Jeanne Althouse: Love Child

She inherited my uncle’s face. She inherited his pale skin, freckled nose, smoky eyes, narrow cheek bones, the way he tilted his head to his left when he spoke. She inherited his love of gab and tendency to lecture. She inherited his profession, his talent at poker, his longing for mountain streams and the habit of a rod and line in his hand. She inherited many things from Uncle Dave, but not his name.
I didn’t believe in religion, in transitions to the other side, in seeing people after death. But the first time I met Renata Taylor that changed.

We faced each other in a booth at Plant Gourmet, the restaurant in San Francisco where she suggested we meet for lunch. She smelled of cigarette smoke. Was it her, or the smoke rising from the restaurant’s grill? I looked across the booth at her, at my uncle’s face. I doubted she was a smoker, but she looked so much like him that I expected her to raise a cigarette to her lips.
Uncle Dave was a lifelong smoker; he died ten years ago of lung cancer. He never had children, never wanted any, he said. So, who was this woman?
“What does she want?” my husband, Nick, asked me in the car on the way to our meeting. Nick, a lawyer, specializes in estate planning, has an eye for inheritance issues. “Does she want money?”
Nick would never submit his DNA sample to a testing service. He argues that, regardless of their promises you have no control over what they do with the information. The data bases are subject to hacks and the information can be used against you. He rants about DNA testing with “Remember that serial murderer they called the Golden State Killer? The feds found him using a DNA match.”
He’d go on talking for ages on this subject if I let him. His enthusiasm against the testing shows me that secretly he’s fascinated with the possibilities. Smoldering inside Nick is a badass longing to flame up. Don’t tell, but it’s one reason I married him. I’ve got that badass inside too. That, and my curiosity about ancestors, made me get the test without telling him. When my results revealed this unexpected cousin and she contacted me, Nick, too, was interested. He spent more time reviewing the test results than I did.
Inside, waiting to be seated, I held out my hand. “I’m Emma,” I said. “Are you Renata?”
She looked German, pale skin, like mine. I guessed she was a couple of years older than I was. Early fifties maybe. She wore a blue knit dress I recognized from the latest Bowden catalog, expensive, dressy. She brought her husband too, second husband she told us later, Chadwick. Chad was Black, dressed in a white shirt, charcoal suit coat over jeans, no tie. Classy. I guessed he was at least ten years younger than she was. Good for her: a younger man, takes confidence, I thought. He sat quietly, arm around her. Supportive. I liked him immediately, but I wasn’t sure about her.
“I’m not going to make small talk,” she said, after we ordered. She stared at me with those smoky, dreamy eyes. I took a deep breath. The idea that Uncle Dave had a daughter was difficult to absorb. I considered not telling her. I reminded myself that I hardly knew this woman.
Renata touched my hand across the table. I hated being touched by strangers, but I tried not to move my arm away. My eyes strayed over to Nick. He looked as surprised as I was to see the family resemblance, but if she asked for something, I could hear his I told you so.
“Look at me,” Renata said. “I’m going to be frank with you.”
I was worried, thought here it comes, a request.
Nick leaned forward.
“It’s fine if you stare at me. Go ahead,” she said.
Her eyes locked mine in a contest over who would look away first. (I looked away first. I lost these contests with Nick too.)
“I want to know,” she said. “Do I resemble anyone in your family?”
Yes, yes, I thought, but I didn’t answer. Would this discovery come to harm us?
The silence stretched out. The waiter, a young man wearing a Plant Gourmet tee, offered us more water.
Renata turned to Chadwick, searching for help. He squeezed her shoulders, winked at her. I liked Chadwick.
She went on, encouraged by him. “I’m adopted. I never met my birth mother or father; I don’t know who they are. It’s hard to explain to someone who is not adopted, but in school other kids got to talk about how they looked like their Mom or Dad. I never got to look like anyone in my family.”
She had a yearning in her voice, a plea for understanding. I decided to tell her. Nick often accused me of being a softie. I argued it made me good at my job as a therapist. I could empathize.
Yet I stuttered when I answered, and I haven’t stuttered since college. “Yes. Ah . . . yes,” I said. “You remind me of Uncle Dave.” There, I did it. It could not now be taken back.
“Who was Uncle Dave?” she said.
“He was my Mother’s brother. Happily married, we thought, but who never had children.” The “we thought” hangs in the air while I wonder if Aunt Marilyn knew about this. She said she agreed with him that they didn’t want children. She died soon after Uncle Dave, so I’ll never know if she knew. Did my Mother know this about her brother? She never said and she died last year. My grandparents and parents are gone; I am an only child, so there’s no sibling to ask.
Lunch arrived. We started eating, but she ignored her plate. Her next speech gushed out of her mouth as if she’d been rehearsing it for days. She explained her name. Renata, after Renata Tebaldi, a famous opera singer. Her adopted mother liked opera and liked that the name meant reborn. Renata explained how happy she was growing up; she knew she was adopted, from a Catholic charity, and was made to feel “chosen.”
