Saturday, 29 January 2011

Unsettled

I got some information over the holidays that has thrown me off kilter.  We subscribe to ancestry.com, the commercial website that the LDS church has for people interested in doing genealogy.  Another  subscriber, named Camille, visited the historical society in Minnesota and found an index of names of adopted children, their dates of birth, their original names, date of adoption and the location of the adopting family.  As my family name is quite unusual, she was relatively certain that the name on the index would be the same person as the name on my family tree. She took it upon herself to contact me with this information and 'hoped that it would enhance my family research'.  I don't think she clocked that the adopted person was my father.

There are any number of certainies we all enjoy (or not) and take for granted.  I was absolutely certain that I knew about my family heritage and most of the quirks - mostly on my Mom's side of the family, it has to be said.  Part of me says I can't take something for granted and then turn around and say I cherish it, but you know we all do exactly that.  Certainly my blog posts about my family members are testiment that I love them, though I completely took them for granted when they were around.

One of the gifts of genealogy is that you feel you know your relatives, even those who died before your were born.  By the very nature of sleuthing out a new generation, testing the dates to see if they fit, finding corroborating facts to confirm their identify, pondering the reasons for their move across the country or immigration from another one, noting the births and deaths of their young children; by the time you've done all that you feel you almost 'know' the person.  Being the greedy possessive body that I am, I felt I owned them.

I'm not upset that my Dad was adopted so much as I'm upset that I only found out when I was 54 years old and he's been dead for 23 years.  His parents have been gone for 37 years.  I can't ask anyone anything.  They are so tangibly alive in my memories it sometimes catches me by surprise  that they aren't available to tell them things or to check with them.  I asked my closest living relative, my Uncle Pat, who also happens to have been adopted by my maternal Grandmother, and he was skeptical, having been around Mom and Dad so much and them never saying anything at some obvious moments.  I wrote to my Dad's paternal cousins in Minneapolis to ask if they could please check the records in the historical society, in case this woman made it all up - there was no identifying information with the portion of the listing she sent.  It seems unlikely to have been a hoax, but a careful research always checks the facts.  They might also be able tell me how to apply to a District Court Judge to get the records opened nine years early.

It dawned on me a while later that I had another contact, a maternal cousin of my Dad, who always said my Grandma was his favourite aunt.  I know him only through the genealogy research, something he's lost interest in; he doesn't always reply to emails I've sent trying to know him better, but he answered this time.  Ah, he wrote back, we always pretty much knew your Dad was adopted.  Didn't realise you didn't know.

Pat and I both have sifted through memories, searching for clues.  Best as we can tell, my Dad didn't know.  My Dad was quiet, introspective and somewhat introverted, but he was not secretive.  A few times the things he shared with me in the interest of honesty and education were almost 'too much information' from my perspective.  I'm pretty certain that had my Dad known he was adopted he would have told me.  Pat was kind enough to re-assure me that I am in fact the child of my parents (well, my Mom's anyhow); he was around at the time and can to attest to the fact.  It seems silly now, but I can tell you that when one big certainty tumbles, the dominoes around it teeter.

Poor Bill.  He's going through this major life change called 'retirement' and we are doing the usual dance of negotiation that couples unused to sharing the same space ALL day EVERY day go through.  I love my solitude and whilst I'm not specifically a couch potato Bill sometimes comes into the East wing to dust the cobwebs that have formed between me and the computer.  I don't know how to act when he comes up and stands around.  My mind generally is buried in the intricacies of devising and populating some silly financial spreadsheet, composing a post or writing a 'Race Director' email.  He comes in for a bit of companionship and gets my 'What can I do for you' response.  We've finally learned to stop and have a coffee break together.  Bill's going through a major change in his life and here I am weeping around the house as though there's been a death in my family and there hasn't.  I'm not sleeping well and frequently give up in the wee hours to commune with the computer instead of practicing patience awaiting sleep.  Some mornings I have a debate with myself about why I should get out of bed at all.  Bill thinks I'm showing signs of depression.  Well, he's a mental health nurse, he would say that. 

