That’s how a social worker once told me to think of my biological past. As ancient history. Her advice did not work. Actually, it did just the opposite. Made me consumed by stories about dead people. Dead people in the ground, dead people marked and catalogued, dead people whose blood ran in my veins.
I was adopted in the early 1960’s as an infant, during an era when good girls gone supposedly bad were sent away in secrecy and shame, consigned to homes for unwed mothers to wait out their pregnancies. Afterward, they were expected to return to their lives as if nothing had happened. When I came into the world, the Michigan probate court promptly sealed my all birth documents. Any data still around – hospital records for example, or adoption agency records – had my “identifying information” redacted.
Picture a pious social worker, black marking pen in hand, the sharp smell of acetone rising from my paperwork as she crossed out anything real. As if I were a communist, a revolutionary, or a terrorist. When I was just a 6 lb. 7 oz. infant.
A half-century later, here’s what I know about my long dead ancestors: When it is technically illegal to locate your living blood relatives, the dead ones start to seem surprisingly accessible. Adoptees in many states cannot, by law, have a copy of their original birth certificate. And yet, in this golden age of data, all someone like me needs is one factual name of one factual ancestor and you’re rolling.
In my case, the pen-wielding social worker missed something – the name of a town. It must have seemed unimportant to her in 1961, but it turned out to mean everything to me. In 1992 I used the name of that town to find my birthmother. I’ve since met other birth relatives and started compiling my biological family tree.
Where once my past was a blank piece of sky, it’s now populated with blood kin, some of whom participated in singular moments of American History.
I’ve walked through cemeteries, subscribed to historical society newsletters, picked through the U.S. Census, joined Ancestry.com, and although these people I’m finding are firmly under the ground – some have been there for centuries – so I’ll obviously never get to meet them in the flesh, that has not diminished the joy I feel each time I locate someone new. For adoptees like me, this feeling is indescribably precious; akin to uncovering a prized valuable. Think, Antiques Roadshow, except it’s your own flesh and blood history instead of a vase, a necklace, or a painting.
The law that sealed my records when I was a baby is still on the books today. Legally, I’m not supposed to know anything about my ancestors. But I’ve never been someone who does well with injustice, or with being told I can’t do something. “No,” means, “go,” to me.
I now have a family tree. And I’m writing the story of how I compiled it.