Brave New World III: Are You My Father?

EastmanWhen my children were quite small, P.D. Eastman‘s charming book, Are You My Mother? was a regular entry in the nightly story rotation. My Beloved usually handled this night-time routine and he had a great way of dramatizing story books. This one was no exception. The children responded with squeals and laughter.

The book resolves, as children’s stories should, in the perfectly happy ending. The baby bird is eventually reunited with mamma bird.

Toward the end of the book, there’s a telling passage where baby bird has been searching everywhere for mamma but has been rebuffed each time he poses the question:  “Are you my mother?” Finally, in complete frustration, baby bird exclaims:  “I want my mother!” Of course, it’s only a story but behind the tale lies a compelling fact. Each of us has an innate need to know our parentage.

The huge success of ancestry.com underscores this deep desire to know. Whatever our age or station in life, one of the most primal questions we spend our lives seeking to answer is:  Who am I? Ancestry is a tool many of us use to flesh out that question.

I’m a genealogy enthusiast. I grew up with family all around me. We lived in the town where my daddy grew up, so there were relatives and extended family with whom I could interact about the Stricker roots. My mom, on the other hand, had transplanted from Pennsylvania to Missouri when she married my dad. (Read about my dad here.) Mom was (as far as we can determine) the last of her family, having lost her dad in childhood and her mom when a young adult. (Read about my mom here.)

WestAbrahamMy ancestry quest has branched far and wide, but no matter how many genealogical connections I make, I always return to one name:  West. My mom’s family is the one to whom I’m most drawn. The incomplete picture reflected from various records shows a family repeatedly torn apart by war and loss, but a family that didn’t permit this brokenness to defeat them. The character of this stalwart line lives in my 87 year old mom who still has the grit and determination of a pioneer woman.

I’m driven to understand this family! But every turn presents another closed door. I’ve failed to locate any records that reveal the parentage of Mom’s great-great-grandfather, Abraham West (1807-1903)! His history has become the closest thing to an obsession for me.

But consider this. Nothing about Abraham West’s history will affect me in any significant way. He died more than 100 years ago. Even my mother didn’t know him except from afar! His life shouldn’t carry the significance with me that it does, but I can’t shake it.

I say this to my shame:  my obsession pales in comparison to what many people today have experienced. The website anonymousfathersday.com relates the lifelong search (and attendant grief) multitudes of people have endured as “donor-conceived” offspring. For myself, I can’t begin to imagine their agonizing searches for answers to their parentage!

When I began this series of posts on the Brave New World, I had only begun to realize some of the tragedy we’ve heedlessly inflicted (as a culture) on so many innocents.

When I was a kid, I know I got angry enough with my parents on occasion to hurl the “I never asked to be born!” accusation at them. What of the donor-conceived individuals? Not only were they born at someone else’s whim, they were cast aside with reckless disinterest and disregard for the potential havoc these offspring might endure because of such anonymity.

People who know my mom (or knew my dad) have frequently mentioned how much they think I look like one or the other of my parents (and some say my grandmother). In my family, there are expressions, gestures, even raised eyebrows that seem to pass down from generation to generation. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen those characteristics expressed in my children. We are individuals, but also in a unique way, a sum of our parts.

Imagine − if you will − being a child … a teenager … a young adult gazing longingly into the eyes of every person you meet, afraid to ask, paralyzed by fear you’ll be rebuffed. Are you my mother? Are you my father?

This is no longer a children’s story. For many, it’s real life.

Renée