Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Exile and Genealogy

Jude will soon be here. My husband is traveling to China in March, where he will be met by our great friend Otepoti. Jude will technically become our son, appropriately enough, on the feast day of Saint Joseph, the adoptive father of the Lord.

I have been reading Testimony of Hope by Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, a collection of the spiritual exercises he preached to the papal household in 2000. Cardinal Văn Thuận, who was imprisoned by the Communists in his native Vietnam for thirteen years, begins his exercises by reflecting on the first chapter of Matthew, which describes the temporal genealogy of Christ. "For Asians," he notes,

and in particular for me as a Vietnamese, the remembrance of ancestors has an immense value. . . I myself know the names of fifteen generations of my ancestors going back as far as 1698 . . . Through our genealogies, we come to realize that we are part of a history greater than we are, and we welcome with greater truth the sense of our own histories.

Jude will know next to nothing about the ancestors who are, to use the Italian word, his genitori, the ones who physically and biologically generated him, or about his family history.  My husband and Otepoti will visit the orphanage to which he was brought after being found by the police, and the place where he was found, in order to be able to salvage some scraps of his unknowable past. But essentially Jude will be a deracinated person, transplanted into our family. I wonder what this will feel like for him as he grows older.

I must confess that, compared with Cardinal Văn Thuận, I know next to nothing about my own genealogy. I know when three out of my four pairs of great-grandparents came to this country (all at roughly the same time, about a hundred years ago). I even knew one of my great-grandmothers very well, because she lived with my family when I was little. But of the others, I know very little, and that's unlikely to change.

A few years ago I had a gig in Rome, and afterward I traveled south to the village of some of my own genitori to meet my distant Italian cousins for the first time. Although it was a marvelous trip, I felt very strongly while visiting that I was nothing like them, that I had nothing in common with them, that I was wholly unmarked by the biological circumstances of having been engendered by the same ancestors. While we shared certain physical characteristics, our lives, our circumstances, and our ways of thinking diverged so much that it was hard to believe we were branches of the same tree.  But the truth is that I had felt myself from a young age to be a deracinated person, too, without much commonality with the culture of my family, and in some ways I had consciously striven to set myself apart from that culture and that family.

In Testimony of Hope, Cardinal Văn Thuận notes that the "book of genealogy of Jesus Christ" is full of unexpected, even bizarre, disruptions of the biological family line.  Abraham chose Isaac as his heir, rather than his first son, Ishmael.  Isaac "wished to bless Esau, his firstborn son, but according to the mysterious plan of God . . . blessed Jacob." Jacob, in his turn, chose neither Reuben, his firstborn, nor Joseph, "the beloved and best of all his sons," but rather Judah, who with his brothers had sold Joseph into slavery.  Likewise, the women Matthew mentions "find themselves in strange situations. Tamar is a sinner, Rahab a prostitute, Ruth a foreigner. The Gospel does not even dare to name the fourth woman; she is simply 'the wife of Uriah'" -- Bathsheba, with whom David committed adultery and whose husband he contrived to have killed.

But, as Văn Thuận asserts, "This list of sinners' names presented by Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus does not scandalize us. Rather, it exalts the mystery of God's mercy."

While not, in the terms of immigration law, a refugee, little Jude will be coming to us from a place of suffering and persecution. What I hope is that our home and our family will not be a place of exile for him from what he might under other circumstances have considered his true home. While in one sense he will be uprooted, deracinated, a person from nowhere, I want him to know the full citizenship that only love can confer. We are all in exile, refugees from the true home, and God in His mercy has adopted all of us; those of us not biologically engendered from the bloodline of Abraham He has most mercifully grafted onto the tree of the royal house of Israel. May we never forget His mercy in having adopted us, and may we all know the full citizenship of love.

Above: Belgian refugee children in England, 1940.


Sally Thomas said...

I always wonder about this question of the past for adoptees, particularly when the adoption crosses cultural lines. On a personal level, my husband, for instance, himself an adoptee who knows nothing about his birth family, considers the family into which he was adopted to be his family. Period. On his adoption, at six weeks old, their history became his history. Their ancestors became his. The only thing that has really ever fascinated him about his personal past is the question of whether or not he was ever in the Catholic orphanage in Memphis and taken care of by nuns.

