10 September 2019

Labor (Day) of Love

Two years. It's been two years today. No doubt we all have those watershed moments that mark a significant change either in the trajectory of our lives or in our understanding of ourselves and those around us. I'm no different. In fact, just this morning Facebook promptly reminded me of one such occasion: that exceptional moment two years ago when I confirmed that I had a half-sister with whom I shared a different birth father than the man I'd spent the previous 5 years trying to find. (The fact that this particular revelation happened only one week into a 15-week genealogy course still confounds me. I suppose you could call it beginner's luck or perhaps poetic justice; to me it just confirmed that choosing genealogy as a new career path was clearly destined.) That initial discovery proved to be the first of many unexpected revelations over the next two years, and was one which ultimately led me to the rest of my story (not to mention enough siblings to field a [women's] lacrosse team, but that's a tale for another day). There's no denying the last two years have been full of twists and turns and highs and lows but I really wouldn't change a thing because the last two years have brought me to a host of interesting new people and a far better understanding of myself.

Honestly, I didn't want to believe it at first. And not because I wasn't interested in finding out more about my origins, but because the new facts I was suddenly given didn't quite jibe with the data I already had. I didn't understand how this new person could be my birth father when the guy I'd been chasing was the "right" age and in the right place at the right time. Moreover, I had DNA links to the guy's family tree!  How could some much older dude in Texas possibly be my birth father?? Well, turns out that's one of the things about genealogy; if you're going to do it properly, you have to learn to reëvaluate your preconceived notions and step outside the box...or possibly even on top of it. The more I researched this new potential bio-father while waiting for DNA files to be uploaded to GEDmatch, the more I started to put the pieces together for how this new guy could be the guy. It took another year to be able to reconcile my DNA matches with Dad #1, but I eventually learned I was related distantly to him through my birth mother's family. Frankly, I wouldn't be at all surprised to further discover that both Dad #1 and Dad #2 were distantly related, considering both they and my birth mother were all descended from Hoosier pioneer families who settled in and around Indianapolis. (Is Hoosier-cest a thing?) Anyway, in due course the relevant DNA was uploaded and I was able to confirm I did indeed have a new sister and the true identity of our shared birth father.

By the end of that year I'd learned of three additional new siblings (not counting the 5 born to Dad #2's wives), and a metric load of cousins. In fact, just this past Labor Day I had the inestimable privilege of attending a family reunion in Indianapolis with my sister Shan, where we met a third of our "new" cousins and their family members as well as the two living siblings of our birth father. I can't speak for my sister, but I felt like I'd come full circle--come home--at last. These new relatives were surprisingly gracious and welcoming in spite of my sudden appearance in the family and the complicated realities of my conception. They were curious (as well they might be). Many asked for my story and many shared their own (or at least parts of it), for which I was grateful. Over the course of the weekend I was asked repeatedly if I found the experience of meeting everyone overwhelming, but I truly didn't--at least not in the way they meant. Because I'd already interacted with most of them online, they weren't complete strangers to me--which certainly helped. The reality is I couldn't get enough of them. Of watching their expressions and mannerisms and seeing in those the echoes of my own. Of putting voices to faces and personalities to names. Of seeing cheekbones and smiles so very like my own. Of recognizing language phrasings and humor similar to my own. Of discovering so many musicians floating around. Of hearing my aunts' stories about their own youths and that of their siblings. My cousins and I may not have shared a common childhood, but we still share so many other things both tangible and intangible. (Genes don't lie!)  I even reveled in watching all these new cousins reacquaint themselves with each other and with their aunts, most of whom had not been together in 30+ years.  It was a glorious weekend all around, filled with love, laughter, and good food; I cannot thank my cousin Linda enough for orchestrating the whole reunion. Far from being overwhelmed, I only wish it could have lasted longer.

I returned home last week with a new and deeper understanding of myself, as well as a deeper appreciation of my adoptive family. We may not have had much growing up and I may have largely been an anomaly in my family, but I never doubted their love of me or support for me even when my interests and abilities were beyond their ken. I will always be grateful for the love and the life they gave me. I will also be eternally grateful to my new family for their openness and willingness to accept me at face value. They had every reason to be wary or cautious, yet chose unanimously to welcome me into their lives and their family and I can't wait to get to know them all better. I am doubly blessed.

Cousin Camp Family Reunion 2019 - Photo by Tom Meador.
(Because I was so busy meeting new people I never quite got around to taking many pictures so had to pinch some from my new cousins.
Hopefully they'll forgive me.)

Of course now I'm also two years behind all my genealogy classmates as far as getting a business off the ground, but I can live with that. The past 24 months have been more than worth it because now I know the rest of my story--both good and bad--and that's an amazing gift. For me, knowledge has always been power...if I can understand who I am, where I came from, and why I am the way I am, then I can use that understanding to surmount any obstacles that come my way. And that's no small thing.

Besides, who wouldn't want even more family to love? In fact, one of the best moments for me at my daughter's wedding earlier this year was watching the adoptive family who knew me at my worst back in the day and the new birth family who didn't hesitate to claim me 50-odd years later all hanging out together and laughing. As I sat back and watched them all interacting, my heart swelled with joy to see the two separate pieces of my past coming peaceably together to complete the puzzle of my life. Between that experience and the success of "Cousin Camp 2019," I am reminded once again of the poem my mother gave me long ago:

Legacy of an Adopted Child

Once there were two women who never knew each other.
One you do not remember, the other you call mother.
Two different lives shaped to make your one.
One became your guiding star, the other became your sun.
The first gave you life and the second taught you to live it.
The first gave you a need for love and the second was there to give it.
One gave you a nationality; the other gave you a name.
One gave you the seed of talent; the other gave you an aim.
One gave you emotions; the other calmed your fears.
One saw your first sweet smile; the other dried your tears.
One gave you up - that's all she could do.
The other prayed for a child and God led her straight to you.
Now you ask through all your tears the age-old question through the years:
Heredity or environment - which are you a product of?
Neither, my darling, neither--just two different kinds of love.
~Author unknown

I will never be able to adequately describe what it's like to feel complete at last--to truly understand who I am and where I came from. Most people take that knowledge for granted because it's something they've always known and so something they've never needed to question. They've never had to know what it feels like to grow up with half of yourself missing. And that's okay. But for those of us who did grow up questioning, the chance to touch base both with those we already loved, as well as to connect on an almost molecular level with new people who share parts of our faces, our expressions, and our personalities is beyond priceless. 

Heredity or environment--which are you a product of? Neither, my darling, neither--just two different kinds of love.