Washingtonian Magazine - December 1988
I Think You're my Father
-by Roberta Baskin
It was a classic October Sunday, one of those days when the only reason to stay indoors is because the Redskins are on TV. But I was inside and nowhere near the television. I was in lotus position on my bed, with the doors shut and the shades drawn, oblivious to everything but the phone a foot away. I hadn't seen my fiancee, Jim, for hours; he was somewhere in the house but knew I was off-limits until I made the call.
For days I had rehearsed, responding to countless scenarios. Would he think it was a crank call? Would he hang up? I had been a reporter long enough to know how to ply information from the reluctant: Do everything in your power to keep him on the phone. Keep talking. Get him to talk.
I finally picked up the receiver and, in a blur, punched in the ten-digit number. The clear connection surprised me, considering how far the call was going, and then a voice, as sunny and warm as the day outside, answered: "Baskin in the Sun. This is Eva."
"Hi. Can I speak to Alan?" I made it sound nonchalant. So far, I was handling this.
"Can I tell him what it's about?"
An innocent question, but I started to clutch. What was this about?
"Just tell him it's Roberta," I said.
As I waited, somebody's life flashed before me - I can't remember if it was his or mine. But I'll never forget what happened next.
"This is Alan. Can I help you?"
And there he was.
"This is Roberta." Finish it! "Roberta Baskin."
"Well, now that's a familiar-sounding name," he said. "Maybe we're related?"
"Yes, I think we are. Your name is on my birth certificate. I think you're my father."
He didn't hang up, but he seemed to need to process the birth certificate news. I filled in the gap in the conversation.
"I've been wanting to call you ever since my mother told me about you ten years ago. But I've been terrified to call. I didn't want to interfere with your life."
Alan sounded genuinely curious when he asked, "Who's your mother?"
Didn't he know? "Suzanne," I said. "Suzanne Pallister."
"Ahhhh, Suzanne," he replied, a measure of wishfulness in his voice. "We had a real nice thing. Real nice."
Back in 1952 you needed a story to explain why you were walking out of a hospital alone with a newborn. My mother's story was about a young Royal Air Force pilot tragically keeling over in a movie theater. I should have wondered, because she never could tell me the name of the movie.
And so Suzanne Pallister and her only child, Roberta, went about their lives, eventually moving to New York City at a time when I was convinced there was no better place to live. Home was a third-floor walk-up in Chelsea, just north of Greenwich Village. For a time, home also was with a foster family out on Long Island, a loving couple with two children of their own. My mother worked hard, earning whatever a young woman could in a factory, waiting tables, and doing secretarial work. But it wasn't enough to pay for day care. So she visited me every weekend. Our ritual was a walk down to the neighborhood drugstore where we would feast on pretzels and chocolate milkshakes. One weekend she didn't come. I was told she had the flu. Years later I learned she had been hit by a taxi and hospitalized. But that was the only weekend she missed.
At age six, I moved back to the city to stay. Despite earning so little money, my mother made sure we took advantage of all that New York had to give. Saturdays were filled with treks to the museum. I took six years of drama lessons from Miss Murphy at Greenwich House. That was followed by pottery, dance, and cello classes. We made it to Broadway shows, ballets, operas, and concerts, with my mother's friends often coming through with precious tickets. More than once we sneaked into Carnegie Hall to watch Leonard Bernstein conduct a rehearsal. She eventually landed a job suited to her love of books. She began working in the editorial department of Random House. Her days were filled with visits from William Faulkner, James Michener, John O'Hara, and Robert Penn Warren. I, too, developed a joy in reading, and my mother seemed to have an unlimited treasure trove of books. I was only 12, but I realized the investment my mother had made in me. I'll never forget my graduation from PS 41.1 received the "Kelly Medal" for best all-around girl. My mother wept with joy.
