The Mystery of My History

Author oh, rebecca. Category

You might not know that I carry the indelicate title of being a bastard kid, or the decidedly more genteel 'love child,' or the legal-ese-y 'illegitimate.' Well, you might not have known, but now you do. And needless to say, bearing that weight has been sort of an issue for me.

It feels to me like a lot of people know their personal history, how they came to be: how their parents met and fell in (and sometimes out of) love. Beyond that they probably know their familial history, carrying some knowledge of the mothers and fathers that came before their own, where and why the family tree branches out, how and when new leaves burgeon.

I might be generalizing, painting broad strokes over a subject I know little about, because I'm embarrassed of my own provenance. Maybe more people are like me than not. Maybe family histories are not passed down as they used to be. Maybe every family needs to have a griot so their histories don't go unheralded.

This is what I know about whence I came: My mother and father met, and having some sort of mutual attraction, they copulated. Science conspired to make me, allowing sperm to swim to egg, egg to be fertilized by sperm, a tiny human to sprout like a seed in my mother's womb, nutrients to be delivered to me for nine months inside that cavern, and then I was born. I grew, and grew more, and grew more, and then I was grown. All of this I figured out via common sense and logic; I was told none of it other than the skeletal bones of the reproductive process in sex-ed class, but deduced it over a period of some years, being a child with enough prescience to realize that I was not the second coming of the Immaculate Conception.

What I don't know about whence I came is limitless, unbounded, infinite. I don't know how long they knew each other before they knew me, or what kind of relationship they had, or if they were even in love, or if they even knew each other's last names. Or first names. I don't know any cutesy stories about their time together, if they gave each other gifts or carved each other's names in the barks of trees. I know my mother, and I sort of know my father, but I don't know my-mother-and-my-father as a whole being.

My not-so-blissfully-ignorant lack of knowledge stretches back even further than my very humble beginnings, dipping its ignoramus toes into my mother's very humble beginnings. I can think of two stories about my mother's childhood off the top of my head. One involves a tank of turtles, my aunt, and talcum powder, which apparently is not conducive to a tank of turtles staying alive. The other consists of a lead pencil meeting skin and leaving an indelible mark on young skin- but that may be an amalgam of similar stories I have heard or witnessed (surprisingly many). Ultimately, what I know about my family is limited to the here-and-now, what I have encountered among my relatives in my twenty-seven years with them. In brief: my grandmother smoked, one aunt is an artist and the other is a doctor, my cousins are plentiful, my uncle plays guitar. There's more to them than that succinct collection of descriptors, of course, but I can't tell you every story of every memory. We've made memories together, all of us, and somehow I have contributed to the family history without knowing or seeing the bigger picture.

Also, what little understanding I have of my origin is limited to my mom's side. I only got in touch with my dad ten years ago, only spent a handful of times with him (distance is a discouraging factor) and have since been introduced to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a whole score of cousins - not to mention three gorgeous half-sisters and a wonderful stepmom - I barely, if ever met, when I was wee. I remember my paternal grandparents only vaguely, and basically only for the fact that they owned or ran a soccer store where Gatorade orange gum was readily available. Gatorade orange gum: a taste that rates as high in my memory as that of two of my grandparents. I have one picture of my father and myself from when I was about two - it's Christmas or my birthday, as evidenced by the mounds of destroyed wrapping paper surrounding us, and I don't remember it at all. I remember growing up sneaking glances at that picture, thinking that the male in it resembled Freddie Mercury (mostly due to the mustache), and making the (incorrect) conclusion that my dad was the singer in Queen and that is why he didn't live with us. It made sense at the time, honest.

It's not that I don't care. Quite the contrary, actually. I want to know how I came to be, why my parents weren't married, and to be entirely impolitic and macabre, why I wasn't aborted or perhaps given up for adoption. I want to know the stories my mom has to tell about how she grew up. I know how I grew up, and it wasn't the prettiest, but all I can gather from her intimations is that hers was even uglier. I want to know about my dad's childhood/adolescence/adulthood too, but having been raised almost exclusively by my mom (with help from my grandma and aunts/uncles), I feel like hers is one I should know intimately by now.

