Family Secrets and Life Choices

Sometimes life breaks us apart into pieces we spend the rest of our lives trying to find and piece back together. We may stumble upon a piece of ourselves as we are just going about living our lives and sometimes we conduct an exploration to find some of the pieces of ourselves lying about the world. These pieces or the absence of pieces may influence choices we make along the way and our choices may influence the lives of others. This is what I’ve been thinking about as I process a family secret that has influenced my life and my choices in some pretty significant ways.

I’ve been (lazily) blogging about my DNA search for my bio-father. As I embarked upon this journey, I didn’t know what I would find or if I would find anything at all. I had (and still have) difficulty figuring out how I’m related to people through my DNA. Most of the Black people I’ve found are related to me through one of my White familial lines, something like 99% of the Black people I’m related to on both Ancestry and 23 and Me are related to me along one of these White familial lines. I messaged people asking if they might be able to help me figure out how we are related so that perhaps I can get closer to identifying and finding my bio-father. So far, I haven’t gotten any closer.

I did stumble upon a woman who was also trying to identify her bio-father. Turns out my grandpa on my maternal side, had an affair when my grandma was pregnant with their fifth and last child. The woman he had an affair with got pregnant and couldn’t keep the baby. He told my grandma that he had gotten a woman pregnant who couldn’t keep the baby and he thought they should adopt the baby. I’d like to imagine my grandma – who had been pregnant for the previous 5-6 years and had lost the middle baby, Belle, to SIDS and was likely experiencing significant postpartum after being pregnant for so long and had three babies to tend to at the time – as saying something to the effect of, “what the fucking hell is wrong with you?! Why do you think I can even handle the kids I have in addition to one more?!?!” And throwing something heavy like a cast iron skillet at his head before she booted his cheating ass to the curb. I’m pretty sure that didn’t go down. It would be several years before they divorced and several more before she found her own voice and power. My grandpa was a long-haul interstate truck driver. He was rarely home, and if family memory is accurate, he had many mistresses in those days. He was a damned handsome guy who could be very charming when he turned it on, so I don’t find this hard to imagine.

Through happenstance, my journey led me to an aunt I didn’t know I had, a sister my mom and aunts had only heard rumors about her existence. I was able to connect her, my new aunt, with her new sisters and some of her family story/history and hopefully answer some of her questions. I’m not going to tell more of this story because it isn’t mine to tell. Suffice it say, few of us were surprised, some of us were elated, some didn’t really know how to integrate this and her into our lives. I’m sure more will be revealed but for now, we are all in contact with her through social media.

Finding this new aunt made me hopeful that I, too, might find my bio-father and learn some of my familial stories and history. Around Black Friday, Ancestry was having a sale and I asked my mom if she’d do a DNA test if I had one sent to her. She was reluctant (see my previous blogs) to do so and my resentment grew significantly toward my mom. It would be so much easier if I could connect my DNA in either DNA service to a parent for me to sift through the relatives. I asked again a few months later and she was all the more reluctant. Then a few weeks after that conversation, she said she had found a DNA service I wasn’t familiar with and said she’d be willing to do that. However, I’d have had to do a third DNA test and that one likely wouldn’t feed into the two I’d already done. I told her not to waste her time and money and was still irritated but recognized she was sort of trying. I couldn’t help but feel that this concession was a little off.

A few weeks after that interaction we talked on the phone, me explaining why I needed this and how much I’ve struggled throughout my life to reconcile these two parts of myself, and her coming clean. Turns out, she always did know who my father was and had formulated the story of not knowing who had donated his sperm for me to be here. The picture she had given me as a child was the wrong man but the right name. They had been dating for a short time before she became pregnant with me. When she told him she was pregnant, he made clear he didn’t want anything to do with her or me and he hit her. She knocked his ass on the ground and left, never looking back. Now she could have stayed in the DC area and she could have aborted me even though abortion was widely illegal in those days, she could have found a way. While this isn’t a commentary on abortion, I have to say that had that been her choice, I would support that decision (or would have even though I had no choice in either decision and wouldn’t have known, obviously). She clearly chose to keep me and return home to her family. Sometimes in life, there are no good decisions to be made, only bad and worse choices to choose from. And I have to say, at 19 years old, I’m pretty certain I’d have made the same decision or I might have chosen abortion. In those days, at least where she was at in that time, nurses she worked with at Walter Reed, didn’t like to prescribe birth control so women had few options to prevent pregnancy.

Upon her return home, she could have said my bio-father had died in Vietnam. Instead, she told the story that she didn’t know who my father was and that is the story near and distant relatives know. This was not a secret. And it’s the story I’ve lived with my entire life, a story she’d intended to take to her grave. I’m not sure why this is the story she went with because “fast” or “loose” women were (and still are) highly stigmatized. Perhaps she even leaned into it and that story fed her own narrative of who she was and what she was about.