Our Mother-Daughter relationship developed into an unconventional partnership. Sometimes I would go with her on dates. I remember getting into a fancy dress and going to the Rainbow Room or some other exotic nightclub where I'd be treated to some sort of Polynesian version of a "Shirley Temple. " Over the years, I would press my mother for photographs of my father. There were none. "What did he look like? Did I look like him?" I asked about his religious background. Her answers never provided much information. Whenever I brought up the subject of "Alan Baskin," we'd both end up frustrated. As I got older, my questions became more direct, yet the answers remained evasive. Our relationship became predictably intense and stormy as I entered my teens.
At age 15, I agonized over a decision I was sure would change my universe. Music and Art High School had accepted me to study cello. Performing Arts High School had accepted me to study drama. After days of soul-searching, I decided to follow my dream and become a great actress. I never did make it to Broadway, but the training served me years later. I discovered I could make a living developing scenarios, donning a wig, and going undercover as a journalist, skills that became useful when I embarked on the biggest investigation of my life.
My Mother's marriage to John, a salesman at Random House, looked rocky from the start. Still, they stayed together for eight years. I reveled in my independence, so much so that, at 19, I got married, too. His name was Michael, just home from Vietnam. Ironically, it was the breakup of both marriages that led to the discovery of my father.
My mother had confided to John that she wasn't a widow. Later, during their divorce, she feared that he might tell me the truth.
I was 25, the same age my mother had been when I was born. I was visiting her on Mother's Day, and we were sunbathing on the roof of her apartment house.
"I don't know how to tell you this," she said with hesitation. "Your father didn't die as I said he did. He wasn't a member of the Royal Air Force. His name is Alan, but I don't know where he is. I don't even know if he's dead or alive."
My shock blended into a swirl of emotions. I just stared at the cloudless sky as she began to spin a tale so unbelievable she couldn't have been making it up.
I had known that my Mother was raised in Florida, the daughter of a well-to-do English country doctor and a mother she revered. She had grown up during the Depression with cooks, seamstresses, gardeners, and chauffeurs.
She graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and pursued her theatrical training in London. She returned to the States when her mother became very ill, but she continued her acting. At age 24 she joined the Civic Theatre of Miami, and that's where she met Alan Baskin, another member of the company. She said it was a romantic, passionate affair. Alan, a student at the University of Miami, shared her love of theater. She hoped they someday would get married, especially when she found out she was pregnant. They talked of marriage. But one night, when they were together, my mother miscarried. They were terrified that she would die. It became a turning point in their relationship. Shortly after, my father stopped calling.
Alan began dating other women. My mother, still in love, was trying to recover physically and emotionally. But the day she returned to her doctor for a check-up, she received stunning news: She was still pregnant. She had miscarried my fraternal twin.
My mother reacted as if this were some mystical event. She longed for this baby that wanted to be here so badly.
She says she tried to tell my father, but he wouldn't believe her. She held out hope that Alan would return, but as it turned out, she couldn't wait around. Her mother, only 44, was dying of cancer in an Atlanta hospital. Suzanne confided in a friend back in Miami and told her how Alan could reach her in Atlanta. He never did.
Shortly before my grandmother died, she asked that the baby, if a girl, be named "Roberta," after her own daughter who had died. She also advised that I be given my father's name and have it entered on my birth certificate, Ten days after my grandmother's death, I was born and named Roberta Michelle Baskin.
When my mother walked out of the hospital with me, she buried Alan in her heart. She says her mantra was, "I hate Alan Baskin," and she went on hating him all those years. The reason she had never told me the truth, she said now, was because she didn't want me to experience the same painful rejection she had.
I had so many questions, but my mind was running minutes behind the story. There was just too much to process. I felt betrayed, but also protective of my mother. Who was the villain, Suzanne or Alan? Who was the victim, Roberta or Suzanne? It took years before I could sort out my feelings. Gone was the dashing RAF pilot with his chiseled face and gallant stride. In his place was a 22-year old Romeo from Miami who had run away scared when my mother and I needed him most.
