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Guestwords: So, Whose Daughter Am I?

Wed, 06/16/2021 - 18:05

After school I liked to visit with my grandmother Nanny. We sipped her blueberry schnapps, and once she let his name slip — Maiman. She said he had played piano for the troops during World War II. Was this my father, who left me before my second birthday?

When I was 40 I began the previously forbidden search for my birth father. I wrote to Senator Moynihan and inquired about World War II Army files. He wrote back saying many of these files were destroyed in a fire. I persisted and was devastated when I received my father’s death certificate.

I now had an address — the Daphne Fernwood Crematorium just outside San Francisco — not exactly the address I had hoped for. A daughter, Yolanda, was listed as next of kin. I tried to contact her but the information was all wrong — wrong spelling of her last name, wrong address, and wrong phone number.

I flew to San Francisco and after a week of detective work I believed I had Yolanda’s correct number. I called and a woman answered. “Judy?” Shocked and elated, I put more coins in the phone. Yolanda had been searching for me her whole life; my father had kept my baby picture in his wallet.

Yolanda and I met. At first we could barely speak through all our hugs, kisses, and tears. She had brought boxes of our father’s memorabilia; there were many concert programs and reviews. Earl Maiman was 8 years old when he started performing, then on to Carnegie Hall and concerts in Europe until the Nazis invaded Poland. This was the first time I had seen his picture; our profiles matched.

I had begun this search after my mother died — she had refused to talk about him. When I asked, her eyes glazed over; she’d go to her room and close the door. She said it was none of my business. Really? Once I threatened to leave home if she didn’t tell. I ran to the park in tears but returned after dark.

Did I remember my birth father? It was just before my second birthday. “Daddy, up.” He lifted me onto a pillow next to him at the piano. I loved pounding my hands on the keys while Daddy pounded loudly on his side of the keyboard. I was waiting for Grandpa Idlis to take me to bed. Where was he? I heard yelling, a door slamming, and Nanny’s crying. I was taken to my room. From my window I saw Daddy walking away from our house. I think it was raining or maybe I was crying — it was a bit blurry. He turned around and looked up at me. I never saw him again, and he was never mentioned in our home.

Nanny and I both missed Grandpa Idlis, and I missed my daddy. I was 4 when my mother married Percy in Nanny’s backyard. After their honeymoon, they took me to their new home on the other side of the park. Percy graduated from Harvard when he was just 18 and went on to Harvard Law. He was brilliant and a self-proclaimed dilettante. Did he want to be a lawyer, a chess champion, or a violinist? He attended master classes with Yehudi Menuhin and once concertized at Carnegie Hall.

When dinner was ready my mother called “Perce!” He’d answer, “In a minute, honeybunch.” Usually we had to wait an hour before my father came down to the table. Friday night was quartet night. Forrest and Miriam Cohen walked into our kitchen with fiddle and viola under their arms — Forrest was first violin in the quartet as well as in the New England Symphony. My father was second violin. When Jerry the cellist arrived, they all went into the dining room, moved table and chairs, and set up their music stands. My brother, Marc, and I brought down blankets and pillows and got comfortable under the table while they tuned up for the evening.

At 10 p.m. they took a break — coffee and cake. Then, “Let’s get back to the Brahms.” By midnight, everyone had left, but my brother and I remained asleep under the table until morning.

On Mother’s Day, Percy would ask me to help pick out a flowering tree for our yard — he loved that yard. In summers, after mowing the lawn, he would sit nearby in the driveway waiting for inspiring company. Hail fellow well met.

Percy was over six feet tall, had a slim frame, reddish blond hair, and considered clothes an encumbrance. When he left our house on Monday mornings, however, he put on his jacket with elbow patches, the only jacket he ever wore. Sundays he polished his shoes in our kitchen; the smell of shoe polish meant we had to eat in the dining room on Mondays.

He wrote for a labor newspaper, a job he inherited from his second wife (my mother was his third and final wife). He drove from our home near the Connecticut River in search of conversation and labor stories in New England’s industrial towns of a bygone era. We welcomed him back on Thursday nights; he always brought little gifts — magic tricks for me and my brother and Fannie Farmer chocolates for my mother. At dinner, we’d hear stories; one week he was asked to leave a rooming house because the guests in nearby rooms complained of violin playing at 3 a.m.

Percy never forgot his firstborn, whose mother died in childbirth. She had been adopted by his second wife and refused to see him. I was told that she looked like him — tall with reddish blond hair. I was short with curly brown hair. He didn’t warm up to me until after I left home for college. One day he showed up at my dorm — a surprise visit. We went for coffee and began to form a bond that lasted until his death 10 years later.

Do I take after either of my fathers? I played piano for 10 years but wasn’t a musical genius like Earl. I became an architect — architecture is frozen music, right? I took on Percy’s intellectual and philosophical bent. I don’t have his I.Q., but I always have one more question.

Two fathers for Father’s Day? Which one might I have preferred? I often think affectionately of both my special fathers, not just on Father’s Day.


Judy Freeman first came to the South Fork in 1983. She lives in the Clearwater Beach section of Springs and is the architectural and planning consultant for the Clearwater Beach Association.


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