I've been weighing up what exactly is the loss I've been grieving:  maybe my German heritage, though the birth name Broun sounds pretty German to me.  My Grandparents are still mine, though, dammit.  Their way of life made a big impression on me and I aspire to move more in the direction of their thrift, industry and simplicity (maybe that's harder than I realised because it's not genetic, hmmm?).  This has caused me not only to question what I know or just think I know.  It's also caused me to perceive Grandma and Grandpa differently.  When Grandmother adopted four children from Catholic Charities it was in the 1940s.  Daddy's adoption was in 1920, from the Owatonna Public School.  A lot of the laws and social customs changed between those dates.  Whilst part of me thinks it's a shame that Grandma and Grandpa were less than honest, they deserve full credit that no one could ever have questioned their love and commitment to my Dad, even when he disappointed and frustrated them.  I have no question at all that they loved me, too, so whilst I'm sad they kept a secret, they did everything else impeccably.  

Grandma always struggled with the fact that she was four years older than her husband, she either didn't know or didn't want to tell that her father was born in Germany, not Indiana; having experienced the disappointment of infertility myself, I can sort of understand why she would want to block that out and pretend a child was hers by birth.  A couple of Grandpa's brothers also adopted children, but it was never made secret in those families.  Secrecy must have been a strange and difficult choice to make.  They'll have had their reasons; it doesn't matter if I agree with them.

I have no idea what Camille, the woman who presented me with this unwelcome information, was thinking.  I've not written to her yet, though I do want to suggest to her that blundering around in the adoption records and passing around information that is none of her business is perhaps a bad idea.  I'm angry with her.  I'd like to rip away some of her comfortable certainties and see how she likes it.  So, I'm not ready to say anything yet.

All my life I've wondered about glaucoma,  Alzheimer's and stroke, some of the genetic gifts I might or might not receive from Grandma.  One of my Dad's biggest fears was senility and dependency, another reason I'm certain he never knew.  I've no idea what I should concern myself with now, but that's no different to a lot of people, so no matter.

I had a great night's sleep last night:  I finally remembered the melatonin I brought back from the States ages ago (it's not licensed here in the UK; valerian works pretty well too, though).  I found an interesting website today, about the history of adoption.  Minnesota apparently was at the forefront of some of the laws concerning confidentiality and the sealing of records, passing the first law in 1917.  Other states followed suit between the two world wars.  In 1939, a book called The Chosen Baby was published and was a major influence in the practice of telling children they were adopted. So, I've found something else to be interested in, something else that might tell me about how things were in the 1920s, my era of fascination, only relating to something other than fashion and famous people.

I've sort of gone off genealogy for the moment.  All those hours in the library collecting information from the Catholic records in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in Wiskirchen, Germany, wasted.  I can claim my Grandparents and perhaps their parents who influenced them, but at some point those other people don't seem particularly relevent anymore, except as incidental historical fodder.  I don't 'own' the blacksmith who came from Germany and I'm no longer related to the man who invented insulin (according to Ancestry.com).  That woman didn't just steal my certainty, she chopped off half my family tree.  Which at least gives me a use for the quotation I picked up the other day from Maya Angelou's book, Even the Stars Look Lonesome.  (If you've not read any of her books, I recommend starting at the beginning of her autobiographical works, with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The quote is an old African saying:
The ax forgets.  The tree remembers.

And of course there's my old stand-by: 

This, too, shall pass.

9 comments:

Jo said...

That gives you cause to stop and rethink!

But I still love ya!

Jg. for FatScribe said...