Of course, this is all complicated when the history a child takes on involves people who look nothing like him and whose history has a completely different frame of reference (ie Western Civilization) from the history of the culture he is largely leaving behind.

But then, that's like the history of Christianity, throughout which people from all cultural frames of reference have been integrated into the great household of the Church and taken its story for their own. The saints become all our common ancestors. In fact, it occurs to me that I haven't written anything on St. Andrew Dung-lac, whom I drew for my patron this year, because I thought, "Uh . . . point of reference?" But I'm thinking right now that maybe I was just waiting for this moment and this truth to strike me: I'm thinking I don't have much in common with this Korean saint because he's . . . Korean, and outside my usual circle of nice Italians and Englishpersons. But he is my ancestor in the faith. Wow. So, I probably haven't said anything helpful to you, but I just figured something out for myself.

Pentimento said...

That's interesting, Sally. And I suppose it must be the same for your children when considering that side of their ancestry.

It just struck me that the picture I chose for this post is so . . . dark. I really liked it, but it's about something more than exile. Maybe I will change it.

Sally Thomas said...

I think it probably is interesting for my children. My oldest daughter has this fabulous curly red hair which seems to have come out of nowhere, genetically speaking, and we've often said jokingly in her presence that there's probably a whole tribe of people in Mississippi and Arkansas who look just like her.

On my side of the family, we're just deluged with history -- I just came back from helping my mother begin to clean out her house and brought with me boxes of old photographs of my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc, in whose faces we can see some of our own. Of course, it's not all comfortable history. I have a bunch of photographs of my paternal grandfather, circa 1901, with his black nurse. In some she's posing formally with him on her lap; in my favorite, which is rather sweet, she's bathing him in a tin washtub on what looks like the living room floor. In that one she's actually smiling. You can't look at these images and not see the structure and hierarchy of Southern society of the time, lived out by people I loved and knew as good people -- so my kids inherit all of that as well as the anonymity of the biological other side.

Interestingly, nobody on my husband's side of the family is genetically related to anyone else. He and his sister are both adopted. His one living grandparent at this point is the second wife of his mother's stepfather, who was far more present to her as a father than her biological father ever was.

I think that the question mark on my husband's side is probably very interesting to at least one of my children; I don't know that the others think about it that much. They all tend to be more interested in what they do know of their father's growing up: stories about his grandfather, for example, who was one of eleven sharecropper children in north Mississippi and came alone to Memphis at age 12 to make his way in the world. He took up plumbing to begin with and wound up in middle management at the Coca-Cola bottling company.

I don't know that it's occurred to the kids to be bothered by the fact that they have no genetic connection to this man. I don't know that that bothers even my husband. After his own father died at age 40, when my husband was 9, that grandfather took on much of the father's role, and I know that my husband feels himself to have been stamped with GranGran's character (even though it's not really *his* character . . . but that could be true even if there were a biological connection).

Also, even though we have no idea what his ethnic background actually is (other than "white Southern probably Scotch-Irish mix"), being a Thomas he's taken on the Welsh pride thing in a big way, though fortunately it never extended to Welsh Nationalism and burning English people's summer cottages in Wales. Anyway, lucky Jude: he gets to be Chinese/Irish/Italian! That's a lot of cultural riches.

Pentimento said...

Fascinating, Sally. Your history is so quintessentially American in a way that's so different from my own.

We do know an Irish-American couple who have two adopted Chinese daughters (and four bio kids). The older adopted daughter (named Molly) was a champion Irish dancer and refers to herself as "Chirish."

Kimberlie said...

Some of my children have in the last year begun expressing curiosity regarding their birth families. My oldest son, 10, thought for the longest time that his foster mother WAS his birthmother. When he was finally able to communicate that to me, his grief over losing that connection at age 4 yrs was so much more understandable. Now he knows she was not his "tummy mommy."

