Yesterday was my father’s birthday. At least I thought so when I looked at the calendar. Nov. 26. Dad’s birthday. Of course. But then I began second-guessing myself, the way you second-guess the spelling of a familiar word you know how to spell. My mind raced, losing confidence. I sent a message to my sister. I checked Facebook to see if she or my brother had acknowledged it. Nothing. Then, I did what I often advise my students to do. I typed “David L. Spinner obituary” into the Google search bar. Just one hit: a faculty profile for a David L. Spinner, Ph.D., chair of the Criminal Justice department at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. Not my father. Not even close. More importantly for Prof. David Spinner, still alive.
Finally, on a whim, I decided to search the Find A Grave website. My dad is buried in Graceland. Every time I drive into the sprawling cemetery on Decatur’s north-side, I smile, thinking of Elvis. I know my dad would appreciate the joke.
In 2012, over a decade after my dad died, somebody named the Rev. Dale Sims posted my dad’s obituary from the [Decatur] Herald & Review on Find a Grave; another user, kpet, uploaded a photo of his flat marker. I don’t know either of these people, but between the two of them, they have added over 100,000 memorials to the website. At the top of the entry, my father’s birth date was listed as Nov. 6, 1942; the obituary, however, listed the correct date, Nov. 26. He would have been 71 years old this year. I breathed a sigh of relief. Nov. 26. I was right. But Find a Grave was wrong, so I e-mailed the site to let someone know to change the entry’s header to the correct date. In my e-mail, I wrote, “I verify this information because I am his daughter.” Within twelve hours, it was fixed.
My dad was a Thanksgiving baby. Too much turkey and my grandmother popped. He came out yelping for food and spent the rest of his life relishing a good meal. We always laughed about that.
The last time I visited Graceland, it struck me how familiar, almost comfortable, I am there, even amid any sadness. I have been visiting Graceland since I was a kid, attending graveside services; putting flowers on graves of loved ones; dusting dried grass clippings from their stones. I passed it every day for over a year when I commuted from my parents’ home to college.
This summer, after adorning my dad’s grave with the plastic purple flowers one of my sons had chosen, I headed around a circular drive to tend to the rest of the family on the other side of the cemetery. Not far from my father’s grave, a glossy gray stone nestled in a row of overgrown yews caught my eye. BOHN. The name of my birth mother’s family. The name she bore when she brought my sister and me into the world. The name on our original birth certificate. I’d likely passed this grave numerous times throughout my childhood. My brother probably mowed around it when he worked briefly as a groundskeeper there. Perhaps I’d even said the name aloud. When I was younger, I used to whisper the names on the stones, momentarily uttering them back into the universe by my acknowledgment. David L. Spinner. Nov. 26, 1942.
I stood before that name, thinking about how my twin and I, our mother, our father and grandparents when they were alive, how we all have trouped past that secret name when it meant nothing to any of us, when it was nothing to remember and nothing to forget.
But there it is now, a stone’s throw from my father, the Thanksgiving Baby.
Only in Graceland.
I am dizzy with fatigue these days, slogging. The baby is plump, but he is plump on my milk. Slow to catch on to solid foods, he is plump on the last ounces of my energy. One day last week, I hurried from classes to meetings, desperate to return to my office to pump. I felt myself growing heavy, pounding. I was so full of myself that the discomfort became a distraction. I couldn’t think. In between meetings, I ducked into my office, grateful that I have a private space where I can pump even though I am always slightly on edge over the undressing of my professional self in this space. I hooked myself up to my trusty Pump In Style, positioning the bottles against my desk so that I could keep typing on my computer while the pump whirred.
