Knight of the Swan: A Longread

Knight of the SwanThe first time I heard about my father’s godfather was at a family dinner. We were in my grandmother’s dining room celebrating my father’s birthday. It was the usual ritual of slicing the cake with the silver triangle onto the square, flowered plates, passing each one to my grandmother to slowly scoop ice cream upon, like a queen giving her blessing. Along with that were the usual jokes about my father’s birth and therefore his peculiar place in the family–how he was ten years younger than his siblings, and really, if we are being honest, an accident.

“A damn good accident!” my grandmother would say from the end of the table, the light from the chandelier gauzy on her cheekbones. And we would laugh. When I was eleven, I saw my aunt, my father’s sister, lean over to my mother and mutter, “And of course we all know about Bobby Putnam.”* And so there he was, like an empty locket found in a thrift store.

I was too naive to understand fully what my aunt was saying–that my father was not only an accident, but illegitimate. This information was passed down to my aunt from an older relative many years ago, and mostly stayed underground. The very idea of it seemed ridiculous, vaguely sickening, like the old horror trope of looking at yourself in the mirror but seeing the back of your head.

He was always a shadowy figure in my life, my father said of his godfather, his “Uncle Bobby.” I never met him, though he lived not all that far from us until I was 12 and died when I was 22. When I first asked my father about the rumor, he shook his head, smiling but exasperated. What does it matter? he said. It’s all the same gene pool. Bob Putnam, like my grandfather, had gone to prep school in New England and then Yale, then served in the Navy in World War II, somewhere in the Pacific. Like my grandfather, he enjoyed camping in the Adirondacks, parties in smoky living rooms, and hard liquor.

I started searching for him early on. As a teenager, I spent hours poring over photos of my grandparents’ mid-20th century cocktail parties. I found them in the drawer of a writing desk in my grandmother’s basement and sat beside the massive dollhouse on the concrete floor, hunched over the photos as if to physically absorb them.

In each one the party got wilder and wilder–my grandmother holding a martini and cigarette in one hand, leaning over to her friend and gesturing to make her point; my grandfather with a lady’s mink curled around his chin, his eyes closed, looking both like a sleeping child and a man about to dive in; a man in a top hat, his back to the camera, stalking through the living room holding a shot gun.

My father is in the background of one photo, his hands in his pockets and tie askew, grinning. In the forefront, my grandfather, in a checked vest and paisley tie, seems to be dancing the twist with a blonde. My grandfather was handsome, with high cheekbones and thick hair that went white when he was in his 30s. I remember staring at him in those photos, waiting for the same chill you get when “someone walks over your grave,” that moment when you see yourself in an ancestor–the eyes, the eyebrows, the lips, the shape of the head. With my grandfather, it was like being in the self-checkout aisle at the supermarket, repeatedly scanning an item across the red light but getting no beep.

My grandfather died when I was six–my only memories of him are in a hospital bed set up in his own bedroom, where he lay for months after a severe stroke. So I was left with stories–his romance with a woman in Bermuda in the 1930s, before his family yanked him back to the States (soon afterward he married my grandmother); his attempts at a career in real estate after he left banking in the ’60s, showing young couples around ramshackle estates on the Gold Coast, mumbling, I don’t know why anyone would want to buy this goddamn house. He never was proud of himself, never thought he accomplished anything, my father said.

*****

When I was a child, I used to get my grandmother confused with both Queen Elizabeth II and Julia Child. Tall and bossy with a transcontinental accent, she was the one who explained to me the real concept of death soon after my grandfather’s funeral, sitting in her kitchen. I remember her in the chair across from me, working on her rug hooking. “When someone dies, they go away and don’t come back,” she said. She looked up at me and then back down to her work. “It happens to everyone,” she said, piercing the burlap with her crochet hook and pulling the yarn through. She was making bluebells. “It happened to my parents and it will happen to me.”

“Will it happen to my parents?” I asked.

“Of course.”

I started to cry in embarrassing, shuddering sobs. My grandmother looked at me, horrified. She reached across the table and touched my hand. “It happens to everyone,” she repeated. She said nothing more on the subject.

*****

My memories of my early childhood are of solitude, in what felt like the great expanse of my bedroom—the Nutcracker ballet poster on the wall, white walls and white curtains, frost on the windows. At night the room would become a snowy forest in Russia. I hardly knew what Russia was, but I knew girls wore furs there and often faced tragedy. In my bed, I would lie on top of my covers, letting my body grow cold. I would squint and my nightlight kaleidoscoped into stars. I let myself feel lonely until I became an orphan, abandoned among the trees.

Eventually a sleigh would come through the snow and pause beside me. And then the experience switched to the passive voice; I was pulled into the sleigh–it was never clear who pulled me in. Furs were wrapped around me, I was taken to a castle that turned out to be my home all along. I had been suffering from amnesia and forgotten my origins, my true family. I don’t know why my rescuer was blurry.

