Monday, October 19, 2009

Know Thyself

My mom doesn’t know who her father was. Not literally; he did live in the same house with her and her mother and older brother for a brief time. But he was never there much, she was really young when he left, and he never really had much to do with her anyway. So though she knows his name and dimly recalls his appearance, she can’t really say that she ever really knew him.

When I was a little girl, everything surrounding my grandfather—her dad—was a big mystery. I knew the man my grandmother—we called her Nana—was married to at the time was not my mom’s dad and was curious about what the circumstances were that brought her to divorce my grandfather and marry him, but I knew better than to ask. Whatever had happened with my grandfather was not to be spoken of, and I somehow knew this without being told. Later on, as a pre-teen, I went through a box of old photos that had been in my grandmother’s attic, and noticed that a bunch of them had half the photo cut away. It had not even occurred to me that I might find a picture of my grandfather in there, but the mutilated photos were concrete evidence that whatever had precipitated my Nana’s divorce from my grandfather must’ve been pretty bad. Must’ve made her angry enough that she never wanted to see his face again, not even in old blurry black and white photos. Angry enough that she didn’t care if my sister and brother and I—her grandchildren—ever got to see what their grandfather looked like. She was pissed off that I had even found and pilfered the box of photos, I guess because she knew I might try to ask her a lot of difficult questions on a subject she did not wish to discuss. Of course the mere fact that she yelled at me for doing it was enough to keep my mouth shut, so I never worked up the courage to ask anyway.

My mom doesn’t know who her father was, so she can’t really describe him to us except for some vague memories—how he smelled, the sound he made coming in the front door from work each evening. But he must’ve been pretty good-looking because my Uncle Brooke—mom’s older brother—was quite a handsome young man, and my mom was a knockout in her day. She used to get mistaken for Ali McGraw all the time—and this was with wearing no makeup and already having two young children and a third on the way. I know my uncle was good-looking because Nana kept a photo of him from his days in the Coast Guard on a bureau in one of her spare bedrooms. I remember curly hair, a round smiling face, a devil-may-care grin and twinkle in the eyes that told me he must have been Trouble.

Indeed, my mom always spoke of Uncle Brooke—when she could be persuaded to speak of him at all—with palpable resentment, because Nana just adored him, and never tried to hide the fact that he was her favorite child. She always favored boy children (and grandchildren), and my uncle was the apple of her eye. Got away with murder, so my mom said. I never met him, though; despite the fact that Nana kept his photo around, Uncle Brooke was, like his father, persona non grata. We children didn’t know anything about him except that he was married and had some kids of his own who were our cousins. We didn’t know where he lived or what he did for a living or the names of his wife and children. Like my grandfather, he just wasn’t talked about. In fact, most of the time it was like we didn’t have an Uncle Brooke at all--that is, until the day when my mom got the phone call informing her that he had died. It was one of the only times I’ve ever seen my mom cry, and I still remember the look on her face when she hung up the phone. Seems our uncle—like his father before him—had drunk himself to death. Of course, we knew none of this till years later, and only then because we questioned my mom about it; she wasn’t giving up any information on the subject on her own, that was for sure.

I have a couple friends who were adopted, and who don’t know who their birth parents are. Matter of fact, one of my best friends in high school was adopted. She was totally up front about it and didn’t really seem bothered by it. But just from my own experience with the mystery surrounding my grandfather, I know it’s got to sting. The insecurity, the not knowing. The fear that people are going to leave you, that you don’t really know yourself: why you do certain things, look a certain way. These feelings of loss and confusion can make dealing with adoptees a difficult proposition at times. Intimacy is difficult, complicated. In my own experience, it’s just so hard getting them to trust you as a friend, companion, lover. I want so much to tell them that I understand; that, as with them, there are things about myself I don’t yet know and may never discover. Want to look them in the eye and tell them that it’s ok; that I care about them for the people they are, not for who their parents might have been. That despite knowing my parents and most of my immediate family, I don’t really know myself that well either.

But there are times when I look in the mirror and think—did my grandpa have this nose, these eyes? This temper, this tendency toward self-loathing and despair? Did the black cloud of depression hang over his head, too? And I wonder—if I had known him, would it help me know myself?

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