Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Who He Was

It is strange for me to think of my father as anyone other than the person I knew him as.  It is even stranger to think of him with any other woman than my mother but once upon a time this was true. My father had been married once before and I had no knowledge of this and never imagined or thought that it was even a possibility. This is often the ignorant misconception of children; that their parents had no lives before they were born. In many cases this is not the child’s fault because their parents may be the type that never eludes to their past or is very private about their former lives.
This was exactly my case. My parents rarely talked about their life before me. I have little knowledge about what their childhoods were like or what it was like growing up in another country. The little information I do have concerning these topics was actually acquired from relatives and not from my parents. They didn’t really talk about it and I never thought to ask. So, it came as quick a shock to find out that my father had actually been married before.
My father passed away, unexpectedly, in October of 2004. It wasn’t until my mother and I were cleaning up some of his old belongings in his study. I came across a folder that was labeled “Divorce Papers”. Immediately, I froze. I didn’t know what to expect when I opened it so, I quickly slipped it into a pile that I knew my mother would be going through later. I suppose it was out of fear that I would find out something that I didn’t want to know. During such an emotionally trying time, I didn’t think that I could take any more stress. What could be worse than enduring all the regrets and the anguish and then finding out that my parents weren’t even married anymore? I mean, I knew that they went through rough patches as all couples do but this information would have been unbearable at this time.
I knew that neither of my parents would ever divulge this information to me willingly, and I probably never would have known about it otherwise. I respected that my parents wanted some things to remain private. If they didn’t want me to know it would most likely be for a good reason. When my father became ill, it wasn’t until his second bout with cancer, that I was even told. Although I had known that something was wrong I did not press the subject. I imagine that for my own protection, I was never told certain things. So, when I saw the label on the folder I assumed the worst.
I continued going through the old papers and records and waited and watched as my mother sorted through the pile. She didn’t even hesitate when she saw the folder. She opened it and read through the papers that it contained. I noticed an old, crinkled, black-and-white photograph paper clipped to the corner of one of the pages. It was an image of a tall slender woman that I did not recognize. “This was your dad’s first wife,” she said, as she handed me the folder and walked out of the room. After that point I never revisited the subject again. The folder was placed in the deep recesses of a filing cabinet in the office.
Over four years have passed since that day and I suppose curiosity got the best of me. A project for school was the perfect excuse to find out what really happened and who my mother’s first wife really was. My first and most important source was my uncle, Joe. He always gave the most candid answers and is still a troublemaker, even at the age of 74. He was my father’s older brother, the oldest of all of the children. He was the ultimate source of information for anything that happened in our family. His memory never ceases to amaze; phone numbers from a half century ago, his addresses in four different cities, the names and faces of countless employees and friends, still fresh in his mind as if they were from just days ago. As it turns out, he and my father’s younger brother, Peter, were the ones that took care of all of the paperwork for my father’s divorce.
During the time m father was getting his Master’s degree at the Oklahoma University and working as a chef in a restaurant. His wife was living in Taiwan and he would send money back to her every month. They were sweethearts in college and got married right after graduation. Looking at her photograph, she was an attractive young woman, probably too attractive to be married at twenty with a husband halfway around the world.
My father worked hard in school and whatever time he didn’t dedicate to school was devoted to work. He sacrificed a lot to get his Master’s. He worked a grueling job at a local restaurant and soon became a self-taught chef. Working his way up from a line chef to the head chef, this would allow him to one day open a restaurant with my mother.
It was soon discovered that she was having an affair and not putting my father’s hard earned money to good use. She squandered much of the money he sent back. Luckily, he was smart enough not to send her every last penny. He was distraught to find out about this and immediately instructed my Uncle Peter, who was in Taiwan at the time, to file the papers on his behalf. It was a long and complicated process, to divorce someone from thousands of miles away, but understandably my father did not want to see her again.
During the time that the divorce was being settled, my father met my mother at a holiday party. She remembers that he didn’t seem all that upset. He figured that if it didn’t happen that he probably wouldn’t have met my mother. If things had not worked out the way in which they did, it’s hard to say what everyone’s life would be like, and if I would even exist. While all this was very surprising to find out, it was almost more of a relief to know that it was not my mother’s name on those papers.


1 Kamellia Saroop { 12.16.08 at 8:45 pm }

This tells 0f a suspenseful moment and you did a great job holding the reader in it. Sorry to hear of the events that unfolded; this is a really emotional paper.

2 Katie Alarcon { 12.18.08 at 4:22 pm }

Rolanda, I realize how emotional this paper is this is and in respect to your wishes I won’t press the matter further than that. This paper has your strong and pragmatic tone throughout. I think we can all relate the your curiousity and assumptions after all we are only human.

3 Jack { 12.27.08 at 7:48 pm }

Looking at your Who he was, I had to share about my own experience. Similar to your father, my father came to America four years before my mother and I immigrated to America. For those four years, I began to regard my father differently. Only after seeing my father in America that I noticed the struggle he went through in America. I think people in China do not recognize the hardship of immigrating to another country, similar to Biju in Inheritance of Loss. I guess I might left it here, we should talk more after the next semester starts.

4 Keyana { 12.29.08 at 3:44 am }

Rolanda, this was a very personal piece and I applaud you for having the courage and willpower to research it and write about it. I like that your face can be seen in the picture, it adds a personal touch to it. As evident in your last line, everything happens for a reason.