After four kids, after almost seven cumulative years thus far of breastfeeding, after years of pumping whenever I am away from them for more than a few hours, I don’t have anything left to say about the mechanical part of this process. I just do it. But at some point last week, I glanced down and noticed, horrified, that the milk in the bottle was dark pink. I quickly switched off the pump, my heart thumping, and held the bottle up to the light. It looked like strawberry milk. What had I eaten for dinner the night before? Rajma! Red kidney beans. Could that be it? But no, the other bottle of milk looked as it always did. Then it hit me: blood. Even amid my fear, I could appreciate the metaphor: This fourth kid was sucking the very life out of me.
Late for another meeting with students, I didn’t have time to check the internet to determine whether or not I was dying, so off I went, distracted, somehow muddling through it. Later that afternoon I called Patty, my favorite nurse at The Birth Center in Bryn Mawr, and asked her what was going on. She assured me that I had probably just broken a blood vessel and that it was nothing to worry about. In fact, the bloody milk was perfectly safe for the baby though it might taste a bit salty. If I put it in the fridge, the blood would eventually settle to the bottom and I could skim off the good milk. I did that twice over the next 24 hours but could never get the milk back to its normal shade. Finally, I threw it out. I just couldn’t face it anymore.
One of my colleagues in the Writing Center, who knows the code behind the “Please do not disturb” sign that I put on my office door whenever I am pumping, asked me earlier this week if I was feeling better. The blood was gone but I had spent a couple of days feeling off. It wasn’t mastitis–I had that once before–but something wasn’t right, whether or not it was related to the bloody milk. I said I was. ”It’s important to you, isn’t it?” she asked, gesturing toward the pump parts scattered on my desk. Then, “Do you think it has something to do with your adoption?”
Over the years I’ve often wondered myself why it has been so imperative for me to nurse my children, to feed them from my own being. It hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve certainly made sacrifices to do so. My public answers might mirror some of the obvious ones: It’s good for them; It’s good for me; It’s free; I can. Always I am grateful to be able to do so. Never is my own decision a judgment of anyone else’s. But privately, I wonder: Do I zealously nurse my own children because my birth mother wasn’t able to?
Breastfeeding my first son was hardest. I endured nine months of intense discomfort before we both finally figured it out. This was nearly a decade before I knew who my birth mother was, before I heard her story, before I learned that after giving birth to us, she made her way to her family’s farm in North Dakota on a train she never remembers boarding or riding or departing. It was ten years before I had a face for the loss that I imagined for her in those early days with my first son, in those days when I was desperate to get him to latch, to lock on to me with his tiny mouth.
Ten years and four babies later, I think of her still. Yes, of all the things that run through my mind now when I am full of milk, desperate for the pump or my baby’s lips, for something to relieve the swelling, it is she who sometimes appears before me, her ghost body climbing onto that train. Somewhere, in the depths of my own pounding, I think I understand, if only a little, what it must have been like to be so full of child but to have no release for all that pent-up love.
I’m lucky if I make it home once a year these days. By home, I mean Illinois, the state where I grew up and where most of my family still reside. An entire year seems so long between visits, so inexcusable. I have friends who make annual visits home–to other countries. With four children, though, we’ve priced ourselves out of flying, not to mention the juggle of everybody’s schedules. So going home is now a 1,600-mile road show best performed once a year during the kids’ summer vacations.
For me, going home is an exercise in acceptance. No matter how carefully I plan my days, on the morning of my departure, my head whirls with missed encounters, mainly with aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family members who live in the area. I try to visit the family graves every year–to introduce my dad to a new child or to put flowers in the vases on my grandmothers’ tombstones–but some years, I don’t manage to get that done, either. And the kids add to my already packed to-do list. Usually they want what I want: pizza from Monical’s (est. 1959), shakes from Krekel’s (est. 1949), a ride on the same Scovill Zoo train that I rode when I was a kid–and as much of my mom, brother, sister, and nephew that we can soak up without leaving them dry. But they also want to play tennis and soccer and go to the playground and ride their bikes around my mom’s 50-plus community. This year, my seven-year-old spent more time than we had standing in front of the dollhouse kit display at Hobby Lobby, trying to figure out which one he wanted to buy to make with his father when we returned home to Pennsylvania. My dad purchased a kit to make for my sister and me one year–we were squeaking into the last late childhood years that seemed acceptable for playing with a dollhouse–but he never finished it and the box of now warped pieces sits on his work bench in the garage of my childhood home. (My brother occupies the house now.) On the way to Hobby Lobby, when I pointed out the house where I grew up, my son asked if we could go in. I said, no, not now, and he asked why, and I said, because it makes me sad. He asked if I was sad when I lived in that house and I said mostly I was very happy, but the house reminds me of how much life I’ve lived and lost. He said something about how it had to be that way so I could grow up to have him and his brothers, and I absolutely agreed.
