Knowing Your Roots

For a long time I hated certain people.

The ones who embarked on epic quests to find their real parents, who seemd to think there was a hole, some emptiness in them, some aspect of themselves that would never be understood or revealed unless they knew where they came from.

I hated them. I hated them because they seemed, in their TV Special makeup and their doesn’t-reflect-camera-light powder and their just-purchased-to-look-good-for-their-absentee-parents clothes, to be so fake. These weren’t real people, I would say.

I hated them because I felt they were dishonoring the twenty, thirty, forty or more years they had lived before claiming that something was missing, that they couldn’t really understand themselves unless they knew some random whore who shat them out and gave them up, couldn’t stare down a drunken lay in the backseat of a ’66 Chrysler and say “I’m your kid” and see what they had to say.

I hated them because I thought they were injuring their real parents – the people who had raised them – or their own self-images – if they had fallen through the cracks in the system and had to do the job themselves – by looking for replacements at this late date.

I hated them because they had the courage to do something, even if it was the wrong thing.

I hated them because, in the midst of the announcer’s microphone or John Stosel’s camera, in a crowded yard with a crappy fence and dead bushes, they could stare down their creators and hate or love them honestly, with a full disclosure of the whens and whys and wherefores.

But I never understood them. I didn’t know why they felt so incomplete. To me, unless there was some rare medical condition or the need of a genetic match for a transplant, I didn’t know why it mattered if they were gone. They were just more people you didn’t know, and the law of overages says there’s a significant number of that tribe around you at any given moment, many of whom share genetic links to you that you’ll never be aware of.

I hated them because I was one of them, to some degree, and I didn’t understand the why of it, and that made me hate myself even more.

I’ve had contact with my mother. It wasn’t pleasant. I hope to never have to repeat the experience. She’d written me off as bad news and has her own explanations, rationales, and ever-shifting stories to tell to keep it at arms length. If all else fails, she can always ask forgiveness – assuming she even considers she’s done something that needs it – from her imaginary sky wizard. Bully for her, I say. Best to keep the lid on that, I say. Because I have an unstable temperment and a violent, impulsive, self-destructive streak a mile wide, and when confronted face-to-face with the first author of my misery, the first betrayer in a line of hundreds, I can’t say for sure that my self-control would be up to the task of keeping me in check and her among the living. Some might consider that a sin or a character flaw. I shrug and note it is what it is. Hers was the first drop of poison in the barrel that made me what I am, and the brief contacts or things learned about her have served to retaint the well when it was almost clean again. It may not even be her fault, not totally – I’ve heard she fell off a roof and took a pretty severe noggin-knocking when she was very small, and maybe that fried her wires – but she’s the accessible face, and has only repeated long-running patterns when given the chance to break it or at least soften the blow, so I no longer care.

My father, though. There’s the mystery. So many suspects. Ironically, I almost don’t even care about the man himself. If it was a cabana boy, a travelling salesman, a longhaul trucker, a possible murderer, a Navy radioman with a bloodline of Scottish royalty or Subject D-117 out of a Cheez-Whiz can. Most of them are probably dead, anyway. Or never even knew. Or both. It’s what that father signifies, the history he reaches back to, the history I could almost touch… If I knew which one was real.

I tend to go with the Navy man. It’s who she was married to, anyway. There’s some physical and medical traits that are similar. And he’s the most fun. (He’s descended from Robert the Bruce! How awesome is that?) But the other choices have their high points, too; the salesman and the trucker (who were brothers, and yes, I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke) have got Emily Dickenson somewhere in their family tree. And the idea that I could be the unknown spawn of an ex-con who just might have been a serial killer definitely earns some street cred in the “I’m a horror novelist” box (maybe not as much as buying Bran Castle or 112 Ocean Avenue does, but hey, still kind of cool.) as well as potentially explaining that explosive temper and self-destructive streak.

But still, it bothers me. It bothers me because I’ll never know. I’ll never cackle maniacally and say “My daddy was a serial killer, do you really want to push me?” At least, not with 100% seriousness. Because I’ll never know. I’ll never be able to put on the belted plaid and salute the Auld Sod or to to Edinburgh and look at the family crest and feel awesome about it, because I’ll feel like a sham who’s just trying to get in on some ethnic pride that’s not even my own out of a desperate need to feel like I belong somewhere. (Is there a word for Scottish weeaboos?) I’ll never be able to non-ironically visit a synagogue and ask questions about midrash or the Torah and say “No, it’s okay, I’m part of the club,” because I can’t prove that one of a pair of non-practicing Jews was the seed of Abraham that led to me.

Unlike a lot of things that we’ll never know, things that I like not knowing for sure because the mystery is the fun part – who killed JFK, who was Jack the Ripper, was there an actual historic Jesus – this is one that I’d prefer to have answered. If only so I can write in a line in my genetic resume that I can say for sure is true, instead of the self-image of the moment that I wish was. If only so I can look at old pictures and hear stories and say “I hope I look that cool when I’m old, or do something that awesome.” (Or maybe “Yeesh, I hope I take after mother’s side and never get that drunk…”) If only so I can say “I’m Scottish,” or “I’m Jewish,” or “I’m Peurto Rican,” and know it to be true instead of merely a guess based on available information that may change given the phase of the moon and how many happy pills my mother has recently taken. If only so I can watch Braveheart and not get mad at the scheming, manipulative Johnny-come-lately portrayal of my assumed ancestor. (Actually, that would probably still bother me, because the historical rape that Mel Gibson calls a movie would infuriate my inner fact-checker regardless of blood ties. But it might sting less, at least.)

I just want to be whole, instead of feeling like a halfling, with part of the family tree draped with black gauze and dotted with the Riddler’s question marks. We are all the sum of our parts, but half of my equation has been turned into an algebra formula where they didn’t even bother to name the variables, let alone tell you where they go. “Solve for X,” they say, but to do that you’ll have to find Y, Z, R and M first, and who knows where those came from.

Gosh, can you tell I’m in the downturn of my mood cycle? I blame the heat and the smoke. Among other things. I go away now.


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