© Gainor E. Roberts 2014 All the works of art shown in the website are protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States of America and may only be used by permission of the artist.
THE ARTWORK OF GAINOR E. ROBERTS
Oil on linen 24 X 30 $2500
I was in the kitchen, one evening, when my mother came into the room, and standing the whole time, said she had something to tell me. I was shocked to learn that my father was not my biologic father, as he was, according to Mom, sterile, and in those pre-wartime years, having children was your patriotic duty, and my mother desired a child more than anything.
Evidently, there had been a previous attempt at sperm donation that was aborted due to her life being endangered. I had heard about that as a child, but not the part about sperm donation. I was told about that because I pestered my mother about why I had no sisters or brothers, and I do recall stories about a great sadness when my sibling was relegated to a lab specimen to be studied. Certainly, there were many things that most parents wouldn’t dream of sharing with their children and that was one of them. But my childhood was different, and I knew it even back then.
I asked Mom if she had records, and she shook her head. No records, and her recollection about where this sperm bank was located was hazy; New York City, Columbia University she thought, or near there, or associated with.
She said that Oprah Winfrey said she should tell, and since Mom was watching Oprah’s show most every afternoon during those years the secret was outed. I have since learned that all sperm recipients were advised to never tell anyone, as this was supposed to be protection for everyone involved. Our society has come a long way since 1941, and it is no longer such a horror show for people who desire a child and find that sperm donation is the last resort. My mother told me she was going to leave an account of my origin in her safe deposit box for me to find after she was dead. She was nervous and anxious, and I wondered later if she was violating a signed agreement to never disclose anything about this event. I assumed she felt enormous shame about all this.
Like other children who didn’t know until later in life, I had odd feelings of alienation. As a small child, I fantasied that the stork dropped me off in the wrong house. I never did form a real bond with my father, although I respected him and later in life was grateful for all the opportunities he afforded me. But I always felt that he never “got” me, especially as we warred over my art desires, and he thought it was a nice hobby but I was never encouraged by him to follow my heart. My mother told me that my father, my grandmother, and she were the only ones who knew. Although I suspect that there may have been some Philadelphia medical people who were in on it, but that’s just supposition.
She had only vague recollections of where this procedure had been done, and it was odd that she had gone to New York City, since the very first artificial insemination was performed in Philadelphia, by a professor at the Jefferson Medical College, where I was born some 50 years later. This was achieved by William Pancoast, which was an odd coincidence since people by that name lived up the street and I was an adorable flower girl in the Pancoast daughter’s wedding. Odd, that one. I learned all this history from the book called “Finding our Families” by Wendy Kramer.
I was left with trying to figure out what all this meant, using the Internet in 1991, which was not what it is today, for sure. Not finding anything concrete, realized that if I wanted more records, or information I’d have to hire a private investigator and that looked like a lot of money for possibly no results. Recently I have found that back then they didn’t keep any records at all, and so it was probably impossible to track records down, and sperm donors were paid for their semen, and it was possible that clinics were small, and not sperm banks as we know them today. And Wendy Kramer says that doctors even used their own semen to inseminate their clients. Wow!
Dominoes fell into place for me that night. I said to my mother, “so is that why you named me after one of Dad’s ancestors?” Yes, indeed, and the masquerade was hyped to the hilt when we 3 made a pilgrimage to Wales to the tiny village where my namesake was born. I have a photo of me, at about age 22, holding this antique ledger book pointing to the entry for Gainor John. Evidently, she, along with many other Gainors, migrated to eastern Pennsylvania, thanks to the king’s grant to William Penn. I have celebrated the choice of my name, after I got over wanting to be Susan or Judy!
So many questions? So, that’s why I don’t resemble any Dad’s relatives, but Mom and I are lookalikes. Tribal associations and cellular memory, and stuff of fairy tales? Some more dominoes fell into place when I realized that my paternal relatives were, well how to say this, unimportant to me? Not my kin, I realized later after much rumination of the logic of my mother’s revelation to me. Growing up I could not have ever put my finger on the “not my kin” piece, but clearly it resonated many years later, in spite of affectionate feelings for a few of my cousins.
I didn’t feel the need for maintaining the secrecy of my origins, except to continue to protect my mother, who I assumed was laboring under extreme shame, rather than violation of a secrecy oath. I tried to get my mother to talk about it again and she shut it off by saying she never wanted to talk of it again. So, what to do. I told many of my friends, and one of them called me one day asking to come visit me in my studio. He arrived waving a calendar of photographs of Albert Einstein, and he claimed to have studied his life extensively and knew he was depositing sperm in banks and clinics in New York City, and therefore I was Einstein’s daughter. I look like him, he said. Hahahahaha! I laughed so hard. I was the kid in school who was at the bottom of every math class I was in. I won’t go into details of the horrors of school!
