What Was Lost

From Alex Haley’s Roots – orally passed down family lineage and baby naming ritual

From an article about the series in LINK>The New Yorker that speaks to my heart, being the child of two adoptees who was robbed of knowing my genetic grandparents –

“The desire to know who we are helps to explain the second of two pulls we ordinarily feel toward grandparents. The first attraction, and the one that as children we understand more clearly, is toward something easeful, generous, and amusing about grandparents, and about the way they handle us when we are around. They can be a wonderful escape from the stringent regimes of parents, with their endless admonitions about how we should behave. Grandparents allow us to grow; they like to watch us obeying something inside ourselves—something that we know only vaguely but that is completely familiar to them. Long retired from the strenuous business of shaping their children, our parents, they are often ready to coddle and indulge us, to refresh themselves in our youthful curiosities, and to enjoy our affections. They are also ready to talk a lot—about the past, about when they were young, about their own parents and grandparents. At such times, they look at us with something mildly searching and wistful in their eyes, hoping, no doubt, to see some early and fugitive version of themselves. We understand this only later, when we become aware of the second pull that these old people were exerting upon us all along; we realize that in listening to their talk we, too, were listening for some earlier and fugitive echoes of ourselves. We were drawn to them for the odds and ends of their memory, without which we would be less whole, or, at the least, left to invent a greater portion of ourselves.”

I actually have no memory of my adoptive grandparents trying to talk with me when I was a child about their own past, their youth and families. There was once though after I was well into my adulthood, when my adoptive maternal grandmother came to visit me in Missouri. She grew up here and we found her childhood home in Eugene and our great luck was that the owner allowed us to come inside. My grandmother shared with me what had changed in the house and me told stories about what it was like growing up there. We went by the cemetery where many of her own relations were buried. Memorable was a story about traveling by wagon over the Gasconade River to buy supplies in some larger town.

I certainly invented stories about my own “roots” as we knew nothing. My dad was half Mexican, left on the doorstep of the Salvation Army. True, my adoptive paternal “Granny” did obtain him there. His birth mother was working there but the Salvation Army had taken legal possession of him (as shown in his adoption papers). Thanking that wonderful Granny of mine for writing his birth mother’s name in the margin of her request for Texas to issue a new birth certificate for him. That amended birth certificate had to come from California, as he was born at the Door of Hope home for unwed mothers in Ocean Beach (near San Diego).

Turns out his dark complexion came from his Danish immigrant father who was not yet a citizen and was a married man. Sadly, he never knew he had a son. I did hear stories from my dad about how he almost starved to death in Magdalena New Mexico where his adoptive parents and an aunt and uncle (she was one of my Granny’s sisters) were trying to strike it rich by digging a mine there. About the time the adults went to town for supplies and my dad brought the cow into the cabin to milk it as it was very cold and snowing. My dad shot rabbits for food.

My invented story about my mom was that she was half Black. Not true at all, though she did have a smidgeon of Mali genes in her, most likely from the paternal line’s ownership of a few slaves. I saw that detail in a will. The deceased deeded the slaves by name to surviving family members. It was found in a binder lent to me by a family historian that I met near Memphis TN, where my mom was adopted. Neither her mom nor her dad were Black.

My heart sorrows for what my genetic grandparents might have been able to tell me.

Certainly, my adoptive grandparents had a HUGE influence on me. Their culture became some part of my parents (the adoptees); and through my parents, my self as well. Not minimizing how important our close relationships with these people during our growing up years was. Just so much was also lost and there is truly no way to fully recover that.

DNA Traveler

Tim Curran

I feel a kinship with this man’s DNA Roots journey. In fact, my family just finished watching the original Roots series based on the book by Alex Haley. I had my own roots journey and like this man, Tim Curran, 23 and Me and Ancestry DNA did help me on my way only I didn’t leave the US in search of family – yet. I’d love to travel to Denmark – from where my paternal grandfather immigrated to the US.

Tim’s story comes to me by way of CNN Travel. LINK>I used DNA analysis to find my birth family and it sent me across three continents. California connects Tim’s story to mine and like me, he found the impenetrable walls of sealed records and tight-lipped officials in that state. Only he was born in 1961 and my dad was born there in 1935. From what I know of my own father’s story, this part of Tim’s story seems to be very similar – “On opposite sides of the world, they had both butted heads with difficult parents and left home at the first opportunity. They both wound up in one of the most free-thinking places on Earth: San Francisco.” On my paternal side, it was San Diego.

I don’t think my paternal grandfather actually butted heads in his family but opportunities in that country for siblings other than the first born were limited. My grandfather was the 5th of 10 children and several of his siblings had already migrated to the US – mostly into the Illinois and Wisconsin areas. My grandfather chose to take a train from NYC, where he landed, and on that train met a woman, much older than him and a private duty nurse, who agreed to marry him. It was mostly a marriage of convenience. When we don’t really know the accurate story, like Tim, I filled in the gaps. I suspect he may have eaten dinners, while his wife was on duty with some person, at the restaurant on the beach where my grandmother was employed by her aunt and uncle. She had a truly evil step-mother and so yes, she fled them and refused to return to Asheville North Carolina, after they traveled to visit her grandfather in California.

Like Tim, I have found my mother’s and father’s families welcoming me – even though they hardly, if even, knew I existed before I made contact. Some were vaguely aware that one or the other of my grandmothers had given a child up for adoption but really didn’t know any more than that. Sadly, it does not appear that my grandfather ever knew he had a son, being the married man having an affair with a much younger woman. But resourceful as she was, she simply handled it ending up employed by the Salvation Army after giving birth in one of their homes for unwed mothers.

Back to Tim’s story (which you can read in full at the LINK at the top of this blog) – his father worked as floor installer in the city’s North Beach neighborhood — where she was a cocktail waitress and dancer. I pictured them meeting while he installed floors in a nightclub where she was working. By all accounts, it must have been a very brief affair. My father was living with a girlfriend, and my mother’s sister says she never once heard my mother discuss my father in any way. Other than the sister and her mother, no one else in her family was told she was pregnant. (I was lucky enough that my grandmother had a photo album with a head shot and the name of my grandfather on the back.) My father’s family says they are 100% certain he was never told. (And my Danish relatives likewise, never knew my grandfather had a son.)

Tim has a large Moroccan family who own a set of neighboring summer homes just yards from the beach. The houses are built on property his grandfather bought nearly a century ago (when the land was thought to be worthless). It is a place where they go to escape the summer heat of Casablanca. In that family, he was able to recognize that many of their personality traits and quirks – how boisterous, curious and sly they are – just like he was as well. When I met a cousin on my paternal line, her appearance could have made her my youngest sister’s twin. That obvious physical appearance connection between our families seems to have mattered greatly to her.

Touring the country of Morocco, the sites he saw were beautiful and awe-inspiring, alien yet weirdly familiar. He experienced the country in a unique and very personal way thanks to his DNA journey: as a son just one generation removed from his father’s homeland. Though Alex Haley was further removed from his own African roots, it must have been deeply emotional to experience the native culture, which was so different from the modern life in the United States that he became a successful author in.

Like Tim, I bravely went looking. I was not content with the not knowing that my parents died with. I had the wherewithall to seek answers and with determination found success. Just as Tim and Alex both did. It is a journey well worth taking and many have written about similar adoptee root journeys that they have taken. Not every effort succeeds. Tim’s parents were both deceased and my grandparents were all deceased. For Alex, the stories lived on, passed down orally from one generation to the next.