Saturday, October 8, 2016

Family Flees

Sometime in the past year, T developed a preoccupation with researching his family tree and mine. He often likes for us to do things like this together. Over the years, he's heard me talk about my Irish American relatives, and formed relationships with some of my uncles, and he seems to enjoy a sense of solidarity in knowing that some of my relatives endured hardships of their own. 

I imagine when you're adopted from foster care, it's comforting to know that you're forging an alliance with a new family that has had it's own humiliations and struggles, to lessen the sense of standing out as someone unfortunate. Building a family through foster adoption is intimate work that requires humility and self-knowledge, and, for both parent and child, it involves inviting people to whom you have not previously been related into your own family tree.  

It's affecting to trace T and E's family history. It gives T and I a way to talk about previously unmentionable topics, like the fact that his birth mom doesn't know who his birth father is. That came up this morning, while we were looking at new information about how his family arrived here during the Great Migration. In tracing his ancestry together, we were able to talk about the forces that cause families to break down and young mothers to suffer, and to do so while engaged in an activity, so that the tone stayed casual and easy, always the trick with teenagers.

I was struck in doing this exercise that in my own family, both my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother came from broken families, a fact which I had known, but not really examined. My Irish American maternal grandfather, the son of someone who came here at 12 years old and worked in the disease-ridden salt flats of Syracuse, New York, for over a decade until he left for the frontier, lost his mother when he was 10. His father very quickly remarried another Irish woman, whom he must barely have known, and my grandfather, who was still a young boy, left and lived for awhile in a car, becoming a teenage runaway. On the paternal side of my family, my grandmother dropped out of sixth grade when her father drove her to school one day, handed her a bit of cash, told her to take good care of her mother, and drove away, never to be heard from again. She raised several siblings and never even graduated junior high herself. Even now, it's impossible trace what became of her father; he just disappears without a trace from all public records. Without dwelling on these things, which didn't affect me directly, T and I were able to talk about the way that child abuse and abandonment echo across generations. 

We're a biracial family and T's part of our tree has many branches that are severed by slavery and Jim Crow. Mine is comparatively intact, because my relatives in this country had the benefit of being considered white. However, 6 of my 8 great grandparents are fully documented from the Irish famine through brutal labor or domestic servitude upon arriving in this country (when they are what we would consider children today) to itinerant frontier lives. For a long time T thought that all white families in this country had once been rich and owned slaves. So tracing our ancestry together has given both of us a better sense of what poverty and disenfranchisement looks like outside of the African American experience, and it's given me a deeper sense of the privileges that "white" Americans gained through the lens of American racism as our families assimilated. 

Tonight, his great aunt called. A distant relative in Texas noticed that he was tracing his ancestry online, and wants to offer information. He's been able to see his relatives extending all the way back to Shreveport, a town where half the population once comprised slaves. We're considering a family road trip, retracing the Great Migration route his family took to get to the coast. They made that journey less than 100 years after my relatives fled Ireland, moving progressively further west. At the moment, we feel like the most American of families!


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