Truth is relative in family history

Sometimes I am just not the sharpest knife in the cutting block. The brightest bulb in the tanning bed. The thickest hair extension on Steven Tyler’s head. The – never mind, you get the drift.

It was on Valentine’s Day in my freshman year of high school that it finally dawned on me that my Italian grandfather was not my Swedish mother’s biological father. Yup, I was 14 years old when I wondered for the first time why my mother’s maiden name was Annalee Carolyn Nelson, but my grandfather was Peter Zibelli.

This is not merely a testimony to the reality that I was not as interested in family history as one might have hoped. It may be an indication of how much Peter Zibelli and Irene Nelson loved each other.

Of course, it might also be a sign of how spectacularly acrimonious my mother’s parents’ divorce had been in the 1930s, when she was a little girl. My mother stopped speaking to her biological father when she was a young woman and I never met him. I didn’t even know he existed until I was in the ninth grade. But we won’t go there on Valentine’s weekend.

Instead we will travel back to that Valentine’s Day when I was an awkward teenager in Miami, Florida and my grandparents – my Nonny and Popops – were visiting my family from their home on the other side of the state. I like to believe I was home that Valentine’s Day having dinner with my mother and father and grandparents because it was a school night, rather than a weekend, but there’s no guarantee. I was not much of a catch.

This was not long after my mother had dressed up in a white gown and put a crown of burning candles in her hair to celebrate Santa Lucia day – a Swedish tradition as Christmas nears. It was an impressively Dionysian gathering even by the standards of the take-no-prisoners 1970s. Unfortunately, my mother’s blond locks caught on fire, and so she had jumped into our swimming pool. The only casualties were her hairdo and the cardamom cake she was carrying. (Given my mother’s limitations in the kitchen, no one rued the loss of dessert.) Even her pride was fine, because it made it a great story and there was nothing my mother or father cared about more than a great story.

Two months later, Valentine’s Day, my father was telling his in-laws about this near cataclysm while trying to honor a Swedish custom. And so my grandfather shared a story about a near fireworks disaster in Italy. Then I noticed that my mother called her father “Peter.” And something clicked.

Later that night I asked my mother about the man I called Popops and for the first time learned that my mother’s Swedish parents had divorced when she was a child and I was never going to meet her biological father. But that, in her opinion, didn’t matter, because Popops was her real father – the man who had raised her, paid for her college, and given her away at her wedding to my dad. (Her biological father had not attended the ceremony.)

Perhaps because we were having this conversation on Valentine’s Day, my mother added that she considered the marriage of Nonny and Popops a romance for the ages. It might very well have been. When I think of Nonny and Popops, often I think first of a moment a half-decade and change after that Valentine’s Day. My grandmother was years into Alzheimer’s by then, but my grandfather was going to care for her at home, no matter what. One day when I was visiting them, I watched him gently wash her hair in the kitchen as if she were in a salon. He had been there for her in health and now he was going to be there for her in sickness.

That’s just one of the reasons why Peter Zibelli was such a great husband – and such a great dad.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on February 13, 2011.)


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.