When we received an invitation to my little cousin Karla’s wedding, to be held the last weekend in July in southern Illinois, I knew we had to find a way to incorporate her wedding into our annual trek to the Midwest. I relish the opportunity to be with my family at the beginning of things rather than at the end, so I tend to privilege weddings over funerals in my efforts to return home for family events. I knew Karla best when she was a little girl, when both of us were still living in Illinois, but I’ve watched her grow into a smart, compassionate, beautiful young woman who, like many people in my family, is a grade school teacher. My children love these big family celebrations at which they find themselves related to an entire banquet hall of people much as I loved them when I was a child, much as I still do. All those people, all those shared stories–the good, the bad, the ugly–all that love. Plus, they’ve got your back.
At some point during Karla’s reception, my cousin Mike and I were talking about family. Because adoption is often on my mind these days as I work on my book project, I mentioned how, even though my sister and I were adopted, we never felt any different because of it, not in our immediate family and not in our extended family. I gestured to the people around me, casting wide. Mike looked at me like I had three heads, like he had never considered the possibility that we did not belong as much as anyone else. He told me how he had been at summer camp when he heard the news about us. “Ever since then,” he said, and then he shrugged his shoulders and gave mine a squeeze. There really was nothing more to say. How my sister and I came to be a part of this family made absolutely no difference to anybody.
Of all the gifts that home gives me, this one I treasure most in my awareness as an adult. This is the one for which my heart aches when the visit ends and we pull onto U.S. 51, pointing ourselves away from all of those people, the living and the dead, who are my family. As we part the flat fields of corn on each side of the highway, I glance from the front window into the rearview mirror and back again. That’s how I am able to make my departure each year, with my eyes on both ends of the horizon, the one leading me away, and the one I’m leaving behind.
For Father’s Day this year, we invited my father-in-law to join us at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. My father-in-law is an artist, and his five children grew up surrounded by his paintings and schooled in abstraction and expressionism the way my siblings and I knew tools and baseball. My husband remembers visiting his dad’s office as a child, checking out all of the markers in the entire Pantone spectrum that his dad used in his job as a graphic artist at an ad agency–the job that paid the bills. My husband and his siblings grew up with an appreciation of art and a grasp of artistic technique that is perhaps noticeable, and irregular, only to those of us on the outside.
My children are not on the outside. Grandpop is a painter, and that’s that. They love visiting the studio on the second floor of his house to see his latest works-in-progress. They don’t blink at the nudes that bear his name hanging from the walls. When my first grader had to draw an Echinodon for a school project this past year, he asked me to drive him to Grandpop’s for a tutorial in dinosaur sketching. He wants to be an artist when he grows up, “just like Grandpop.”
