A while back my bride cast her DNA bait into 23 and Me and Ancestry. Com to fish around for her biological roots. See, she was adopted long ago, six decades to be precise. Expectations were set appropriately low. After all, how many relatives in her tribe would also get onto connective DNA data bases? And why would they? They weren’t missing anyone. Right? What were the odds of connecting with a first degree relative, like 13,000,000 to 11? (I know, you can reduce that figure, but it looks more impressive with lots of zeroes and odd numbers.) Still, she went for it. The drive to know where you come from is strong, I suppose. I have the opposite issue: I often long not to know some of my family. (I’m partially joking, I think. Well, no. If you read some of my earliest posts, you know what I mean.)
It’s not just about knowing the names on the other branches of one’s family tree. There are all the stories that connect tissue to tissue, bone to bone, joint to joint. Family history and scuttlebutt, personalities, traits and trades, talents and professions that flow across generations whether you know your relatives or not. Dimples, freckles and eye shapes silently loiter across time in various other faces captured in yellowing photos.
A year went by without much to get excited about. There were third cousins in Georgia and a fourth in Sicily. We figured there had to be Italians in the family, since we had it on unofficial hearsay that her bio dad was Italian and had been an attorney. Dribs and drabs pinged in email messages sporadically, like spores finding open petri dishes to feed upon. Nothing of significance until one night, pa pong!!! A lady named B. showed up as a full paternal side aunt. My wife’s biological father’s biological sister. Wow! What a moment that was. Very quickly empathic, joyous, and welcoming emails flew back and forth and then up to a living uncle on her dad’s side. Uncle P. was just as open and accepting as Aunt B. These new Facebook friends provided a lot of peripheral information to help my bride piece together her ancestry. A whirlwind of family seedlings blew into our wi-fied ranch house. The air nearly crackled with the marrow rich data.
As the story unfolded, we concluded that my wife’s parents actually got married after her adoption. It was not clear that anyone except her mother knew of the pregnancy. But wait– there is more. Two older half sibs from the mom’s first husband, who died after the Korean War. But wait even longer, wait, wait– a full younger brother within the bonds of marriage. Strange symmetry here; my wife is also one of four adoptive kids. Her adopted dad had two sisters and a brother. Her biological father also had two sisters and one brother. Ah, the patterns, the predestination of genetics or just crazy mo jo.
The world began to spin in a new direction, backwards, as historical deserts bloomed and family members jumped up out of the somnolent Sicilian soil. Her biological parents, you ask? Both dead for 15 years or so. He was an attorney and a jazz musician. The mom was the woman for whom my wife was named. Her middle name now. Through the miracle of the internet she found pictures of her parents, seeing their faces for the first time. Think about that for a minute: you have seen your mom and dad’s faces since birth if you are in your natural biological family environment. You did not wonder what they looked like, never longed to see the faces that together made your face… It is a simple but profound truth– We all want what we do not have. At age 60, my wife got what she wanted– an early birthday present of immeasurable value– her biological identity.
So the day came in late May to meet this Aunt B and her husband… in all places to connect, we met half way in Lancaster, Amish country. It was all familiar somehow, as if we’d known each other for ages. Familiar and family come from the same Latin root word, household, so naturally these themes were intertwined in our meeting. There was no stranger, no widow or orphan present, just family. Which is how I imagine heaven will be– very familiar and cozy, innocent and true, with free buggy rides across the River Jordan.
B. wore a fedora. She likes hats and has over 100. It’s her statement accessory. Confidently extroverted. Spunky and warm. We exchanged photos and stories, questions and answers. Then a dinner where an old character played piano and sang along to computerized soundtracks. The steam boat-themed restaurant felt like a small cruise ship for two hours as we moved along the deep channels of history and tragedy. The old guy at the piano could have winked and magically turned into a young Tony Bennett as time turned fluid, flowing backwards and uphill to its source.
“Sicily is where our people come from. Near Taormina.” Nothing seemed to shock or surprise our ears. ‘Of course, it all seemed to make sense’, we thought quietly. “The PA town we grew up in was full of Sicilian brick workers who had been brought over to work in a factory near there. Everyone knew everyone.”
“Your dad was so smart. He never had to study. He milked cows twice a day before and after school. Always busy, so he was.”
“He was a character, you know”, chimed in W., Bea’s husband of 33 years. “Oh yeah, he called me up one night and tried to speak German. He’d been drinking, you know. He didn’t speak it so well.”
“Oh, he could play the trombone. Sure.”
“And J., my sister, loved to dance. She would just have loved to have met you. That’s her in this picture. She was just lovely.”
“Here’s your dad and mom on their wedding day.”
“And later on.”
That’s how the words and feelings flickered on through dinner and again over breakfast the next day, my wife and her new aunt and uncle, pressing down the grounds of family beans; distilling an enchanting liqueur. Oh so sweet; pungent as mother’s milk.
What better lyric to finish with than Paul McCartney’s Long and Winding Road…
The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to you door
That road is comforting, rolling forward and down easy now. My bride is home, home, home.