So why don't I ask?

It's a sensitive subject - one that, having been broached but a handful of times by me in the past twenty-seven years, is even more awkward to discuss. It is, undoubtedly, the biggest elephant in the smallest room. It might even be a blue whale in a walk-in closet in a studio apartment in NYC. I talked about it briefly in the counseling sessions last year, and while my counselor thought it was important for me to know my provenance, I was torn about it. Does not knowing make me any less 'me'? Would knowing make me any more 'me'? Would asking my mother about potentially upsetting things make me feel any better about my life? Does not asking her make me feel any better?

I don't know.

I don't know that it would accomplish anything at all, to be honest. Knowing more of my pedigree wouldn't fix the problems I am having now, or the problems I've had forever. It could shed some light on them, possibly, probably, but I've managed to make inferences about them on my own, given the facts I do know and clues I have found.

The ebb and tide of my desire to know is pretty predictable: when I'm feeling okay with myself and life, it's not a pressing matter. When I'm pretty messed up and making mistakes left and right and have no idea how to fix them and am quite literally at the rockiest, bottomest of rock bottom, then it's of utmost importance to me to find out. Because I want a scapegoat? Probably so. (I never said I was fair.) It's easier to point fingers at the family to which I was borne, than to accept and acknowledge that my prevalent and plentiful predicaments are probably all my own doing: not their nature but my own nurture, not biology but sociology. This is extra-foremost in my mind due to talks with a new friend about similar pre-historical circumstances (only his are decidedly more problematic and potentially sticky), the PBS show History Detectives (because every time they speak of provenance I think of my own - should I hire them to find out more about me, and would they do it for free?), and A.M. Homes' startling memoir of being the bastard child, adopted after birth, of a man and his mistress, "The Mistress' Daughter."*

Knowing won't solve anything. I'm aware. It's not a panacea. It won't keep me from being a worrier, or cure my abandonment issues, or eradicate my men problems, or make me smarter/thinner/prettier. It won't remedy my panic attacks or render me more apt at finance/math/logic, or quell my nervous habits, or make me more likely to clean my house on a regular basis. It won't give me a retroactively happier childhood or put me in a better, saner place today.

But it's a piece of the puzzle, and every piece counts, otherwise people wouldn't work so hard to finish jigsaw puzzles. The question is: what do you do with that puzzle when it's completed? Shellac it and hang it on the wall? Destroy it and start over again? Swipe your hands together, pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and throw it away? What is the underlying purpose of those damn puzzles anyway? What is the underlying purpose of me?

Mom, I love you. I love that you love me and that you made me. I hate that I don't know how to ask you about this other than one time suggesting you write down every story about your life you can think of, and now writing this blog post about how little I know you and ultimately, pieces of myself. I hate that I barely know Dad and feel even less comfortable asking him for his version. But I'm not holding anyone at fault but myself, please know this.

What about you, gentle readers? Do you know your history and not care? Not know and do care? Have you made any effort to rectify it, either way?

Is it more important to know where you came from or to know where you're going? What if you don't know either?

*Seriously, this book, though short, is killer. Homes was given up for adoption at birth, and much later in life, her birth mother initiated contact with her - but turned out to be completely crazy - even stalked Homes when she wouldn't contact her. Phenomenal book.


Spatzi said...

You're an amazing writer; you express yourself well.

Why do you want to know this aspect of your parents? I understand the feelings, but are you hoping for a specific response? Because if so, I guarantee it won't be what you will get. Unless you are genuinely curious and open to all the infinite possibilities you may learn. In which case, go for it. But if afraid of breaking preconcieved notions you haven't realized you have buried in your subconcious, tread carefully.

Your mom may refuse to answer. Or it may prove to be a release to share. People are tricky, and delving to pasts ignored is tricky as well.

With whatever you decided, good luck.

