On December 1, 1997 (almost ten years ago), I received an odd piece of email, from someone I didn't know, someone in Germany.
The email read [lightly edited]:
Date: Mon, 1 Dec 1997 12:14:31 +0100 To: email@example.com From: [email address removed by Jed] Subject: Attn. Jed Hartman *Please don't trash this. It is NOT junk mail and is very important.* I am looking for someone named Peter Hartman and you indicated on your page that your father is P.H. and working as a substitute teacher in Tacoma. The man I'm looking for lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, California in the 1960's and knew Penny P-- [last name removed by Jed for privacy]. Attached file is a photograph of him from around 1966. Thank you for your time and please accept my apologies for this intrusion if this is not the P.H. I am seeking. Many Thanks.
That was a little odd already. It got odder when I opened up the attached image file and found a copy of a grainy black & white photograph that might or might not have looked like my father, Peter, 30 years before--I couldn't tell for sure. (The photo here in this entry is a better version of that photo.)
I wrote back to the person in Germany:
Date: Mon, 1 Dec 1997 23:55:58 -0500 (EST) From: Jed Hartman <[...]> To: [...] Subject: Peter response Hi. My father Peter did indeed live in San Francisco in the 1960s; I'll see if he knew someone named Penny P-- (though he's told me he had a fair number of friends back then whose names he never really knew). I looked at the photo and can't tell whether it's my father or not; at first glance it looked a lot like pictures of him from that time in some ways, but on closer inspection it looks pretty different. Before I proceed further, though, I'd like to know more -- who you are, why you're looking for him, why it's "very important," and so on. I try to protect the privacy of friends and family; I'm reluctant to give out any more information without understanding the situation better, and I have to admit that the urgency and specificity of your note made me a little uneasy. I don't mean this in an antagonistic way; just trying to be careful. --jed
Meanwhile, I called Peter and asked him about it. He said he didn't know the name "Penny" but he had indeed lived in that area at that time, and was curious to see what it was all about.
Another note from my mysterious German correspondent arrived:
Date: Wed, 3 Dec 1997 13:10:51 +0100 To: [...] From: [...] Subject: Regarding Peter Hartman Dear Jed, Thank you for responding so promptly. I appreciate, and understand your ambivalence regarding my request, and the desire to protect the privacy of family and friends. I would do no less. My name is Gabrielle J--, I'm 30 years old, an artist who normally resides in Los Angeles. I'm a self-supporting adult (with two loving parents) and I'm currently on an artist's residency in Berlin (where I have a computer with an isdn connection at my disposal, which has made this search possible). The reason I contacted you regarding your father is that I'm looking for mine. My biological father's name is Peter Hartman, this fact, the one photograph, and that he knew my mother (Penny P--) in the Haight-Ashbury district in 1966 are all I have to go on. Whether this person and your father are the same man is the question. I've discovered there are a lot of Peter Hartmans out there. My motive for looking for him is simply the desire everyone has to know where they came from. Whoever he is, wherever, this is all I'm looking for from him. With this information given, I'm uncertain how to proceed. Do you have any other questions? I understand that this may be a bit unnerving, it certainly is for me. Let me know if you want a better version of the photograph. All I have here in Berlin is a photocopy, the original's in storage, but I'd gladly mail you one if it would help. Thanks again. Sincerely, Gabrielle J--
I called Peter back and read him the email. He said, in a kind of struck-by-a-sudden-memory tone: "You know, there was this woman. . . ."
Date: Thu, 4 Dec 1997 01:07:04 -0500 (EST) From: Jed Hartman <[...]> To: [...] Subject: Re: Regarding Peter Hartman Hi! Thanks for the elaboration. Funny, I had a kind of inkling that this was why you were writing -- an adopted friend of mine recently went through a (successful) search for her biological mother, and something about your first note struck me as similar, I'm not quite sure why... So anyway, I just called up my father and read him your email. His response leaves the question still a little uncertain: he said that when he was living near Stanyan & Alma (which I assume is in the Haight) in San Francisco in the mid-'60s, there was a woman who insisted that he was the father of her [then-unborn] child. Peter (I've called him Peter as long as I can remember) believed that the child's parentage was in doubt -- he said there were at least two other guys who could have been the father (one of whom, he recalled later in the conversation, had red hair; there's never been any red hair in the Hartman family, so Peter figured that could potentially have been a way to resolve the question). The woman wanted Peter to marry her, but he wouldn't. Eventually she went to live at Tassajara, the Zen monastery (?) in SF where they bake bread. So, does any of that jibe with what you know of your & your mother's history? Peter was curious/interested (and awfully surprised); if his various pieces of story match yours, he's definitely interested in finding out more. I thought at first that the red-hair part was an interesting detail, but on further thought I'm guessing that if your mother was indeed the woman in Peter's version of the story, she wouldn't have thought he was the father if you in fact have red hair... (Did that make any sense? I may not be being entirely coherent here...) So maybe this is a red hairing. (sorry, I don't mean to make light of this, just couldn't resist... The penchant for puns is a Hartman family trait, though probably more environment than heredity I guess.) Um. So let me know whether the above connects at all with the facts you know. I'll happily pass on any further info to Peter... And if he remembers anything more I'll certainly pass that on to you as well. (Peter doesn't have email at this point.) --jed, still getting used to the idea that he might have a half-sister, and very curious to find out more... (In the Hartman family, Peter is one of four brothers, and in my generation there are six cousins (counting me), of whom five are male.)
