My life doesn’t allow for much television watching these days. In fact, we recently took the plunge and canceled our cable service. My one indulgence is Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey series on PBS, which I catch every Sunday night by artfully arranging the antenna hooked to our kitchen TV. One of the series’ running plot lines has to do with who will become the next heir of Downton Abbey. The characters face all sorts of changes at the beginning of the 20th century, but no one seems to question the laws of primogeniture that lock them into fates over which they have no control. They may grumble about and sweat over the effects of those laws, but they don’t rail against the laws themselves. It’s just understood: In Downton Abbey, as elsewhere, (male) genes matter.
In my life, genes never did. My sister and I belonged to our family just as much as our younger brother, the biological son of our parents. It wasn’t just our immediate family that tucked us into the fold; our enormous extended clan did, too. And we accepted this family back entirely, claiming a heritage that was ours not by reason of birth but by reason of family. Both of my parents were mostly German, and so we became German also. I was proud of who I was, the grandchild of a German butcher whose father started a grocery and meat market in 1912 that eventually grew into a successful meat processing plant that fed my youth with fresh polish sausages and hams. In high school, I studied German because it was our family’s language and because I wanted to be able to read the old Lutheran catechisms and hymnals that my grandparents owned. I attended services each Sunday at the church where my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and scores of great-uncles, great-aunts, and cousins attended. From my perch in one of the upper choir lofts, I counted the heads of relatives bent in prayer in their pews, each number ticking off evidence that I was part of something big. Next to the packing plant, my grandpa and his brothers eventually built a bowling alley that we referred to as “the family lanes.” Until the lanes were sold a few years ago, family members who identified themselves at the front counter could bowl for a quarter a game and forego the shoe rental. I enjoyed the perks that came with belonging, but mostly, I enjoyed the belonging.
A friend and I were talking recently about her daughter M., who is adopted from China. My friend is also German; her daughter is Chinese. I’ve always been impressed by the courage and maturity behind little M.’s questions to her mother about her biological roots as well as my friend’s responses. But my friend and I also acknowledged that M. never had the choice to disappear into a heritage of choice. M. doesn’t look like her mother. She wears her difference from her mother upfront, in her beautiful Chinese face. I, on the other hand, could be my adoptive mother’s biological daughter. People assumed I was.
They certainly knew I belonged to my sister. The important fact of the matter: Biology slept six feet from me, in her own twin bed, every night for the first eighteen years of my life. She was the mirror in which I saw another version of myself. She was there from the beginning of the tree that roots from me.
We grew up in a family that talked about its history, that embraced it, that wrote it down. Our paternal grandmother spent years creating extensive genealogical records of her and our grandfather’s families, and after she died, I inherited boxes of her research. Often when we visited, her giant paper tree would be spread out over her dining room table where she was penciling in data. I loved to trace my fingers along that tree and find myself in the branches. Being adopted made its mark on me in other ways, but never here; I never once questioned whether I had a right to be on that tree or to claim that family history as my own. My heart ached at times with the sadness I felt for my birth mother, but it never ached for an ancestral line, for a heritage other than the one that already laid claim to me. In college and graduate school, I wrote narrative essays and poems about the most colorful of the characters in my paternal family tree: the great-grandfather who set minor league baseball records in the Southern League; the great-uncle who flew bombers in World War II; the great-aunt whose father forced her to surrender her four children for adoption when her husband suddenly died. I often drove my grandmother back to the small dot of a prairie village where she grew up, sitting in the car as she wrapped me in stories of her childhood. We visited the cemetery where her parents are buried, and we placed our hands on their small, weathered tombstones to let them know that we had come. She told me stories of more distant ancestors, the farmers and the Union soldiers and the very distant relative who served in President Lincoln’s Cabinet. She gave me these stories to tell my own children.
When I visited Ellis Island as a young adult, I spent hours at the computer banks where you can search the passenger lists, excited to find records of my maternal ancestors’ passages from Germany to America. Years later, my sister and I holed up in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, searching for more names, happy to bring back copies of what we found to show other family members. I vowed that one day I would visit their home cities in Baden-Württemberg; I still yearn to travel there some day. Several years ago, one of my mom’s cousins created a mammoth family history project, recording everything she could learn about the family’s early beginnings. In the introduction to the book, she tells all of us descendents that “Part of your history and heart is rooted” in this family. My history. My roots. My family.
One of the challenges that comes from finding my biological family is re-examining the psychological principles–biology doesn’t matter, chief among them–that have guided my life for almost forty years. My parents told me that biology didn’t matter as a way of saying unequivocally, you are ours. Adoption law in Illinois said the same thing when it erased my biology, impounding my roots and rewriting the certificate of my birth. I said it because it made me feel whole.
How can I suddenly stop saying that now?
Yet if biology doesn’t matter at all, what else would compel complete strangers to come together to forge relationships? I enjoy listening to my biological family’s stories and hearing about their own colorful ancestors; I am fascinated by similarities and coincidences. My biological family is predominantly German, Swiss and Acadian. I recognize the smart, thrifty, hard-working, Lutheran Germans in my biological mother’s family. There’s royalty in my biological father’s lineage–and a pipe fitter, just like my dad. There’s a family castle, family champagne. Biologically, I have “the blood of a soldier in my veins” and am eligible to be a United Daughter of the Confederacy.
It’s still overwhelming for me, though, to think of myself as somebody else, somebody new, somebody with DNA coursing through her veins that ties me to people and stories other than my own. Nearly three years later, I find myself mixed up, pulled in different directions, fearful that my interest, or lack of it, will be misread or cause hurt. These stakes set me on a tightrope where I teeter precariously. At this point in the journey I’m here: Biology somehow matters but it’s not the trump card. For me, the surest pull, the sharpest tug, is love. More than anything, it is love that courses through my veins.
There is a spot for me in two trees, but there is only one of me. Where do I set my foot and begin to climb? Where do I grasp and look for a place to balance? I start with the stories they choose to tell me. My birth parents, their biological son, their adopted children: They are a family, just like mine. They are a family, just like mine, in which, ultimately, love matters more than biology. They are who they are because of each other. Who are they? What made them? How? They come with other sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins. They come from other places, other towns and farms. Who are you? Who am I?
Last August, I asked my birth father to take me to the graves of his parents. We drove to the cemetery, my family following his, each of us in our own cars. Under a cloudy summer sky, he paused along the road inside the cemetery and got out of his car. We all emerged behind him. My birth mother bent to pick weeds from the grass growing up around the tombstones while my mother stood chatting with her. I stood over the graves of my birth father’s parents, my biological grandparents, and said softly to myself, “You don’t know me. Here I am. Hello.”