Who the F*ck Is Bernie? by
(149 Stories)

Prompted By Surprise!

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WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 23: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) answers questions during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol May 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Senate and House Democrats held the news conference to respond to the release of U.S. Donald Trump’s budget. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Who the f*ck is Bernie?  Hint: it’s not the guy in this photo.

Who the f*ck is Bernie?  Hint: it's not the guy in this photo.  

I hate surprises. That is probably either cause or effect of spending a career in risk management-related legal positions.  So this was a tough prompt for me to warm up to.  I was originally going to write a little story about the April Fool’s Day trick my wife pulled on me a few years ago.  It was very much a no harm/no foul trick, fooled me completely (and briefly — she spared me greater angst), and showed how very well she understood me and my foibles.

But then I read Barbara’s story and it brought back to me a memory of a similar — though far less traumatic — episode in my own life.  I was thirteen and my brother was fifteen and our mother was planning on taking us to Europe that summer for a “grand tour.”  (I think I have alluded to it previously.)  So off we went sometime the spring before — I don’t think it was April 1st, though that would have added a nice touch of irony — to the massive Hall of Records building in New Haven, which is where one went those days to get passports.  My brother and I were sort of goofing off and only half-listening while our mother provided the requested details about all of us to the clerk behind the counter.  But then the clerk asked about marriages and husbands and, instead of just answering “Ned” — our father’s name and our mother’s former husband — our mother said ” Bernard So-and-so,” (I never really caught the last name.)  Then she got to Ned.  Upon hearing “Bernard,” my brother and I looked at each other in WTF amazement, but were too shocked to say anything. Plus, we thought that challenging one’s mother as to such facts in front of a passport officer probably wasn’t such a good idea.

Anyhow, we kept our mouths shut and our mother casually continued on and, about ten minutes later, we left the passport office. Of course, as soon as we were out of earshot of the office, both my brother and I turned to  — and on — our mother and yelled, “Who the f*ck is Bernard?!?”  (Our mother was pretty casual about swear words, so this terminology might have been a bit unusual, but not totally verboten.)  She seemed honestly surprise by our surprise and replied casually, “Oh, didn’t I ever tell you about Bernie?  He went to college [Wisconsin] with your dad and me and we went together when we graduated. We got married as a lark and then, a few months later, decided it was a silly idea and got divorced.  I really thought I’d mentioned it to you before.”    My brother, acting as our spokesman, made clear that, no, she hadn’t f*cking told us about Bernie before, and this was one helluva way to learn about it.  Our mother quickly apologized, but it was clear that this was not some deep, dark story that she had hidden from us; she honestly thought it was no big deal and that she had, in fact, mentioned it in passing at some earlier point.

My brother and I calmed down, a little, but were still in a “WTF — and what else haven’t you told us about?” mood for a while.  We were finally assuaged when we talked to our father a few days later and he was equally casual:  “Oh yeah, Bernie.  Nice guy.  Your mom was actually married to him for a few months when I went off to medical school.  Didn’t we ever mention it?”  Surprise, surprise.

Interestingly, in recent years, my wife and I have discovered that a number of our close friends had themselves had what are now called “starter marriages”  — early, brief, no kids, no further contact — and had struggled a bit with whether to tell their kids or not. And, equally interestingly, when they did tell their kids, they had been almost universally wrong in predicting their reactions.  The kids they thought would be cool with it were aghast and vice versa.  Guess the lesson is that there is no accounting for surprises.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: moving


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Yeah, funny what those parents did before you kids were born.

    Turns out my in-laws had a story like that, not quite so innocent. When Dan was a little boy, he was playing in the attic, found an old box and stumbled on a birth certificate for “Joan Pfau”. Now Dan is the oldest of 5, but he knows all the names of his sibs and that isn’t one of them. Also this “Joan” was older than Dan. He came downstairs and asked his mother, who confided in him that his father, who was in the Navy during WWII, stationed in the Philippines, had stayed on after, briefly married a Catholic native and they had a daughter: Joan! Erv realized this was a mistake, obtained a divorce, returned to the States, met Gladys and they married in 1950. She was the “real” wife. Eventually, they told all the kids about Joanie and she even came to visit once. The Filipino wife, as a devout Catholic, never remarried.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I am beginning to wonder if every family has at least one story like that. If so, then maybe these shouldn’t all be such surprises, right? Sort of like what they say about data security breaches these days in risk management presentations: your firm’s data HAS been breached; you may just not know it yet.