As a child, I didn’t know anyone like my father-in-law. My own father was a pipe fitter. He didn’t have an office. Instead, he labored at construction sites around town and, when the economy tanked, in towns farther and farther away, wherever the jobs were. It’s impossible to see my dad’s individual signature in any of his work, so my siblings and I tend to claim all of it for him. State Farm’s cooperate headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois. Dad did that. The grocery store on the corner of Pershing Street and Woodford Road in Decatur. Dad. The addition to Decatur Memorial Hospital. That was Dad, too. But he was more than his work. My dad’s first love was the Dodgers although he rooted for the Cardinals. He loved to eat (potato chips, lunch meats, burgers) and had the belly to prove it. He made corny jokes. He read the newspaper, Popular Mechanics, and the Bible. He was a union Democrat and a Vietnam Vet. He rarely drank or swore, didn’t smoke, never owned a gun. He was a faithful, church-going Lutheran, generous, humble, honest, and passionately devoted to my mother, his high school sweetheart. He wasn’t perfect by any means. His quick temper and his shouting strained our relationship, but by the time I graduated from college, I had made peace with who he was, and wasn’t.
My dad and father-in-law met once, shortly after my husband and I were engaged. My parents had just arrived back in the States from a dream trip to Europe before driving out to the East Coast to check out our wedding venue and to meet my future in-laws. I don’t remember much about the visit because I didn’t know to sear the memory. How could I have imagined that my father would be diagnosed with cancer and dead before the wedding ever took place? I do remember that everyone got along well. My father-in-law had not grown up in tony circumstances. His own father was a cab driver. In many ways, he must have understood the man my father was, or didn’t notice, or didn’t care. In turn, my dad liked people, good people, honest people, so I’m sure he liked my father-in-law, too. When my dad died early the next year, my father-in-law made the trip from Philadelphia to central Illinois to pay his respects, and that, I will never forget, how he traveled over 800 miles to say good-bye to my dad, a man he had met once, just because this man was my dad.
I was 30 years old when my dad died and didn’t need a replacement father at that point. My father-in-law didn’t try to play that role, nor did I want or expect him to. But he is a father figure in my life nonetheless, and a grandfather to my children, and while he is so very different than my own father, he is like him in all the ways that count: He is proud of me, he supports me, and he loves me back. He’s never said an unkind word to me, never questioned my choices, never picked a fight. We entered each other’s lives well beyond all that, and so, in that sense, I enjoy an easy relationship that perhaps only an in-law can. I harbor no disappointments, no expectations, just gratitude that he is there, gratitude undoubtedly magnified by my loss.
My relationship with my birth father, who came into my life nearly ten years after my father-in-law did, is much more complicated, in part because there are no easily definable roles for a middle-aged man and a grown woman who are related but otherwise strangers. Like my father-in-law, he is also very different from my father, but those differences have been harder for me to blink past, perhaps even to forgive–maybe because my father is dead, maybe because my birth father could have been my father. In that sense, my birth father is left to compete, unfairly so, with ghosts–the ghost of the dad who was and the ghost of the dad my birth father might have been to me. I loved my dad so much that the mere thought of never having him makes it difficult for me to appreciate fully my birth father’s loss, the loss that became my life, and my dad. Sometimes I wonder what, if anything, might be different had my dad been alive for this reunion journey with my birth parents.
When I first met my birth father, he told me about a recurring dream he had in which my sister and I showed up at his front door, dressed in identical trench coats, long dark hair–like my birth mother’s when she was young–flowing down our backs. He could never quite make out our faces, and so we were ghosts to him, too. And then there are the ghosts of expectation, the unreal shadows that are always beyond our grasp although we might, at times, swipe our hands through the mist. When I first visited my birth parents at their home in Colorado, I came back from a run along the snowy mountain roads near their house to find my birth father sitting at the dining room table, waiting for me to join him for breakfast. He looked up at me and beamed. ”Can you believe it?” he said, his face lit with joy and wonder and love. ”Could you ever have imagined it, us here, now?” I could not, and yet I was very happy to be there, too.
At the Rodin Museum. my seven-year-old and four-year-old paused to examine The Three Shades, the three fused larger-than-life figures that Rodin imagined from Dante’s Inferno. These are the sad, miserable men who also link arms atop Rodin’s The Gates of Hell.
“What are Shades?” the seven-year-old asked.
