Featured in Colorado Review
The Tree, The ForestFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Fall 2012
For months an innocuous blue envelope languished in the action box on my desk. A distant relative had sent a late Christmas card with a printed update (keeping busy with the Methodist church, the Lions Club, local Republican Party activities) and a handwritten note wishing me happy holidays. She closed with a simple request: “Please send us information so we can add your family to the tree.” Every few days I picked up that envelope and then dropped it back in the box, strangely paralyzed.
The relative who sent the card—Cousin H, an nth cousin, nth removed—already knew my basic family structure, thanks to my parents’ own holiday missive earlier that season, which mentioned my partner, Ruthanna, and our son, Silas. I’ve been out for years to friends and close relations, but my parents’ dispatch spread the word farther and wider. I pictured it multiplying forty, sixty, eighty times over, fluttering into the mailboxes and onto the kitchen tables of distant cousins and Dad’s old Navy friends around the globe. For a brief spell, my nervousness about involuntary exposure played tug-of-war against my pride in Mom and Dad’s courage (for they had outed themselves too, as the parents of a lesbian). Then I moved on, giving myself over to gingerbread houses, paper snowflakes, cranberry strands—all the chaos and labor of making Christmas magical for a child.
When the card from Cousin H arrived, I found myself once more tipped off balance. The Texas Republicans were including the lesbian branch of the tree. I was surprised, impressed, moved. Yet some part of me held back.
The genealogy urge and the meaning of extended family have puzzled me for a long time. The family tree in question is associated with my paternal grandmother, the descendant of Swedes who settled in central Texas in the second half of the nineteenth century. Every handful of years, Cousin H, the unofficial family genealogist, coordinates a reunion for those of us in this line. We gather in a community center in some small Texas town, eat beef brisket, drink sweet tea, and mingle. Many of my relatives find common ground in football, but I don’t even know the rules of the game; others debate the particular merits of the barbecue, but I’m a vegetarian. The only other focal point of conversation is the vast family tree, hung mural-like above us.
It’s little more than names—Carlsons, Swensons, Lundeliuses, and many others—plus birth dates, birthplaces, death dates. Our observations tend to be limited to “That poor Ingvar died young!” or “Whew! Hulda sure had the kids!” Every now and then someone pipes up with information about which ailment felled a particular relative, and I make a mental note in case this might someday facilitate self-diagnosis. For the most part, however, we gaze at the names silently, lingeringly, as if there should be something more to say about these people. Most are long dead and not forgotten, exactly, but not known either. A confusing haze of melancholy, or maybe loneliness, settles over me, and I wonder what connection, really, I have to any of them: the dead on the chart, and also the living relations eating smoked meat and drawling out stories about our nth cousin, once an NFL quarterback (Houston Oilers, I think, but don’t quote me).
I’ve never been to Sweden. I’ve barely lived in Texas. For a long time I went to the reunions only because it was expected of me. Later I showed up specifically to counter my parents’ interpretation, or perhaps worry, when I first came out to them: that I was rejecting the family. I made a concerted effort then to show that I was still a loving, perhaps lovable, daughter. (A better one than ever! Overcompensation: a venerable queer tradition.) Nevertheless, at extended family gatherings I always thought that if my relations really knew me they would not claim me. I smiled up a force field, talked about my cat, and claimed more than once to be single when I was not.
Having fended off possible rejection this way for years, I couldn’t easily put down that flimsy shield of evasion, of Withholding Information. When I pictured the full names of my beloved and my child pinned up on a wall—like captured butterflies for others to view and judge—I drew back. Perhaps my other relatives wouldn’t react as favorably as Cousin H. What might they think, what might they say, if they looked up at that mural and saw, joined lasciviously by a black horizontal, the names of two women, and below that a plunging vertical to the name of a child (who couldn’t really be the child of both of them)?
Yet I couldn’t ignore the warmth in Cousin H’s note. Perhaps my assumptions about Republicans, small-town Texans, and even genealogists were out of date. It used to be that you pretty much knew where Southern Republicans stood on the issue of homosexuality, but these days you can’t be sure. Maybe it was time to cast off prejudgment, shake free of my habitual defensive posture, and send Cousin H the full names, dates, birthplaces. Here they are! Put them on the chart! Behold them! With kind eyes, I hope.