When i found out about my Father, I was living in Syracuse, New York. My husband, Michael, was in law school, and my interest in consumer advocacy had taken me to city hall, where I worked as director of consumer affairs. I hunted down violators of the Consumer Protection Code, sued them, and got them fined. I could right wrongs and have fun doing it.
What I liked most was holding press conferences and warning consumers about shady business practices. That eventually took me to the other side of the camera and to Chicago, where I became the consumer investigative reporter for the NBC owned station there.
Michael and I had gone our separate ways by then. We'd been too young when we got married. He had protected me, but I had begun to feel overprotected. I needed to be on my own.
I also realized that I had spent enough years wondering about Alan Baskin. Now it was time to find him.
I got his Social Security number from the University of Miami. When a source at the Social Security Administration ran the number through the computers, he found that Alan hadn't paid into Social Security in twelve years. Was he dead? Probably not. No death benefits ever had been paid to survivors. Next, I got his birth certificate and found he had been born in Cleveland. That led me to Ms driver's license, which led me to an address in Miramar, Florida. A couple named Haig lived there. No sign of Alan Baskin. "It must be a mail drop," I thought.
"Florida, paying no taxes . He must be a drug runner." A friend in law enforcement checked his computers and learned that Alan Baskin had been arrested in 1967 in Skokie, Illinois. The charge? Grand theft.
"Terrific," I thought. My image of the glamorous RAF pilot had faded completely. According to the report, someone said my father had tried to cash some stolen securities. But the case was listed as "nolle prosse," meaning it had been dropped for insufficient evidence.
Next came the photograph that dropped from the "rap sheet." My first glimpse of my father and it's a mug shot. Actually two glimpses, front view and side. He was dressed in a shiny sharkskin suit. His hair was short and curly, his eyes wide. His nose , . . well, the photo looked like it had been taken with a fish-eye lens. It sure wasn't my nose.
Throughout my search, I had been encouraged by each new piece of information. But with every roadblock, I had withdrawn for months, even years, at a time. Jim, with whom I'd worked in Chicago, kept encouraging me to stay on the trail of Alan Baskin.
When Jim took a job with WJLA-TV in 1983, I followed, and soon I had a legitimate reason to take up the hunt again: We were talking about getting married and having children. The more I could find out about my genetic background, the better.
I was haunted by the image of my father in that shiny suit. My mind would run through scenarios of our first encounter, and he was always wearing that suit.
The big break came in 1986. A friend of mine, a federal agent, volunteered to approach the people at the Florida address. Posing as an insurance adjuster, he knocked on the door. An elderly gentleman answered.
"Alan Baskin doesn't live here," the man told my friend. "He hasn't lived in the States for almost fifteen years."
"But this is the address he put on his claim application," my friend said.
"Oh, this is just where he gets his mail in the States. Alan lives in Road Town," he said. "That's the capital city of Tortola. Ever hear of it?" He smiled. "It's in the British Virgin Islands. Beautiful place, beautiful."
My friend called me, and my heart raced as he told me what he had learned.
"Who's the guy who answered the door?" I asked.
"He's the father of the woman Alan's been living with for fifteen years. And you're going to love this your dad scuba dives. I mean, he does it all the time. For a living. Get this. The name of his business is 'Baskin in the Sun.'"
I got the phone number myself, but I couldn't bring myself to call. I folded the small piece of note paper several times and stuck it in my wallet. It stayed there for months, until the edges were frayed.
When i finally did call my Father in Tortola, I was relieved when he began to tell me his story. It corresponded with what my mother had told me. They agreed that she had become pregnant, that she had miscarried, and that he was with her that night.
"I know," I interrupted. "But six weeks after the miscarriage, she found out she was stilt pregnant. I was a twin, She lost my twin, but not me. Didn't you know?" I wanted to see his face. All I could picture was the mug shot.
"No, I never knew," he said.
Did he? Had he learned the truth and chosen to ignore it? As my mother told it, Alan had stopped calling her after her miscarriage. He didn't sound defensive or threatened now. In fact, he laughed. We talked for only a few minutes, because he was in his dive shop, trying to fix an air regulator for a customer. He made me promise to call back that night.
