One Drop

For #NAAM2019, I’m rewinding a piece from 2017 on finding ethnicity (more than once) as an adoptee. Originally published in Argot at https://www.argotmagazine.com/first-person-and-perspectives/one-drop

One Drop

 

Publish D   [Image description: a close-up microscope image of blood platelets.]
Image description: a microscopic closeup of blood platelets
I used to be Italian and Jewish, the product of what was called a “mixed marriage” in the mid-twentieth century. Although that made me different in a bad way from other kids, the good news was all religious holidays were mine to exploit. Good Friday and Yom Kippur, Ash Wednesday and Rosh Hashanah, all of them freed me from school. I could be religious at will.
At twenty-one, I turned into Nothing. A cousin told me I was adopted, and no information was available about where I came from. I became the question mark, the blank page, the space between these words. A bit of a nihilist at that point, I found living in uncertainties felt liberating.

When the State of Florida, where I was born, sent me the non-identifying information allowed by law, I turned into the daughter of a fifteen-year old girl who was Irish and Native American.

Few people know the whole story of their lineage; for adopted people, answers about ethnicity can zigzag wildly. Occasionally, a casual acquaintance has asked me, “What are you?” as if they’ve observed my perma-tan with suspicion. My answers to that question have changed depending on what I thought I knew at the time. But I was raised white, and I’ve passed as white all my life. Aside from a gang of Irish neighbor kids beating me up while yelling “dirty Jew” when I was eight years old, white privilege has protected me from racist violence all my life.

At thirty-four years old, I reunited with my blood family thanks to a private investigator. Except for one aunt, no one knew I’d even existed. But my family recognized me because I looked so much like my mother, who’d died the previous year.

I was a surprise, a long-lost sister for my six siblings. ­­ I also gained two aunts, an uncle, a dozen nieces and nephews, and eight first cousins on my mother’s side. No one knew who my father might have been. They did know, however, that my mother’s father was not the man named on her birth certificate – her real father was a Jewish man that my grandmother worked for. So then I turned into an Irish, Native, and Jewish woman.

My new relatives were very open about stories many families regard as secrets, and my siblings were puzzled my birth had been hidden. Everyone knew my grandmother had given up two babies before bearing my mother, and everyone knew about the anxiety disorders, addictions, hospitalizations, and incarcerations that plagued our family. At a funeral, one of my mother’s childhood friends revealed I was the third baby my mother had given up for adoption. That meant my mother had been pregnant at least three times by the age of fourteen.

I started thinking I might be a product of incest, maybe a big enough secret to hide. Elton, my mother’s stepfather, had been a violent man according to my aunts and my uncle. My grandmother had divorced him soon after I was born. If Elton was my father, that meant my aunts and my uncle were also my half-siblings.

I spun another paternal theory, too. My mother became pregnant with my sister Belinda just two months after I was born. Maybe, I thought, Belinda’s father was my father, too, and our mother and her husband hadn’t wanted to tell their six other children they’d given an older sister away. If that was what happened, then my half-sister Belinda was my sister on both sides.

Either of these theories worked for me. I loved my new-found family so much, the thought of being even more closely related to them was appealing, even if that meant my mother had suffered. The years went by, and I thought about these theories from time to time, but there didn’t seem to be any way to check them. My adopters were silent, and the laws of Florida, where I was born, still keep adoptees’ original birth certificates secret.

Then in the spring of 2015, my sister Belinda, my aunt Rose, and I all spat in our individual tubes and sent our DNA samples off to 23andMe. When we got the results back in June, they showed Rose was still only my aunt, and Belinda was still only my half-sister. Both of my paternity theories were shot down. I started imagining the happier possibility that my mother, at fourteen, had simply been caught up in a youthful passion.

My family believed we had American Indian blood, and Rose and Belinda’s results both showed a fractional percentage of Native ancestry. My results showed a slightly higher percentage. And, I learned I was 1.2% Sub-Saharan West African. Just a bit over one drop.

