When my parents--20 years apart in age--were married, my dad asked my mom to promise one thing: no children. At thirty-nine, Dad had already raised three sons with his first wife and was done. My mom, a nineteen-year-old fresh from a small West Virginia mining town making her way in the big city of Richmond, happily agreed.
I was two weeks old when they adopted me.
Over time, the fact that I’m adopted has faded into the background music of my life--the song is there but I mostly tune it out. This month has caused it to swell to full refrain, a volume 11. At my daughter’s school, the social/emotional learning theme for the month is “honoring our past.” Meanwhile, my son comes home with a fill-in-the-blanks form about the lineage of his parents and grandparents. Both are filled with questions about their heritage. I shirk their inquiries by saying simply, “Call your grandma.”
When they get off the phone with my mom, they are filled with exciting lineage tidbits. We’re Scottish! We’re English! We’re related to Daniel Boone! Oh, and who’s Daniel Boone?! They eagerly look up their new homelands on a map and I feel nothing.
Because I’m adopted I don’t know if I’m Scottish or English and I’m pretty sure Daniel Boone’s blood does not throb through my veins. By extension, all of this is true of for my children too. And though they know about my adoption and understand what it means for me, they don’t connect it at all to their own genetic backgrounds. They are content in their own histories--a confidence that has clearly skipped a generation.
The mother and father who raised me are my only parents. I don’t long for the mother who gave me up. As far as extended family goes, I’ve had off and on relationships with my much older half-brothers; I have an aunt and an uncle that I enjoy at the holidays, a few nephews, and a beloved grandma who passed away. That’s it. In my view, my family stretches only a generation or two. I didn’t know and love those who came before therefore I’m not really related to them.
At temple my daughter recently had to construct a family tree. She put me on one side and her dad on the other. His half was leafy and full, a shady wonderland. My side looked like dutch elm disease had struck. I helped my daughter add extra names of people she’s never met, just so the tree wouldn’t lean to one side.
Everything about my identity is co-opted. I’m Southern because my adoptive mom and dad grew up in West Virginia and Virginia respectively. I’m Jewish because I practice it for my husband and children though I’ve never converted. My maiden name was on loan from my adoptive parents while my current one is borrowed from my husband. I have an unsettling sense of free-floating. None of it feels like it’s mine. I lack many of the labels we use to define ourselves.
It's especially difficult to not have a traceable history in a place like Glencoe. Many of the people here are like boomerangs--they grew up here, left for college and explored life elsewhere for a bit then turned around and headed right back. A quick list of 20 Glencoe women I know well, yields 12 who grew up on the north shore, 6 more from the midwest, and only two who moved here from somewhere else entirely. As an outsider, I envy the sense of continuation they’re offering their children even though it’s something they likely seldom think about. For most, geography ceases to matter as a defining characteristic but it’s all I’ve got.
I spent 16 of my first 25 years in Florida so the only identifier I can rightly claim is that I am a Floridian. Yet, Florida itself is ill-defined. It’s not “the east,” though it’s boasts a large eastern coast. It’s not “the south,” though it’s holds our nation’s most southernmost point. So what image does “Floridian” even conjure? The state is host to so many Northern transplants that it possesses no culture of its own. If you’re seeking an identity to cling to, the sunshine state offers no warm assurances.
My husband and I went to Italy on our honeymoon and I fell in love--with the place. I proclaimed it my homeland (I might have been tipsy on grappa at the time). It’s possible, I reasoned--I have dark hair and dark eyes, though my husband has refuted my claim to olive skin. And I love Italian wine and food. For lack of a verifiable cultural heritage, I’ve decided to adapt a culinary one.
This month, in honor of my psuedo-Italian status, I decide to make one of my favorite desserts: tiramisu. Tiramisu is not for the calorie-counter or the gooey-sweet lover; it’s taste is decadent and understated at the same time. It’s caffeinated and boozy--a little like me. It is also not a dessert for the impulsive as it has to sit for several hours so the flavors of espresso, brandy, mascarpone cheese, and whipped yolks can sink into the delicate ladyfingers (a creepy name for something edible).
I allow mine to soak overnight then have it for breakfast with tea. And for lunch. Oh, and as an afternoon snack. By the time I attend my writing group that evening, I’ve had four delicious pieces and am a little ill. I bring the leftovers to share and end up eating a fifth piece. If I’m going to be Italian, I need to learn a little willpower or I won’t have room for the pasta. My kids have no such problem; they try one tiramisu bite each then outdo each other with descriptors: yuck, blech, terrible, gross.
When it came to having children, I eagerly anticipated finally knowing someone who resembled me. I pined for a mini-me--a brown-haired, dark-eyed, round-faced baby. Instead, my son was born my husband’s doppelganger, who in turn is already his own father’s twin who happens to resemble his father. Pre-marriage I should have bolted after seeing photos of the trio lined up looking like versions of the same person at different ages. I never had a chance--those Rothbard genes barrel through anything in their way.
When I discovered that my second child was to be a girl, I had some anxiety about my sweet little daughter looking like her father. Sure, he’s handsome--but a female version? I imagined some half-monkey baby with a pink bow in her abundant hair. Upon birth, she looked like an old man, yes, but not like her father; she was a baby Harrison Ford in his Blade Runner days complete with a dark pointed hairline and sour expression. But within months she grew into her Rothbard looks. Even now, every time someone remarks about how our kids favor my husband, it’s a dagger to me. I do realize that my children are me in lots of ways from their interests to their personalities, but it would thrill me to have a stranger remark, “You’re daughter looks just like you,” rather than, “Are you the nanny?” This small thing I was hoping would connect me--a resemblance--didn’t come to pass.
Though I can’t make my children look like me, there are other ways I could nail down an identity. I could mount a birth parent search or petition to have my health records released. I could get a cheek swab to determine my maternal side ancestral origin. I could commit to a religion via conversion. I haven’t done any of these because though there’s unease in the unknown, there’s also freedom. I’m loathe to commit. Each choice narrows our path. Right now I can be whomever I want to be. Next, I think I’ll be Buddhist or maybe Greek. I do so love baklava.