My youngest son, and newest to our family (home just a little over a year), has no real concept of mother. He tells me that his ayi in China is his real mother, and that I am not. He's not saying this to be mean or to hurt me, he says it matter-of-factly and really believes it. He and his sister both have very sad finding stories so we don't talk about it with them because above all, I want my children to know that their birth parents chose life for them, and whatever happened after birth, they gave our children an amazing gift - a chance to have a future. For that I will be forever grateful.

My other son won't even mention the fact that he has a "tummy mommy" or rarely talks about his foster mother. It's too painful for him. We just don't go there except in the rare moments that he wants to open up a bit.

I have to admit, one of the things that appealed to me about international adoption (when we first started) was that there weren't any connections to birth families to be concerned about. No worries about awkward visits, uncomfortable conversations about "my other mother" etc. However, after our first int'l adoption, I realized that I really wanted that connection for my children. I wanted to be able to say with certainty that my son's height comes from his birth father and his beautiful eyes are just like his birth mother's. That my daughter's porcelain skin and delicate features are just like her birth grandmother. I know which side of my family my coloring, height (or lack of it), features, and temperament come from. As my children age, have to answer more questions at school, the more I want to be able to provide them with the answers. All I can do is love them, hug them, and cry with them over their loss.

Pentimento said...

I think this must be a learn-as-you-go kind of thing.

About my son with autism, I've come to the conclusion that he is a more visible manifestation of the fact that we are all disabled. About my son from China (who also has a disability), perhaps he is a more visible manifestation of the fact that we are all exiles from the true home. And Christ said that his parents and brothers and sisters were those who did God's will, which means that the ideal family is probably a motley-looking lot.

Melanie B said...

Sally, I drew St Andrew Dung-lac this year as well. But it didn't really surprise me. Ben was born on the feast of St Augustine Zhao Rong and Companions (the Chinese martyrs) and I keep finding myself inexplicably drawn to the Japanese martyrs too. I just shrugged and said, well I guess the Vietnamese martyrs are the natural next step, especially since my sister's best friend from high school is Vietnamese. (She's Buddhist but married to a Catholic.)

I haven't been able to find out much about him though. All the bios online are so brief and there don't seem to be any books. I gather from one article that it's not a lack of material being translated but that there just isn't that much known.

Julia, I really love this: "perhaps he is a more visible manifestation of the fact that we are all exiles from the true home." I've been pondering recently that perhaps Alzheimers is a visible manifestation of the saying I've heard so often about God being a God of the present moment. When everything but the present has been taken away reality is a radical stepping out in faith and the people around you have so much power to shape your experience of the world for good or ill. To make your life pleasant and safe or to make it a living hell.

mrsdarwin said...

Lovely post and thought-provoking comments. I wish I had something of substance to add, but I wanted to say that I've really enjoyed this discussion.

JaneC said...

My husband is an adoptee who has wrestled with the question of culture and genealogy. I think that dating and then marriage to me brought some of the questions to the fore, because of my own family culture where there is much interest in genealogy and telling family stories. My husband has finally, I think, reconciled his genetic and biological history with the history of the only family he's ever known. He knows that his birth mother had French and South American ancestry, and to some extent he identifies himself as French-American (it probably doesn't hurt that his adoptive family have French relatives, too). He has pictures of her, and knows that he inherited her thick, black hair but not her slight build. He suspects that the man in one picture might be his birth father, though he doesn't know for sure. He is glad that he didn't have to go through life with the name his birth mother gave him (his original middle name was "Sunshine").

But he is also happy to call himself Scottish-American, to wear his adoptive family's tartan at formal events, attend the local Scottish Games, and talk about learning to play the bagpipes someday. He grew up as a German Lutheran, and still loves chorales and German food.

I know it must be different for someone who is adopted from another country, and who is visibly different from his adoptive family. No one knows my husband is adopted unless he tells them. He does tell people, because he thinks his parents are wonderful for choosing him, because he is proud that his birth mother also chose life when she could easily have had an abortion, and because he wants to be a sign of hope for other people that adoption can be awesome.

I know several other people who are adopted or who have adopted children--all happy families--but this is the story I know best. Maybe it will be a comfort to you.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, Jane, it is comforting. And best of luck with your big move.