One Drop laws, a feature of the systematic American racism of the twentieth century, enforced a binary, either/or definition of race. In states with One Drop laws, people were officially defined as either white or black for purposes of census-taking, voting, employment, and all matters related to segregation. One drop of Sub-Saharan African blood, or one African ancestor, made a person subject to all the racist restrictions imposed against African-Americans. And because there was no room for a third or fourth or fifth designation in that white or black system, the One Drop laws resulted in a paper genocide attack on many Native American tribes.

These laws were in effect when I was born, when ideas about “racial purity” were still in vogue. Were my adopters, with their mixed Catholic and Jewish marriage, allowed by the state of Florida to adopt me only because I, too, was mixed – the bastard child of an Irish-Native-Jewish-African bastard? And now that I know the truth, am I a transracial person?

I hesitated to claim that identity. Cultural appropriation has felt icky to me since the New Age phenomenon took off in the 1970’s. And coincidentally, right before my DNA tests came back, a regional NAACP executive was outed as a white woman in a series of national news stories. The executive’s mother and father came forward to tell the world that their daughter, who’d been posing as African-American for about ten years, was a white woman. At the time, I thought the story a particularly wackadoodle example of cultural appropriation.

Then, soon after my DNA results came back, a scholar and college professor who’d represented herself as Cherokee in her life and her work, someone I’d met, spoken with, and had personally admired, was also outed in the media as white. Questions about her true ethnicity had circled around for years, and it seems she’d tried to develop proof of a Native identity, but hadn’t been able to find even that one precious drop of Indian blood.

People still ask me the “What are you?” question. Today, if I felt like answering, I’d say “Irish, Native American, Jewish, African.” Maybe I’ll start saying “Not quite white.” I like the rhyme.

I feel a sense of pride knowing that some of my ancestors survived American racism, at least for long enough to have children of their own. But I’ve felt uneasy about identifying as African or Native, and can’t help questioning where this uneasiness comes from. Maybe it’s from my belief that identity is so much about experience and emotion.

When people of color experience racism and express rage, anger, frustration, disgust, and fear, I may listen with respect and feel empathy or outrage on their behalf, but the primary emotions do not belong to me because I’m not a target of racism. I can’t pretend those primary emotions are mine, and if I did pretend, I’d be no better than the wannabe-African NAACP executive or the wannabe-Indian professor. I’ve passed as white for good reason – DNA analysis shows I’m 97% white.

But if I hang on to my identity as white, what does that mean? Am I intentionally passing at the expense of others? Am I complicit in silencing the mixed-race truth of the American population? After half a life spent separated by adoption from my family, my culture, and my history, and the other half navigating through a new and complex identity, sometimes I long to once again be Nothing, the space between these words.

 

“Maternity Cave” for #NAAM2018

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, which began in 1976 in Massachusetts to promote awareness of the need for adoptive families for children in foster care. While the “celebration” has continued to promote adoption from foster care, it’s also been co-opted by the for-profit adoption industry.

Every adoption begins with the breakdown of a family, and for this reason, a national celebration of adoption can bring up feelings of loss and alienation for adoptees and first parents. Adoption is complicated, and its effects are lifelong for everyone involved.

In my family, there’s a rich history of mothers giving up their children — most often to other family members, though. “Maternity Cave” is a story about how that history, and the tragedy of family breakdown, has played out for me and for one of my nieces.

Click on the image to read the full story.

Maternity Cave

Writing Memoir: Where’s the End?

A girl reading a book with the title “Where the World Ends.” Photo by Annie Spratton Unsplash

Where do I end the world of my memoir? The ending keeps getting further away from me.

Some well-worn advice is to end on an image, or an action, or with dialogue, or (very carefully) with a reflection.

I’ll stay away from the reflection possibility because of my bad habit of wrapping up any story or poem with a cutesy little bow.

One of the best essays I’ve read so far about ending a memoir is Leigh Stein’s HOW TO END A MEMOIR WITHOUT
GETTING MARRIED
. It appeals to me because Leigh shows herself struggling against the neatly tied up ending.

I love it when a book’s conflicts and themes get resolved. But not too resolved.

Author and writing coach Lynette Benton agrees and asks whether resolution is even necessary:

Do readers earn the right to a snug, reassuring wrap up to a memoir? Must the narrative of a segment of a life (which is what a memoir is) unfailingly end neatly? And even if it seems to, neither we, nor the narrator, can know for example, if the recovering addict falls off the wagon the very day we sigh with satisfaction over the end of an addiction memoir.