And in that decision may you find yourself content.

jarred said...

your writing is great, as ever. family is an odd thing- and in this age of dysfunction, my relationship is needlessly complicated with my parents, despite the complete lack of actual complications. i hope it feels better having expressed these thoughts, and know that other situations are not objectively better, just different, and its all what you make of it. be(e) well.

oh, rebecca. said...

@Spatzi - Thank you ever so much :]

I'm not sure what I want what I'm hoping for. I just feel like I need to know *something* of what went on, what happened. The subject is not entirely closed-door, mom mentions sometimes that I have my father's hands, or I look like him in a certain light. I guess it's mostly just because I am a curious, nosy person. Hmmm. The only thing I'm honestly afraid of is that talking about it may hurt my mom. But it may help her to talk about, as well? Things to think about.

@jarred Hi buddy!! Thanks for the kind words. I always wonder what it was like having a 'normal' family life (or what I perceive to be normal, which is probably not the norm at all) and I've always felt like something was missing. But you're right, every situation is different, not necessarily better. Thanks, love <3

Sharon Pelletier said...

I always thought I knew a lot about my family on both sides, but in the past month or so I've found out that much of what I thought I knew was actually distortions, obfuscations or outright lies coming from one disturbed person to serve his own mentally ill and selfish ends.

Learning this was
very disorienting, and while it makes some things abut my past and my family dynamic less mysterious, I'm not entirely sure yet whether I'm glad I know it or not.

I know this situation doesn't exactly relate to yours, but hear me out :D

I'm not sure whether I would rather know nothing at all than "know" something false - but losing that certain, verified version of my provenance shook me deeply, which surprised me. I never realized my family's story mattered so much in the foundation of my idea of myself - until it was tugged away and shown to be a different shape entirely.

I think it's because human beings by nature, and you and I writerly booklovers in particular, understand life and ourselves by crafting a cohesive story - we need a beginning, a middle and an end to our personal mythology to recognize ourselves as existing and as important. I think it's normal that it hurts you that some of those pieces are missing. I hope you get your mysteries answered someday, ad if you don't I'm confident that you'll be learn to build yourself without them, because you're amazing.

I love you!

PS I'm glad you wrote this and shared it. Very honest and very beautiful.

Angela Ficorelli said...

Hello there :)

It is always better to know. Whether its good or bad, knowing is half the battle? (what?)

hah anyway, I believe it is always better to know. I have had a close friend connect with his father after 10+ years and although it started out rocky, he appreciates knowing their other family members, and of course maybe getting a little money here and there from dad.

When you don't know the facts, your mind will just make up your story, which is very self destructive.

If you find out the story, and its terrible, then you will deal with it and get over that hill and live the next chapter of your life. If you don't know, you will be stuck climbing that hill FOREVER, and your life will be one looooong chapter of questions, instead of many chapters that create a well rounded story.

(hah like I said, I am not the best writer, I do not come from a family of writers.You are a great writer (maybe it comes from your mom/dad, don't you want to know?)

Paul Spence said...

First of all, you're quite a writer. I'm impressed.

You're mom seems like a pretty amazing person. You seem to have a strong relationship. I'm quite jealous. I've "known" my "mom" all my life. She gave birth to me, raised me for almost 5 years. Parents divorced, dad took myself and my sister, moved to America (I was born in England). Mom decided it was easier raising only one child (my brother stayed with her). The next time I saw her was about 25 years later. I wrote to her as a kid but she barely responded. When I did finally reunite with her it was awkward. I honestly wish I never made he effort. Anyway, dad got remarried and re-divorced. He decided he didn't want kids. Was gone for days at a time. I was 9, my sister was 11. We helped raise each other for a few years. My dad and I are close now. Things changed once I became an adult.

Anyway, sorry to ramble. I think I have a point. I grew up knowing both of my parents, but never feeling that I was loved. You only really knew one parent but you were lucky to feel the love from her. Like you, I will probably never know details about my parents when they were together. But at this point I really don't think I care. The way I was raised (or lack of) made me the person that I am. It made me a stronger person.

Of course you want to know. Give your mom time. You have her and in my opinion that's more important.

Sorry for rambling, hope this made sense.

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