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The Eyes Have It

February 21, 2010

When I was growing up, I knew a few kids who were adopted but not many.  There were the H. twins, adopted a year before my sister and me, through the same adoption agency, by a couple who attended the same church as my parents did.   There was L., a friend from elementary school, and J., another friend from high school.  All of us were adopted as babies, part of the last great wave of domestic adoption in the United States.  Even at that, however, we were statistically rare.

I never minded being adopted, as unusual as it was among my peer group, and even in my own family, in part because I was treated as so usual, as if the different path I took to arrive at my place in both my immediate family and my enormous extended family never really mattered.  And family was everywhere.  Both sides of my family owned businesses in town.  As a high schooler, I worked in the family meat packing plant and bowled from a young age in the family bowling alley.  In church, when I looked around, I regularly saw over a dozen extended family members occupying their own pews.  I am grateful that I always felt so belonged, even after the arrival of my brother, born to my parents when my sister and I were 20 months old.  We were a family of different genes, a family of different origins, but we were as much a family as any of the others surrounding us.  Unlike two other adoptees I knew, Korean girls adopted by white parents, from an outsider’s perspective, we looked like we belonged to one another, too.  And in this age of assimilation-at-all-costs, it was surely much easier for us than it was for these girls.

Indeed, I spent most of my growing years ingesting this simple truth:  genes don’t matter when it comes to family.  In fact, in my early years, I refused to use the term birth mother. I called her birth woman, reserving the word mother for the woman who spent her life raising me.  It was my way of honoring my own mother, of telling her that no one mattered but her.  Who is your real mother? a classmate once asked me in third grade.  I have NO idea what you are talking about, I hissed back, daring her to continue the conversation, staring her into silence.

If, as a child, I seldom lingered over the birth woman who had given me life, and even less over the birth man who walked off the edge of the notes from the adoption agency and didn’t look back, I never thought of the birth woman’s parents or siblings.  It was hard enough to imagine a single face out of the blackness, let alone a cadre of ancestors.  Sure, I sometimes wondered about my ethnic origin.  In the notes from the agency, we were told our paternal origins were French and our maternal origins German.  My adoptive parents were both German, so it was easy to feel and be German, just like they were, knowing there was some genetic truth to it.   In my teenage years, when I was feeling ornery and tempted by the exotic, I sometimes told people I was French.  Once, in a dim Vietnamese restaurant, when a waitress asked me if I was part-Vietnamese, I smiled and shrugged.  When you are adopted, you can be anything.  In the absence of sure knowledge, you can invent yourself.

But mostly, I stayed close to my familial roots, to the German butchers and tradesmen who were my people.  My paternal grandmother was the keeper of the family genealogy, and I poured over her enormous family tree and accompanying notes and maps, tracing with my finger the history I claimed, too.  In college and graduate school, I borrowed her notes to write essays and poems about my ancestors: my great-great-grandfather, a Bible-thumping preacher on the Illinois prairie who, in his 80s, raced to beat a train that rumbled past his house and was ground into the tracks when he didn’t make it; my great-grandfather, a record-setting minor league baseball player whose baseball card I finally acquired after months of searching on e-Bay.  When my grandmother died several years ago, I inherited her boxes of family photos, her pages of family history.  Nobody questioned why they went to the granddaughter who was grafted onto the family tree by adoption.  This was my family as much as anyone else’s, my family, my roots.

Finding my birth family–for I call them family, too, now–messes with my world order, with how I have defined myself.  It strikes at the very core of my identity, defiantly formed around this notion that genes don’t matter.  My mother is my mother; my father, my father; my brother, my brother; my sister, of course, my sister, a double whammy of family and genes. And the grandmothers I considered best friends, the grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins–all of them, part of me, all of them mine.  Our bond, our sense of family, it all exists completely outside the realm of DNA.  I love them with a fierceness that defies biology.

And yet, there, standing in the wings, is biology.  It’s German, and Swiss-Acadian (not French).  It looks like me, a little.  When my biological brother sent me a class photo from his elementary school years, I stared in wonder.  He and my sister and I could have been triplets.  In his own face, I see my eyes, my cheeks, my nose.  It’s my birth parents who puzzle me for I always figured that the one way in which nature would trump nurture is by appearance.  I expected, if I ever met my birth mother, that I would look just like her.  In fact, I counted on it, in the years that I search for her in crowds:  at Disneyworld, at the World’s Fair in Tennessee.  When we finally did meet, we both admitted, had we passed each other in a crowd, we would have kept on walking.  Our genes would not have drawn us toward one another.  Our biology would not have turned our heads.  We would have kept walking, strangers passing.

Yes, in many ways, this experience of finding a birth family has humbled me.  It has knocked me off the high-falutin’ perch that I used for so long to keep myself connected to the family I had, fearing that if I believed any less, I wouldn’t belong as much as I did.  It is fear, however unfounded, that makes me grab for them now, pulling them close to me, locking arms.   Mother?  Check.  Sister?  Check.  Brother?  Check.  Confident of their presence, I now consider these others.

Indeed, I, who in an intellectual sense, a social sense, a moral sense, will define family in many different ways, who will insist upon a dizzying array of possibilities, now find myself needing to let go of my own definition and envision something new.  There is my family who raised me, hundreds of years of them, holding me up in their branches, lifting me with their love.  Then there is this other tree, standing on the hill, its branches holding aloft a birth mother, a birth father, a brother–and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and ancestors, strangers who I have yet to call “my people,” strangers who may never be “my people.”  Still, there is room for both trees on this hill, beneath this wide sky. Under the soil the roots of both trees are entwined, tangled together, all of us family, all of us laying claim to one another in ways I cannot even begin to comprehend.


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