I can clearly remember the first time my mom showed me two photographs of my father.
The photos were faded, on thick rough paper and featured only one person. Judging from how he was kneeling in the photo he was tall, with tan skin and he had bushy dark brown hair coming out of all sides of his white cowboy hat.
There was something that was mysterious about the photo, yet something else about it that was unsettling even for a young boy.
Looking back now at the photo I was not sure if it was the worn brown leather bag that was hastily put on the lawn in front of him in order to take the photo or if it was the way my father was looking straight into the camera like a mirror with his eyes squinted to protect himself from the bright sun. Maybe it was just the fact that the rusted car in the background would not be going anywhere with a flat tire.
Throughout my life when showing me these two photos my mom would tell me, “Shawn, this is your father. He was an amazing man from Venezuela who was studying English at a nearby college in Denver when we had you in 1982. I was young. He had dreams of swimming in the Olympics. I wish you could have met him.”
As the story goes, when I was six months old, my grandfather learned that his only daughter had given birth to his first grandson. He demanded that we both move back to La Jolla, California immediately so that he could help raise me. At 22 years old my mother was forced to give up on her career dreams of becoming a nurse so that she could raise me with her old school Bulgarian father.
I was four years old when my mother married the father of my two step-brothers and the four of us attempted to live an American life together. He was a staff sergeant in the Marines and we moved a lot. We bounced around from Okinawa, Japan to Riverside, California where each of my step-brothers were born, respectively. As that relationship became physically and emotionally abusive for my mother she took us all back to the protection of my grandfather in La Jolla.
It was around that time when I was six years old that I came to live exclusively with my grandfather and his live-in Japanese girlfriend, Annie, on Bird Rock Avenue, two and half blocks up from the Pacific Ocean.
My mom and two step-brothers both lived in the same house but we were clearly separated not just by different physical entrances but also by styles of parenting. My grandfather and pseudo-grandmother wanted me to have the best education possible and enrolled me in private school at Francis Parker as soon as the third grade.
I had finally been chosen.
Not only by my grandparents, but a private educational institution had also accepted me.
When I was in fifth grade I remember writing an article for graduation about what Francis Parker meant to me. Our entire class submitted our essays in hopes that one of our essays would be selected to be read aloud at our graduation ceremonies. My essay was chosen and I presented the gratitude I had for my grandparents having the courage and ability to send me to private school in front of a packed audience of teachers, administrators, parents and fellow classmates.
Even at the age of ten I somehow knew that the immigrant white-privileged life that I was able to live because of my circumstances was putting me in a position better than most.
Because of this I always knew that my dad, my real father, was actually my grandfather, Luben Walchef.
When the subject about my parents or dad ever came up I did not have to feel insecure.
Instead I tell a cool, different American story.
I could proudly share that my Bulgarian grandfather and Japanese grandmother were raising me.
In October of 2017, I published my first LinkedIn article, “Podcasting is the new Self-Publishing: Business Lessons Learned From Writing & Sharing My Grandfather’s Life Story.” It was around that time, when I started reading to my son every night, that the question about my personal bloodline kept surfacing again and again in my mind.
Every time I looked into my son’s innocent and curious blue-grey eyes, I could not help but ask myself, “How can a father not want to know his son?”
It was time to ask my mom uncomfortable questions about her story about why we left Colorado when I was six months old and why my father never contacted us while I was growing up.
Asking her questions as her son would get me the same answers I had been getting my whole life so instead I acted like a journalist.
I acted like an attorney, deposing a witness.
Her answers were clues enough for me and my amazing wife to begin searching on-line in hopes of discovering contact information which would help me learn more about half of my bloodline.
The following email exchanges took place once I found the closest match to who my father could be based on where he was living:
(His personal identifying information has been redacted to protect their privacy as requested.)
My name is Shawn Phillip Walchef and I am the son of Lisa Walchef. Five months ago, my wife gave birth to our firstborn son. Recently I have been more and more curious about who my father is and how my mother lost touch with him.
My mother attended college in Denver, Colorado and was studying nursing when she gave birth to me in January of 1982. I located your email address based on your age and the fact that my mother was told of the town that you might have moved to before she moved back to San Diego.
Attached is a photo of who my mother has always told me is my dad. I look forward to your response and apologize in advance if I have the contact information mistaken.
Shawn P. Walchef
This is Philip’s wife of 35 years. Phil wanted me to respond and express his thoughts on your inquiry. Basically, we are living our lives on our terms and are private people, never having relied on anyone else but each other.
Other than that, at this point in his life, and my life, our lives, a sudden request cannot force a relationship that has never been established, and it feels intrusive and unsettling to the both of us.
Phil wanted to let you know that there are no ill feelings in regard to you, but really has nothing to offer in terms of answers to your questions that your mother cannot answer.
Phil and myself have little to no contact with our immediate families, so this would not be healthy for our relationship as husband and wife, and is an immense stressor. However, Phil wanted to let you know that you appear to have been raised well, have a successful career, and should be happy and focus your energies on your new family.
Please do not take this the wrong way, but we respectfully request no further contact at this time, for the reasons as stated above.
I forward the response to my closest friends.
Very interesting week in the Walchef family
— With love, Shawn
“Very interesting is the understatement of all time… Don’t really know how to respond to that one. Sounds like you don’t need to respond either. Good on you for reaching out and I’m sure there will always be that sense of curiosity and unquenched thirst. At the end of the day, your family is the people who you surround yourself with who love you. You’ve got a pretty great squad… even weighing Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum into the equation.
Much love my dude!
Love you too brother. I opened up recently at an AA meeting and decided I would try to find my father now that Kalin was getting closer to the age of when my father left. After deposing my mom for an awkward thirty minutes I got enough info for Rosi and I to start searching the internet. Sure enough we found him and from the tone of his wife’s email, he is who I thought he was. What I do know is that I am so f*cking lucky that my grandfather and Annie raised me and that my mom was strong enough to give birth to me despite his lack of interest in me.
My family has always been those who I have chosen to surround myself with and will always be grateful that the Robinson’s are part of that crew.
After some deep and emotional discussions with my wife, Jack, Derek and Chris, I received another email from another one of my closest friends:
I’m sorry brother that you weren’t able to connect with him.
At least you now know who your father is even though his response was not what you were hoping for. All of this set aside I know a lot of men and a lot of Fathers and I consider Kalin one of the luckiest kids alive to have you as his Dad.
Anyone can be a father but it takes a Man to be a Dad.
Shawn — It is our challenges in life that produce character and that character is what raises boys to be men. Your character and integrity are some of the many reasons I consider it an honor to call you a brother. Keep Grinding
Love you Brother
This year marked the first Father’s Day I celebrated as a dad.
I am more grateful everyday for the abundance of blessings I have in my life thanks to the man who raised me as his son and paved my cobblestone road so that I could have countless opportunities to provide for my offspring.
Asking my mother those uncomfortable questions that led me to finding answers about who my father is was one of the toughest things I have done in my life.
I was excited about what I might find out about the Venezuelan side of my family.
I was scared that the man in the photo might reject me.
What I learned was that the built up resentment I had towards my mother for not keeping in touch with him was not only unwarranted but that my mom was actually a hero for having the courage to not only have me without any help but to also be willing to hand off the responsibilities of raising me to her father.
The only advice I can pass on from my personal experience is that any deep burning question you may have about who your parents are is worth exploring. The internet has removed so many barriers to locating lost family members or friends.
Get your search terms with those answers and then reach out.
Even if the answers are not what you hope, peace of mind will come in the awkwardness of the process.
You never know who might be the unsung hero of your story.
Originally published at medium.com