elle cuardaigh

Adopted Ancestors


Today is Veterans Day here in the US.  A day to honor all those who have served, both living and dead.  Many on Facebook or other outlets post black and white photos of grandfathers in uniform or proudly list all known ancestors who served their country, going all the way back to the Revolutionary War.

Early in my voyage on ancestry.com, I discovered my adopted grandfather and my biological grandfather registered for the draft on the same day:  Sept 12, 1918. One in North Dakota and one in Colorado. Both did their duty by signing up, but neither saw a battlefield since the Great War ended Nov 11th that year.

My bio grandfather is remembered as a veteran. My adopted grandfather is not. This was their children’s choice. Even though both men had the same experience (or non-experience), in death they are treated differently. One has a flag on his grave, the other doesn’t. The one without the flag gave more than the other in subsequent wars, via his sons. While my dad’s brothers came home, none really came back. We call death in war the ultimate sacrifice, but I find this a greater sacrifice still.

My adopted uncle George went into war a young man full of life and hope. He came back shattered. Never married. Never had children. Never lived on his own, never went to college, never held a job after that day. His brothers dealt with their experiences by drinking and not talking about it. But they at least had families to remember them on days like today, if they chose. Veterans Day was never something my adoptive family celebrated, I think because war had taken so much from them. Instead we lay flowers on their graves each Memorial Day.

I have wondered if there will be anyone who will remember George in years to come, or if because he had no descendants, his grave will only get the obligatory flag put there by Boy Scouts, but be otherwise passed over. I wonder if he knows or cares.

A genealogy friend is visiting an old family cemetery today, where she will (for the first time) lay a wreath on the grave of her great-great-great-grandfather, a Civil War Veteran. She was invited by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who recently took over upkeep. When they saw via find-a-grave that she had family buried there, they asked her to not only decorate her direct ancestor’s grave, but those soldiers in her family who had no descendents. These people really mean nothing to her, just a short branch on the family tree, but the DAR believes they should be remembered by relatives anyway, no matter how far-flung.

The DAR does not recognize adoption. You cannot have adopted ancestors. You cannot join without the proper papers, proving the connecting bloodlines. Yet the documentation adoptees have is false. I could join the DAR if I could prove my genetic connection to my mother’s ancestors who were here just after the Mayflower landed. But my official pedigree says otherwise.

This is touched on in Jean Strauss’ documentary Adopted: For the Life of Mewhere she shows how purebred dogs have better (and more accurate) documentation than their human owners .

The “as if born to” law is not ancient. The rules of the DAR predate it. And besides the ridiculous lengths to which it is taken (officially changing one’s race, for example), when it comes down to it, adoptees are “as if born to” their adoptive family only up to a point. Example: An adult American citizen, jailed as an illegal immigrant and threatened with deportation to a country she didn’t remember, all because no one told her adopted parents she would need a visa and to apply for citizenship. They believed the lie that their baby would be “as if born to” them. All her papers were in order. But the truth is, because she was born in Mexico to other people, she was a foreigner no matter what her amended birth certificate said.

I could post photos of my birth father on Facebook, or of his grave in the military cemetery. But I don’t, because of an unspoken agreement. I can “friend” second cousins and mention distant relatives, but my biological father is considered too close. My siblings are too close. My father’s widow is too close. Though we are not Facebook friends and they could not see my posts regardless, I am unable to allow myself this privilege. I can only secretly look at (and copy) their own posts and photographs, feeling the stab of rejection with every smile they offer. “You don’t belong here,” they smile.

My adopted father’s family does not recognize Veterans Day. My birth father’s family does not recognize me. I’ll go to the cemetery today, to remember my uncles who served. Even if I’m the only one left to care.

Elle Cuardaigh is author of The Tangled Red Thread and contributor to The Adoptee Survival Guide

email: ellecuardaigh@gmail.com

twitter: @ElleCuardaigh