Father’s Day: adoptee edition
23andMe is having their annual sale!
DNA testing company 23andMe, is having their annual Father’s Day Sale, which reminded me that I have a Father’s Day message for adoptees that I’ve been meaning to share for awhile. Here it is.
As a kid who grew up without her father I have a sense of how seductive the fairy-tale notion of finding that ‘long lost’ family can be. I don’t want to stop anyone from potentially fulfilling that dream. Please follow your dreams. Climb every mountain. Spit in all the test tubes.
But consider this: maybe that other family doesn’t deserve you.
Maybe, just maybe, the reason why they never reached out to you previously in your 20, 30, 40 years on this planet is because they’re assholes and morons. Family is tricky; sometimes less is more.
This is what my adopted family told me in so many words. When I asked about my “real” father’s family, my adopted mother would get a certain look on her face and then she’d say something that sounded like a lie, even for a 6-year old. “Well, I knew it wouldn’t work out, so I gave him the money he needed for a bus ticket to go back up to his parents in Illinois.”
The discussion usually went like this: “Well, how much am I like him?”
“He had the same curl of hair you have on your forehead…and he was fat too.” She thought body shaming was funny and to be fair, the way she said it was actually funny because she was overweight and was a master of eating disorders by the time I came along.
But, what else? No one could or would tell me.
This is the story as it was told over and over again: My grandmother received a call: “Mrs. Hines, please come today and pick up your baby.” She said, “I don’t have a baby.”
And they said “you do now.”
My biological mother had sneaked out of the hospital after giving birth to me. She hitchhiked with only the clothes on her back to Illinois—one imagines, to find him.
And she named me after the pair of shoes she was wearing.
It took until I was in my mid-30s to learn the origin of my name. I’d always assumed it was Irish because my grandfather was Irish. James Joyce was his cousin (which isn’t saying much when Irish Catholics had a dozen kids each, everyone is someone else’s cousin). His name had been James. My bio-mom’s name was Joyce.
I’d known my biological mother my entire life. She had natural copper-red hair that she wore in a glorious beehive in my earliest memories of her. She was skinny. She did theater. She was a genius—but not the good kind. She was a “troubled genius.” She chain-smoked Lark cigarettes and wore drug-store perfume, usually Heaven Scent. She loved Romantic poets and had a full college scholarship to Belmont University in Nashville on the basis of her writing. She turned that school down to go to attend classes in Florence, Alabama. This is another incomprehensible decision that I wish I had asked about before she died. Alabama? What th—?
There are many different kinds of adoptions. Mine was the kind where grandparents step-in because their kid had a kid they can’t possibly care for. Sometimes this scenario happens when addiction is involved. Often addiction is accompanied by mental illness. I inherited some of her intelligence and all of her tobacco addiction. Whatever ‘troubled’ her, didn‘t trouble me and for that I’m deeply thankful for that other set of chromosomes.
After my adopted parents passed away I became the bio-mom’s caregiver of sorts and she told me the origin of my name while I was helping her pack her things for a move. I was noticing her flawless skin and said, “Jeez, I guess I got my father’s acne.” In typical fashion she cackled and said “his face was a topo map of Dresden.” Oof.
“So, why’d you pick ‘Kerry Brook’ for my name?”
She answered as if she were speaking to someone who wasn’t there (she did this a lot): “They were the coolest shoes I ever had.” At first I didn’t understand her response. If I hadn’t already come across the Kerry Brook clothing brand in vintage stores I’d have been totally lost. Back in high school I bought a sweater at the Salvation Army in Gate City, Virginia that had a Kerry Brook label. I’ve since lost that damn label and you’d think that I might’ve stuck that tiny piece of embroidery in one of the many cigar boxes I have that contain Chick tracts and tiny tchotchkes I’ve been hauling around since college, but such is the nature of the loss of identity.