She decided to tell this story to protect me from the rejection of a father who didn’t want me. She did this because her dad, my grandpa, had rejected her on more than one occasion. My grandpa was an asshole and probably a bit narcissistic. He loved you more the more your showered him with love and admiration. And he facilitated the desire to gain his favor by withholding love and affection, which makes me wonder about his upbringing, his parents, his relationship with his siblings, and the other factors that made him into who he was. I do know he was the youngest of a mess of children, all of whom were girls and the story is he was spoiled. Anyways, he was beautiful and charming but he was also sarcastic in some really cruel ways – that is a gene I have if cruel sarcasm can be inherited. Anyways, she knew how that rejection felt and didn’t want me to experience that pain. And I didn’t feel that pain. I did feel absence, curiosity, and other emotions based on the various web of deceits – abandonment to a degree, always curiosity, grief for a loss I never knew. So she spun this tale and again, never looked back and never intended to tell me about it until I started pressing.

I think somehow, I imagined part of this story. I imagined how she didn’t know who my father was and how that even happens. I mean, I’ve thought she should be able to nail it down to a couple or a few people based upon when I was born. This isn’t something we’ve ever talked about. The last time I remember talking to my mom about my bio-father was when I was 16 and she doesn’t remember having had this convo with me. Perhaps my grandma mentioned something to me. More than likely, however, I imagined she knew who he was and for some reason, was hiding that from me. And my mind went in many directions – was she raped, was he killed in the war or in some other way, was he a horrible and violent person, was he abusive and she was fleeing the abuse. And I didn’t want to open wounds for her if any of those or something more horrible had happened. But I also wanted to know and felt I had a right to know the truth. So I pushed.

Now that I know more of the full story, I’m really struck by how the choices our parents make for us influence us in large and small ways for life. I’m thinking about how our choices are so predicated on that parent/child relationship and how that guides our lives. My mom made the decision to tell this story about herself which colored how I saw her and how family members and friends saw her and how she saw herself. That has influenced my relationship with her in ways I can identify right now and ways I have yet to uncover. Me not knowing my bio-father or knowing who he is has influenced my choices in relation to both my kids’ fathers and their relationships with their dads and it has definitely significantly influenced my intimate and romantic relationships with men – family members, friends’ dads, boyfriends/husband, friends, and colleagues. I can’t speak for all the ways in which my mom’s relationship with her dad influenced her decisions beyond this one decision – or rather I won’t conjecture, it’s not my story, or my business.

Not having a father has colored so much of my life and is something I’ve reflected on from time to time. As a kid, I never felt comfortable around my friend’s dads. I remember noticing this feeling as young as 7 or 8 years old. When their dads raised their voices, I was scared because I had no experience with a dad-like figure in my personal life. It probably influenced the ways in which I connected with and behaved toward men in my mom and grandma’s lives. Long before my grandma came out as gay, she had a long-term boyfriend, Ben I think his name was. I remember adoring him. I didn’t know, and probably still don’t, what a healthy loving relationship between a man/father figure and a child should look like, which made me vulnerable to predatory men throughout my life (perhaps a blog for another day).

Probably one of the most significant ways not having a father impacted my life is in the choices I made surrounding my own kids. Because I didn’t have a father, I believed very strongly that it was critically important that my kids know their dads, have a relationship with them and their families, and know where they came from. Which I still believe but also recognize that in one of those cases, that decision was also detrimental to both of my kids and myself. For my son, it was easy. His dad was a good human in spite of the difficulties in his own life. He was kind, generous, gentle, sensitive, and loved his son deeply. He wasn’t perfect, none of us are, and he did the best he could with what he had.

My daughter’s father was a little different. I could say a TON about the ways in which he was horrible to us – and he was, he broke me and my kids into so many different pieces and my relationship with him caused long-term significant damage to all three of us in different ways. I’m pretty open about this but won’t commit much of this to the written word in this space right now. Suffice it to say that he was abusive in ways I couldn’t identify at the time because he wasn’t hitting me or my kids and I couldn’t see at the time how significantly damaging the emotional, psychological, and spiritual abuse was until it was too late. And what’s more, these other forms of abuse weren’t being widely discussed socially, so I really lacked the language to identify and describe what was happening for too long. I remember my grandma telling me what her dad had told her about leaving my grandpa, “don’t stay too long.” I stayed too long.

And my staying was a perfect example of sometimes there are no good choices. My daughter was little, 5 when we split. He was a raging alcoholic who had a hard time keeping his truck on the road, whose behavior was erratic and volatile. He’d bully and berate all of us until he got his way or had sufficiently plowed over any one of us. I think our pain and misery made him happy, brought him some sort of comfort. Likely, he’d say something different but living it for so many years, I’m certain he took pride in his authoritarian-like control over whoever he could get to kowtow to him.

I stayed well past the point I knew I should have left. I stayed because I feared for my daughter having to spend time alone and unsupervised with him. If I was there, I could mitigate some of the toxicity on her and my son. And I definitely failed my son in ways I have deep deep regret and pain about now and will likely have the rest of my life. In some ways,I feel I sold one of my kids out to protect the other and failed on both fronts. When we split, I feared for my daughter’s safety. I worried about his drunk driving, his erratic and volatile behavior, and the enduring damage being done to her. I didn’t feel I could live far away from him because I had to be nearby if something terrible happened so that I could get to her in minutes rather than hours.