. . . I suppose in the interests of full disclosure, I should add that Peter said something more specific about the red hair thing: he said that he'd always figured that if the baby had turned out not to have red hair, the woman would've gotten back in touch. I'm sorry to say that Peter was not always the most responsible person in the world, and perhaps particularly not in San Francisco in 1966.
Anyway. Gabrielle wrote back:
Date: Thu, 4 Dec 1997 13:26:59 +0100 To: [...] From: [...] Subject: Wow! Hi Jed. I have to tell you I'm in shock, my boyfriend is taking dictation because I can't stop shaking. Weird. My mother has always said that he lived at Alma and Stanyan, in fact I've gone there just to look at the building. Every time I've been in San Francisco with my mom she insists on driving by there and saying that's where you were conceived. So to read your e-mail naming those same streets was almost frightening. She also did indeed go to Tassajara to bake bread while pregnant with me. She gave me his photograph when I was nine years old, and told me the person I'd always thought of as my father wasn't "really" my father. It was obvious then, as it is now, to even the most casual observer that this man in the photograph was my father. The resemblance was/is striking. I'm going to try and e-mail you a photograph of myself, perhaps you'll see what I mean. I'm not sure (again) how to proceed from here, especially since I'm so far away. I really appreciate your willingness to pursue this Jed, to say that it means a lot to me is, of course, an understatement. I'm not sure what else to say right now. I'm sure we'll go into life stories soon... Please tell Peter I look forward to meeting him, (and you) if that's ok. I'm coming back to the US in April. My postal address while here is -- [...] My mom's memory is sketchy on some points, but I believe she told me that he was working at Bethlehem Steel at the time. Anyway, I look forward to continuing this correspondence... I guess if all this is true then, yeah, I am your half sister. Funny, huh? Are you an only child? I know this must be shocking for Peter too. I've had the last 20 years to get used to the idea of him. He doesn't have that benefit. Ok, thanks again for your help. Best, Gabrielle
Over the next couple days, we established beyond doubt that Gabrielle's mother was indeed the woman in Peter's story, and that Peter was indeed the same Peter Hartman as the man in Penny's story. We sent each other abbreviated life stories, and I gave Gabrielle and Peter each other's direct contact info. Gabrielle sent a higher-quality scan of the photo she'd sent before (the improved version is the one you can see up above), and I printed out various photos she'd sent and papermailed them to Peter (easier than having her mail stuff from Germany).
Peter was originally unconvinced that Gabrielle was in fact his biological daughter. But he met her a little later, down in LA, and they were both immediately convinced.
Gabrielle and I corresponded occasionally via email over the next few years, and I always intended to go visit LA and meet her in person, but never got around to it. She did meet my brother Jay, though.
The last I heard from Peter about Gabrielle was sometime in the early 2000s; he said she had written him a letter about six months earlier, and that he'd intended to respond to it but hadn't gotten around to it, and that the letter was somewhere around. Since he had similarly failed to respond to a letter of mine, and I was kinda annoyed about that, I figured he was just never going to get around to getting back in touch with her. And I'm sorry to say that I, too, more or less dropped out of touch with her.
And so when Jay and Holly and Kam and I flew up to Tacoma after Peter's death, I wanted to get in touch with Gabrielle, but I wasn't sure how to go about it--I think I didn't have any recent contact info for her. And I thought that she and Peter hadn't been in touch for years.
But amid the miraculously unburned small stack of letters in the kitchen ("miraculously" because the kitchen is where Nancy started the fire), there was a note from Gabrielle. It thanked Peter for having sent a gift--and it included a photo of Gabrielle's then-toddler daughter, Phoebe, whom I hadn't heard about.
It turned out Gabrielle had even visited Tacoma, and had met Grandma and Grandpa before Grandpa died, and had been welcomed to the family. And she and Peter had, thankfully, had more contact than I had thought.
So after that we exchanged a little more email, and she became a regular reader of this journal. (Hi, Gabrielle! Thanks for giving me permission to post all this; I've been meaning to ask you for that permission for years, but never quite got around to it.)
And yet, somehow, I still didn't meet her in person. I've continued to plan to go spend some time in LA, and to meet her and her family there (as well as seeing Jay and Holly, and various friends in that area), but I never quite manage to follow through on that plan.
So why am I telling y'all this now?
Because one of the best things about Saturday's memorial gathering for Grandma was that Gabrielle came to it, and we finally got to talk in person.
It's still a little weird. I spent nearly 30 years believing myself to be the oldest in the Hartman family in my generation, and most of us cousins were males whose names started with J. (I don't think there was any good reason for that J thing; I think it just happened.) To suddenly acquire a 15-months-older sister (whose name didn't even start with J!) was a bit of a shock to my worldview. Not in any huge way, just a little strange. And then I somehow managed to spend ten years without actually meeting her in person.
But now we've met. And it was really cool to meet her.
We didn't talk all that much--there wasn't much time before the memorial, and then we ended up at different tables at dinner. But after dinner, we both had the idea of sitting down together and talking, and it was really nice. A great beginning. We'll have plenty to talk about in future meetings.
And I'm still planning to head down to LA later this year and meet her family. I think Phoebe just turned four last month.
So. The memorial was sad, but it was good to see family, and especially good to see Gabrielle. It's not every day that you meet your older sister for the first time.