Many years later, I read about the Knight of the Swan, a medieval tale about a mysterious stranger who travels through a forest in a swan-drawn boat to defend a damsel. His sole condition was that he must never be asked his name. I can’t explain how I felt reading the story–only that it was like remembering a dream.

*****

Four years ago, my father moved his mother to an assisted living home in our Southern city. She was ninety-two years old and could barely walk, but still seemed to control our fates, just as she had when I was six. We still all visit her at least once a week and sit in her presence, internally trembling, in her apartment that my father carefully decorated with her heirloom paintings and Herend animal figurines. My mother brings her fresh flowers from her garden at each visit. My grandmother sits in her chair, her spine twisted from many failed operations, her hair so white I think, each time, of snowy owls.

At the time my grandmother moved to our city, I was eight months pregnant with my first child. My father’s godfather hadn’t appeared in my thoughts for years. But in the otherworldly moment when I gave birth to my daughter, I could see a trail of ancestors hovering over the room, like ghostly paper dolls. (Let it be known I had as many drugs coursing through my system as the anesthesiologist would allow.) Later, when my husband and I were home with our daughter, I sat on the couch with her, and wept because I could see, behind my eyes, her eventually leaving me, having her own children and dying. I was in the eye of a storm of ancestors and descendants. I had never felt so important or so insignificant.

It was perhaps all of these things that led me to start wondering, again, about the rumors about my father’s paternity.

*****

I’d given my daughter my surname as her middle name, partly because my uncle has no children; my brother and I are the end of the line, so to speak, for the family name. Week after week visiting my grandmother, I would look at the photos of my grandfather around her apartment, studying his face, just as I studied my daughter’s at home. His features were almost delicate–high cheekbones, small nose, and a resolute mouth that very much resembled my aunt’s and uncle’s. My mother always said, when my brother and I were growing up, I don’t know where my children got their mouths.

My brother and I started poking around the Internet, searching for photos of Bobby Putnam, something to do at work when we were bored. In late 2010 we found a photo of Bobby as an old man from a PDF of a newsletter. I remember opening the file in my cubicle and saying, aloud, Jeeeeesus, which was, coincidentally, my grandfather’s favorite expression of exasperation, surprise, or fear, passed down to my father and then to me. I say it frequently; I find it comforting, as if I can invoke my ancestors’ breezy WASPiness to shield me from any real despair or disaster.

Ha.

There he was–old, but familiar. He was my father in twenty years. His eyes had the same shape, creases, and folds, the eyebrows arched and sparse just like my father’s (and mine), low, swooping cheekbones that appeared, just as my father’s and mine do, with close-mouthed smiles. His wry smile with my lips, my brother’s lips, my father’s lips. Motherfucker, was all I could think.

My brother, deft with all things technological, immediately cropped Bobby Putnam’s face onto a photo of my father’s face and applied a transparency. Chills, he wrote to me. On my screen, my father’s and his godfather’s faces merged as one, the structures lining up perfectly. God dammit, my brother wrote. We’re bastards sent to roam the earth poor and penniless.

*****

There were swan children as well as the swan knight. They were not as well known, of course, and thought to be the knight’s predecessors. Seven royal siblings, six boys and one girl, carried into a forest and left to die by Markes, a servant.

How Markes bears the seven children into forest…

Who ordered the servant to do this? The queen mother, jealous of the younger queen and her progeny.

I have advised that it is better to drowne them or make them to die in their childe hode than to have a greater sclaunder.

Sclaunder, an archaic version of slander. There is perhaps no better word for this entire saga.

Earlier this year I was in New York for a funeral. The family gathered at my grandmother’s house, which is still full of her furniture, cleaned and landscaped weekly, though no one lives there. My grandmother, too infirm to travel, stayed behind in the South. As my relatives reminisced downstairs, I dug around for photo albums, and once found, threw them on the closest bed and started flipping through, searching for treasonous history.

And there it was again, my father’s face seemingly pasted on a man who was not my grandfather. Bobby Putnam and my grandmother sitting close on a sofa, sometime in the ’60s. His arm around her protectively, her face tilted toward his, skin touching. They look at the camera with utter confidence, an easy intimacy. Bobby wears his watch on his right hand, just as my father does.

I shoved the album into my bag and took it back home. I took the photos to work and scanned them, zooming in and in and in on Bobby’s eyes. You realize this means our family line is dead, my brother said to me when I sent him the photo.

And I prai you on my peril and my will to take the children and goo kyll them or caste them into some river, in suche wise that never be tidinges of them.

*****

It became comforting to look at the photos late at night on my computer, trusty glass of pinot grigio at my side, my shield, listening to “Thrift Shop.” I would zoom in and out, making Bobby dance.

I’mma take your grandpa style, I’mma take your grandpa style, no for real, ask your grandpa. Can I have his hand-me-downs?