But I couldn’t bring myself to act, deterred in part by my entrenched biases against genealogists. Since 2005 I have worked as an archivist at the National Archives, where I occasionally provide research advice to visiting genealogists. My colleagues and I call them the “Genies.” I suppose this could be a positive nickname—suggestive of magic and wishes granted and all that—but on my tongue it’s generally been less flattering, calling to mind pesky bugs, like gnats. I’d rather work with academics, filmmakers, or reporters. Genealogists typically chase informational morsels of only private interest. Their pursuits have always struck me as disproportionately time-consuming and unlikely to produce anything significant or beautiful.
I have also long questioned the motives behind these quests. Historically, genealogy is rooted in elites’ desire to establish bloodlines in order to consolidate wealth and power. Some residue of that hierarchical origin remains today, since consciously or subconsciously many researchers long to discover a Great Ancestor—someone high-born, high-achieving, or historically important—whose reflected glory they can claim. It seems problematic, even undemocratic, to co-opt another’s identity and build yourself up in this way. I couldn’t help seeing genealogy projects as a distraction from the real business of living the brief, particular life we each have.
Nevertheless, Cousin H’s request nudged me to reconsider. I decided to interrogate a few friends who enjoy this sort of research. In the wake of these conversations, I concluded that the genealogy urge is driven by a broader range of (often entangled) motives than I had long assumed (some suspect, yes, but others neutral, and even a few tinged with nobility):
1. The consolidation of wealth and power
2. The establishment of status more generally
3. The assertion of roots in a young country with a geographically mobile populace
The third can overlap with the first two but is more mixed in moral valence.
4. The preservation of ethnic identity
Linked to some degree with the third motivation, this has positive and negative shadings: it might inspire a researcher to learn more about another (mother) culture; it also might incline a researcher to see herself and her kin as separate from, possibly better than, others. There is something wistful about this motive, which often comes to the fore when that ethnic identity is already tenuous.
5. The thrill of the hunt for information
Some people find it satisfying to fill in blanks with discrete bits of information—a pleasure akin to that of doing crossword puzzles—which seems harmless enough.
6. The development of a sense of connection or continuity between generations
This seems good.
7. The forging of a personal connection to history
This one, too, is not bad, I admit.
The etymological origins of gene and genealogy are difficult to pin down, but clearly they overlap. I had always taken it for granted that a family tree is a representation of bloodlines. But my boy is not my own flesh and blood; my partner gave birth to him.
My parents’ Christmas letter described Silas as my “adopted” son, which rang strange to us since we never identify him that way. Yet their designation made a kind of sense: it headed off speculation about whether I gave birth, plus the concept of an adopted child is easily grasped even by people not comfortable with the notion of lesbian moms. Besides, Silas is my adopted son. Like many gay or lesbian couples, we pursued a legal avenue called “second-parent adoption,” through which the non-biological parent establishes a legal tie to the child. We rented a second home in Maryland (Virginia, where our son was born and we still live, does not allow second-parent adoption) and hired a lawyer. I assembled paycheck stubs, bank statements, medical information, recommendation letters from longtime friends. Maryland waived the standard requirement for a home study, and four months later we had a date in court to finalize the adoption.
That event was a strange hybrid: bureaucratic yet moving all the same. Mewling babies, whining toddlers, and parents, gay and straight alike, packed the courtroom. The gentle-browed judge, who reminded me of the kind of high school teacher who gives too many extra-credit questions, said something about this being his favorite part of the job and something misty-eyed about Family, all mostly drowned out by the shrieking youngsters around us. Then he proceeded family by family, rattling off the minor child this, the minor child that, no objections, it is so ordered, and then we had our picture taken and it was done.
The meaning of the adoption, however, has always been difficult to parse. It offered certain practical protections. It stood as an affirmation: a court of law had seen fit to bestow the mantle of parenthood upon me. For some reason I don’t want to forget it; each year I transfer “Adoption Day” from one datebook to the next. When the anniversary rolls around, however, I don’t do anything to celebrate it. Observing the date, even pointing it out to my son, might imply that I was not fully his parent from birth, or not committed to him until bound by law, and neither is true.