To me, it was all I needed to shut it all down. So, I was Einstein’s daughter and that was enough for me to go on forever. It was a bizarre and funny fantasy, that I told many of my friends to much mirth, and probably some consternation, from some quarters. Some of us had a good laugh over my Jewish “father” which would have been viewed as impossible by the upper middle-class suburban Philadelphia caste I grew up in.
At the time, my feelings bordered on anger because my mother did not want to hear me celebrating her courage for going through such traumatic times, twice, just before the Second World War broke out. I was often left with my grandmother during my toddler days, and “Granny” was my anchor through many trying times to come.
That night, 25 years ago, Mother told me that my father had suffered a nervous breakdown and was in a “sanitarium” (what they called mental hospitals back then), since this must have been hugely traumatic for him, and honoring his Quaker religion, he registered as a conscientious objector which was certainly not celebrated by most American patriots. He did many duties to help the war effort, including airplane spotting, ambulance driving, and walking the New Jersey beaches looking for German submarine sailors. I do not know the details of his mental problems but he was scary, as he had a horrible temper and frequently used it to abuse my mother. I lived in terror that they would kill each other and lived through a childhood of nightly terrors until my mother left him, only to be called back from her 20-mile escape to a motel where she was found by her mother and my father. I was hysterical for hours, indicating to them that their wars were mental torture for me. My father was an attorney and during those years he worked for his uncle, where he found out there was illegal activities in the firm, and I guess Dad had ethical problems about how to handle that situation. I don’t know how that resolved, or if it contributed to his mental state.
Several people suggested that I get a DNA test, but the results, even a few years ago, would only give you your ethnicity, and some genetic disease risks. And it was quite expensive. So, no, that idea was shelved.
Flash forward to March of 2017 and I am listening to a friend talking about her DNA results which had freaked her out, having found a relative she didn’t know about. After I told my friend about my own history, I said, “maybe I should do a painting about all this.”
Ideas for paintings often percolate in my mind for many years, and sometimes they reside in my sub-conscious coming forth in dreams and day dreams. One percolation was to do a painting using masquerade masks. I had some black ceramic heads that I had used in another painting, and after a trip to Pier One to look for masks I came home with two masks that I thought I could do something with. Looking at them left me cold, and putting them on those black ceramic heads left me colder. The whole thing went back onto my prop shelf. It would come down when I needed to set up a new painting, thinking that it might be time to paint those masks. No, cold again. Back up on the shelf again. This went on several more times, and once again, this spring, they were put on the table with the idea that I might do a still life of them. Masquerade; I just couldn’t connect the dots. I left them there, and after I said, “maybe I should do a painting about this” the dots connected! Wow... now I know what Masquerade is all about! Mom and Dad and the incredible dance they did to birth me, keep it secret, and pretend about it all the way to Wales and back.
A few weeks later I ordered a saliva test kit from 23&me.com to get my DNA checked.
And the result is that I am NOT Einstein’s daughter! The result of the DNA test showed me the list of relatives, and a first cousin was the first on the list, with a name that is not in our genealogic charts, and my ethnicity was listed as 51.7% Jewish. Oh...my....God! I guess that’s about as close to Einstein I’ll get! I sent a message through the 23&me website to that first cousin and had a reply the next day from his daughter. A series of emails back and forth and I have a fairly good idea of who my genetic father is. I have photographs and family trees and family histories. All Jewish! Wow... that explains a lot; my attraction to many Jewish friends, and weird fantasies that I should visit a Temple to just see what goes on there. I find this all extraordinary and incredible and slowly I feel I am wrapping my mind around it, only to feel it all might be a dream.
I am left with many more questions that can’t ever be answered. I have no need to pursue my paternal family further, since it doesn’t seem to make much difference in my life at this point, at age 75 when just finding out these details is enough. And the probable donor father was estranged by the family and he changed his name as well, so details will remain sketchy, but my new found cousin has provided me amazing information about her family, for which I am forever grateful.
But the charade, the masquerade, my parents lived is explosive in my heart. Very early in my young life, I was maybe 6 or 7, I had fantasies of committing “sewerside”, which had to do with jumping down the storm drain on the street near my house, and finding something like an Alice in Wonderland scene awaiting me. I felt that my parents would finally be peaceful without me being around, as somehow I KNEW that I was the problem. I guess because I spent hours listening to their arguments through the heating grate in the bathroom down the hallway from my bedroom.
So, the masquerade masks are off now, and now I know I WAS the problem!
My painting is about the play of tangled love and weird interpersonal relationships, where we all wear masks, some more horrible than others. But masks are intended to hide behind, and in my life, there were certainly some very big masks to be worn! I guess I grew up skewed, in some way. I formed friendships with girls who had “safe” homes and spent many hours with them. The truth of my birth does close many doors and open a few others. I vacillate between thinking there is more to know and not being willing to spend any more time on charts, census reports, and genetic history. But my painting, which I completed on July 4, 2017, tells a multi-layered story. I think it is the final door that I am either opening or shutting, and, at this point, I don’t know which.