The hunt for more photos of Bobby became a constant pastime and soon, an obsession. I read the fragments of his obituary available online. I found photos of his son through Facebook and saw my brother’s face in his. I read articles about paternity and inherited anguish.

Traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA, I read in Discover magazine.

I thought of my grandfather, whose father died suddenly when my grandfather was a boy, and of my grandfather’s brother, who committed suicide as a young man.

Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten.

I thought of my grandfather wandering through empty houses, doubting his ability to sell them, doubting his ability in general.

They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding.
The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited.

What if that sadness, distance, and doubt had not been passed down, at least genetically, to my father? And if not, what was passed down to him, and to my brother and me? I looked at the photo of Bobby on the couch again and again, the steadiness of his gaze, his eyes the same eyes I have looked into from across the table at countless family dinners. The eyes look utterly content.

My father was born on All Saints Day, and walks in goodness. When I was about six or seven, we were one of our hikes deep in the woods. I must have been picking my nose–I held out my nose filth on my finger to him. He spread out the front of his shirt and sort of tilted his head back. “Go ahead and wipe,” he said. My mother quickly swept in with a leaf. And this is the way it’s been my entire life–my father would sacrifice his comfort—probably his wellbeing, though I’ve never pushed it–for me. My mother would do the same, but her first instincts are more practical.

An architect, my father has designed rooms in every home my family has lived in. The exact opposite of my grandfather and the empty houses he tried to get rid of–my father transforms houses until they fit our family, until they are practically breathing. Is Bobby Putnam to thank for this?

I found an old article in the New York Times about DNA testing and the havoc it creates for fathers who find out they are not biologically related to their children. It was thousands of words long, but could be summed up by a quote from a nine-year-old girl, discussing the man she grew up thinking was her biological father, but turned out not to be:

At first, it made me scared, because if my dad wasn’t related to me, then I was living with someone who wasn’t a part of my family, like a stranger. I want him always to be my real dad. Because if he’s not my dad, then who is he?

How was it possible that I felt something along the lines of love when I looked at photos of Bobby Putnam, a man I’d never met, and like a student studying a complicated painting in a museum when looking at my grandfather? Which one was the stranger? Who was the blurry figure I imagined rescuing me as a child in the snowy field?

*****

When I showed my father an image I found on Ancestry.com of Bobby Putnam’s Yale freshman yearbook photo, my father closed his eyes and then opened them again, grimacing, as if he were viewing an autopsy photo.

Oh God, he said. He drew closer to the screen. It’s me. And it isn’t me. But it’s me. It’s the nose. And the eyes. And the mouth. And shape of the face. His face! His whole face! The two of us were standing in my parents’ kitchen midway through washing dinner party dishes. The many glasses of wine I’d consumed were telling me I was a girl detective, triumphantly solving a 60-year-old mystery. I don’t know what I thought my father would do–shake my hand, embrace me, thank me tearfully? Instead, he backed away to the sink and silently scrubbed a pot. I dried the wine glasses. Do you think they all knew, my father said, his back still turned to me. He continued scrubbing. Do you think everyone in town knew and were laughing about it? How could they not know when I looked just liked him? What a fucking joke.

*****

After that, I tried to avoid bringing it up in front of my father. One day, standing beneath a magnolia tree outside my office, hunched over my cell phone, I called a forensic identity lab to find about genetic testing. It would have to involve cheek swabs from my father and uncle, not to mention their assent. The woman on the other end sounded far away, her voice tinny, as if I were calling overseas on an old landline. I felt like a child, talking to her, and hung up quickly without giving my name. It wasn’t my place, I realized. I had no right.

I stopped thinking about it as much as I could. A few months passed.

On a recent Sunday, I brought the albums I’d taken from my grandmother’s house to her apartment for our weekly visit. That week, my mother happened to be away, and so it was just my grandmother, father, my daughter, and me. Four generations. My father blanched slightly when I pulled the albums from my bag and placed them in my grandmother’s lap, but truly, I brought them only as something to do during our time together.

My grandmother is often in her own world when we visit, sleepy, and hard of hearing, but with the photos in front of her, she came back to us, identifying every person in each photo, even neighbor children from 1935. At first, my father stood apart from her but he slowly drew closer as she said the names aloud. I stood over her other shoulder, waiting for her to flip to the pages. There was my father as an infant, my grandmother young and luminous, red lipstick and plaid skirt, cradling him. There was my father in his crib, alone, his sweet face pressed close to the bars.

And there’s Bobby Putnam, she said. I snapped my head up and stared at my father. He looked back at me above her snowy head, that familiar wry smile on his face.

He looks nice, was all I could think to say. I could feel my heart–sped up, pinpricked. She turned the page.

And here you are with your father at Spitfire Lake, she said, pointing to a photo, her neck turned toward my dad.

Yes, I remember that, he replied. He leaned closer, the two of them far off in a place I will never visit.

 

 

*Names and locations in this essay were changed to protect certain identities.

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