Just think of it as coming over for a cup and a chat...
Saturday, 29 January 2011
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.
North Tyneside, North East England, United Kingdom
I'm an American woman in my 60's, originally from Oklahoma, but now living in England. I write this blog mainly because I love to write, but also to share my experience of living abroad with others. I'm having a much bigger life than I ever imagined. I think it is one of the benefits of frugality, also of occasionally taking the scarier option.