One woman’s quest to uncover her heritage

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Bliss Broyard grew up a “Wasp” in Connecticut with her mother, father and brother. For 23 years she was white, but it wasn't until her father was on his deathbed that she found out he was “part-black.” After her father died, Broyard began a quest to learn more about her hidden heritage and adopt it in her life. She wrote about it in “One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life.” Here's an excerpt:

Chapter OneTwo months before my father died of prostate cancer, I learned about a secret, but I had always sensed that there was something about my family, or even many things, that I didn't know. As a child, when I was left alone in the house, I would search through my mother's file cabinets and my father's study for elaboration, clarification, some proof ...

Of what? I couldn't exactly say.

My mother kept files on each of us, and I rifled through their contents: my father's passport, a small cellophane envelope containing a lock of hair, a doctor's report about my brother's childhood dyslexia. In my own file, I ran my finger across the raised seal on my birth certificate, read again the story about an escaped tiger that I once recited to a babysitter and a comment I made about a dance performance that my mother jotted down, examined my report cards and class photos. While these artifacts made me understand that, as young as I was, I already had my own history and in some way that I couldn't articulate was always looking for myself too, they weren't the evidence I sought.

In my father's study, I shuffled through the items in the wooden box on his desk: a small red vinyl address book, bills to be paid, scraps of papers and old envelopes with scrawled phone numbers and phrases: “Their joy is a kind of genius.”

I stood on a chair and peered at a cardboard box on the back of a shelf in his closet. The box was square, a little smaller than a cake box, and unadorned. Sometimes I took it into my arms and felt its surprising heft. The mailing label listed a return address for the United States Crematorium, a Prince Street address in Greenwich Village for Anatole Broyard, my father, and a 1950 postmark. Sometime during the year I was twelve, a second cardboard box appeared. This one was a little lighter. Here were my grandparents, whom I never knew.

Neither box had ever been opened. At each seam the original packing tape remained intact. But I knew better than to think I'd find anything useful inside. These boxes held only ashes of answers, and all their presence meant was more mysteries, and a worry that someday something else might explode.

At times I knew what my father was going to say before he said it. I could tell you whether a movie, song, or woman was likely to suit his tastes. When I'd see him crouch for a low forehand playing paddleball on the beach, I could feel in my own body what the movement felt like to him — the crunch-clamp of his stomach, the scoop-snap of his arm. I knew my father like you know a room that you've lived in for a long time — his frequencies, scent, and atmosphere were all familiar to me — but I didn't know anything about him, his history or how he came to be.

And I felt that because I'd come from my mother and father — been made up by their parts — that I had a right to know everything about them. I was them. And they were mine, for better or worse. Not even death could part us.

In August of 1990, my parents, my brother, Todd, and I gathered on Martha's Vineyard, where my family had a summer home, for the annual Chilmark Road Race, which Todd ran in every year. We were also trying to spend time together, because the rate at which my father was deteriorating from his cancer had suddenly sped up. He'd been diagnosed a year earlier, just after my parents moved from Fairfield, Connecticut, where I was raised, to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The move was supposed to mark a new, carefree phase of their lives. They'd sold their house in Fairfield at a nice profit, so they had money in the bank for the first time. After eighteen years as a daily book critic and editor at the Sunday book review, my father had retired from the New York Times and was happily at work on a memoir about life in the Greenwich Village of the 1940s. My brother and I had just finished college and had jobs at which we were finally making our own livings.

My parents planned trips to Europe, longer stretches on Martha's Vineyard, leisurely days fixing up their cozy Victorian, which would eventually resemble, in my father's words, a “perfect doll's house.” Above all, they would enjoy Cambridge, which, they imagined, offered a comparable atmosphere to the cafe life and highbrow conversation of Greenwich Village that my father was now recounting.

Twelve months later he was on the verge of becoming someone I didn't recognize. He weighed about 115 pounds, 40 pounds lighter than the trim figure I'd admired throughout my childhood, running for a Frisbee on a beach or strutting onto a dance floor. His face, which had always appeared youthful, looked even more so. With large staring eyes and a round greedy mouth, his countenance had lost the guise of adulthood, leaving the shocks to his flesh and spirit in plain view. In recent weeks I'd felt compelled to keep him in my sight, as if my constant vigilance and memory of the “old” him might prevent any further transformation.

The last time our family had been together on the Vineyard, two months before, although my dad had been very sick and all the treatment options available through Western medicine had been exhausted, we had felt that there were still things that could be done: a special vitamin cure to try, phone calls about other alternative treatments to make, marijuana to smoke to curb his constant queasiness, the beach to stroll on, friends to come over and distract us from thinking about what was next.

But since then he'd pushed off for more rocky shores. His prostate made him prostrate, a pun that he might have appreciated in better days. Months earlier the cancer had traveled up from that innocent seeming gland into his bones, where it bit down now with a death grip that knocked him off his feet. He lay on the couch upstairs in the living room and flipped through the television channels. He lay on the couch downstairs while nearby in the kitchen my mother cooked things that he might eat — rye toast, scrambled eggs, chicken broth. “No, no, no.” He'd wave his hand in front of his face. “Even the smell makes me nauseous.” He lay awake in bed, too uncomfortable to read or sleep.

On Sunday, though, the day of the Chilmark Road Race, he got up. Since my brother had begun running competitively, my father seemed to concentrate all his ambitions and concerns for his son on his races, as if life really were a footrace and Todd's standing in this 5K today could predict how he would fare after our father was gone. In my own life there was no equivalent focus of my father's attentions. He often said that he didn't worry about me, which I was meant to take as a compliment.

He insisted that we watch the race from our regular spot: about a third of a mile from the finish line. His theory was that the location was close enough to the end for us to feel the excitement of the finish but far enough away that our encouragement of Todd could still make some difference.

The walk there fatigued him, and while we waited for my brother to appear, he had to sit on a beach chair that I'd brought. The day was hot and still. Across the road, some cows stood motionless in a field. Beyond them, in the distance, the ocean was flat. A motorboat made slow progress across the horizon. I looked down at my father, who was wearing long sleeves and pants to cover his skinny limbs. Behind him, down the hill, some other spectators walked toward us, but the heat trapped any noise they made, and their feet fell silently on the pavement. My father's dying, I had an urge to yell to them. He's dying!

Some runners rounded the curve and began the ascent, and then there was Todd, pumping up the hill. His blond curls bounced on his sweaty forehead. I helped my dad to his feet. We cheered and yelled, my mother snapped pictures, and my brother flashed my father a huge grin. The thought passed through my mind that this race was probably the last one my father would see his son run, and I wondered if Todd was thinking the same thing. My dad was holding on to my arm. The lightness of his weight on my elbow made me tremble.

He turned to me and said, “Did you see the way that Todd smiled at me? He's not using all of his energy if he has the reserve for that smile.”

Todd ran well, placing ninth overall out of 1,500 runners, but my dad estimated that he had 10 percent of his energy left over and told him so when we met up at the finish.

I hated how my father was changing from the cancer, and at the same time, I wanted to shake him by his bony shoulders and say, Aren't you ever going to change, for God's sake? There isn't much time.Excerpted from “One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life” by Bliss Broyard. Copyright 2007 Bliss Broyard. Excerpted with permission of Little Brown & Co. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.