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House of Origins

March 23, 2013

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.

IMG_0091“Well, almost all of my quarters are German,” I told him, “but I’ve got a smidge of Scottish in me.  My great-great-grandmother was a Carriker.  Catherine Carriker.”

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.

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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.    

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2013 3:18 am

    I love the meat picture. I love seeing your Mom in the meat picture. Maybe next year she can meet us in Indianapolis . . . I will try and bring my Mom, too. (Random: some huge % of U.S. citizens claim Irishness, but many more of us are German.) And maybe Peter’s family is from that part of Northern Ireland where you can throw a stone across the water and hit Scotland.

  2. Aunt Beth permalink
    March 23, 2013 6:21 pm

    In the end, the only thing that really matters is LOVE – and you are all (including baby #4) loved by so many people!!! More importantly, God loves you dearly and calls you His own, which makes you Christians, and that trumps all ethnicity!!

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