to see you again and drink wine together. I hope I’m not an alcoholic. Do you think it’s hereditary?"
I called her Mom for my husband's sake. It wasn't an honest term of endearment. Realizing immediately my hoof in mouth statement, due to my father-in-law's alcoholism, I tried to cover by switching the subject.
"I love what you did with the roses in the front yard of your house."
Mulling my alcohol hereditary comment, she changed the conversation back.
"Don't worry about it being hereditary."
"Oh Mom, I'm not worried."
She leaned close across the table and hit me hard.
"Dad wasn’t his father."
I looked shocked. I was. At first, I thought it was a jest, and then it settled in.
Hubby's Dad is not his father?
She saw my disbelief. Tipsy she explained.
"His biological father is the one who caused the abortion. I know, it's terrible, I was in love. It was before the pill. I would have divorced to marry him, but he chose his family over me. I stayed married for security and ruined two lives. Don't tell. I needed to let you know in case, in case, something develops, unforeseen. As far as I know, there are no hereditary diseases to worry about but if something comes up. Well, you should know, because I could never tell him."
It explained the height difference, the assumed Dad being six inches shorter. An evil thought slipped by; the grandkids needn't worry about being short except for Mom. I made a secrecy vow, one hard to keep; my husband doesn’t know his biological father, I’m taking the secret to the grave. I shuddered to think how knowledge of the secret would devastate hubby and our kids.
Not knowing who his father is, it’s worse than not knowing my secret puppet shadow.
The revelation further tarnished my mother in law’s image. I drove her back to her house and left as soon as politely possible. I was judgmental. Alone, driving to the hotel, an honest perspective overcame me. What about me? What would I have done if I’d gotten pregnant on the couch by Edward? I couldn’t think about it.
Thank you God, thank you, guardian angel, thank you, Blessed Virgin Mary, you saved me.
After my hypocritical mental prayer, I no longer condemned her. My opinion of my father-in law elevated substantially.
He knew! He knew because of the lack of physical resemblance. Maybe he knew the truth about the abortion too but loved her so much he held it in, lied to himself and drank to face the life's music he had to dance to. Oh God, what a burden to carry!
It was a terrible puppet shadow to think about. Discovering another’s dark secret, however, provided an excuse for my own. As I walked to my hotel room, her revelation eased my guilt.
As I drifted to sleep, I smugly thought.
I’m not the best but I’m not the worst.
The year before learning my mother in law’s secrets, the family had gathered at Saint Joseph’s Church in downtown San Jose for Dad’s Catholic funeral service. A few unknown white women and his good time pals attended as did a short, elderly, Italian lady with dyed red hair. They respected us and kept apart. Our family pretended not to see them. The exception was my returned smile of recognition and her nod of condolence from the old Italian woman who owned Vahl’s in Alviso that Dad frequented. She remembered me from the evening of my train passing kiss, probably because Dad had told her about me or she him.
During the service, I beseeched God to go easy on Dad. I didn’t resent him for his weaknesses, mine were equal or greater. I loved him and thought of the little Singer sewing machine he bought after my get rich, gathering black walnuts fiasco. I only rued not knowing his past. I wanted to know more to be closer to him.
After the short Mass, just the family followed his casket to Santa Clara's Mission Cemetery. To get Dad’s internment in its sanctified grounds next to her future resting spot, Mom had lit candles and pleaded before Saint Joseph's statue. His fobbed off religious conversion took canonical help of an old priest's postdated baptism to overcome church ecclesiastical interdiction. The Catholic Church ‘s survival for over 2,000 years is due more to priests’ flexibility to keep the message of Jesus alive than pope’s dogma.
As the casket lowered into the earth, my elder brother Rickie’s military funeral haunted me. A second family member was in the ground. I should have paid more attention to Rickie when he was alive, known more about him instead of preoccupation with my issues, a common funeral guilt experience.
As we departed the cemetery, I thought of how I used to pester Dad with questions if there were Alviso connections to him besides Vahl's. He never answered, just smiled and admitted only he gambled at Vahl’s. I checked public records but it was apparent Alviso was a place dedicated to anonymous lives.
A few secretes emerged after his death, a death from a heart attack going up the steps to the card loft at Vahl’s. The county coroner insisted on an autopsy which Mom refused to sign for, so I did. The coroner feared foul play, but my fear was of his being in the rear annex building instead of ascending the card room stairs.
The coroner’s inquiry confirmed stairs not the next-door brothel and cause of death as a heart attack. It also revealed shocking revelations. Dad had a second identity, was at least ten years older than I assumed and he had old left shoulder and leg bullet scars.