“Ghosts,” I said. ”Lost souls.”
“Why do they look so sad?”
I thought for a moment, trying to find an explanation. ”Because they have lost everything.”
My son took a few steps back and looked at the bronze sculpture, gleaming in the hot June sun.
“If their knees were closer together, it would kinda look like a heart,” he decided.
I stood there juggling my son’s words and the ghosts and the fathers until somewhere, somehow, in the midst of all that woe, I found the heart, too.
Two days before boy #4 made his way into the world, I found myself wandering the halls of Bryn Mawr Hospital, trying to find the Perinatal Testing Center. One of the midwives at The Birth Center across the street from the hospital had ordered an ultrasound in order to check my amniotic fluid levels. By OB/GYN standards, I am an old woman, in fact, nearly twenty years older than our birth mother when she had my sister and me. While I had opted for a natural birth again, doing my best to avoid giving birth in a hospital, I still had to take some extra precautions given my advanced maternal age. One of the precautions was this ultrasound.
As I traversed the halls looking for the testing center, I thought about my trip last fall to Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. I had been eager to see the maternity ward where my sister and I were born. Before we knew who our birth mother was, that hospital was the only tangible evidence we had of her; it certainly was the only place where the three of us were ever together outside her womb. After meeting my birth mother decades later, I thought I would care less about the place where I was born, that it would lose some of its mythic mystery, but that didn’t happen. The very name of the hospital still fills me with a mixture of excitement, confusion, and sorrow. The sadness is not for myself, the child who was adopted and loved, but for the birth mother and the newborns she left there. Every time I am pregnant, every time I give birth, during the first few months of each child’s life when my love for him is so vulnerable and raw, I am consumed with thoughts of her, of the strength–and love–she showed in letting us go. But I am also consumed with how defeating it must have been for her, to be an unwed mother in a hospital bed, alone and afraid, stripped of her dignity and her power. As soon as she walked into that hospital, she began to lose us. By the time she walked out, we were gone. Then she disappeared, too.
The public relations assistant who met me in the hotel lobby at Illinois Masonic was kind. I pulled out a business card and handed it to her, to show her that, in another part of my life, I was somebody. The best she could do, though, she said, was to escort me around the main floor in the part of the hospital that was built after I was born. Maybe some other time I could arrange for a tour of the maternity ward where my sister and I had been born. She confirmed that it was still being used for that purpose in the older part of the hospital. I smiled back, hiding my disappointment, but I didn’t press for more, having inherited the meekness of my story there. At the security desk in front of an elevator bay, the public relations assistant got me a badge that allowed me to look around a short hallway where a history of the hospital and a collection of nursing uniforms were on display. I paused at the uniform that the nurses wore when my sister and I were born, adding a burst of robin’s egg blue to an otherwise dark memory. That’s as close as I would get to my own past. I did, for a moment, consider hopping on one of the elevators by the security desk. Maybe nobody would notice that my tag limited me to one hallway, the chapel, and the gift shop, all on the first floor. Maybe my pregnant belly, though still small, would help me blend in, or provide me with the cover I needed. But I’m not a rule breaker, especially in places where rules matter, and so I eventually crumpled up my badge and left.
There’s history on the walls in Bryn Mawr Hospital, too, I noted, but I wasn’t at all interested. I didn’t need it. I also suspected it wouldn’t matter some day to boy #4. I couldn’t imagine that he would ever feel the need to trace the footsteps of my pregnancy, to visit every space I did when I was carrying him inside, out of some desire to legitimize his beginning. His story was much simpler, and what he might want to know, I could tell him. Your mother was old. Her uterus was old. But you would be born the picture of health.
