By Glenda L. Shank
Internet sites boasts identity searches for only $19.95 with guaranteed results. If only the search for my own identity might have been so quick, easy, and painless. In reality, it was quite a journey.
The trouble was that the identity I had grown up with, understood, and treasured was wrenched from me in one quick moment. The truth had been uttered from the lips of someone no longer vested with the responsibility of maintaining the family secret.
I grew up as your average, white, middle class American did, or so it seems. Both my parents worked at blue-collar jobs, and though I had a much older brother, I was reared as an only child. I lived secure and happy in the knowledge that my father was full-blooded Norwegian, just a few generations removed from Norway, and that my mother was half-Irish and half Dutch. I thought that made me about as Anglo as you could get.
I had a lot of pride for my dad's heritage, for I knew the most about it. I knew the origin of the family name, Barstad. I met my great-grandfather when he was 105, just a few months before his death. He had been the family patriarch, and I listened entranced as my father told me stories of living in the Canadian wilderness or on the North Dakota farm. I recalled stories of Lutheran confirmation classes, his grandfather's vet calls for three counties around, sneaking out to play cards and smoke, riding horse-drawn sleighs, and ice-skating to school.
I knew little of my mother's ethnic heritage but I was proud of her personal one. She had done many things that for a woman of her time were not expected. She managed a dry cleaning shop, drove a Denver city bus, and worked as a "Rosie the Riveter" welding airplane wings during World War II. I knew these stories and loved to hear them repeatedly. I was enthralled by the oral traditions of both my parents.
In 1986, when I was 25 years old, my security in knowing who I was and my concept of my own heritage was torn from me. Sadly, there was no one to blame but myself. For a few years, due to several seemingly benign and off-handed remarks, I had begun to wonder if I might possibly have been adopted. I was too terrified of their reaction to ask my parents. It was a few years after the original question formed in my mind that I found the opportunity and the means to discover, if it was, indeed, the truth. Due to a family illness, I found myself conveniently at the home of my ex-sister-in-law. Although she was the mother of my niece and nephews, there was no love lost between us. I thought, and rightly so, that she might be the one person willing to tell me if my hunch was correct.
I bravely -- or foolishly -- decided not to ask if I had been adopted. Instead, I acted as though I knew the information to be fact, and I inquired about my birth parents. Her response to my questions about the identify of my birth parents was simple, just seven words -- uttered with no emotion, but it shook the foundation of my world. She answered, "I don't know, but your brother does." Time stood still for a moment, as the realization dawned that my whole life had been a lie. I was not Norwegian-Dutch-Irish. My heritage, as I knew it, evaporated. From that moment, I had no identity at all. I sensed what it must feel like to have amnesia, a complete feeling of loss for who I was.
The next few weeks moved quickly. I recovered enough to move forward on my quest for truth and for identity. After some half-hearted denials, my family admitted that I was adopted, though not legally. This revelation shocked me even more. My birth mother had simply gone to the small town hospital where I was born, registered as my adoptive mother, and, after my birth, placed both my adoptive parents' names on the birth certificate. Then, with no fanfare, she handed me over, like a bag of old unwanted clothing, in the lifeless parking lot. I was emotionally devastated; there was not even an adoption record to unseal.
My adoptive mother had one more surprise for me. An aunt had kept track of my birth mother through the years, and on a visit to her home, she handed me the address and phone number of my birth mother.
The next events were life changing for me. There was the first nerve- wracking but heartfelt phone call to my birth mother and the long-awaited explanation. My birth mother, Nelda, flew from Texas to Oregon to meet me, and I began the second part of the search for my identity. I found new pieces to the puzzle of who I am. My birth mother, ironically, was also adopted, but she knew of her heritage. I now had a new identity, at least from my birth mother, since the birth father had never been identified. I was reaffirmed Dutch and Irish along with Blackfoot and Cherokee. The Irish was obvious in Nelda, as evidenced by her long red hair and the green eyes- hauntingly like mine-- until now a characteristic that I could never explain. The Native American heritage explained why, from birth, two of my children had always been assumed to be Native American by anyone meeting them.
It was a strange experience, like trying on a new coat and finding that it did not quite fit but having to keep the coat anyway because the familiar and comfortable one had gone off to Goodwill or some similar second-hand outlet. Uncomfortable with myself, I sensed a feeling of being detached from anywhere in the world. I needed to begin an odyssey of exploration of culture, self-awareness, and religion.
I first tried to embrace my native roots, but without a paper trail to the tribes of my heritage, that was not possible. Instead, I began to study religion and for a time studied informally with a shaman from the Grande Ronde Tribe, the nearest reservation to where I was living. Unsure of myself though, I was never able to follow through and attend the ceremonies that would have bonded me with them.
As the anger of being lied to for thirty years abated and as the doubt about my very identity faded, I discovered that family and heritage could be what I make it. I still think of myself as Norwegian, even though I am not, and I talk with my father about the few words of the language he still knows. I also decided that I could choose what to embrace and what to let go.
First, I shed all the prejudices and preconceived ideas I had about race, religion, and sexual orientation. I believed, since I still knew nothing of my birth father, I could be related in some way, either in a familial way or ethnically, to anyone I met. To practice prejudice toward any group could easily be construed as prejudice against my own
heritage, my own people. My circle of friends expanded, and I found safety, expectation, and growth in many communities. My friends were diverse and interesting, drawing from the gay and lesbian community as well as the recovery community and having all shades of color represented. Many of these people have left indelible marks on my life.
The greatest impact my journey has made on my life was how I now see America and Americans. Years ago, before we began to speak so strongly about immigration laws, we were a country that considered itself a melting pot of people. Though some tension still existed between some groups, all were welcome here, in the land of opportunity.
I am still of that mind set. I have thought myself to be Norwegian, Dutch, Irish, Cherokee and Blackfoot, with a huge piece of the puzzle of "Who I Am" always to be missing without my birth father. I have listened to the stories of my friends who have suffered because of skin color or lifestyle choices and watched some of it occur.
America needs to redefine what we call American. Somehow, we need to become a melting pot again, embracing the individuality and flavor that ethnicity brings, seeing past color and religion to the individual while still embracing cultural differences. This is a fine line to walk, and to walk it we must engage in meaningful dialogue. It has been my experience that most prejudice is the result of ignorance. This is easily overcome by reaching out to people different from ourselves. When approached with sincerity most people will share with you their life story; their defeats and triumphs, their struggles and victories. Moreover, if you take the time to do this, it will enrich your life and make it clearer that we are all much more similar than we believe.
Who I am today is a result not only of my ethnicity but also of my upbringing, my education, my socio-economic status, my personal choices, and my religion. This is true for everyone in America. This realization comforts me and it broadens my horizons since I see the world as a place for exploration and cultivation of values, with many new experiences to come. We are no longer the white, protestant, Anglo-Saxon country that we think we are. I did not believe we ever really were. We are multi-cultural, and diverse, like a great tapestry woven together with emotions, experience, and ethnicity to become a image like no other, always changing, always fluid. When all Americans can embrace that changing image, we will again find ourselves the country we thought ourselves to be.