Monday, May 4, 2009

Rooted in Love: Grafting A Family Tree

History Hobbyist

If not for my aunt, I wouldn't know much about my mother's side of the family. Where I was curious enough to simply learn the first few generations, she has gone back to learn the name of the town my ancestors emigrated from to come to America. She uses a number of on-line tools, and e-mails her newest findings to me. Like her scrapbooking, it's a time-consuming hobby. Not that I'm apathetic about searching through history. To the contrary, I find it intriguing. That's just it; with the exception of predetermining potential medical concerns, ancestry is merely an interesting tale. Still, history does speak, sometimes its account is rather ordinary, but others beg to be shared for their value in healing a past cradled in hurt. Such is the case in the telling of my story.
What Are You?
Ancestry is a line of descent that traces family history, often symbolized as a tree. My mother's tree is a myrtle. My father's is an oak. Her myrtle has been shaped by Pacific coast winds, weathering many terrible storms. It grows short, though it's crown is broad. The oak grows taller, its crown round, branches stout. Between the two, the oak has a healthier 100-year history. Nurtured in rich southern soil, its presence is strong and stable. One would not find these two trees growing in the same part of the forest, but my ancestry is unusual, my roots a tangled curiosity I often share with strangers who appreciate the peculiar. "What are you?" is the most common question I am asked, so common in fact I started charging for the answer. "It's my retirement fund," I explain. Now, with the recession, I charge extra for exact percentages.
Roots of Truth
I was born into an ancestry historically at odds in American society. My ancestors would never have come together for dinner or worship. They would not have been neighbors. Still, were it not for social conditions, I believe they would have gotten along well enough. My great grandmother was English, her husband Swiss German. They settled on the coast of Oregon, in a small town that was unheard of until a world-class golf course planted itself on the dunes. Together they had one son, my grandfather (passed March 2009) who married my grandmother, still living, also English. They had seven children, three boys and four girls. One boy died of multiple sclerosis, and it was later revealed that one girl, my aunt, the expert ancestry researcher, was not my grandfather's daughter, a truth my grandmother hid for 35 years. I think this is what prompted my aunt's search for her roots, it is also what she and I share in common: a search for our real father. For me, however, the findings exposed a hard truth about my conception, one that would take years for me to process and finally accept.
My mother is the oldest daughter of my grandparents. She grew up with the Beatles, and like most in the following era, she rebelled with John Lennon. This rebellion led her to Eugene, Oregon where she met my father. They shared housing; in the hippie days cooperative living was acceptable. One night, when the other roommates were out shopping, something happened. My mother says it was an uncooperative coupling, my father says she liked it that way.   God knows the truth.  I didn't learn about the rape until after I found my father, 17 years after my birth. Up until that point, the quest to find him had been my primary mission, and plagued my psychological development through childhood and into adolescence. The motivating force driving my obsession was related to my physical inheritance - I was the black sheep of the family, literally. My mother's blond, straight hair was a stark contrast to my black curls. My hazel eyes marveled at the soft blue of my mother's. I wanted to know why I was so different from the rest of my family. I needed to know. Once discovered, the truth, - whether his version or her's - was a secondary issue. At 17, my existence, the very purpose of my being, rested on knowing my father.
The Search Is On
In the eighties, the tools to find people did not exist. I had to use good old-fashioned private investigation. I remember my mother telling me my father use to teach art at a school in Eugene. In 1987, circumstances required that I be transferred to a new high school, (I started my rebellion earlier than my mother - perhaps that is a character one inherits.) I started my senior year at North Eugene High School. Since I was in the area, I called the school district to see if they had record of my father. They did; he taught at the very school to which I had transferred. It was as if God was finally joining the search party. The day after I made the phone call, I showed up to school early, anxious to learn more.
Within hours of my arrival at school, I discovered two people who actually knew my father - my math teacher, and the school principal. After talking with the principal, he offered his support, suggesting I call the district again to learn where my father earned his bachelor's degree. "The school may have a record of his permanent address. You'll have to wait until after school to make the calls," he said apologetically. I didn't mind, I'd waited this long to find him, what was a few more hours? Then he made a second suggestion that would change the way I saw myself from that day forward. "You could see him if you wanted. We keep yearbooks down the hall. I bet his picture is one of them somewhere." I was stunned, almost too shocked to pursue the possibility. "I have to go back to class," I stuttered. "I'll right you a pass," he offered.