Yes, my fluid levels were where they should be. The perinatologist who checked me was completely underwhelmed by my normalcy. My guess is that perinatologists see a lot of what can go wrong, so much so that when everything is right, it’s perfectly unmemorable. I lay alone in the cool dark room, watching the view offered by the ultrasound wand pressed against my full abdomen. Fine, the technician said, as she measured this and that. Just fine. She left and the perinatologist came in to confirm. Fine, he echoed. Just fine. I asked if he could print a couple of photos to “show the brothers” at home, but the baby was so big at this point of the pregnancy that he wouldn’t fit in the ultrasound screen. Plus, his head was far enough into the birth canal that only one eye was visible and one of his fists covered his mouth. It was hard to make out the baby in the pictures he handed me. I–and the brothers–would have to wait until he was born to get a good look at him.
As I left the testing center, I made way to the exit, which was not far from the emergency room entrance. I’d been there several times with boy #2. He’d developed a staph infection in his belly button when he was a week old and had to undergo a spinal tap in the ER before being transferred to the pediatric ward where he spent a week hooked up to machines, receiving potent antibiotics and scaring the living daylights out of his father and me. He’d been back in the ER as an older child, too, once with pneumonia, once with a broken elbow. The memories I had of this hospital–now including this uneventful ultrasound–were simply part of the fabric of parenting healthy children who have the occasional illness or accident. That nonchalance is also a blessing
And here is a difference, too: At Bryn Mawr Hospital, where my fluids had passed the test, I was not a beggar of my own history. I wasn’t hungry for it, and so there was no yearning. Back in the car, I wrapped my hands around my belly and held onto my baby, still tucked inside for thirty-six more hours. I sat there with my eyes closed for several minutes, relieved and happy, holding onto my baby, holding onto myself holding on.
As we pulled into the church parking lot on Saint Patrick’s Day and watched people decked out in their dressiest greens stream out of their vehicles, my six-year-old wanted to know just how Irish we were. We live in a neighborhood populated by Irish Catholics, so there was a lot of green heading into mass that day. My six-year-old was wearing purple—his favorite color any day of the year—but the green made him wonder.
My husband, who is often told he looks Irish, whatever that means, and has an Irish last name, which he has passed along to our children, did the math.
“Grandpop is Irish,” he explained, “and Grandmom was English. So, you’re at least 25 percent Irish.”
[My husband left out Grandpop’s latest theory that traces the family to Scotland; he recently visited a town in Virginia that bears the family name and somebody there told him that the family name is Scottish, not Irish. My husband took the information in stride and went on identifying as Irish.]
I saw my son weigh this information against his first grade math skills, which do not yet include percentages. But he does understand money.
“It’s a quarter,” I tried. “Four quarters equal a dollar, so one of your quarters is Irish and one of your quarters is English.”
“What about the rest of me?” he asked.
Suddenly I realized I was talking to him about my adoptive family, not about my biological family. As I had for much of my life, I had slipped into the narrative of origin that was more about family and belonging than about ancestral genes, and I’d done so without pause.
“Wait,” I started. “I’m a quarter French. That makes you….”
But my son was no longer listening. He’d lost interest in the details.
I thought of the family crest that my oldest son had made in school last year. It included flags from Ireland, England, Germany, and the United States—and a baseball. No Scottish flags. No French flags. At his request, we had it made into a magnet for the refrigerator.
“Do you like it?” he asked when he put it on the fridge.
“Perfect,” I told him.
Family stories were an endless source of fascination for me as a child. One great-great-grandfather was a Bible-thumping revivalist preacher who’d fought in the Union Army; he’d met his end as an old man by trying to beat a freight train speeding by the tracks in front of his house. Another great-grandfather was a record-holding minor league baseball player and manager in the Southern League. Another great-grandfather entered the United States through Ellis Island, made his way to the Midwest, and used his skills as a butcher to open a market that would eventually morph into a successful meat packing business that just celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. The women played more traditional roles but they had smarts and grit and were widely admired for it; their husband’s successes depended on it.
