Author’s Compelling Memoir Shares Her Journey Finding Her Biological Family & Uncovering Hidden Secrets.

By Diane Dewey

What do you say to a father who you’ve just met when you’re forty-seven years old? When I landed that day in March 2003 at Zurich’s International Airport, we – my biological father Otto, and I – had already spent a week together six months earlier when he and his wife Katia, met me in New York where I lived. I’d grown up with my adoptive parents in the safe Philadelphia suburbs, aware of my adoption from a German orphanage at age one and a half but swathed in oblivion about biological kin, ostensibly for my protection. In fact, I thought my biological mother and father were dead, owing to a statement my adoptive father made to get me off his back with all the questions I’d had at age thirteen. Then I’d given up on the pursuit of truth. Thirty-four years later Otto located me through a social services agency. In Otto, I’d discovered fresh tracks to the past and these led me to the tarmac at Zurich International.

I’d sporadically read the Fodor’s Travel Guide on the flight, but how would I identify myself—as Otto’s daughter? I studied the light across the sky the way I had as a kid to determine directions. By traveling to Otto’s home turf, I wanted to prove that I was open to a relationship with him. Having lost my adoptive father the year before, now, more than ever, I craved connection with biological family. But it was a farce to think I had no reservations about Otto. My newly widowed mother and I parsed the weirdness of his sudden appearance every day on the phone. Why had he kept me a secret all these years? Why reveal himself now?

As I stood transfixed in old Zurich, the cobblestones and limestone like a fortress, I reminded myself that although I was far away, this place was in my blood, too. Wonderment, excitement, and fear of what I was getting into churned inside. When I asked a woman at a department store perfume counter for directions to Sprüngli, the sweets emporium, her pavé diamond ring sparkled.  She pursed her burgundy lips: “Straight out and to the right.”  With several right-hand turns at the intersection, I relied on instinct and longed for a sense of the familiar. It was hard to navigate my way with Otto, and now we were to meet for coffee.

Since he’d been a stranger all my life, I’d tread determinedly to underscore my independent attitude when we’d gone hiking that chilly bisque morning. “I really can’t stand chocolate,” I said, hopping over a fallen tree trunk, fully cognizant that chocolate’s the Swiss national product.

“Neither can I,” Otto said, “I only eat the white kind.”

“There’s a difference?” I asked, the smell of peat sharp in my nose.

“Less caffeine,” he replied with a sidelong glance. My head was swimming with jet lag and confusion: I might like an intensive caffeine dose right now.  Understanding that the role I was to play was that of the admiring and grateful daughter, I persisted in my pluckiness. But incongruity chafed at the edges of my insistence to remain in control.  

“I’m so glad you came into my life,” Otto said, fumbling with a plaid handkerchief that he dabbed at his eyes. When he looked up, his grin was lopsided, though his face, tanned from skiing, remained placid.

“So am I,” I nodded and lowered my head. Vulnerability lurked with every utterance. I could no more clasp Otto’s hand than embrace him, so wary were we of false intimacy.  Maybe the Swiss were more distant, less likely to indulge in compassion. I’d seen that when department store clerk pointed her nose out the door through which I was to follow. Now I was to be comforted by Otto’s enticing, yet cryptic, words.

Later that afternoon, over cappuccinos and mango glacé at his favorite sweet-shop, Sprüngli, Otto said, “I’m sorry that I messed up your life.” He’d licked his lips and held my stare, his white leonine hair groomed with product. Was this his idea of a confession? Never mind that I needed more specifics on his separation from my biological mother and me. That was too visceral for Otto apparently: he skirted the nitty gritty. Messed up my life?  I figured I could fuel his imagination of his own power or I could take back mine and dismantle this patrimony fast.

“You know, Otto, things turned out well, and maybe even for the better. If you want to give yourself credit, you can be certain it’s helpful for me to meet an actual blood relative. As for abandoning me, you didn’t. You gave me up to people in charge of caring for me. Besides, that was then, and this is now. Let’s focus on the present.” It was amazing how you could think of these platitudes when you needed them, or maybe they were closer to the truth than I’d acknowledged. I didn’t want to dwell on the past either, with all its pain and precariousness: I could have lingered in that orphanage forever and Otto had something to do with it. Now that his anxieties threatened to overtake me, the alternative was to not cave into Otto’s pandering to my sympathies that would in the end, circle back to serve him. In this colossally ironic scenario, I’d be the one to offer him comfort.  He’d been sure to elicit that.

My visit with Otto in Switzerland now homed in on the story inside the story, that of my German mother, Helena. I promised myself then and there to get to the bottom of it. It was her truth I needed, especially since Otto subscribed to the male belief that he held the cards. In these choreographed steps, I’d had the urge to break out of his expectation that I’d be satisfied with what he proffered. Obfuscation came naturally to a privileged male at age seventy-four.

In Switzerland, a country where sheepskins strewn on the sofa is considered normal décor despite the animal rights movement, and where people are mostly unconcerned with economic and thus emotional striving, I found myself driven to know about Helena—her glory, her failures, her character and most of all, her loves. At this, Otto could only shrug. But he vowed to help me learn more about her.

***

A few years after I’d visited him in Zurich, a long-lost letter written by Helena to Otto arrived at my home in the U.S. Dated March 1956, the year after I was born, the letter was secreted away for fifty years by a friend of Otto’s who’d sent it to me. My hands shook as my German speaking boyfriend translated that Helena had taken a job at the orphanage to be with me. Would Otto fulfill his promise to introduce us to his parents? She covered me with kisses daily, then signed the letter from us both.  With that, I sat back, vanquished, knowing I’d been loved and wanted. Reflecting that I’d refused to play the part Otto assigned me and that by holding out for more, I’d discovered both my truth and my inner compass, I had come home.

Diane Dewey | photo by Chris Loomis

Diane Dewey is the author of numerous articles about art and exhibitions published in the online magazine, Artes. She worked for many years at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, then The National Academy and at a private gallery, before starting her own art appraisal business, The Realization of Art. Schooled at Villanova University, The Art Institute of Philadelphia, and Capella University, where she received a Master of Science degree in mental health counseling, Ms. Dewey’s first book, Fixing the Fates, will be published in Spring, 2019 by She Writes Press. Check out more of her work here: www.dianedewey.com.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.