Yet the adoption was part of the slow evolution of my life as our boy’s other mother. Assuming responsibility while falling in parental love at his birth was one step, the adoption another. It was like taking a religious vow or getting married. Do you take this child to be your son? I do. That sober, self-aware, public act felt different from the emotional whirl surrounding his birth. Signing those adoption papers was my first formal statement of commitment to another person.
I’m uneasy when people with little understanding of these nuances draw attention to my status as an adoptive mother; I feel complicit in some other kind of falsehood when taken to be the birth mother. As the extra mom, I have an imposter complex. So I wondered if we would be posers of another kind if we added our branch to the tree. Would future generations see Silas’s name below mine and assume a biological child?
The possibility of adopted children on our mural of Swedes had never occurred to me. Based on my reading and my conversations with genealogists, it seems impossible to say for certain how, or whether, non-biological sons and daughters have been represented on family trees in the past. When adoption was far more likely to be “closed”—when identifying information about birth parents was sealed and adoptions might be concealed for years or forever from the children and extended family—many adoptees must have been silently entered on genealogical charts like any other offspring.
In our current era of open adoption, genealogists discuss the issue more freely but differ in their practices and recommendations. The crux of the matter is how broadly or narrowly you define family, and how much you take into account the feelings of others when weighing more or less inclusive options. The specific motivation behind a given family tree also makes a difference. Are you, for example, trying to document biological descent to prove legal membership in a Native American tribe? Or are you merely putting together a temporary display for your grandfather’s birthday party? Some genealogists plug in adopted kids just as they would genetic ones; some try to represent adoptees’ biological descent as well: a kind of twin tree effect. On the other end of the spectrum, purists insist that genetic descent is primary and advise either leaving off adopted children entirely or including the adoptees but with some distinguishing notation. Our Swedish tree was laboriously printed by hand, but the computer age has brought family tree software capable of storing, sorting, and displaying information in multiple ways. Now annotations and concealed-note fields are possible. You can hide and reveal at once.
Even without complete consensus, it’s safe to say that the public increasingly sees these charts as representations of family history, not literal maps of bloodlines. There is something of a groundswell of people grafting on adopted children, stepchildren, and others without clear genetic ties. The more I studied the matter, the more I came to see that in all likelihood our branch wouldn’t be the first odd twist, and these days we certainly wouldn’t be the only ones complicating the bramble.
Although my son is not blood of my blood, I know a lot about his lineage. Not long ago, Ruthanna showed me her family tree from her father’s side. She is a direct descendant of one of the original settlers of Plymouth Colony.
“Richard Warren (c. 1580–1628), signer of the Mayflower Compact,” I read, eyeing the surprisingly few lines I had to follow to get from Warren to the woman right beside me.
“Mayflower Shmayflower,” Ruthanna yawned. “That’s nothing. Look at this.”
She then drew out the family tree documenting her mother’s lineage and traced her finger back through generations of Philadelphia Quakers until she reached . . . Edward I.
“The King of England?!” I exclaimed. “So you and Silas are royalty?”
“Well, I’ve never wanted to lord it over you.”
I was impressed, against my will, against my better judgment. (Here it is—the lure of status—one of the very motives I claim to deplore. Does it inevitably push its way into every exploration of this kind?)
Silas gets his Mayflower heritage from both sides. His biological father is also a direct descendant of that same Richard Warren, something we hadn’t realized until Silas was in utero and we consulted his paternal genealogical chart for possible names (all of which we rejected, after amusing ourselves briefly with the option of Consider or Mordaunt). This coincidence is not so unusual. Warren had seven children, all of whom lived to adulthood and reproduced, which makes him the Mayflower passenger with the largest number of progeny. The vast majority of so-called Mayflower descendants alive today are of his line, and they number in the millions.
And my family line of Swedes? What’s remarkable about us? Nothing, really, except that we have a lot of blue and yellow lapel pins, we know what lingonberry jam and gravlax are, even if we don’t like to eat either, and we’ve been in Texas a good long while. That’s about it. If I were to add Ruthanna to my family tree, she would be—for lack of a better term—marrying down.
