“I am half German, one quarter Irish, and one quarter Scottish,” whenever someone asked about my heritage.
The day after I gave birth to my first child, I was on the phone with my mother. I told her I had just exchanged a very odd conversation with her mother. Gramma had described childbirth as an awful, horrible thing.
Me: Gramma must have had a really hard time delivering you.
Mom: Gramma never had any babies.
Me: (Thinking really hard with my head cocked to one side)
Mom: Gramma was never pregnant.
Me: Yah, except for when she had you . . .
Mom: No, she didn’t. I was adopted. Gramma was never able to have children, and so when her sister became pregnant out of wedlock, she handed the baby to your Gramma and Grampa.
Me: I never knew that.
Mom: I can’t believe you never knew that. I thought everyone knew that.
A lot of the conversations with my mom ended that way. Whether she had neglected to tell me, or I was a bad listener, I never did work out, but one thing was sure. I was a very confused child a lot of the time.
You can imagine the emotions rushing through my hormone-intoxicated, post-natal head. I cried until a nurse walked in and asked what was wrong. When she left I screamed inside my head, “You can’t even CRY alone in this place!” How was it, on the very day I was beginning my own family, the definition of family was changing for me?
I started revisiting all the things that had never added up. My grandmother’s slight build against my mother’s and my heavy-set figure. The blonde hair that didn’t match any of my relatives. My grandfather’s large nose that never got passed down to his daughter or any of his grandchildren. The people who would always try to guess that I was Scandinavian before I could answer.
And still when asked, I would say, “I am one half German, one quarter Irish, and one quarter Scottish.”
It wasn’t until I was in my forties . . . yes, twenty years later! . . . that I stopped in the middle of that sentence and said, “No, wait! I am one half German, one quarter Irish, and one quarter something ELSE!” The person who had posed the question sat and waited while the gears turned. She finally cut the awkwardness with, “okaaaaay . . . ”
I was something else. What was I? Who was I?
Taking advantage of an Arizona vacation to my mother’s winter home, I asked her to pull out the old pictures she’d been organizing.
Me: Who are these people?
Mom: Well, this is your great grandmother and there is your great grandfather . . . and here is your Gramma sitting in the yard with three boys. She always had more beaus than all the other Derry girls.
Me: Which one is your biological mother?
Mom: Oh, let’s see here . . . there must be one of Stella . . . (leafing through stacks of stoic people in stiff clothes) . . . ah, yes . . .
She drew close an old photograph of two young women. They were smiling, oddly out of character with the other images.
Mom: There she is. Stella. She has a rose in her mouth.
Me: What’s on her head?
Mom: That’s a bucket.
There she was. One of my missing pieces. I should have known by her defiant playfulness that she was my mother’s mother. Yet, Stella will never be anything but a photograph to me. She died the year before I was born. I wondered what she would have thought of me. Would she have seen my grandfather in my face? In my hair? Would she miss him, or would she be glad he was a chapter long since read?
Gramma, Mary (Derry) Scott (1898 – 1996) will always be my true grandmother. She was my daycare, my after-school program, and mentor. She taught me that a stitch in time saves nine, to waste naught want naught, and that a penny saved is a penny earned. She insisted I sit up straight and use good grammar. Indeed, Gramma Scott is in the very words I write.
The older I get, the less nationality means to me. I am the person I have grown to be, and not the geographical location of my ancestors. I am not my mother, but am what I made from what my mother gave me. Still, there is comfort in seeing Stella’s picture. Perhaps there was something I received from her after all. Something neither of us know I have.