We never knew his birthday let alone the date of birth but I estimated he was around sixty-five or a little older when he died. The autopsy report hypothesized seventy-five or older. With death confirmed as a heart attack and lack of foul play, the coroner’s office lost interest. It didn’t care about his revealed second identity. They accepted the name we gave, the one on his driver’s license and moved on to investigate the next corpse.
The second identity was as Mr. Chew, his known name at Vahl’s. On death, one’s most private documents can be rummaged through and trampled on by the living. In addition to his driver's license, there a locked metal box in his bedroom closet. Pried open we found an old Chinese passport with Dad's photo, (so young-looking), issued to a Frank Chew, a school transcript, a military medal, and photographs.
The passport, issued by some Chinese Shandong government official, was stamped with a Chefoo, Shantung exit and Vancouver, BC Canada entry, the latter dated December 3, 1948. With the help of a San Francisco Chinatown interpreter, we learned the passport was a forgery, issued during a chaotic time of government collapse. It indicated a birth date of June 2, 1913, which made him seventy-seven when he died, thirty-five when he entered Canada and thirty-seven when I was born. As a forgery, the dates were explained as suggestions and the interpreter reminded us, when forging documents, one tends to fake a younger age.
The 1925 school transcript by a Methodist Missionary school in Yantai was for English language achievement. It explained Dad’s reasonably good English except for his struggle with “L” and “R” sounds. It was issued to Lee Lin, age fourteen, confirming Dad’s surname as we knew it and added a couple more years to his age, seventy-nine being the most probable.
The military medal was a common type, presented by China’s shifting armies of the time. We couldn’t determine if of Nationalist, Communist or of some warlord origin. The battle scars explained his assumed arthritis movements that impinged on his military posture and his odd comment at Rickie’s funeral.
“War, it’s death, death of those you love, over and over again.”
The photographs were the most revealing. One was of Dad and a young woman as a stiff, serious, couple in traditional Chinese wedding garb, obviously his formal wedding portrait. The attire suggested neither was of peasant stock.
The other was of the same Chinese woman with Dad and a young child.
Dad obviously had a prior family. Were they killed, abandoned or separated from him in China by events? It meant I had a potential additional unknown sibling and a stepmother, dead or alive. Another photo was of a white female, perhaps a missionary teacher.
His locked away papers, photos, scars suggested upheaval, chaos, war, desperate movements, possible army desertion and perhaps even escape from execution.
I put together what little I could of his confusing background and summarized how he became my father. During harrowing upheavals, wounded by gunfire, his family lost, he escaped by boat to Canada on false papers. From there he sneaked in the US, shortly later met Mom who was from Hawaii and impregnated her with me during September/October 1949. The odds against my conception were unimaginable low, my existence an extreme long shot fluke. I was chosen not just from one of Dad’s millions of sperm cells but also by strange coincidences of fate.
The locked box also revealed a much bigger secret but I didn’t deduce its clue staring out from the passport. I was too involved in reconstructing my father’s image to comprehend what was in front of me. It took Mom to reveal what I was blind to see.
Dad had always kept his wallet to himself. I assumed to protect his money but his driver’s license provided a birthday which we never knew and another year of birth, 1912. The Chinese interpreter, however, explained in Chinatown things are not as they seem and obtaining documents is a sub-industry where one can be what they want to be. There was no Social Security card. His erratic employment and never receiving Social Security suggested an ability to get a driver's license but not a Social Security card. Dad was an illegal alien; his past an enigma. He was not just an Alviso cannery worker, if he ever was, instead he was a complex Chinese military ghost shadow.
I reconstructed his life to fit a new father image. He wasn’t just a happy go lucky, womanizer and poor gambler. His life’s puzzle was a complicated survival struggle against odds. He adapted to shifting events and discovered the mind’s dark place where you find out what you can do to live. It explained his ambivalent attitude toward money. He enjoyed spending it but never saved for a rainy day because money to him was transitionary.
Mom told me he didn’t spend all his winnings only on himself and girlfriends, he also often bailed out our “rent is due crisis” days. She smiled and explained our family eating out splurges were after he made a big win, something I’d figured out.
At death, he left me a larger life portrait than the smaller picture I presumed when growing up as he drove off for the weekend. The few additional jigsaw puzzle pieces whetted my appetite for more rather than fulfilled answers sought. His ghost puppet shadow made me realize I didn’t know my father and never would. The little I did know raised his stature to my being proud to be his daughter.
Why was I ever ashamed? Because I couldn’t see his puppet shadow character behind the screen.
Author Notes: Secrets learned of family's past provide prospective of woman's life in middle age.