In truth I didn’t know much about my own family history because I had never bothered to learn. During my twenties and thirties I was more preoccupied with me than we—with the struggle to make a self of myself. But the forties bring different questions (or different permutations of the old ones), and I thought finding out more about my own lineage might at least help me decide how to respond to my cousin’s request. I asked my parents to mail copies of all the genealogical material they could find and soon received a succession of fat manila envelopes. For several days I bushwhacked through this information about the Swedish line, the British line (my father’s father), and the German lines (my mother’s parents).
I wasn’t sure what to make of all the dates and places of birth, marriage, death; of the stray scraps about occupations and land ownership. I focused first on the names of these unknowable forebears, discovering to my delight that I have an ancestor named Joseph Goodpasture. (My late grandfather, a rancher ever solicitous of his sheep and cattle, would have loved this bit of trivia.) Less delightfully, I am descended from many people named Ljungquist, which sounds a lot like someone choking on pickled herring.
In the end I discovered a few facts of moderate interest (“highlights” would be claiming too much), plus one indisputable lowlight. Among the former: my father’s family has been in this country far longer than I had assumed. My ancestor Walter Evans emigrated from Wales and had arrived in Virginia by 1718. I could even apply to be a Daughter of the American Revolution since Walter Evans’s son and grandson both signed the Oath of Allegiance during the war. I will never do this, but I confess feeling an involuntary flush of self-importance upon discovering that I actually have some American Heritage. That impetus I claim to despise—the establishment of status—rears its head again.
The lowlight is associated with this highlight: my Virginia ancestors owned slaves. According to the 1785 census of Halifax County, Virginia, George Evans Jr. had a family of four white persons and one slave. George eventually moved to Claiborne County, Tennessee, where he and his son Elijah established the Evans Inn, which included slave housing “in buildings a distance away.” I did some quick moral arithmetic: we didn’t own many, and that’s better news than it could be; then again, own one person and you’re a slaveholder—we were a slaveholding family. This should not have come as a huge surprise (though, tellingly, I had never heard it mentioned), yet I had long allowed myself to believe that we had not been part of that.
We? Why suddenly this we? That’s not like me at all. My instinct is to push it away. (The Lone Ranger to Tonto, hearing the ominous sound of approaching warriors: “We’re in trouble now!” Tonto, in reply: “Who’s this we, white man?”)
What I had hoped for, it dawned on me, was some clue in those manila envelopes to my particular destiny, some answer to the lingering puzzle of me in the web of family history. Instead I came away with that weird, creeping sense of we-ness.
Around this time our son’s biological father, W, his partner, M, and their son, J, were visiting us from Boston. Despite the geographical distance between our households, we try to spend a weekend together regularly. On this particular morning, W and I had each been up with a small boy since the wee hours. We were bleary-eyed, unshowered. Our conversation drifted. I pondered out loud how to find someone to translate old family letters written in an archaic German script and recalled what I could about my maternal grandparents’ origins. W ventured that his mother’s family, too, might have roots thereabouts. We poured more coffee and tossed the names of various locales back and forth.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we were actually related?” I mused.
Our conversation was interrupted three or five or seven times by requests for Cheerios, squabbles over toy trucks, disputes about how to play Fling-the-Bear. It occurred to me that I could explore whether I am linked by blood to this man—and therefore to my son. I could research our family histories and also investigate how closely W’s biological heritage resembles mine: I could order a “23andMe” genetic-testing kit for a few hundred dollars, get him to donate a little saliva . . . Or I suppose I could test my son . . .
The riddle was intriguing, also fraught. What did it mean that some part of me wanted us to be related in this way? Why did this have a pull when all along I thought we were creating, thought I wanted, a family-of-choice transcending the traditional ties of marriage and blood? Maybe that slight tug came from insecurity about being the extra(neous) mom. Or maybe there was some allure to the possibility that our constructed family and my specific self might fit together in a way that would seem fated, almost mystically preordained.