Shelley -- very touching post. gut wrenching to read what you are going through. I found out my grandfather was adopted a few years ago. I have a lovely last name, full of French and Canadian history (on my dad's side). Well, my cousins discovered an adoption re: my grandfather, and then within a year or so, my brothers and cousins were (well, many were) saying "we should change our name to such-and-such." And, I said, "are you all crazy! Our name is (beautiful french sounding name)! Our forebear was legally adopted and we are all grafted into our wonderful family. It made me so mad, that for a few years I couldn't even put up with the nonsense that was their late-night dinner discussions.

anyway, I've come to terms with this adoption, and i'm so thankful that my grandfather was adopted by wonderful people. we all get adopted in one way or another: by our family friends. by God, who welcomes us into His family. by, our in-laws when they finally get over the shock that a white boy married their daughter of color.

i wish you peace and patience, Shelley, as you work through this time. you AND Bill. ;)

Btw, i wrote and epilogue inspired by your comments on a post of mine.

The English Organizer said...

Oh my goodness, what a difficult time for you. Adjusting to a retired other-half is a big deal on its own, without the huge news you've had about your heritage.
I agree, it does sound rather like your Dad didn't know. And, while I don't know much about those times, it does make sense that this isn't something people would publicize back then. I hope you do manage to get confirmation - I think that would be helpful. And maybe, when enough time has passed, you'll feel better that you know. Families are such strange things, that strong loving relationships hopefully count for more than blood.
Since I'm the only one of my small clan who doesn't like golf, coffee, alcohol (much) or grubbing around growing vegetables, being adopted has crossed my mind more than once. But then I look at my nose and suspect that's not what happened :)
(Hope you don't find that note of humour offensive....) And I hope also that you're sleeping a bit better as your mind starts to make sense of all this.

Revanche said...

Oh wow, that's such a big thing to have thrust upon you. How very unsettling indeed. In my early twenties, I had the worst trouble reconciling myself to the idea that my ethnic heritage was different to what I'd grown up assuming; this feels much more viscerally shaking.

I wish you many more sleep filled nights.

Rick Stone said...

Not really sure how to comment here. We don't always know why people do the things they do. They may be well meaning, just being a busybody or they could be trying to show they know something others don't. Giving her the benefit of the doubt let's hope she felt she was doing you a service. Regardless, I'm sorry you learned of this private, family information in the way you did.

Rick Stone said...

Also, as the issue of adjusting to two retirees, all of a sudden, being together much more than they have gotten used to: I think it helped Jo & I that we retired on the same day and then did a lot of traveling the first year and a half of that retirement. The traveling still helps although we don't get to do as much now while dealing with our aged parents situations.

Shelley said...

Many thanks to all of you for the comforting comments. I can see why people feel they make friends through their blogs (makes as much sense as finding family through genealogy).

Bill discovered an illegitimate birth in his tree and that his surname was of the unmarried mother. He thought for a while of taking another name - mine, for example - and still feels that though he's entitled to his surname, it's only because of something not right that he and two or three previous generations have it.

Oh, I always think people need humour - more than ever - when going through painful stuff. I've always been a type that leaks easily but can laugh at the same time. I don't always understand British humour but I do love the blackness of it!

My Dad was clearly very fortunate to have been taken by Grandma and Grandp and I know that they got a lot of happiness from having him, too.

I'm hoping to get the records, as much to learn more about how Grandma & Grandpa lived as to find out anything about the Broun's, though that would be interesting, too.

Thanks again for all your kindness! I'm feeling I'm in very good company!

Anonymous said...

Just read your post Shelley and I can see what a shock all this has been - I really feel for you!

Oh and what are saying about Bill (and my) last name coming from an illegitimate mother?

love Jane

Shelley said...

Hello Jane! I believe Bill gave you access to the Family Tree on Ancestry.com. I'm sure he's told you the story,too, remember the one about "The Bastard & The Slut" that he used to hop around smiling about? He was so pleased to have solved the mystery about that vague family rumour. I'm fine - just went for a run on the beach - just getting used to a new idea...