At breakfast my father asked me what I thought we should do if, in Grandma and Grandpa’s safety deposit box, we found the document identifying his real parents. The year was 1967, and he and I were in Evanston, Illinois, arranging a funeral for his adoptive mother, Elizabeth, who had died suddenly of a stroke. That he was given up at birth he had not learned until his 35th year, when Elizabeth sprang the news on him one Easter. Around the dinner table they were remembering her father, Sam Hill, descendant of a Revolutionary War general, who had often wondered aloud why Elizabeth’s child looked nothing like his parents. Dad had wondered, too.
“Wouldn’t it be funny,” Dad said to his mother that day, “to discover that I —”
“John, as a matter of fact, you were adopted,” she blurted out, vexing his remaining years with an insoluble conflict, namely, whether he should track down his real parents or let them be. Now that we were burying his mother and packing his 86-year-old dad into a retirement home, this bank-vault visit would be his last chance at a birthright.
He’d been up a while, ferrying trash down the back stairs to the cans. Dressed in a freshly laundered shirt, he’d rolled up the sleeves three turns. His gold watch squeezed his wrist, and the dark hair of his arms like a field of evenly charred grass reminded me that his real mother, the Czech servant girl, had given his skin a tannish color. (With the father’s Swedish ethnicity, that’s all we ever knew about his real parents.) My Scandinavian white certainly belied his half-Bohemian origins.
Buttering toast, I said, “What would I do? I’d find them.”
“What if you don’t want to find them. Tom, it’s been over 50 years.”
“What about just seeing their names,” I said. “Wouldn’t that be enough?”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. If I look at their names, then I may really be tempted.”
“Tell me again what would be so wrong about finding them,” I said.
“For one, they might be destitute. For another, they might be sick. For another, I’m sure they’re not together. Remember, I was given up by a maid and some Swedish yokel, probably fresh off the boat. It doesn’t sound to me as if they would still be together.” He sipped coffee from a heavy diner’s cup.
“And for another,” I said, “they might be wealthy.”
“Ahhh,” he said dismissively. “In your dreams you want them to be rich. But that never happens to ordinary people. Look at me. I’m as ordinary as they come. Rich lost parents are one in a million, Tom, and the other things, the bad things about them far outweigh the good by another million. They were — and I’ve thought about this a long time — they were the ones who abandoned me, remember. Why would I want to meet them?”
He told me to finish eating, not to dawdle. But I did dawdle. I imagined for a moment how much of my father’s identity might be wrapped up in his real Swedish father, not the cantankerous Swede who’d adopted him. The missing father had to have been a sight better. I saw him, a big-shouldered, Clark Kent version of my dad, older and infirm, of course, but still emanating the Larson conceit. When the two men found each other, a slow recognition of similarities between them would begin: the soft blue eyes; the proud nose; the large ears; the tired face; the tufted, wavy hair; the pear-shaped body with the bird legs; the up-down temperament; the fatalistic sense of being better; and more, until the two men burst into tearful embrace, acknowledging the father in the son, the son in the father, their completed selves.
A young man led us into the bank’s vault, its door six huge silver coins stacked from large to small balancing effortlessly on one brass-massive hinge. He handed my father the long, thin box, slipped from a wall of silver-plated numbered slots, and he directed us to a tiny room with swinging wooden doors.
“This all you got?” my father asked. The fellow apologized; the other rooms were in use. “Forget it,” Dad said. “It’s not your fault.”
Two chairs were tucked into a squat desk; a metal trash can hugged the wall behind the chair that my father pulled out. He lifted the long lid of the safe-deposit box and removed a stack of brown envelopes.
“Let’s see, a life-insurance policy…Grandpa’s immigration papers and his citizenship certificate, God, he never applied until 1942, the year I went to sea…oh, Jesus, look at this,” and I got excited, “a stack of letters, let’s see, maybe your Grandma wrote these a long time ago…yes, it’s her writing,” and he didn’t pause except to refold and put them on a growing stack, “and,” he came to what appeared the brownest of the envelopes, put everything down and spread open the top slit. He read out loud the word “adoption” and looked at me, patiently, open and waiting. Maybe he was ready to be talked out of it, but then his eyelids drew down, and some darkness suffused his face.
The eyelids raised slowly. “What do you think I should do, Tom?”
“I think you should at least look at their names.”
He hesitated. I was waiting for the change, for him to cry out, bite a knuckle, hem, haw, pace, give in to what I wanted. Once again he waited on my input. Was I important in all this? Why? Before I could speak, some muscle in his body, a twitch of decision or fate, asserted itself. “I’m sorry, son,” he said, “but there’s no way on earth I can look. And don’t ask me to explain why because I can’t. I can’t explain why.”
He took hold of the envelope in the middle and tore it in half, then laid one half on the other half and tore them in half, then laid the two quarters on the other two quarters and tore them in half, and so on, until he had a small, quick pile of confetti. He let go of the pieces, which fluttered into the trash can, then dusted his hands. He again closed his eyes until his eyebrows raised up, and the darkness dislodged itself and traveled through. I remember that darkness felt like a slow-passing freight train, its cars weighted with the parent-finding hopes of orphans. But as quick as it gathered, the notion dispelled itself, and my father emerged, returning a tick more anonymously to the other papers, gathering them together and rising, our business done. For the son not taken, his real parents were returned to obscurity, their absence preserved, forever.
Driving back neither of us spoke. His hands pawed the wheel of our big Ford, its power steering ached noisily on the curves, until I could feel a truth in him congeal: A man buckles and buries it. We would never again talk about what had surfaced in the bank. Another eight years would pass before his death. If he had mentioned it, he would have said, “It doesn’t bother me. What’s done is done.”