The Only Thing My Father Gave Me

November 11, 2020 § 2 Comments

By Julie Ryan McGue

As I filled out my online submission to an elite, year-long memoir course, my absent birth father wasn’t even a whisper in my subconscious. I entered my book concept and working title, attached my latest author bio, and then uploaded the first ten pages of my manuscript. Having done all the hard steps first, I focused on the form’s remaining queries.

“Enter your birthdate, *optional.”

Questions swirled in my head. By asking this, was the selection committee looking for older authors with a lifetime of experiences to reveal, seasoned voices who had oodles to reflect upon? Was the program leaning towards selecting younger authors to nurture, writers with edgier tones who might express themselves in more experimental structures? Then again, perhaps the question meant the program had a bent towards selecting a cross section of students, thereby representing writers of all ages, voices, and writing styles?

I continued to glare at the optional birthdate box.

If I entered not just the month and day of my birth, but the actual year in which I was born, was I less likely to be selected? In my early sixties, I’m committed to turning a hobby of writing for myself into a public, late-in-life career. What the heck, I reasoned. I am what I am: a middle-aged woman who is both a mother and a grandma; a lifelong journaler who found her birth relatives and realized she suddenly had a story to tell; and, a relative newbie to the online writing submission process. 

I tapped out the whole damn thing, birth year and all. 

My head voice shouted as my fingers found the keys. If you like my writing, want me in your program, then you might as well know all of what you’re getting: A committed writer who wants to learn. Someone who is willing to collaborate, and who will not be defensive about criticism. An individual who will offer well-thought out comments during peer review.

Okay, next question. “Enter your race/ethnicity.” 

For most of my life, this has been an easy question to answer. Adopted at three weeks old with my twin sister, our adoptive parents were told that we’d come from German and Irish ancestry. (We were born during the Baby Scoop Era–that time period after WWII until the 1980s–when adoption agencies tried to place adoptees into homes similar to those from where they originated.) Our adoption was closed, which meant adoption statutes prevented us from knowing anything about our birth circumstances or our birth family. For half a century, I have identified with my adoptive parents’ heritage: German, Irish, and Bohemian.

All that changed in 2010.

After three years of searching, my twin sister and I reunited with our birth mother. We learned that besides French and German, Cree Indian trickles through our maternal bloodline. Four years later, I located our birth father and our genealogy expanded to include Scotland, Ireland, and another Native American Indian tribe. One-quarter Chippewa, my birth dad grew up near a reservation in northern Minnesota. For the first fifty-five years of my life, I had no choice but to claim “White” as my ethnicity. Genetics has proven that I can claim Native American, too.

I contemplated the ethnicity box. Breath built up in my chest. My hands twisted in my lap.

Since I had been honest about my age, I determined that for the first time in my life, I could and wanted to claim my rightful heritage.  I leaned over the keyboard and typed in: white and Native American. Then I sat back in my desk chair and stared at the screen. The corners of my mouth slid up, and my breathing returned to normal. I smiled like the Cheshire Cat. The grin was not due to the fact that I had chosen to be brazenly honest, nor was it pleasure over the newness of selecting Native American as my ethnicity on a silly form. It was something else entirely.

When I located my birth father in 2014, I sent him a letter asking for family medical history. He complied by mail with this caveat: I may or may not be your biological father. Here’s the information you requested. Do not contact me again. Despite the efforts of my new half-siblings, my birth dad refused to acknowledge my twin and me as his offspring. Two years ago, he died suddenly of a heart attack. We never met in person, nor did we communicate in any way after that first exchange of letters. The sum total of all that my birth father passed on to me amounts to this: a completed health history form, my half-brother’s positive DNA match, and the subsequent knowledge that I am Native American.

So you see, my smile over having filled in that ethnicity box on the submission was about knowing and claiming. Knowing who I am and where I came from and the ability to claim my heritage, giving it a voice through my writing. I’m cognizant that my chances of gaining admission into the elite, memoir writing program are small. But, ten years ago I hadn’t expected to learn much about my birth relatives, my family health history, or my genealogy. I took a chance and worked it to the bitter end. Just as I’m working hard to get this writing thing down now.

I’m a mature adult. I’m Native American. I love to write memoir, and until I hear otherwise, I consider myself a serious contender for admission to the memoir course I seek.

Julie Ryan McGue’s debut memoir Twice a Daughter: A Search for Identity, Family, and Belonging (She Writes Press) will be released in May 2021. It is the story of her five-year search for birth relatives. She writes extensively about finding out who you really are, where you belong, and how to make sense of it. Julie’s weekly blogs and monthly column at The Beacher focus on identity, family, and life’s quirky moments.

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