I got off the phone and found Jim. I couldn't stop grinning. I was also a little dazed.
"I really like him," I said, surprising myself. I was so excited that Jim warned me about getting too enthusiastic.
I was 35 years old and had just talked to my father for the first time. My father. Dad. All the names I could never use before. That night we talked for an hour.
"You have good genes," he assured me. "Your grandfather, Ben, is ninety-two, and your grandmother, Mary, is eighty-two. They live in a condo on Miami Beach. Ben still drives his white Cadillac Eldorado."
Grandparents-I hadn't even thought about that. And it got better.
"You have two brothers and two sisters: Christopher, 20, Michael, 22, Lisa, 30, and Robin, 32. They all live in Los Angeles."
What amazed me was how accepting he was. He didn't talk about "his" father or "his" children. He described them as "your" grandfather and "your" brothers and sisters. I had inherited an instant family, and Alan was saying all the things to make me feel that I belonged. It was like a verbal hug. Eva, his girlfriend, would later tell me that my call had him acting like a proud new father.
We traded personal chronologies. Alan's two daughters were from his first marriage, to Libby, whom he married around the time I was born. The two boys were from his second marriage, to Naomi. He had been successful in business twice: first as president of a baby-formula business in Chicago, and then through "connections" as a principal of "Holiday Magic," a cosmetic distributorship in California that I remembered as having pyramid-scheme overtones to it. Alan told me that it wasn't until a partner had embezzled $780,000 from him that he decided to pursue his first love, scuba diving. He said he settled with the IRS and left the country.
Soon he met Eva, fifteen years younger and about the closest thing you could find to a mermaid, a powerful swimmer with long blond hair and a soothing personality. Together they packed up and sailed for the Dominican Republic to start new careers as vacation dive operators. They moved to Haiti and stayed for nine years.
"Haiti has its problems," Alan said. "But where we were, there was no more beautiful place in the world."
When Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Haiti's ruler, was forced out of the country, and violence spread through the cities, the tourist trade dried up. "Baskin in the Sun" had to move on. The next stop, in April 1986, was Tortola.
I was mesmerized by my father's odyssey. Alan seemed excited and wanted me to come to Tortola immediately. I explained that because of the all-important ratings period at Channel 7, I couldn't get away until after Thanksgiving.
"It will be Thanksgiving when you get here," he assured me.
We agreed to write and send pictures. Within days, a letter from my father dropped through the mail slot. "I'm still reeling . . . ," it began. They were the exact words with which I had begun my letter. It was the first in a string of coincidences that made me feel as if I was getting to know part of myself.
Alan also sent two photographs. His face was strong, weathered, and relaxed. His curly hair was graying, and his mustache and beard were full. So were his eyes and smile. The image of the old mug shot disappeared.
Eva looked young enough to be my sister. She was tan, her hair golden. Her smile was equally warm. My father said they were very much in love, and the pictures attested to that.
I called him and we shared our amazement about the letters. Alan said he laughed with relief when he saw my picture, glad I wasn't 320 pounds. He remembered Suzanne as slender and pretty, with a great smile, and said he could see that I had picked up some of those genes.
The first day of December, Jim and I left for the Caribbean. We had to change planes in Miami, and after a stop in St. Croix we arrived in St. Thomas. Tortola was only 45 minutes away by ferry, but we had missed the last boat that day.
We took a hotel directly across the street from the dock and settled in for the night, or tried to. I kept bumping into furniture, tripping on rugs. Jim urged me to lie in the middle of the floor before I killed myself. The next day I sat back and tried to relax as the ferry worked its way past the cruise ships and out to open water. St. Thomas, on our left, extended for miles. Million-dollar homes hugged the cliffs, some with elaborate staircases dropping hundreds of feet to the sea. Set back in the hills were layers of condominiums, all arranged to capture the Caribbean sunset.
Soon St. Thomas disappeared behind us, and St. John's appeared on the right. Jim, always the map reader, pointed ahead to a mountainous mass on the horizon. It was Tortola.
