Prof. Yuval Noah Harari said that about human beings — what distinguishes us from all other animals is our ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them. It is stories that shape our lives and shape our worldviews. Sometimes we choose our stories, and sometimes we are thrown into them willy nilly.
And now I have a story to tell you. It’s a story that if told well would be a big hit in Oprah’s book club. Unfortunately I’m not a novelist or a creative writer but an academic writer. Still, it’ a story that wants to be told, and I’ll do what I can with it.
This story started with a another story, a “fiction.” My Dad was adopted in Fort Smith, Arkansas as an infant when he was just hours or at most a day or two old. That part isn’t fiction. He was a preemie, tiny, so tiny he could fit in a shoebox. That part might or might not be fiction, or it might be embellished truth. His parents were University of Oklahoma students killed in a car crash. I now know that part to be pure fiction. My Arkansas grandparents were the only parents my Dad ever knew or cared to know — and the only extended family on his side I ever knew. My Dad resisted any efforts to know who his parents were until late in his life, unfortunately too late.
Nowadays there is DNA, an amazing capability. Two years ago, one of my sons got me a DNA kit for Hanukkah. I dragged my feet sending it in, but eventually I completed the simple task and mailed it back. I didn’t really expect much more from the results than to find out something about my ethnic-geographic origins on my Dad’s side since I didn’t know who his biological family was. What I didn’t know is that when the results come through Ancestry, they include specific genetic matches from the enormous Ancestry database. At the top of my list were, of course, my other son and my niece — but just under them were two people I didn’t know, a mother and daughter, who were second cousins, a very close match.
I began a correspondence with them, and the daughter provided tremendous assistance in this unfamiliar terrain even to pinpointing the spot in the tree she was developing that had the greatest potential — at the level of our grandparents. And that’s where this story begins.
Families in Arkansas in the late 1800s / early 1900s were very large, often with ten or more children from generation to generation. You can easily get distracted drilling down through records on a family of, say, ten children, each of whom went on to marry and have ten children of their own. Thanks to my newfound relative, though, I was quickly able to pinpoint the people who were likely my Dad’s biological parents. Here are the facts. I’ll call his mother Y and his father X:
X was born in 1901 in Franklin County, Arkansas, right next to Sebastian County where Fort Smith is. He died in 1946 in Clarksville, Arkansas. Y was born in 1903 in Franklin County and died in 1965 in Clarksville. In 1920, she married X. At the time, she was sixteen and five months pregnant. The son they had in 1920 was the only son from that marriage — on the record.
In December, 1924, the couple was divorced. From my reading so far, it seems that the son went with his mother. My Dad was born in early March, 1925, three months later, which means if X and Y were his parents, and both DNA and family resemblance indicate they were, Y was pregnant when the couple divorced.
Y remarried in 1928 in Franklin County, but sadly, her husband died within a month. She married again in 1930 and went on to have six more children. Her first son with X is recorded in census reports as the “son” of her third husband and residing in that home. Family pictures seem to show a happy blended family who have a loving relationship with their mom. But nowhere is my Dad mentioned or hinted at, and despite years of looking, I’ve not been able to discover a birth certificate or adoption papers. I thought perhaps the biological names might help turn up something — surely births were recorded — but nothing. It’s as if my Dad suddenly appeared out of nowhere and landed in my Grandma’s willing lap.
And here’s where the imaginative part of my story begins, like Midrash, filling in the lacunae. My imaginative reconstruction grows out of these sparse facts:
- Many people in Arkansas in the early part of the twentieth century, as now, were conservative Christians. Y’s cultural background was Southern Baptist, and there is a picture of a group at a summer revival meeting. My grandparents were Southern Baptist but became Methodist after an unfortunate incident that offended them to their core. My grandfather was a weird combination of intellectual, rigid moralist and sexually repressive. He could have a threatening demeanor. Corporal punishment was part of the culture during the time when I lived there with them — including in the schools, where I was horrified, terrified and deeply humiliated one time when I was paddled in front of the class for calling a girl a “liar” on the playground. She was. I just didn’t know you weren’t supposed to use the word in Arkansas.