When we were kids, my sister and I repeatedly begged our grandmothers to tell us these family stories, and they obliged. They would begin, “Well, your great-grandmother….” Or, “Your grandfather….” Not once did they suggest that these ancestors were not ours because we were adopted. These stories were about family, and we were family.
When I discovered our adoption papers as a late teen, I poured over them, surprised when I came to the information about ethnic origin: Mother is German. Father is French. Ooo, French, I thought. How exotic. I’d never imagined being anything other than German. I tried out the words aloud in case anyone ever asked: “I’m part German and part French.” No one ever asked.
Ultimately, the ancestral blood line did not matter to me as much as the stories did, and that’s what was missing from those papers. What was it like for my birth mother to grow up on a dairy farm, as the adoption papers indicated? What was it like for her to come from a family of five siblings, all, according to the papers, who were successful in their “chosen professions”? What did that mean? What did they do? What were they like? What were their stories? These questions were not about me. They were about them. I didn’t need the answers to figure out who I was. I wanted the answers to know who they were. I still do.
To a large extent, it was easy for me to divorce ethnicity from my own identity because I looked (enough like) my parents; my sister and I were placed with a predominantly German adoptive family who, in many ways, resembled our predominantly German biological family. We didn’t wear difference in our faces as do children who do not share similar ethnic origins with their adoptive parents. It’s harder in such cases to pull off an indifference to origin, that is, to pretend any differences do not exist just because you don’t want them to. I honor that my nephew with his Moroccan origins and his German surname is likely on a much different journey than I was when I was a kid, and I know my sister will do all she can to help him navigate whatever feelings he has as he grows. I also know that he will never once be made to feel like he doesn’t belong to us, to every character and every story that he is entitled to claim for himself as a member of our family.
Since meeting them, I’ve learned that my biological family has a rich history with a fascinating cast of characters, just like my own. It is a family filled with captivating stories. But I listen to these stories, enchanted, from the edge of a book that I did not write and in which I am, for the most part, merely a hidden footnote. It’s hard to explain the difficulty of jumping into that story at this point in my life, of shifting out of one way of knowing into another. It’s a fabulous story in which I remain incredibly interested, but it is one that belongs to other people. I have my own.
I have a much easier time combining the stories—theirs and mine—from the point at which we all met. The memories we make together, what we now might share—that’s what matters most to me.
Maybe my kids, at some point, will want to know additional specifics about their origins. Maybe they’ll care about ancestral lines: the Irish, the German, the Scottish, the French. I’m happy to share with them everything that I know. They’ll have a lot to choose from.
For now, when my son wants to know if he’s Irish, we don’t sweat the details.
“What do you want to be?” my husband and I asked him before he skipped into church.
“Irish!” he declared, his purple glinting in the bright winter sun.
And so you are Irish, kid. In our family, you are anything that you want to be, but you are always ours.
Last week I attended an annual conference sponsored by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs [AWP]. The topic of one of the panels was titled “My Son is Perfect: Writing (Honestly) About Your Own Kids.” One of the issues the writers on this panel discussed was the “fine line” they walk between writing honestly but also protecting their children.
Since becoming a mother, I’ve engaged in self-debates about this very topic myself. Since writing about my adoption and reunion with my birth family, those debates have ramped up considerably. But the “ethics of writing” is a topic that I’ve been researching and writing about well before I had my first child, and well before I discovered my birth family. In fact, I don’t know a literary nonfiction writer—from student to well-established author with multiple volumes behind his/her name—who hasn’t addressed this issue at some level although resolutions range widely.
For me, I decided long ago that I would always write as truthfully as possible and as responsibly as possible. But, as I’ve learned over the years, it’s not as simple as it sounds for no matter what my intentions, no matter how careful and deliberate I am, my words take on a life of their own once they leave my fingers.
Last week, I wrote an entry here on Twinprints that I titled “Grieving Life.” In it, I wrote that at age 31, I blamed my “bastard genes” on my becoming pregnant so quickly after losing my father and getting married. My use of the word bastard led to a string of venomous attacks on my character and my writing that don’t bear repeating here. Suffice it to say, bastard touched a nerve.