This was not my first trip there. I had taken a sailing vacation through the islands with Michael in 1974, and I remember fantasizing about spending the winter months there, "basking in the sun." Basking in the sun! I later found out that Alan also had visited Tortola for the first time in 1974, hoping to establish his business there, He couldn't get a license but vowed to return, So had I. Finally, we were both here.
The engines of the ferry began to slow, and my heart did just the opposite. We were about to dock at West End, a quiet harbor surrounded by hills. Sailboats rocked gently at their moorings. There were a few shops with pastel roofs, a couple of places to eat, and a cement dock with small wooden structures around it.
"There they are, I see them!" yelled Jim. He had spotted Alan and Eva through the 350-millimeter zoom lens he'd purchased in St. Thomas. He snapped a picture. It shows a tall, well-built man dressed in white slacks and a black pullover, anxiously looking over another ferry's departing passengers. In his hand is a bouquet of wildflowers. Eva, in a simple white summer dress, is by his side. Jim motioned for me to join him at the rail, but I was so nervous I couldn't move.
By the time our boat docked and we got in line for immigration, we had lost sight of Alan and Eva. The immigration official inspected our passports and asked, "Business or pleasure?" It would have taken too long to explain, so I said, "Pleasure," and we were passed through to customs. Two agents were going through all the bags and boxes unloaded from the ferry. Just as one was about to open ours, I heard a voice.
"No need to go through her bags, Charles. That's my daughter."
I turned and without thinking said, "Hi ,Dad." We embraced, and my whole body tingled. Jim and Eva stood awkwardly behind us, smiling through some tears. Tourists and natives hurried by, unaware that they were going past a fairy tale.
Jim's pictures tell the story of those first few hours: Alan and me with our arms around each other, faces smiling but bodies turned away. We were father and daughter, but we were strangers.
We piled our bags into the company car, a little white Subaru wagon with "Baskin in the Sun" on the side. Alan gave us a tour of the island, first along the coast road, then across the mountains. Tortola seemed more magical than I remembered. The roads we climbed were narrow, often cobblestoned and shared with cows and goats. Hairpin turns gave way to breathtaking vistas.
Alan and Eva's house was halfway up the hills surrounding Road Town. It was a three-bedroom stucco with a view of the harbor. Kinky, Eva's enthusiastic German shepherd, stopped sniffing us in greeting to turn his attention back to the tiny lizards dashing across the porch.
Jim and I dropped our suitcases and flopped onto Alan and Eva's bed. A bulge erupted in the mattress, rolled away, and returned with such force that it tossed Jim onto the floor.
My father's waterbed wasn't the only surprise. On the bureau was a lava lamp; on the desk, a wave machine. Crystals hung from the ceiling. I saw brightly colored dashikis in the closet. On my father's right foot I spotted a toe ring - a gift, he said, from a Sufi master. Here was my father, a refugee of the '60s, alive and well and loving it in paradise.
Looking at his ring, i noticed that my father's toes were long and narrow, like mine. There would be more similarities between parent and child. Soon we began finishing each other's sentences.
We discovered parallels in our lives. As teenagers, both of us had lived in Greenwich Village. We both began careers in Chicago. We unknowingly shared some of the same friends. Alan laughed when I told him I had signed up for scuba lessons in the Bahamas a year earlier.
In our purses - don't all fathers carry purses? - we each carried ten to twelve pens, including our purple fine-points. We both carried two small flashlights, identical in design. We had tissue packs, a sewing kit, notebooks. My father carried a bee-sting kit, just in case someone needed it. l carried a prescription for one.
The more we talked, the more we explored offbeat connections. My father was leasing a boat from a good friend of a man I had dated. Eva and Jim joined in, pointing out similarities we were too close to recognize.