The riddle was fraught, also tempting. For a minute or two. Then I was down on the floor helping one boy find the ball for the ball-popper toy, while W ran upstairs to fetch dry socks for the other child. I was aware of being diverted from the riddle. Or maybe, it occurred to me, reality was proving the riddle beside the point. Maybe the messy shared present connects us more than any ancient genetic link ever could.
Not long afterward, while visiting W, M, and J in Boston, we spent an afternoon at the city’s science museum. A genetics exhibit there featured a large, color-coded wheel demonstrating how closely related people and chimpanzees are, compared to other living things. Embedded was the reminder that all human beings are kin—close kin, if you take the long view. This seemed another answer to my riddle.
The man is my relative in more ways than one. The boy is too.
Genealogical records are usually scraps: ragged informational bits standing in for entire, unknowable lives. As I looked through my family’s records, I hunted after any quirky detail, any germ of a story, that would reveal something particular, concrete, and vital about an ancestor—that would truly show this man, that woman.
So meager were my gleanings that I actually felt a tingle of excitement upon discovering that my grandmother’s mother, Olga Wilhelmina Swenson, was “famous for her prune whip.” Setting aside the obvious question (how good, really, could prune whip be?), this detail brought Olga to life more fully than anything else I know about her. I pictured her muscular arm in action, whisking something frothy in a massive ceramic bowl painted with bluebonnets. I saw her jaw jutting from concentrated effort, her blue eyes squinting against the Texas sun blaring through faded curtains. In my mind’s eye she pauses to sample a dollop of something sweet. No, not sweet enough, so she spoons in more sugar and whips away again. “Maybe I could make prune whip!” I thought. “Maybe—” But I caught myself: “Self! You do not like prunes!” This sudden turnabout did not entirely dissipate the sensation that, for a few moments, I was under the spell of a particular human presence.
Another gleaning: my great-great-grandfather, Jasper Adkins, the first doctor in Lampasas, Texas, allowed patients to pay him in rock instead of currency. Was this a reluctant concession? Or an act of generosity? Or evidence of his desire to build a stone house? Nobody can say for sure. Regardless, this curious detail makes Jasper something more in collective memory than his birth and death dates and occupation. He takes on substance. He becomes more fully human.
I feel ambivalent about the documents that reflect our institutional lives: the family tree, but also the birth certificate, passport, resume. Each plugs a person into a system. Each enjoys a certain authority—by virtue of its association with the family, the state, the corporation—insinuating that what has been set down in black typeface signifies. As an archivist, I understand the importance of these records, but not one tells you what makes this man unique, what actually matters to that woman. The richer details of these lives are lost, invisible in the white space around the official facts.
The family tree in particular emphasizes connection and continuation over individuality. Each life matters because of who comes before and who comes after. On the trees my parents forwarded to me, anybody who did not have offspring became a dead end. Jasper Adkins’s daughter, the unmarried and child-free Ettie Aurelia Adkins, who lived from 1868 to 1943, has after her name the terse, dismissive, dooming phrase “No Issue.” While this is true in a biological or evolutionary sense, it troubles me that these should so often stand as the last words on the whole fellowship of childless men and women, with whom I cannot help identifying. I never felt a yearning to have a baby and came of age as a lesbian when it was rare for same-sex couples to bring children into the world, when the practical complications and social stigma seemed prohibitive. I came into “issue” only under the wire—through the almost magical loophole of a still-fertile girlfriend in her forties—and I continue to feel some solidarity with the childless. The family tree slights these lives in particular.
Ettie Aurelia Adkins did not go by Ettie; she went by Arrie. I know this because she wrote a novelized autobiography, One Texas Old Maid. It’s not a great book, but you could call it her “issue”: family members pass it around, keep track of extant copies, discuss its details and misinformation and lacunae. Old Maid should have some offspring—I like the queer ring of that. If my little branch is to appear on the tree, best to vine around it some companion stories. This essay is one.
Cousin H’s request has given me a head start on what I hear is around the corner: my child’s first grade-school family tree assignment. If you explore the blogosphere about genealogy in relation to gay and lesbian families, this is the focus: how do you usher a child through this academic rite of passage while staying true to the family’s reality and taking into account complicated feelings about belonging and identity?
