Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Identity crisis

I woke up yesterday morning (yes, it was really still morning!) to the news that I am not who I thought I was.

Which is kind of a strange place to be, really.  You construct all the stories about who you are around the stories you've been given.  So when you learn that the stories you've been given weren't true, what happens to your stories?

Now... anyone who knows me is already aware of just how much of my early life was based upon stories that turned out to be brilliantly-woven lies, and I've spent the latter half of my life trying to dig myself out from under all the B.S. that had been piled up on top of me.  So you're probably asking yourselves now: "why is she surprised?  Doesn't she do this all the time?  What's the difference?"

Well, the difference is that this wasn't really a lie -- just misinformation, or misinterpretation.  And the new story, the truth, is backed up by science.  Genetic testing, to be exact.

You see, my mother was adopted.  And while she has never particularly wished to open up the kettle of possibly-stinky fish of meeting her birth mother, not knowing anything about her ancestry or family health history has left a considerably large hole in her personal story.

It doesn't help that my mother was adopted by a Tyrannical Nutbar.  (No, that's not a clinical definition, but I'm sure 9 out of 10 clinicians would agree with my diagnosis!)  The Children's Aid must have been desperate for adoptive parents at the time, because I cannot see anyone honestly believing my grandmother had a nurturing bone in her body.  (While I may complain about my mother's own severe lack of parenting skills, she certainly came a long way from her own upbringing, I'll give her that!  Probably via her Dad, who was a very warm and caring person, but couldn't hold his own against the Tyrannical Nutbar he married, and neither divorce nor murder were legal in those days.)

So when my mother, at age four, arrived in the home of the Tyrannical Nutbar, she had to change her name, sever all ties with the foster family she adored, and was not even allowed to talk about her previous foster families.  A few years later, my mother unknowingly came across her adoption papers -- Gramma ripped them out of her hands before the information could even register, and destroyed all the copies.  My mother's history was permanently erased.

Fast forward to her marrying into a family of avid genealogists (and a smattering of Tyrannical Nutbars as well) who could trace all the generations back to Bonnie Prince Charlie, and she truly became the Mystery Meat.  And of course everyone had their own theories of where she "must" be from.  Her almond eyes, her olive-y skin, her high cheekbones -- all these became "proof" of whatever exotic tale someone felt like coming up with.

In the early '90s, once she had severed all ties with the Tyrannical Nutbar for once and for all, Mom decided to see if she could get a little more information about who she was and where she came from.  There wasn't much in the records -- certainly none of the health information she really wanted -- but she did learn her mother's name, as well as her own (Carolyn Louise), that she had a younger sister still living with the mother at that time (she had actually been given up so the mother could look after the cute new baby -- charming, eh?), and they both lived with the grandmother.  The father was not named, but was listed as living locally, in good health and a Native Canadian.

So... we had a tiny bit of information.  Not much to go on, but... we had an area of the province and a bit of ancestry.  I went and did a bunch of research on what Native populations were concentrated in the area, and searched for physical similarities.  When my sister went up to NWT for a research project she was thrilled to discover that her "turtle nose", which nobody had ever been able to place, was an Inuit nose, and a beautiful one at that.

So... we must be Inuit!  Silly 1940s CAS workers, they couldn't tell the difference between Innu and Inuit, obviously...  We were obviously 1/4 Native, with at least 1/8 being ever so obviously Inuit.  Of course, upon knowing this information, our "Native" friends saw the resemblances, took us under their wings, and shared their stories.

This discovery also started to make a number of other things clear.  Like: why the Tyrannical Nutbar forbade my mother from using red crayons.  After all, Gramma was also a fierce racist (she would get off the elevator when the black university professor would come on, because she didn't want him to rape her and chop her up into pieces and hide her in the trunk of her car like he'd done to that other woman -- when the police discovered it was a young white guy who did all that, she simply left out the last part of that sentence), and there was nothing she hated more than those redskins.  (Other than the brownskins or yellowskins or... anyone other than United Empire Loyalists, basically.)  Her freaking out over Mom's passion for horses (all those Indians ride horses, right?) and insistence that she only ride English saddle.  Her unexplained joy when my hair came in curly.  And my sister's came in blonde.

Our story was finally complete.  We had a full story, which we were happy to share, finally, with anyone who asked.

We all build our stories -- and other people's stories -- on the stories we've been given.

Last month, Mom sent a blood sample to a company in the US that will test your DNA and give you a full report of the genetic markers present -- giving a wealth of information about health history and possibilities, as well as pinpointing your DNA history, i.e., who your ancestors are.  Depending on the population, and how isolated they may or may not have been, they can trace some people back to particular villages, depending on the genetic markers found.  Mom very much wanted to have a better picture of her health and what to look out for in her aging years -- but she was also hoping (or maybe I'm just projecting) to be able to pinpoint which Native population she belonged to.

Her results came yesterday morning.  She was like a kid in a candy store, finally having the information she'd longed for for decades upon decades.  She was so excited, this former English teacher forgot her spelling, and hurriedly typed away at me about the discoveries about her gnome history.

Gnome history?!?!?  You mean genetic testing has proven we're descended from a hitherto-thought-to-be-mythical species of grumpy little people?  Should I get a pointy hat?  No wonder I like the colour red and goose-down pillows and get crabby when people walk across my bridge!

Oh... no... genome history.  We're not Gnomes.  Damn...

As it turns out, though, we're not Native North Americans, either.  Not one single genetic marker to anchor us to North America, let alone a particular Native population.

So... I guess those 1940s CAS workers meant "native" as in: his parents had been born here; not as in: traceable back for many generations.  Of course, one line was traceable back to the super-early settlers of Newfoundland, so perhaps the CAS workers mistook that population for Native?  Who knows... maybe the birth mother wasn't sure who the father was and just took her best guess.  Back to Mystery Meat (excuse the raunchy pun!).

So the cheekbones and eyes that my friends alternately swore were Nish or Innu, and the extra layer of belly fat that I blamed on my Inuit genes (they actually have an extra layer written in to their genetic code) have nothing to do with this land whatsoever.  I ain't from around here.

My mother's ancestry comes almost completely from the Basques of north-central Spain and south-western France.  It was a mountainous region (west end of the Pyrenees and stretching down to the coast of Biscay) and cut off from the effects of all the other migrations, so has remained fairly insular genetically.  It is one of the oldest peoples of Europe -- originally pastoral in the mountainous terrain, but then they became seafaring as they ran out of space.  They were among the first to reach North America, and settled mainly in Newfoundland (Port Aux Basques).

So... this doesn't explain my belly fat (damn!), but... it does explain my passion for mountains, sea, and a good Rioja (I've never met a bad Rioja -- of course, her genes also show a predilection for alcoholism, so between her and my father, I'm pretty much screwed in that department!).

And it means I have to take a fresh look at my stories.  Why the heck DID the Tyrannical Nutbar forbid Mom from using red crayons?  Where DOES my sister's turtle-nose come from?  WTF is with this belly fat?

Where's my Rioja?

"We make up our stories by looking at clouds
And nobody bothers to say it out loud
'Cause they don't think very much about it."
                                              - Susan Latimer


  1. Whatever your ancestry -- your presence is a gift and your friendship a treasure.

    Hugs -- whoever you are and where ever you came from, I like you just the way you are! :)

  2. Thank you, Louise! I'm still sad I'm not a Gnome, but am willing to embrace my inner Basque. :-)