Day 9: Honor our heritage

We are a MIXED bag at my house.  Husbeau is 100% Italian.  I am 1/4 Welsh, 1/4 Italian and the other half is a mix of Scottish, Irish, Alsatian (I’m gonna call “German” on that one based on the food, words and preferences of my grandmother) and “unknown” because my great-grandmother was a foundling.  So BigGuy is 5/8 Italian and then a bunch of “other European” and Girly is half Guatemalan and half completely unknown.  Her history is very much like my great-grandmother’s except they no longer call those children “foundlings” and they generally don’t grow up in a hospital setting like my great-grandmother did.

So what do we honor today…? 

I miss my maternal aunt and grandmother–who died within 8 months of each other.  If I could possibly find my grandmother’s apple fritter recipe, we would have that for breakfast.  All I remember is that there was a LOT of cooking oil in the batter.  They weren’t pancakes and yet they were like pancakes.  I ache for that recipe.  I remember being at her house and finding just one lonely apple somewhere–in the fridge or maybe in the breezeway between the kitchen and the garage.  She would peel it and cook up a plate load of fritters while I got to eating the peeled apple skins.  I can almost smell those fritters.

When I was young, my grandmother was my island in a life of chaos.  I intermittently lived with her as my brother and I made the rounds living with relatives to dodge what should have been a life in foster care.  When I didn’t know if or when my mother was coming home, I could call my grandmother and ask her what to do.  Her house was my only home for most of my life–the place I always knew where to find the iron or the canned goods.  My grandmother was a brutally stern woman, but then her mother (Granny) was equally brutally stern.  When I was in kindergarten, Granny allowed my mother to live in her small apartment building and Granny would babysit me in the mornings because the school had assigned me to afternoon kindergarten.  My mother would bring my cold, unfinished oatmeal down to Granny’s with me and Granny gave me the option of eating it or practicing my scales on the piano.  If I got the scales wrong–at age 5–Granny would tap my knuckles with a spoon.  My grandmother was clearly cut of the same cloth.

My grandmother insisted we were French.  I’m sure she truly believed that just like she truly believed that her Granny was orphaned when her parents died in a train or car wreck.  I don’t recall–but I remember it was some sort of moving vehicle.  My grandmother believed that Granny was orphaned old enough to remember her parents, and separated over time from an older sister that she searched for during my grandmother’s lifetime.  The truth is: Granny was born in a foundling hospital in New York City.  To my knowledge, she grew up there.

My grandmother believed that  Granny searched her whole life to find her “older sister”.  But Granny didn’t have an older sister.  You see, before Husbeau and I had children, I spent too long unemployed and spent my time becoming a full-on genealogist.  One of the things I did was travel into New York City to get copies of records–including Granny’s birth certificate.  I didn’t scrutinize it until later.

When I saw that the baby’s surname was the same as the mother’s–not the listed father.

When I saw that the “number of prior live births” was zero, not one.

When I saw the location of the birth was the New York City Foundling Hospital.

Granny wasn’t looking for her older sister because there wasn’t an older sister to find.  But that birth certificate list her mother’s name–plain as day.  I spent a day of most weekends for several years of my childhood visiting Granny in the nursing home with my grandmother so that my grandmother wouldn’t be alone.  Granny had Alzheimer’s.  Each week we would arrive and Granny–upon seeing my grandmother as an old woman Granny didn’t recognize–would say “Oh mother, have you come to take me home?”

That loss haunted Granny until the day she died.  No marriage, no children, no life of relative affluence could overpower the overwhelming loss of who she was as a person because she did not know her birth family and had no understanding of why she was placed for adoption.  And Granny’s simple question has haunted me for my entire life as a child missing her mother.  When I found out the truth behind her story, it became more haunting.  Then I became the adoptive mother of another child who was placed for adoption at birth.  Like Granny, I have little more than a name to offer my daughter to replace an entire family and history of her beginnings as a person.  A little girl that happens to love apples.

Today I will fumble through an apple fritter recipe.  I will hold close the profound loss my Granny felt for her birthmother right through her dying day.  I will be thankful for those strong, stern women that had a significant impact on who I am today.  And I will be mindful of the ripple effect of sadness and depression that started with Granny and swallowed almost an entire family (save for Auntie Rita) into an abyss of sadness, depression and mental health disorders sprinkled with a few cases of substance abuse.

Armed with all of this, I honor the heritage I know of my grandmother and plow forward with three generations of lessons learned in the hopes that my daughter’s pain–already very apparent–is comforted in ways Granny’s never was.


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