There’s no final version of a life story

What we call “I” is just a swinging door, which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki reminds us that what we know as “self” is impermanent and ever-changing, whether or not we want it to be. We’d like to believe that changes to our identity are under our control, the result of growth and intent. But what happens when we find out that we’re not who we thought we were, when the family story that was built around us and on whose scaffold we grew is wrong?

NPR journalist Alex Wagner, who just wrote a memoir about her family, notes that the beginnings and endings of stories are arbitrary — there’s always something that happened before and more that comes after. And only when we ask questions and go looking will we find the fuller story.

Here was my story: My maternal grandmother ran off with a neighbor shortly before my mother’s second birthday, leaving her husband and six children behind. She had four more children after she left and her first set of children only saw her a few more times. She essentially cut them off.

This was a story I grew up with, a story that I feel I knew from earliest memory. My mother didn’t try to hide it from us or shelter us from it; we knew very clearly from a young age that her mother had left her behind, to be raised by her father and later, a stepmother.

For years, I’ve been interested in genealogy, and have delved deeply into my family history. But this story wasn’t one that I spent much time questioning or looking into. It was “case closed, end of story.” Then along came DNA testing, and with it, some second cousins who were unknown to me.

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So here’s the revised story: All those new second cousins? They are people whose grandparents were siblings of the man my grandmother ran off with. Even when I saw this reality on the screen in front of me, it took several minutes for the realization to sink in that my grandfather was that other man, and that my mother was left behind by both of her parents, not just one of them. The beginning of my mom’s formative story wasn’t when her mother left, it was much earlier.

I keep thinking this shouldn’t affect me much – most of the people involved are dead, I wasn’t that close to the man I thought was my grandfather, and I’m glad that my mother has been spared this truth. Yet I can’t stop thinking about it; it confuses and troubles me in ways I didn’t expect. I want to know more about this person whose DNA I share. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

You can touch the presence of your father and mother in each cell of your body. They are truly present in you, along with your grandparents and great-grandparents. Doing this, you know you are their continuation. You may have thought that your ancestors no longer existed, but even scientists say your ancestors are present in you. The same is true for your descendants. You will be present in every cell of their bodies.

If I am a continuation of my grandparents, who am I now? Who were they? We grow up with an identity that is molded by the stories and messages, both subtle and overt, that we receive from our parents and other adults. Sometimes self-perception gets skewed because of identities that are projected onto us (the “smart one” or the “pretty one” or the “troublemaker”). But we have a chance at different points in life to reject those projections and forge a fresh identity based on our own values, beliefs and goals.

And yet, it’s hard to rid ourselves of those early identities. Did my mother’s abandonment stories leave an indelible impression on me? Did that change how I interact with my world? What emotions should I be feeling about those old wrongs? On Psychology Today, Mel Schwartz writes that one’s sense of self should be more like a willow tree than an oak, more flexible than sturdy, ready to accept and bend with the storms of life. So I turn again to Thich Nhat Hanh:

Some of us have wonderful parents; others have parents who suffered a lot and made their partners and their children suffer. Just about everyone has some blood ancestors whom we admire, and others who had many negative traits and of whom we are not proud. They are all our ancestors…We may be angry with them, but they are still our ancestors…We cannot get rid of them…Unconditional acceptance is the first step in opening the door to the miracle of forgiveness.

I used to think that it was my mother’s prerogative to experience these emotions – anger, grief, forgiveness. I’m just beginning to consider my grandparents as people I might want to forgive, people who suffered, and maybe tried to do their best. I will never know what motivated them to do what they did; all I can do now is try to cultivate generosity and compassion toward them, bending like a willow, swinging like a door.

 

 

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Lessons from an amateur parent

Parenting, for all its joys (and they are abundant) is an endeavor fraught with the potential for second-guessing. When children are young, we ask, “Am I a good enough parent? Will I screw it up? Do I do too much for them, or am I doing too little? Am I too tough, or am I not tough enough?” Later, when they’re all grown up, the refrain becomes, “Should I have done things differently? Would he be happier if I had done X, would she have an easier time if I had done Y?”

 

You begin your life as a parent fooled by the child’s complete dependency into thinking that you are in control; in reality, almost nothing is in your control. Andrew Solomon, in his book “Far From the Tree” says that we think we are reproducing – making a newer, better version of ourselves – when, in fact, we really are producing someone completely different, whose life story is her own to realize.

 

Solomon’s book focuses on families whose children have what he calls “horizontal” identities, which sometimes become more important for them than the “vertical” identity of the family. In chapters covering children who are deaf, who have Down’s syndrome, autism or dwarfism, for example, he writes about how, for them, the community of people who share their deaf or autistic identity might be more comfortable or necessary than that of the family. He shares the experiences of dozens of parents who have had to completely change their expectations of what their child would be like.

 

While Solomon writes that many parents “are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs,” we don’t have to be talking about very extreme instances of disability or difference to know what he means.  Those parents just realize sooner than the rest of us how little control they have over the outcome of their child’s story. The beauty of life is that each of us is a unique individual, but that can make us feel like mysteries to each other sometimes, or as Solomon says, “Parenthood catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.” Instead of trying to make the stranger into a copy of ourselves, we need to be brave enough to accept the child as he is.SF trip.Monterey_26

 

When I was growing up, especially as an adolescent, I didn’t think my parents could see me for who I was at all. I chafed under the strictures of the family, craved independence, felt that I belonged someplace else. During my teens and twenties, I would get irritated when I would hear my mother talking to someone about me, partly because she would sooner brag about me than praise me to my face, and partly because she would invariably get some detail of the story wrong. I moved to San Francisco when I was eighteen, where at the time, the local radio station would sign off from the news by saying, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!” That slogan seemed to perfectly convey my own mindset: “Yes, I will write my own story, and it will not be anything like my parents’ story.”

 

Fast forward to the present. Now I’m not just a daughter and sister, but also a wife and mother. Yes, I have my own story, but I realize that it is inextricably interwoven with the versions other people tell. I can’t ask my mother to get my story right, or not to tell it, because she has her part in it, just as I have my part in my kids’ stories. I try not to cast myself as the hero or the villain of their stories — all I can do now is give them the love and freedom to tell their own version.

 

I’ve discovered that I can live with the stories as they tell them. When my daughter calls on our anniversary and says, “Thank you for getting married,” or my son acknowledges how much of an influence his father is on him, it tells me that they are comfortable with the identity they got from us, even as they so beautifully establish their own.