What happened next I can only liken to the climax of a suspense thriller.  Tension chords played on my nerves as I walked the long hallway that extended the length of the school. Of course the yearbook office was way down at the end, in a wing I had never been. As I searched the bookshelves, I tried to think which book I would find him; in the year of my birth or the year prior to conception? I found 1969. Nothing. The year 1971 did not give me anything either. I searched for 1970 but couldn't find it. I cursed the devil, just like him to interfere at a time like this. Then I found it, tucked behind the 70s. I searched the index for his last name to no avail. I could hear the blood pulsing in my ears, the devil mocking me. "He's not here, you'll never find him. You're lost." I refused to quit, arguing against his discouragement, this has to be it! I looked through the contents; there was no listing for faculty, only a section for academics starting on page 181. I turned to its beginning and flipped the pages one by one, slowly, searching the faces on the page, looking for blackness. By page 190 I was almost in tears, the movie music of this thriller reaching its crescendo. Where is he?! Then, on the bottom of page 196, I search stopped. There, my eyebrows, my nose, my lower lip. My father. It was done. I was finally complete.
Historic Findings
The story flew by quite quickly after that day. The district office gave me the address of my father's alma mater. I mailed him a letter, which was an awkward exercise. How do you introduce yourself to a father who doesn't know you were ever born? I found the words, simple and to the point, and slipped the letter in the mail just days after my discovery. About three weeks later, I received a phone call. The voice on the other end was old, speaking my name in an unfamiliar way. "This is your grandfather." It took a few seconds to register: Grandpa who? Grandpa Franz never calls. Then it hit. The tears exploded in response as he spoke. "I wanted to tell you I received your letter and the first thing you should know is, we love you." I cannot explain how deeply that simple statement affected me. In that moment, with those few words, I felt fortunate and relieved, like finding a lost heirloom previously assumed gone for good.   I have never experienced that combination of emotions again, but I think it is what most people seek when searching for their identity, tracing history in hope of finding that Christ-like, born again feeling: I am loved, I am wanted, I am an important piece of someone's story. Months later, during spring vacation, I become a part of that history when I went to meet my father's mother and father in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Other Side of the Story
When I met my grandmother, she was in the middle stages of Alzheimer's. I had to introduce myself again and again during my visit. It was frustrating, I remember feeling cheated. I found my family, but they couldn't remember me! It was teenage overexaggeration of course, but to this day I don't believe she ever understood that I was her granddaughter. Even with a healthy memory, it is difficult to wrap one's mind around such a story. My grandfather was very accommodating, making me feel comfortable, welcome. I would spend many years after our first meeting learning about their history, my history. I had to remind myself of that often, as if it wasn't quite real for me. My father's ancestry is not as certain due to the history of slavery. My grandfather told me both he and my grandmother carry a small percentage of Native American in their lines, Chippewa and Quapaw. This is one of the first distinctions people recognize in my appearance. My grandparents were both born in Arkansas where they married and had two sons, my uncle, now deceased, and my father who managed to spread the oak seed from Oregon all the way back to Africa. I did meet my father during that spring trip, but it was anti-climactic. Like a spiritual journey, it was the seeking, not the reaching of the destination that fired my spirit. The search was over, what remained was a relationship; awkward, distant, and too easily abandoned in order to avoid the discomfort. Recently, however, as I mother my second child, now four-years-old, I have renewed interest in building a bridge over the troubled waters that carried me into this world.
Begetting Strange Fruit
The stories of two families - one black, the other white - came together at my conception. Not a gentle loving union as the river meets the sea, more like a tsunami comes upon a desert city: chaotic, confusing, against the common order of things. My emotionally flooded beginning left its people with no choice but to accept me. It is a blessing that they did so compassionately; the storm cannot be blamed for its creation. It just is, as I am - an oak branch grafted to a myrtle tree. Odd, but growing. Though I may not have been conceived with love, my life can be a reflection of love, through my relationship with others. It is a wonder, however, why God places certain spirits within a particular context; ancestry a casting designed to mold a person just so. If not by chance, for what reason did the Lord determine I should be the result of such a coupling? Why this family and not another? How is my genetic combination necessary in the big scheme of things? The bible often describes lengthy chapters of ancestry, this man and woman begat this child who married and begat that one and so on. Such precise record of lineage is clearly significant, enough to include in a sacred text. Each name an imperative connection, one leading to another, stretching back to the beginning when God first created man and woman, their likeness reaching forward with the next begotten son or daughter. Perhaps it's just that simple - I was born to maintain the connection, to continue the likeness of her and history. I am one name of many, an image of those before and those who will come after me, an added detail to a larger picture of which I cannot know the whole, for it is still developing. In this sense, it is less my ancestry and more the continuing of God's strange, but fantastic story.

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