My brain fired up with questions. A love child? A Catholic charity? We were not a Catholic family and Uncle Dave wasn’t religious. I remember Mom said she volunteered as a cleaner at a Catholic home during college; she claimed the home promised unwed mothers complete anonymity in the adoption process. Love child. Unwed mothers. Loaded terms from the past. Mom liked to tell me how values had changed since her generation, how pregnancy without marriage no longer contained the shame it once did.
I felt tears close as I missed Mom all over again. “What do you do for a living?” I asked, hoping to shift onto a less emotional topic.
She said, “I teach high school history. Chad teaches English. We met at San Francisco Unified.”
My mouth fell open. “Uncle Dave was a teacher too—the same subject, high school history.”
“That’s interesting,” she said, smiling. “I must have the history-teacher DNA.”
She was making a joke, but I was digesting the coincidence. After an awkward silence, Nick jumped in, bless him. “Emma’s uncle taught history years ago; it’s pretty different now I bet.”
“Well,” she said, shifting into lecture mode. “In your uncle’s time we considered one narrative as the true history of the United States; it seems old fashioned now, but history books used to claim that Christopher Columbus discovered America.”
I notice she said, your uncle’s time and not my father’s time.
“Today, it’s widely believed that there were humans in America as far back as 20,000 years. As we get better science, the historical question of who discovered America may continue to change . . .”
Chadwick and Nick have finished their lunch. Nick squirmed in his seat next to me. I raised my hand as if we were in class and I was impatient to be called on.
She smiled, obviously had a good sense of humor. “I know I talk too much,” she said.
“That’s an understatement,” said Chadwick, grinning, squeezing Renata’s shoulders again. “But she’s a fantastic teacher.”
Nick and I smiled at each other. He liked Chadwick too.
My mind ignited, on fire with the big questions I didn’t ask: What happens when we have to revise our family history? Who was Uncle Dave? Do we really know anyone? I needed to change the subject again, to buy time for calming down. “Do you, by any chance play poker?”
Uncle Dave was the “fun uncle,” knew how to party, liked to play a prank, loved to tell a joke, and was always available to play poker. Every year, when he came to visit, he arrived in a new car. Eventually he added a motorcycle, a pontoon boat, a Grand Cherokee Jeep for off-roading—every year a new man-toy. One visit, when I was around sixteen, I heard him arguing with Aunt Marilyn. She wanted to buy a new couch, but he claimed the old one was just fine. I realized that Aunt Marilyn never bought anything for herself. After the house was quiet, I heard her sobbing in the guest room. Uncle Dave had gone outside because Mom didn’t like him to smoke in the house.
“I adore poker,” she said. “I guess I got the poker-DNA too.”
Everyone laughed.
Over dessert we talked more, about our lives, our work, our families. I explained what I knew of my uncle’s medical history. Chad and Nick got deep into a discussion of fishing and debated which brand was the best rod threading device. Renata and I figured out how old Uncle Dave would have been in the year she was born—he was 20, in college, not married, had not yet met my aunt. That was a relief; I did not want to think of him betraying Aunt Marilyn.
After lunch we slid out of the booth and exchanged friendly hugs. Nick could tell I was absorbed and emotional and he offered to drive. As we sat in the car, I looked back at Renata, getting in her car with Chad. My feelings were strong, but ambiguous. The revision of my family history was like a loss of innocence, a hard reminder that people you love are complex, mysterious, full of surprises, not always good ones. Yet meeting my cousin was also a gift, having a part of Uncle Dave return, remembering his face, our good times together. Would we become friends? Would we become family? I felt the warmth of her hug and, on my hands, the hint of her smoky scent, lingering.
But Nick did not start the car.
“Can we talk?” he said.
“Of course.” I waited. We watched Chad and Renata drive away, waved a friendly goodbye.
“It was uncanny to see Uncle Dave’s face on her,” Nick said. “You realize your uncle may not have known about the pregnancy. I went to a few wild parties in college; I could have a few mystery children around myself . . .”
Nick was making a joke—trying to cheer me up. Or was he serious? “That’s not funny,” I said.
“There’s no doubt she’s related to someone in your family.”
“Someone?” I said.
“She could be Uncle Dave’s child,” he said.
He reached across the console, took my hand.
“But . . . maybe not.”
What did he see that I missed?
“Her hands, the long narrow fingers. And she was left-handed . . .”
I was a leftie; got that from Mom.
In the silence that followed, we were both thinking about the DNA results.
Two people who shared our percent of DNA match were most likely cousins, the voice in my brain argued. But they could be grandparent and child. Or, in rare instances, they could be . . .
“Half siblings,” said Nick, completing my thought.
She could be my mother’s Love Child.

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