I have to choose an endpoint, and maybe I should choose based on the memorableness of the end-point. So here goes with examples of how I might use imageaction, and dialogue to conclude my memoir draft. Coming up with these examples may prove helpful, but right now they are just making me more indecisive.

My first instinct is to end on an image. In one scene from the middle of my current draft, I’m on the Tybee Island beach at night and the ocean has turned phosphorescent. My aunt starts telling the little kids that it’s magic fairies in the water, but my uncle starts explaining bioluminescence to them. When his wife objects, he says “They make their own damn light. Isn’t that magic enough?” I’d love to return to that image.

Vultures in a tree. by Casey Allen on Unsplash

Writers are such vultures, by the way. Another reason I can’t decide is that events keep happening that make me think “This would be a great ending to my memoir!”

I have a very big family, and someone is always saying or doing something that relates to my themes of finding identity and figuring out what makes a family stick together.

Maybe dialogue would work. Like when I was with my nephew and two of my nieces just before Christmas. They had a playful argument about “whose story was best,” of the ones I’d written about each of them: Alan MichaelTheresa, and BeeBee.

The joking conversation they had touched me deeply. I’m very lucky that my family supports my writing unconditionally, even when they know I’m in vulture mode, thinking about how I can use something they’re saying or doing in a poem or essay. I could end the memoir with their dialogue about their stories!

Or maybe an action is how the memoir should end. I recently published a short piece with Shondaland about searching for an Elvis tapestry that belonged to the mother I never met. If I use that action — the searching — I might be able to slap that already-written-essay onto the end of of the 80,000+ words I’ve written so far. So tempting!

What are your thoughts — are stories best when all their loose ends are tied up? Or do you like some ambiguity at the end? What are some of the best endings you’ve read or written?

Poetry: Imagining Conception

Newborn baby. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

As an adoptee who never met her mother, it may be easier for me to imagine my conception than it is for others — because I have no predetermined story to go on.

But imagining conception of any kind can be a fertile beginning (pun intended) for a poem. Think, for example, of the poems that imagine the conception of the world, or of a piece of fabulous music, or a metaphorical conception, even poems that imagine the beginning of other poems.

Beginnings are powerful, whether they are the beginning of the day or the beginning of night, the beginning of a marriage, or the beginning of old age. But imagining the beginning of something you know well is, perhaps, even more powerful. Imagining such a beginning makes you the co-creator of the something.

The poem below was originally published in Paper Nautilus.

Perfection is what we have to deal with

I see them coming together beside the palmetto thicket at the river,

my father hurrying from the sugar refinery, and my mother

from anywhere but school, tripping over Virginia creeper,

but keeping to the path, knowing what she wants,

although her word for it — love — won’t come close

to describing the brambles setting barbs on her shins,

her caught breath, her matted hair, the sweat between their skins,

the moss that chokes her when he turns away,

the brief secret of her belly swelling,

the not again, for heaven’s sakes hissing of teachers and neighbors,

her move to a distant cousin’s home where the taste

of sweet tea turns bitter on her tongue, or how she pushes me

out of her body with all her tiny might, right into this world

of loss, this universe of no mistakes.

Poetry Seeks the Unknown

Photo of my mother, Theresa Christie, as a teenager. circa 1956.
I never met my mother.

Like many people adopted as infants in the the 20th century, the fact of my adoption was kept secret — from me, from the neighbors, from my teachers. When I was in my 30’s, I found my blood family, but my mother had already passed away.

Poetry is a map of the human heart, a useful tool if you don’t know where a heart came from, what it’s made of, or where it’s going. I map my mother’s heart in my imagination, looking for what she felt about me.

If we’d met, there’s no telling how our relationship may have been twisted by my feelings of abandonment, or her feelings of loss. Sometimes I’m full of regret that I didn’t search for her earlier.

Oher times I wonder if waiting until it was too late spared us both some pain.

The poem below, originally published in Crab Creek Review ( regular submissions open from September 15 through November 15!), is my attempt to imagine this unknown.