  2. Suzy says:

    Great story, John, I’m glad that reading Barbara’s story triggered your memory. Should we call that Retrospect therapy? It strikes me as very odd that your mother had to answer questions about former marriages and husbands in order to get a passport. How could that have possibly been relevant? Maybe for the Tracking People Down prompt you should try to find Bernie, although I guess it is unlikely that he would still be alive. And btw, I’m very glad your story wasn’t about the Bernie in your Featured Image!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I like the idea of “Retrospect therapy.” Shall we start calling you Dr. Suzy?

      As I vaguely recall, the question was asked of my mother in the context of other names she had been known by. She may have been a very progressive woman, but even she, in 1934, would have taken her husband’s name — at least for a while.

  3. Marian says:

    I’m sure nearly everyone has a story (or knows someone who does) like yours, John. I’m not sure if in our generation, vs our parents’, if things are more open. A man I dated for a while (I was in my 40s at the time) had recently been divorced and was forthcoming that this had actually been a second marriage. The first one was a year after college, and they parted amicably and without kids. I gave him a “bye” on that one, considering I was engaged at 19 and wisely called it off, but I could have been in a similar situation.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Families held secrets close back then. My father-in-law always claimed he was an orphan, a believable story since he lived in an orphanage and had photos to prove it. After his early death, my mother-in-law shared that this wasn’t the full story and that his mother had been alive until he was five and that he had a larger extended family. In her old age, she shared the full story to the extent she knew it. His mother, who lived to an old age, had been institutionalized when he was five, his father had left the family, and his older sisters were farmed out to a variety of relatives. I think I will share the tracking people down aspect of this when that prompt comes up. My parents also kept secrets about things from me and my sibs, some fairly innocent like your mother’s and some that were pretty consequential. Thanks for sharing your story, John.

  5. Ah, John…l*ve the title, l*ve the photo, l*ve the story, l*ve the surprise! And I l***ve being the catalyst! Being a relative newcomer, I don’t really know all the folks here, but I’m admittedly a flower child and speaking for lots of people in my peer group, a lot of us might have had starter marriages were it not for the fact that we simply shacked up. I can almost remember thinking “Well, let’s just give it a shot and see if it works out.” Most of our parents didn’t have that mindset, and of course the war played a part in folks just wanting to get down to business. My mom actually admitted that she married Bob on a whim shortly before he left for duty because two of their friends were getting married so they decided to do it, too. If it didn’t work out and children weren’t involved, it became what we now call a starter marriage. Interesting that younger generations are less likely to play house, and I’m not sure why, although I don’t think it’s a matter of morality or religion.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Again, Barbara, thanks for being my catalyst for a more interesting story. And maybe I’ll give my mother even further progressive props for being at the forefront of starter marriages. That said, I wonder how many “SM” (not sado-masochistic, although maybe….) couples, either then or now, thought when they got into these marriages that they were there for the long haul, rather than just involved in a “what the hell” lark. Inquiring minds want to know.

  6. Wow John, hard to believe your parents were so casual about it!
    The more I hear friends’ stories, the more I realize fact can indeed be stranger than fiction, and more dramatic.
    I hope you and your brother made peace with the situation!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dana. I am quite sure we made peace once our father assured us it was no big deal. That said, I was thinking of showing my brother this story, but have a nagging fear that, despite my recollection, he’ll come back and say something like: “Got over it? Are you kidding? That scarred me for life.”

  7. “Made peace” sounds good but doesn’t
    your brother read your stuff?
    Actually I send mine to my relatives, but who knows if they all read it?
    Well, writing it is therapy for us, ain’t it?!?

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