When I realized I was likely pregnant with my daughter, the writing on the wall about her dad was starting to come into focus – it wouldn’t fully come into focus for a couple more years. Before I told him I was pregnant, I had a thought about taking my son and leaving to go live with some friends 75 miles away. If he ever found out I was pregnant, I’d have told him it was a one night stand with some guy who’s full name I didn’t get. I’d make up a first name. The thing I couldn’t get passed was explaining to my kid that I didn’t know who her dad was because that had been my life, I knew that struggle and some of the layers of pain and confusion that caused me. I didn’t want to do that for her and I firmly believed that she had a right to know him and build a relationship with him. In that scenario, I remember thinking that I’d tell her who her dad was on her 18th birthday so she could make a decision about what she wanted to do. In hindsight, some of that feels like it would have saved my kids and I a lot of the damage created by my relationship with her dad but it wasn’t the choice I made.

Even when things spectacularly fell apart, I didn’t pull out all the stops I could have to limit that relationship. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I fought like hell to protect her the best way I could and used the resources I had at the time but still feel I could have done more. Because he hadn’t been physically violent (well physically threatening to be sure but he wasn’t hitting us – dragging my son through the house, forcefully grabbing us, punching the pillow or wall next to my head, nose-to-nose spit/screaming at me are all things he did – however, he never struck any of us), I felt like she had a right to know him and have a relationship with him. I felt so strongly about this that I continued to open up my heart and home to him after our divorce for years. I facilitated visitation/time with the kid above what the parenting plan dictated, and carried that through by taxiing him places each time he lost his license for the next DUI (3 in total) just so my daughter could navigate that relationship with some relative ease and safety.

And as this blog draws to a close, I’m thinking about and wondering how my grandma’s relationship with her dad influenced her relationship with my grandpa and decisions she made for herself and her kids. My great-grandpa and great-grandma divorced when my grandma was I think under 2-years old. After their divorce, my great-grandma put my grandma and her brother in an orphanage so she could chase the greener pasture she imagined. My great-grandpa paid the bill for how long, I don’t know. I think a couple of years or maybe more. When my grandma and her brother left the orphanage, my uncle went to live with my great-grandpa and my grandma went to live with their mom. Grandma visited them and the extended family at the family home in the summers and perhaps other vacations. My great-grandpa was a good, honest, kind man who worked hard to take care of his family. He took care of his mom for 30 years and didn’t remarry until after her death. He was stable and grounded and he had a strong and rational moral compass and a high level of integrity. I never knew my great-grandma, my mom and her sisters didn’t know her very well either. My grandma rarely talked about her and severely limited access to her for her own children which limited my knowledge of her. My uncle established a relationship with her later in his life and had more favorable stories of her.

My great-grandma was, from what I understand, a little…off? Her mom had been a moonshiner during Prohibition and when my great-grandma would come home from school as a child, it wasn’t unusual for her to come home to an empty house because her mom had moved. One story my grandma told me was about her mom putting her on the bus in Seattle and telling her to “be nice to the bus driver”, which I think she interpreted as “nice” like flirty or show him a good time kind of thing. And that’s the way I interpreted it as well based upon her voice inflection and body language. When she was 16 and my great-grandma was remarried, they introduced my grandma to my grandpa, a man that worked with the new husband. My grandpa was something like 21 at the time and they were married about 6 months later. The goal, to my understanding, was to find my grandma a husband because they were tired of caring for her.

Through all of these threads of my grandma’s, my mom’s, and even my life, the one thing I think the three of us unequivocally agreed upon was that my great-grandpa was the best human, the best man all of us had in our lives. It is also clear to me how the choices of the mother created pain and damage in other areas of our lives because of the men we chose.

Thinking about all of this leaves me wondering if I really want to find this man who donated his sperm for me to be here and what I might learn about him, myself, my familial history and if whatever I might find is necessary. I’ve gone nearly 50 years and haven’t really needed this connection. I’m not looking for a dad, I don’t need that. and I’m not sure what questions I have other than what have my people done since slavery, what is that story, and how that all contributed to me being here. That isn’t insignificant, I’m just not certain that the story matters too much to my happiness or understanding of who I am.

Here is what I learned about this man: his name and that he was from North Carolina, was light skinned – his friends called him a “trick” baby because he was so light skinned, he was in the Army, injured in Vietnam, was sent to Walter Reed, and was there in 1969 where my mom met him. And now I have a lot of new questions about his behavior related to what I know about the Vietnam war and the returning GIs and I know why I’m so racially ambiguous. Before I had the light skinned details, I did find a guy about the right age, with the same name, in North Carolina but he was dark skinned, so my bio-father isn’t him. I guess I have a lot to think about before I embark on the next leg of this journey, should I choose to continue that search. I don’t think there is much more I can learn from the DNA services to help me on that path. For now, it’s a pause.

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