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June 20, 2012

My three-year-old is obsessed with the Statue of Liberty. In tender moments, he refers to her affectionately as “Lady Liberty.” Well before he was three, he knew that she was the handiwork of sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, whose wooly beard and long, droopy bow tie he can easily pick out of a photo line-up. When you ask him where Bartholdi sculpted the Lady, he says, “Pa-ree,” mimicking the way my husband pronounced it in French one day.

When my youngest son was just over two weeks old, we took him and his two brothers to the Statue of Liberty. He was barely old enough to keep his eyes open at that point, but he must have seen something that stuck with him. When he asked for a Statue of Liberty cake for his birthday this year, we decided to do one better (though I made the cake, too) and take him there again.

This past weekend, my mom, sister, nephew and brother-in-law joined us for my son’s birthday excursion to Liberty Island. We boarded a ferry at Liberty State Park in New Jersey and made our way to Ellis Island, the first stop before Liberty Island. I’ve been to Ellis Island a handful of times since it opened as a museum in 1990, and each time, the story of immigration, and America, as it unfolded in this place, fills me with emotion. For me, too, Ellis Island stands as a metaphor for adoption, with the old life on one side and the new life on the other.  A bureaucratic bridge, housed in a stately red brick building, serves as a transport between these lives. Medical inspections. Legal inspections. Social politics. Laws. When I stand in the Registry Room, otherwise known as the Great Hall, I can hear the chaotic din of those temporarily caught here, echoing off the walls and the vaulted ceilings. Their ghosts sweep past me, hopes and fears and sorrows swirling by.  Their limbo is my own held breath.

The first time I visited Ellis Island in the late 1990s, my sister and I searched the passenger records and ships’ manifests for our mother’s grandparents, who passed through Ellis Island on their way from Württemberg, Germany, to Decatur, Illinois. It felt like watching a birth when their names appeared. Albert Heinkel. Age 25. Merchant. Marie Seyfang. Age 19. Nearly ten years later, when I discovered my birth mother’s photo on her high school website, I felt again the excitement of watching a stranger who belonged to me take shape on a computer screen.

“Here’s Great-Grandpa Heinkel,” I said to my mother the first time we were at Ellis Island together, standing at the computer terminals where you can search for family members.

She didn’t say, “Not your great-grandpa Heinkel.”

She said, “Where? Let me see!”

Registry Room, Ellis Island

On Ellis Island, I am not an official definition of ancestor, but I am something just as real. From this starting place, I follow the Heinkels down the right side of the staircase at the top end of the Great Hall, heading west to Illinois.

Three years into a reunion with my biological family, I can’t settle the role of biology in my life. Two new ancestral lines, one belonging to my biological mother, one to my biological father, take shape before me, heading in directions different from what I’ve always known and creating a tangle of contradictions. There is my biological other, my sister (biology matters). There is my adoptive family, with whom I share no genes (biology doesn’t matter). There is my biological family, with whom I share genes (biology matters). There is my new nephew, adopted from Morocco (biology doesn’t matter). Recently my biological father told me that he hopes my sister and I will stay connected to his son, our biological brother.  ”You three will pass on the bloodlines of my family,” he said.  My biological father, who is also an adoptive father to three other children, is not insensitive to these matters.  He’s navigated them from more sides than most fathers and grandfathers. He, too, believes that family is family, no matter what.  But I’m having trouble reconciling my own notion of family with my place in his bloodline. My children share a genetic relationship with my biological family; my sister’s son, for example, does not.  If an ancestral line only includes those who share genes, it becomes, for me, a line of exclusion, not inclusion.  It becomes something opposite of my understanding of family as I have lived it.

I’m more than just casually interested in the people and the places that belong to my birth history; they do matter to me. But the truth is, I’ve never felt a longing for a biological origin. I have always been content with the one that was shared with me and that I made my own. It’s not genes that draw me in as much as stories. I’m far more attached to narrative lines than ancestral ones. Who are you? Where did you come from? Tell me about your journey. Let me find my place in your story. Find your place in mine.

At the Statue of Liberty, there’s none of the heaviness of Ellis Island. Here it is all about freedom and friendship and refuge. With the statue in front and New York Harbor behind, I directed my clan together for a picture last weekend. My little nephew anchors one end of the photo; my mother anchors the other. In the middle are my sister, my husband, his brother, my three children. A motley huddle of genes. They are laughing and pouting and looking here and there with eyes closed and open as the harbor breeze whips brown hair this way and blonde hair that way. In the shadow of Lady Liberty, our breaths exhale in the wind.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2012 9:09 pm

    Your depth of exploration an insight here is tear-inspiring! You bring so much tenderly rendered thought to the idea of family, biology and adoption. What a gift you give to the world and to those around you with your literal fleshing out of these concepts. Thank you, Renee

  2. Meg Tebo permalink
    June 20, 2012 8:22 pm

    Great stuff, Jenny. So many things to say, but I’ll just send this:
    The sculptor is a family friend. Thought your little guy might like the photo.

  3. June 20, 2012 5:16 pm

    I love your comparison of adoption and immigration. Growing up, I loved my Grams’ tale of how as a little girl, she and her siblings would hide in the washroom when the doctors came around-they were sick from their journey from Bremen and were afraid they would be sent back to Germany. I always understood it was a miracle my family was living in the US. Now, looking at my girls, I feel it is a miracle they are too.

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