The so-called Modern Family—increasingly likely to include stepchildren, adopted children, and the children of gay or lesbian couples—poses representational challenges. Even family tree software developers lag behind: the word in cyberspace is that you cannot easily and honestly represent gay or lesbian families using the most popular genealogical programs (Family Tree Maker and Legacy Family Tree). Various “workarounds” are necessary and sometimes still don’t, well, work. One frustrated gay dad called these programs “Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell software.” But the times are changing quickly. When I last explored this issue, one blogger declared her intention “to work with software providers to encourage them to fix this,” and on the Legacy home page a link provided directions on “how to change the wording for a non-marriage.” By the time I finish writing this, the genealogy software scene may be different.
Still, I can’t help thinking that we need new forms of representation. As long as the name of a child sprouts from a linked pair, it’s too easy to assume a biological offspring—the standard interpretation of that iconography is too deeply ingrained. Moreover, even if trees incorporate adoptees and stepchildren, they exclude many other important close connections, devaluing them by omission. Where on my extended family’s tree would W and M find a place? What about their mothers (our son’s third and fourth grandmothers)? Even relatively inclusive contemporary family trees prioritize monogamous cohabiting couples and their dependents. But what about a longtime friend whom we think of as a brother or sister? What about a former love who has morphed into a uniquely tender, intimate relation? Or a treasured lover who is not the same person as our domestic partner? It’s gay tradition to consider this larger web of connections family as well, but it’s not clear how to make these ties visible on the tree. Perhaps no amount of tweaking can alter something inherently conservative in the form.
Some sort of alternative might do fuller justice to the rich mess of family while preserving, in a way that can be passed on, concrete knowledge of overall structure and individual members. The forms proposed most often are the forest, orchard, garden, circle, and constellation. Of these, I prefer forest, because it echoes the time-honored arboreal image but is more inclusive and complicated than tree, less controlled than garden or orchard. Forests are fittingly earthbound and everyday. Plus, it’s difficult to overlook their complexity: the different scenes at different heights even if you stand in one place, the crazy entanglement of roots, vines, branches, tendrils, such that you often can’t tell where one tree begins and another ends. Families grow wild like that. It’s easy to get lost in them.
Perhaps the best form for representing family, the double-visioned one that embraces complexity while seeing some way through the thicket, that holds together both the particular and the universal, the individual and the group, is story—or essay.
The blue envelope is gone. I finally took action, not because I’ve made sense of the forest, but because of a mystery and a certain hope. The first few times I plucked up that letter, I did so because my cousin’s handwriting looks almost exactly like my father’s. The two are close in age and grew up less than a hundred miles apart, so maybe this convergence reflects nothing more than the prevailing penmanship of that time and place. Nevertheless, the mirroring of hands seemed eerie to me, a tangible indication that we may be connected in ways we can’t fathom.
Around the time I was pondering this, Cousin H sent out an e-mail reporting that one of our extended family members had died. I didn’t really remember him, though he was at those Swedish reunions. I could picture a face but wasn’t certain I had the right face. Still, struck by that timeless urge to do something, I wrote a simple condolence note. Conjuring it took almost an hour; I had nothing to say. But I felt a kinship: we are all in this together—this brief living, followed by the permanent ending of those death dates on the genealogical chart.
I decided to answer Cousin H’s request at the same time. Maybe extended family of the traditional sort is less a social body than a mediating metaphor, a hopeful gesture toward how we might connect with others past, present, and future, like us and not. Perhaps, also, honoring the tenuous links in small ways is part of honoring the unsolvable mystery at the heart of identity. I don’t know where we end. I don’t know who I am. I sent Cousin H the facts, as far as I know them, for whatever they’re worth.
Just a few facts, actually, just the ones that would hang easily on the existing tree. I convinced myself that it would be discourteous, given a kind invitation, to shake things up too much. But in retrospect I was probably still afraid to risk disapproval and rejection, still holding back to stay safe. It’s curious what I feel for family I wouldn’t recognize on the street, and curious too how much I want these near strangers to love me.
Judith Adkins holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, a PhD in history from Yale, and a BA in English and history from Duke. She writes prose poems as well as essays. Currently she is working on a collage of essays about gay and lesbian family matters.