The voice on the other end of the phone line was frail and fragile. She stammered, gasped, cried, and giggled. In the end, I was left with a highly plausible story that I had a half-brother I had never met. This was so 2020, one of the weirdest years on record.
The impetus for the phone call must have been the 91-year-old woman’s desire to make amends for her maternal mistakes before she departs this world. The subject of her atonement would not give her absolution since he refused to talk to her. The next logical step, in her mind, was to potentially find other connected family members who could hear her confession. That was me.
A Half-Brother Born In 1955, With My Name!
The details are these. In 1955, my father married a woman, after the divorce from his first wife in 1953. I had heard about the first marriage, and subsequent daughter, but not the second marriage to the woman I will call J. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son in 1955. Shortly before or after the birth, my father was no longer in the familial picture.
J gave up the child – abandon in the view of some – to her brother. The boy was eventually adopted and raised by adults not related to him. There was a brief period in the early 1960s when J tried to regain custody of the boy. That did not work and he remained with his custodial parent. J makes one last attempt in the 1970s to connect with her son, which is rebuffed.
By her own admission, J said she was a party girl in the 1950s. She met my father while being treated for a miscarriage at a hospital he worked at. J remembered a trip to the great Salt Lake and to Las Vegas. She left my father because he became abusive. J also said his first wife left him for the same reasons.
Separating Fact From Fiction In the Knauss Story
As a novice historian, I am naturally skeptical of any oral history. It is not that the person giving the history is not sincere, but memories fade, become conflated with other events, or are tinged with selfish motivations to burnish their past actions. I can only imagine how many other Knauss’ J contacted trying to find the elusive connection to her short marriage before she dialed my phone number.
I carefully interrogated J asking questions about locations and people. It was difficult for her to remember all the specifics at first. Eventually, she did divulge a string of pertinent facts that gave the story a ring of authenticity. One of the facts was the first name of my father that is unique.
She also recounted how she went to the Bishop who confirmed that the man she was married to was previously married and had a daughter. The use of the term Bishop was important because my father and his family were Mormons. She also told me she stayed in contact with my father’s parents in Idaho sending them Christmas cards.
The last bit of information, if correct, confirms that my father, and his family, knew he had a son by J, his second wife. While relatively convincing, there were also gaps in J’s 91 year old memory. That my father may have kept his second marriage a secret from my mother was not altogether surprising.
Perhaps the oddest bit of information from J was that the son she gave birth to was also named Kevin. This gentleman was born in 1955. I was born in 1963 when my father was on his third(?) marriage. Was I named for the son my father had abandon in hopes of recreating some alternative reality with a happy ending? Again, this would not have been out of the realm of possibility for my magical thinking father.
A little bit of internet detective work yielded a gentleman with the last name that J told me he had. Within a couple of hours, we were chatting on the phone. In Kevin’s recitation of the facts, his recollection mirrored that of J’s with his own justified biases. He was born in Los Angeles. The name Knauss appears on his birth certificate, but is not his surname. I do remember, vaguely, that my father mentioned living in Los Angeles in the 1950s for a short time.
Other bits of information I could glean from genealogical research was that the divorce between my father and J popped up in records of Santa Clara County from 1966. I hope this was just some sort of document filing as opposed to a final divorce decree as my father married my mother in 1963, the year I was born.
I am a person who routinely experiences guilt and anxiety about issues and past events completely out of my control. One of my motivations for communicating with my biological half-brother was to convey my opinion that he did not miss anything by not having his biological father in his life. That may have been a rather harsh thing to say, with respect to the memory of my dead father, but I believe it to be true. Put another way, I did not want this man to ever wonder what life may have been like, better or worse, if he had known his bio dad.
Kevin The Half-Brother
If I passed Kevin on the street, he would not warrant a second glance because of some striking resemblance to me or my father. Our last names are different and we have no common family members or acquaintances. At this point, on the strength of stories from J and Kevin – short of a DNA test – I will go with the probability that Kevin is my half-brother.
We are two men who could have easily gone to our graves never knowing we had a half-brother floating around, as have thousands of other men and women throughout history. One reassuring quality to the nature of my communication with Kevin was his sanguine response to the revelation of an existing half-brother. His response was neither mortification nor jubilation. He was rather bemused by the prospect, and it was not completely out of the realm of possibility given his biological mother’s past.
What was a nice surprise is that we have a similar worldview. If you believe in astrology, and both us share the same birthday month, perhaps it is in the stars that we are two old men who could share a train ride together and not argue about the weather. We have come to terms with the almost random nature of events and how life doesn’t always seem fair. It is what it is.
He is a pleasant gentleman, from my reckoning after the short one hour phone conversation I had with him. He has led a life of working, supporting his family, and is looking forward to a modest and comfortable retirement. He has achieved more than the biological father he did not know. Verle Knauss, if he were alive, would be proud of this man.
From the little I know and researched about this newly found half-brother, he doesn’t carry the same traits of impulsiveness and abandonment that characterized my father. This brings up the question of the influence of nature verses nurture. Our father suffered from a lack of education and depression. With the proper coping skills, he could have better wrestled with his episodes of despair. But he did not have the skills and those sort of counseling resources were not available in the 1950s – 1980s. While I cannot speak for Kevin, I have been able to maneuver around a genetic predisposition for depression and flight.
I won’t say my life childhood was a nightmare, but it could have been better. My mother kept the house together. I don’t know if my half-brother’s childhood and family dynamics were any better. Regardless, both of us moved forward. He accepted not having a relationship with his biological mother or father. I accepted my father’s limitations and tried to be as supportive and attentive as his health declined in later years.
I did inherit the depression gene from my father. Fortunately, I have found ways to keep my sanity and not be a complete idiot to those around me – although some people may dispute that. It took me a long time to come to terms with my father’s racist and bigoted attitudes. One of the reasons I did not completely abandon him as his health failed was that he acknowledged that my mother was the one who kept him and supported a roof over his head.
It was an odd twist. Verle always cast women as the bane of his existence. Women were the reason he never succeeded in life. They were a convenient scapegoat for his numerous mental health and personality challenges. But in the end, it was a woman, my mother, who attended to him and kept him alive until she died.
To Kevin, my half-brother, you missed a lot drama, and not much else. I suppose when this pandemic ends, us two Kevin’s can meet, maybe have an adult beverage, and compare life notes.
The phone call from the anxious 91-year-old women did not appreciably change my life or Kevin’s life. J understood she made mistakes. I will accept her humble admission of guilt and hope her confession to a random guy named Kevin, about another guy named Kevin, provided her with some solace and comfort.