- My grandparents were unable to conceive, although like many, they had children shortly after their “adoption.” My grandmother and her doctor were personal friends, and he knew how much she wanted a baby. The story I was told, of University of Oklahoma students killed in a car crash, clearly wasn’t factual. Well, perhaps there was a car crash, but my Dad’s biological parents were not University of Oklahoma students, and they weren’t together at the time of my Dad’s birth. I was also told the doctor called my grandma to his office and gave her the baby. That seems a little odd despite their friendship, but there are no records of a birth at the hospital at that time that would fit with the story. It seems clear to me there was a desire on the part of some or all participants in the story to create a fiction — persuade others to believe it — and maintain it over many years. To my knowledge, there was never any further contact from my Dad’s family of origin, nor does he show up in any way in the family records.
So why the need for a fiction? At first, of course, I thought there might have been a relationship outside the marriage, but DNA disproves that or at least proves my Dad is the child of both partners in the marriage. On the other hand, they didn’t have DNA then, so it’s easy to imagine that as a possibility prompting the end of the marriage before it was obvious that Y was pregnant.
Or perhaps Y didn’t know she was pregnant at the time their marriage dissolved since my Dad, according to the family story, was a preemie. Every time my Dad told the story, he got smaller and finally ended up in a shoe box. But then . . . I read that a child can survive at 17.6 ounces, usually around 28 weeks or four months. Since my Dad was born three months after the divorce, if he was a preemie, his mother may not have been showing — or aware right away. And he may have been tiny. Maybe there was even a car accident, involving only Y, and that prompted an early delivery.
I wondered about the devastating choice a mom faced that caused her to give up her baby, never to see or refer to him again, especially a mom who, in the pictures, looks like she loves her kids and they love her. But then I thought about the times and the environment, and it may have been the most giving thing she could do for her baby as well as her first son, certainly if there was any threat of abuse in the picture, which is another possibility. Or social recrimination. Or maybe she just couldn’t care for a baby as a single mom. And then there was my grandfather. Who knows how he might have reacted without some elevating story about this child my grandmother loved and wanted from the first moment she saw him?
I learned little about X. There was no record of his marrying again, and his only son didn’t live with him. He died at age 45. In the single picture I have of him with his own family of origin, his parents and their eight children stand in uncomfortable proximity to each other. In the family pictures of Y, though, family members crowd in, even “lean in” toward each other. Y had a full life, it seems, and I like to imagine she’d be happy to know my Dad did as well. I think my Dad would be happy for her too.
One of the ironies of this story is how close my Dad’s Mom and his only full biological brother were to my Dad geographically throughout his life. They lived practically next door to each other at one end of their lives — and again at the other end of their lives, since X and Y’s son finished his life in Phoenix in Maricopa County, Arizona — which is where my Dad lived until we brought him home for his last few years.
And I also think of how my Dad’s life is framed with biblical stories: women who deeply desire children but don’t conceive right away . . . prolific stand-ins . . . children who must leave home to find their course in life, like Jacob or Joseph, a child put into a fragile ark and floated out on the water to be saved, strong women protecting their children and moving the story forward — and their children forward toward their lives’ fulfillment. And finally, my Dad died on the first day of Passover, the festival of redemption and return.
It’s more meaningful to me now than ever that I returned his ashes to Arkansas, where he started. I wished at the time he could have been buried there next to his parents, the only parents he knew, and the “brother” that was born to them shortly after my Dad came into the home and who died of polio at a very young age. Perhaps it was more appropriate after all to just sprinkle his ashes over their grave sites, let my Dad fly with the wind or float away with the water (It was a rainy day) and finally become part of the earth in that corner of Arkansas where both his families lived out their lives and each, in their own way, gave him a chance to live his.
On the anniversary of my Dad’s death or on his birthday, I usually share something I wrote about him the day he died. We are three months off from either occasion, but I’ll provide a link to it here.