I don’t regret using the word. It’s an awful, shocking word, even today. It’s a word that is used to describe children conceived out of wedlock and that was once written on birth certificates of “illegitimate” children. Bastard does not refer to the two people who conceived the child. No, when it comes to this particular word, it is the child who bears the responsibility—the label, the shame—of the actions of others. Looking back, I think I used the word in self-derision as a way of taking ownership of it, of what I knew about myself, and of what I did not know.
And then there’s this: My sister and I grew up in a conservative Christian environment, one that reminded us repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, that sex outside of marriage was wrong. In the adoption narrative our parents told us for as long as I can conjure memory, they always referred to the “mom” and the “dad” who had given birth to us but who could not care for us. When, as a teenager, I read the notes from their caseworker and learned not only that our birth parents were never married but also that our birth father had rejected our birth mother after finding out that she was pregnant, I went through a period of emotional upheaval. My sister and I were a mistake, a sin, I concluded, and didn’t the secrecy surrounding our closed adoption prove just that? Such a discovery did not translate into any kind of judgment against my birth mother—then, or now. I still admired her for her act of courage, for giving me life, and for letting me go. No, any discomfort I had with this new narrative—and even this version was not entirely true for our birth father said he did not know of the pregnancy—was with who I was, not with who she was.
For nearly four decades, I lived with, grew with, and was shaped by what it meant to be a product of closed adoption, of a system that by its very nature whispers, “hush, hush,” whispers “shame, shame.” My reactions to this part of who I am may not seem logical to others who have not lived my particular set of experiences. In “Grieving Life,” for example, I write how absurd it was to think that I got pregnant just because I had suffered some kind of terrible loss and yet such thinking brought comfort and order to disordered times in my life. It may also seem absurd how terrified my sister and I were of getting pregnant out of wedlock when we were younger because of our perceived hyper-fertility, a perception that I still have trouble shaking, even today. Instead of concluding in “Grieving Life,” though, that my birth mother and I share some kind of oops-fertility gene, I decided that perhaps our bodies shared a propensity to turn loss into life. However nonsensical such ways of understanding might be to others, I own those understandings. They are part of my story. They are about no one else but me.
Except that they are about others, too. And in the last few years, the others have acquired names. They have their own stories, their own complex emotions and responses to pregnancy, to adoption, to family, and to ancestry based on their experiences. Until a few years ago, I never gave a moment of thought to anyone but my birth mother. I didn’t think of birth grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins. I didn’t think about, or even care about a genetic line. I spent four decades telling myself, and being told by my family, that beyond my twin, such things did not matter. We belonged to them, to our adoptive family, in every way that mattered. As I grew, all I could bear to process was the woman who brought me into the world. That’s all my head, and heart, could handle. Sometimes it still is.
Last summer I had the privilege of meeting some of my birth mother’s family. My own narrative has expanded to include a whole lot more people, wonderful people. With that expansion, however, come even greater challenges for me as a person who was adopted, and for me as a writer. How do I own, without apology, what I know to be true of my own life? How do I share this story, my story, without inflicting pain?
I could choose silence. But I can’t. I won’t. For me, writing offers a way out of Plato’s dark cave and into a world of truth, into a world that can be frightening and unpleasant at times but also far more enlightening and rewarding than deception, not just for the writer but also for her readers. I am no hero in my own story, and I am far from perfect in my attempts to tell it. But I believe I have a right to tell it, and the responsibility to do so with care. With my birth mother’s blessing, I will continue to try, knowing full well what she risks—vulnerability, exposure, pain—in offering that blessing, in allowing me to pull her, and her story, out of the cave, too. Over 40 years ago, she let go, despite what she wanted for herself. I am so grateful for her courage once again. I step forward with this gift in my hand, more determined than ever to find the way.