Her recollection gave me the impression that she walked into the hospital with no idea what to name me. I imagine her standing at a counter filling out the forms and getting stuck on the name. Maybe she kicked her shoe off and looked down as she stretched her back. Maybe then she saw the label on the inside of the shoe. Good thing she didn’t wear Keds.
I’m not complaining. It’s a fine name, and I probably got off easy because she named another child after her boyfriend’s dog.
As the aforementioned troubled genius, my biological mother had a difficult life. No doubt the source of much of her trouble came from her parents (now my adopted parents—making me her sister, on paper). She never cut the umbilical cord, which was completely irrational to me. The family was ostensibly the source of her troubles. Why torture yourself? The answer lay in the fact that Mother acquired several pieces of cheap real estate in her never ending quest to keep my bio-mom “stable.”
But mental illness and addictions would make that stability fleeting at best. I don’t know the extent of her addictions beyond drinking and smoking, but I suspect she had a few. Never figured out the nature of her mental illness, either. Maybe it would be called ‘borderline’ these days.
Being adopted by grandparents should mean you have the benefit of their learning from previous mistakes. Our uber-mother was a sharp-witted, psychologically damaged, and perhaps an unintentionally cruel person. But she was determined to take care of me, and she made an effort at least while I was very young. Every single time I asked her about my biological father, she’d say the thing about giving him money to go back to his hometown.
She sometimes offered other bits. Mother liked the absent father. He’d supposedly liked her, but this is necessary but not sufficient to earn her approval. He had curly hair. His mother was snooty and wouldn’t have put up with me or my ‘troubled’ bio-mom. She seemed to indicate that he was scared—not ready to be a father.
“He did the right thing,” she said.
Hold up. He did the right thing? How could you say that? Shouldn’t a child know their father, or at least know something about him?
“It’s not that important,” she said.
Eventually she told me that her father and mother abandoned her and her two sisters after The Great Hurricane in 1926. There had been four siblings, though. Her parents kept the son while the three daughters went to an orphanage, a convent, and into the foster system. They weren’t even kept together.
Mother went to the foster system. At 12 she was “too old” to be adopted, so the orphanage wouldn’t take her. In South Florida in the late 20s, being “old” in the foster system meant you were sent to work in the mansions in Palm Beach as “the help.” I’d love to know what kind of political patronage established that little perk for Florida’s ultra-wealthy. She cleaned the mansions of important people like Rose Kennedy who she was fond of because Rose made an effort to learn her name: Olivette.
I never knew her to do housework. She did the bare minimum and if I wanted to eat, I had to learn how to cook. If I wanted to cook, I had to learn how to clean the kitchen. If I was embarrassed because the grass was knee-high, I got out there and mowed it.
When I was learning to read, Mother bought me the Dr. Seuss book called “Are You My Mother” (it’s actually authored by P.D. Eastman whom Seuss mentored, but it was part of a Dr. Seuss monthly book club). It was the story of a little bird that fell out of the nest and searched high and low for its mother, on foot because the little bird couldn’t fly yet. Little bird asked a kitten, a hen, a cow, a boat, a plane, and a “Snort” if any of them were its mother, and they all said no. Snort was a giant power shovel that lifts it back into its nest where its mother will find the lost little bird.
This book is problematic for adoptees for a number of reasons. First, belonging is signified by appearance. Little bird didn’t LOOK like the kitten, hen, cow, boat, plane or Snort. I remember thinking that the hen would’ve made a great mom, and I could’ve made-do with cow.
She wept every time she read that story. She had a deep wound where her own family should have been, and I related to that even though I though it seemed like people should get over these things as they get older. They don’t.
I looked nothing like my adopted family. My adopted mother had black eyes, coarse jet black hair, olive skin, and had been a model. I was pink-skinned, freckled, blue-green eyes, fine, curly golden blonde hair, and was never gonna be a model. She didn’t understand my hair and either ripped it to pieces with fine-toothed comb or stretched it until it’d break with her old hairbrush. She’d get frustrated with me squealing because it hurt (and she whacked me on the head with that wooden brush a few times).
