My father came to this country from Germany in 1930, a little boy in steerage class. The first thing he remembered seeing when he set foot in New York was a little boy with a bag of candy. He thought to himself, this is what it means to be an American — to be able to afford your own bag of candy.
When he joined the Army during World War II he was still a German citizen and was naturalized during the war. He never saw action and was stationed in Wales with the Medical Corps. By the time I came along 20 years later, he often seemed ashamed of being German and was content when people assumed Lenski was Polish, even at a time when Archie Bunker had made Polish jokes painfully popular.
My parents were married for nearly 50 years and my father remarried after my mom passed away. When he died in 2001, I reeled when I read his obituary. A Purple Heart recipient, he had been a P.O.W. in Germany, it said. My siblings and I felt stunned and angered that he had lied about his life to his new family. I also felt sadness for him; what must it have been like to so need recognition that he made up part of a life to get it?
In the last year I have found myself returning to these questions. Who was the real Wilhelm (Bill) Lenski? Which family did he lie to? What if he really did earn a Purple Heart? Why is knowing the truth important to me? Perhaps my father carried parts of both kinds of men in his heart, one the man that he was and the other the man he thought he could have been had life unfolded differently.
I have come to this: Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which man my father was. Our loved ones hold parts of themselves secret and we should celebrate our ignorance, for the promise of new discovery is then in our future and they get to keep a part of themselves for themselves.
It is enough for me to know that my father was a richer, more complex human than the seemingly simple man who stood on his head for me each night when he came home, so the coins would fall from his pocket and my five-year-old self could giggle and grab the pennies, thinking I’d tricked him again. It is enough for me to know that he loved us in the ways that he could.
And the mystery he left was his final gift, it turns out, the pennies for my adulthood. In forcing me to recognize that I knew only part of him, I’ve had to confront my own tendency to judge others based on limited knowledge and acknowledge that I can’t fully explain others from the narrowness of my own perception. The real Bill Lenski, it turns out, was a man that loved, a rich tapestry of a human, a man of mystery, a giver of gifts.
He would have been 84 this month, that little boy who could never, even as a man, pass up a piece of candy.