Love Child

I was 34 years old when I found out that I’m illegitimate, and I found out at an airport at the end of a harried business trip.

I was powering through the airport, with my computer bag on my shoulder and my suitcase rolling behind me, and turned on my cell phone to check messages.  I pressed the button and the nice robot told me that I had one message.  It was from my dad, my first indication that something weird was going on.  My dad loves me, and we do talk on the phone and Skype, but it’s usually my mom who initiates communication, and my dad will jump on to say hello, ask how I’m doing, and then go back to watching golf or soccer on tv.

His message was not what I expected:  “Charlotte, this is Walter Cooper.   Your Dad.  I think I may have a legal problem.  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  Anyway, can you call me?  My number is 972-555-3850.  Bye.”  Yes, my dad introduced himself by name, reminded me of who he is, and then left the phone number to the house where I grew up.  My dad is an engineer with a genius-level IQ.

I normally wait until I’m home and not on the move to return phone calls, but my curiosity was piqued.  My dad dialed the phone himself, and he thought he had a legal problem.  Without missing a step in my mission to the parking lot, I called home.

Mom:  Hello?

Charlotte:  Hi, it’s me.  Dad said –

Mom:  Yes, hang on.

Dad:  Hi Charlotte!  Are you home?  How was your trip?

Charlotte:  I’m at DCA, I’m fine – what’s your legal problem?

Dad:  Oh, right.  Well, you know that Westinghouse bought TU Electric, where I work? [He felt he had to tell me the name of the company where he worked for decades.]

Charlotte:  Yes…

Dad:  Westinghouse’s HR department needs some paperwork to verify your mom as the beneficiary on my retirement and health stuff.

Charlotte:  Ok.

Dad:  They asked for a marriage license.

Charlotte:  Uh-huh.

Dad:  Where do I get one of those?

Charlotte:. … What do you mean, “Where do I get one of those?”

“Where do I get one of those?”  I thought it was a ridiculous question until that moment, and then I realized what had happened.  My dad came to the United States to attend graduate school, first at Northwestern, where he got his master’s degree, then at the University of Cincinnati, where he got his Ph.D.  Allegedly, he and my mom had gotten married in Korea, and then she eventually immigrated to the U.S. and joined him in Cincinnati.  (Our last name is not really “Cooper.”  Also, my first name is not really “Charlotte.”)  They got married on April 1 and I was born on December 31 of that same year.  (If you’re trying to do the math, it’s exactly nine months.)

I don’t know what the process is to get married in Korea, and my parents, as immigrants, didn’t know what the process was to get married in the U.S.  They have two pictures from their wedding, where my mom was in a white dress, and my dad was in a suit, and there was a tiered white cake.  During the call, I found out that my dad got a blood test, and my mom brought chest X-rays with her (to prove she didn’t have tuberculosis).  They were married by the University chaplain, and neither one of them remembered asking him to sign any paperwork for them.  My dad sounded baffled, like he didn’t understand why a marriage license hadn’t materialized after the wedding.  Mom was laughing, but I could tell she was fighting fury and hysteria.  I told them that it would be fine.  At the very least they would be considered common law married (Mom didn’t find this comforting), and they were married in the eyes of the IRS, to whom they’d been sending their joint returns every year for thirty-five years.  I also promised to call a friend who specialized in family law.  Right as I was hanging up, I heard my mom blurt in the background, “I have pictures!”

I called Kathy, my friend who practices family law, the next morning, and after she finished cackling and calling me a bastard, she told me there was an easy fix in Texas.  All my parents had to do was to fill out a Certificate of Unofficial Marriage, date it back to the original wedding date, get it notarized, and file it with the county court.  I called my parents and told them.  Dad was relieved and considered the problem solved.  Mom said one word, “Unofficial?”

My sister bemoaned our illegitimacy, but I thought it was hilarious and told everyone I knew.  I have former colleagues who still ask from time to time whether my parents are married yet.  I stopped telling the story when Mom expressed discomfort and embarrassment that everyone knew about her humiliation.  Mom’s sense of humor doesn’t extend to the awkward.

Last Christmas in Abu Dhabi, though, we were at the house of my dad’s boss and former Ph.D. classmate, Dr. H, for an Indian feast.  Dr. and Mrs. H invited a couple of other families over, all of Indian descent, and the discussion had turned to some of the difficulties of hiring foreigners to work at the company.  Mom seemed like she was a in a good mood, and so I indicated that the story I was about to tell might change my status to “bad daughter,” and I told everyone what happened.  I could tell Mom wasn’t thrilled and that we’d talk about it later at home, but when I finished, something amazing happened.  Every single couple in the room told a similar story.  It turns out that getting married in the late 1960s and early 1970s in India also didn’t come with paperwork, even if it was perfectly legal.

My mom used to get mad every time the marriage license comes up, because she blamed Dad for not doing any research into the necessities.  “Unofficial” still stings.  The thing about this experience that cracks my sister and me up is that after we heard everyone else’s stories, my dad clapped his hands once, as if closing a book, and said, “Ah-ha!  I’m not the only one,” and you could see the last shred of any sense of responsibility or shame evaporate away.

The bottom line is that I used to be illegitimate, but now I’m not.  I still try not to bring it up in front of my mom.

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