Our genes as they expressed themselves, are from different ends of the earth, regardless of the fact that she was one of my four grandparents. The generational difference was also enormous. Her life was shaped by The Great Depression and those habits and lessons never went away. She taught me how to dumpster dive when I was in the 2nd grade, which not gonna lie, that was fun. When we didn’t have anything to eat she’d take me down to the jetty where she’d strike up a conversation with whomever seemed to be having a good day—and we’d eat King Fish that night (the definition of a ‘good day’ was having caught a few King Fish).
I was adopted when I was four years old in 1970, and this was about the time that some “progressive” attitudes began to be implemented in child and family services. Mother received lots of advice and “rules” for being a newly adoptive parent. They were supposed to provide all the details of my background as was age-appropriate, but there was no “age-appropriate” way to address where I came from. It was obvious nothing was right so they were just up front about it. The notion of “identity crisis” was a big topic. My grandparents were coached to allow me to try on different identities, but that was never an issue. Material needs were far more pressing.
My earliest memories are of a rather chaotic home with somewhat broken people trying to make the best of things. In 1974, when I was 8-years old my adopted father had a massive heart attack and suddenly there was no income. He was 74 and lived until he was 94 thanks to open-heart surgery and lifestyle changes. My biological mother came back to live with us and helped pay bills with AFDC and food stamps. My adopted mother sold off the real estate and put money into Certificates of Deposit which would be a decent place to park money in the mid-70s. That’s what they lived off for the rest of their lives, and it wasn’t much. The properties she bought for my bio-mom were insanely cheap by today’s standards.
I never pined for that other family and never had a burning interest in looking them up. They sounded kind of awful, actually. You’ve got a grown man running back home to live with his mother instead of being a father because his mother’s sense of propriety wouldn’t tolerate…me? Fuck all that.
Fast-forward 40 years and my husband encourages me to reach out. We know the father’s name (always did). My aunt who does ancestry.com (or did) sent me a bunch of newspaper clippings. Turns out he was the banjo player in a folk ensemble. Later he’d be known for his work with mandolin and dobro. He was Facebook friends with people I knew in the bluegrass scene in Tennessee, and finally, this right here is my one tangible source of regret because as a musician, I know for a fact he’d have steered me away from clarinet and toward anything else in 5th grade band. That whole experience turned me off to playing music. The first time I ever skipped a class was band. I didn’t think about clarinet again until college when I stumbled upon a big stack of big band records with a head full of entheogens.
There’s a photo of him playing a bongo in a van taken in the mid-70s when I would’ve been in the 3rd or 4th grade. I look at the person in that photo and think, “man, that person was supposed to be me father.” Feels like I dodged a bullet.
23andMe would at least confirm if the name was correct. It was.
I didn’t know this until recently but my husband (ever the optimist) had left a voice mail for the absentee father providing the basics of our interest. “Would just like to say hello.”
A few months later my aunt emailed me his death notice. I had no way of processing that information. It felt like a loss, but of what?
On 23andMe I see that I have a half-brother who is the closest DNA relative in my list. Also a first cousin. I reached out.
So, here’s the thing if you’re an adoptee and your instinct tells you that it really doesn’t matter anyway. You’re right.
If you’re an adoptee and your instinct tells you that you should search, you’re probably right too. Go for it, but know that whatever answer you get will never change the fact that people who are really your family are the ones who loved you as a child, and put up with your shit as a teenager. Everything else is DNA and it really doesn’t matter except in terms of inherited health issues which you can learn about here in much more depth than your estranged family can tell you.
So this Father’s Day, like all Father’s Days, will be the source of much mixed emotion for those of us with this sort of background. I say screw it. Have some damn potato salad with the people who actually love you and just…relax.
You already know who your family is.
CODA: a few months after my aunt emailed to say that my bio-dad had passed away I received another email: “I was just cleaning out my desk and found a note reminding me to mention that you have a half-brother we never told you about.” Pffffft.
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