Hang on. This is going to get complicated.
Sometime last year I received an email, one of many over time, from Ancestry. I’m religious about deleting unwanted messages and my go-to for Ancestry is to move their correspondence straight to the trash unless I’m currently paying for a subscription (I periodically succumb to the urge to add and update…most often wasting my money). But I read this one for some unknown reason. It said:
“Good morning Wendy, My name is John Friday, and you popped up as a probable first cousin on Ancestry. My birthmothers maiden name was Freitag. I was adopted at birth, and am attempting to find out information about my heritage. Please let me know if you would be willing to communicate?”
First cousin?!? With a last name of Friday? My mother’s maiden name was Freitag (for those of you who know me, my father’s name was Freitag too…but that’s another story) and Freitag means Friday so this sounded a bit off. But I was curious. Who was his mother? Is this real I wondered?
Before I go on with my story of John, there is another cousin in the family tree who factors into this complicated tale. And this is my telling of my experience…of my brother David actually being my cousin.
I am the youngest of four children, the third girl. My sisters and I are three years apart and David, our brother, is sandwiched between me and my middle sister, Karen. David was the kid who made friends easily, had a beautiful winning smile—and always seemed to get into trouble. He struggled in school while his sisters sailed through. He set his closet on fire with his chemistry set (what were people thinking, by the way, with those chemicals included for kids to play with?), he took the family station wagon to deliver his early morning paper route when he was in junior high and neglected to turn on the headlights resulting in a collision with another car, he struggled to fit in and to tell the truth. He was a tinkerer and loved to take things apart—putting them back together was another thing entirely. He was a year older than I in school and in grade school we were pals but by high school we were in very different social circles. His life was difficult in so many ways, but by the end of it he had achieved peace and a true satisfaction. When he died of a heart attack suddenly a couple of years ago I mourned the loss of my brother deeply.
When I was 17, my sister Karen asked me if I’d ever told anyone that David wasn’t our real brother. I remember snorting at the thought, thinking of how I’d joked about the idea. “Oh”, she said, “then you didn’t know”. Stunning words, inconceivable yet somehow possible considering his blue eyes and many other differences. I recall heading home and sitting with my mother at the dining room table. Demanding answers. Truth, I wanted the truth. She told me that back when they adopted him it wasn’t clear what the best way was to tell a child or even if it was helpful to tell them at all. She said as he got older it seemed that the time had passed to say anything. It all sounded lame and unfair. It was only later I thought to ask where he came from…
My oldest sister, Pam, was 5 when David came home. She knew. She’d known all along that David was the son of our Aunt Carolyn who had him while in high school. Pam knew and she also knew it was a family secret, made deeper when Aunt Carolyn died when David was six or so years old. No one talked about it. It was in the collective consciousness of our extended family, but David did not know. Secrets change people and create pockets of darkness. Knowing my brother was really my cousin did not change how I loved him, but it certainly changed how I saw him. Suddenly all of the differences made sense. He was being forced into a mold that he did not fit. And he still didn’t know.
David was eventually told and it was the predictable mess one would expect when secrets are outed and family myths are exploded. My parents were never able to truly come to peace with how things unfolded and while they worked through the trauma with David, the scars were deep. In the end I know he felt loved, and he was. He had been gathered into our family at a time of stress for his young mother and perhaps all we can say is that everyone did the best they could with what they’d been given. I’m good with that…I need to know that giving our best, whether it “works out” or not is enough.
So, when the email came from John Friday I tried to wrap my head around the fact that there was yet another baby born into that already traumatized household. (Can I admit that one of the first thoughts that popped unbidden into my head was “What a bunch of rabbits!”?) Whose baby was this? Could Aunt Carolyn have had a second baby, I wondered? I soon enough had my answer—John knew his mother’s name and it was my beloved late Aunt Helen. I found out at my meeting with him that his parents, in contrast to mine, had shared his adoption and had given him his birth certificate which listed my aunt. He grew up knowing he was much wanted and feeling very secure. I say this not to judge my parents—David’s heritage was complicated by many factors, especially after his birth mother tragically died.
There is much more to these stories as you might imagine. How I approached the oldest of Aunt Helen’s sons to see if he wanted to pursue the connection. How I called my aunt, the last remaining sibling in my mother’s family, and was fiercely rebuked for even considering responding to John’s request to communicate. How Helen’s three sons welcomed their new-found half brother. How I finally met the cousin who is closest to me in age of all of my cousins on my maternal side.
I’m left to wonder how my grandparents and aunts and uncle worked (or didn’t work) through those stressful and difficult struggles. I’m sure there were dark times, but I remember most of those people as bright and smart and quick to laugh. My aunts, like my mother, are heroes in so many ways in my eyes. I’m thankful to have met John and I treasure my brother David. And I have given a passing thought as to what other secrets may tumble out of nowhere.