I thought about the times I might have stumbled across Alan Baskin. As a reporter in Chicago, I had kept a file called 'Granada' and had nearly pursued a tip about questionable medical licenses being offered on the island where he had lived briefly. I had monitored the Holiday Magic sales presentation, for which he took some credit, as a possible pyramid scheme. I asked him about his arrest for cashing stolen securities. He laughed and assured me he had received them in lieu of money he was owed.
I never felt any sadness about not discovering each other earlier. My father, I realized, was a free spirit, a man with his own ten commandments, the last of which is, "Act like a kid in a candy store." He was not the type to have auditioned for the lead role in Father Knows Best. But at this point in our lives, I couldn't imagine a better father.
He told us one story after another. How he smoked his first joint at 14, given to him by singer Sarah Vaughan. How he briefly shared a Manhattan apartment with Steve Allen. How he owned the lease to the studio in Havana where Spencer Tracy was shooting The Old Man and the Sea, and lost it when Castro came to power.
He told of witnessing revolutions in the Dominican Republic and Haiti and joked that the British governor of Tortola thought he was with the CIA. I couldn't help wondering the same thing.
Aside from owning a dive shop and serving as president of the British Virgin Islands Dive Operators Association, Alan Baskin also was a mail-order minister. Actually, he was a bishop in the "Missionaries of the New Truth," based somewhere in Illinois. Occasionally he performed wedding ceremonies.
Jim and I spent a week on Tortola. It was a magical vacation. I saw my first double rainbow and my first shooting stars - dozens of them. I heard my first humpback whale. Not surprisingly, the island has become our second home. We go back twice a year; both our daughters were conceived there. Blame the trade winds, the island music, the rum punches, or the mating song of the Tortolan tree frogs. The magic lingers.
It took a month before i worked up the courage to tell my mother that I had found Alan Baskin. She hardly reacted. I wasn't sure she wanted to hear the details, but I shared them anyway.
"Why were you so opposed to helping me find him?" I finally asked her.
She answered directly: "I was afraid you would like him."
A year later, on a Saturday night in September, Jim and I were married in our back yard. We had invited our friends and our families, Jim's and mine - mother and father. It wasn't a hard decision, but I knew that what was supposed to be a joyous occasion might become something else. To complicate matters, I also invited my "new" grandparents from Miami. My brother Michael said he would be there, too. Forget the caterers and florists and the threat of rain. My biggest anxiety was over bringing my parents together for the first time in 35 years.
While most of the out-of-town guests were gathering for an informal picnic the night before the big event, the other big event was happening in our living room. My mother sat nervously waiting for Alan. Would he show? When he did, he was nervous, too.
"Hello, Suzanne, how are you?" He smiled awkwardly, and I'm almost sure he added, "Long time no see."
My mother laughed. "Hello, Alan." And they politely embraced.
There they were, Mom and Dad, and me. It had taken 35 years to get us in the same room. They sat on the couch and engaged in small talk. No accusations, no tears, no fireworks. They went through short chronologies of their lives and chatted about the old Civic Theatre, where they had met.
I left them alone, returning only when it was time to leave for the picnic. Neither had much to report when I asked about their rendezvous. I decided not to push for details, but I did over-hear Alan say to Suzanne, "You've done a wonderful job raising Roberta."
The next evening, our wedding was more like a sideshow; all eyes were on my father and mother. Everyone was on best behavior; a hill moon and a gentle rain added to the intimacy of the affair. When the night ended, Jim and I headed to Los Angeles for my first get together with all my brothers and sisters. I wasn't surprised when we all hit it off.
That part of the story continues to evolve, In some ways, my entrance into the family has brought all of the Baskins closer and given Alan a renewed love and appreciation for his children.
There was another aftermath to our wedding: Alan and Eva got married.
It's still hard to talk about alan with my mother. Knowing my father now, I can better understand the hurt over the love she lost. But knowing both of them, I could never imagine us as a family. And with two children of my own, I can genuinely appreciate the work and sacrifice she endured as a single parent.
There will be more to this story. My father recently invited my mother to visit Tortola. It surprised me that she accepted. But this month, we'll all be there. Maybe my parents are trying to make a family out of us after all.