Remember Who You Are
Why Blood Matters, and Matters Not at All
by Amanda Witt
They were like aunts and cousins and grandmothers to me, these women clustered around to admire my six-month-old daughter at the church where I’d grown up. They had taught my Sunday-school classes, witnessed my baptism, celebrated my marriage; they were proud of me and mine, for we were practically theirs.
As some drifted away and others gathered round, a tall, sweet-faced woman with white streaks in her dark hair maneuvered her way to my side. She leaned in to get a good close look at my daughter, and her face lit up. Other women had said, “She looks just like her daddy!” Not Eva.
“Oh, how fortunate!” she exclaimed. “No one will ever doubt who her father was.”
I couldn’t be indignant, not with Eva.
Eva’s daughter—I’ll call her Rachel—was a lovely girl with pale creamy skin, long dark hair, full lips, and striking dark eyes. From the day we met at age seven we were inseparable at church, and often spent Sunday afternoons together.
When we were nine, Rachel told me that her adoption had gone through. I thought she was joking. She laughed at my confusion and showed me the fancy doll she’d been given to mark the occasion. I would never have guessed that she wasn’t born into that family. Generous and loving, her parents and four older siblings did everything in their power to make Rachel—and her older sister, whom they also adopted—feel secure, wanted; they did everything they could to help her belong.
The church did the same. Rachel was baptized; she was involved; she, like me, was one of their own.
But Rachel sometimes had spells of darkness, inexplicable moments of secrecy, slyness, or rage. “Just let her alone when she gets like that,” her birth sister would say. “She’ll snap out of it sooner or later.”
Eventually I understood that these sulks arrived when Rachel thought about her birth mother, her beautiful and tragic birth mother—such a contrast to sweet but ordinary Eva, who expected Rachel to help with chores and do her homework.
“It’s only because she loves you,” I pointed out.
“My real mother loved me, too,” Rachel said; or, alternately, “No one really loves me.”
Her “real” mother used to send her girls to hide under the bed when visitors came. Did Rachel remember this? Her older sister did. In any case, by the time we were teenagers, Rachel would say, shrugging, whenever she made a mistake, “Well, what do you expect? My mother was a whore.”
Gradually, as we grew older, Rachel pulled away from the church, from her family, and from me. She was unhappy, sullen. Her sister merely shook her head. “It’s her life,” she said.
Her parents prayed, asked for prayers, and did anything else they could think of to help her. They were typical of our congregation, which took seriously the scriptural admonition that pure religion means “looking after orphans and widows in their distress.”
Many families fostered children or adopted them, and several women volunteered at adoption agencies or crisis pregnancy centers. Once a year we’d have “Adoption Sunday,” which began with the preacher asking “anyone whose family has been touched by adoption” to stand up, and at least half of the congregation would stand.
One “Adoption Sunday” a longtime friend of mine stood. That was odd—he had no siblings. Who in his family could have been adopted? Later, in his car on the way to a costume party, I asked him why he’d stood. He shrugged, his eyes on the road. “Because I’m adopted.”
He laughed. “Yeah.”
Thinking of Rachel, I pressed the matter. “Do you ever wonder about your birth mother?”
“My mother is my mother,” he said simply. And after all, there he was, wearing a hairy, black, eight-armed spider costume his mother had made (I was Miss Muffet).
His mother was a widow. I was glad he apparently wouldn’t flake out on her, but I had to admit that I’d be curious—loyal to the woman who raised me, but curious about the one who’d been attached to me with a cord of living flesh.
Not long afterwards Rachel suddenly married someone we barely knew, a new Christian. When we got to know him we were delighted—and relieved—and for a while it was like old times. Rachel came to church, was friendly.
One night she and her husband invited some of us over for dinner. They cooked spaghetti, throwing strands of it against the wall—pasta, they said, should crawl down the wall if cooked properly. This knowledge made them seem very grown up.
“This is what I needed,” Rachel said to me as we left. “This is good.”
But domestic bliss did not last. Soon her husband mentioned—under his breath, as if he could barely say the words—that sometimes Rachel didn’t come home at night. “Maybe you could talk to her,” he said.
When I hesitantly broached the subject, she shrugged it off. “It’s not like marriage is a prison,” she said.
Then she became pregnant.
I went to see her in the hospital. The baby was beautiful; Rachel, smiling enigmatically, would not look me in the eye.
One Sunday shortly thereafter, Rachel’s husband was at church, alone, holding the baby girl. I admired her, said he was a good daddy, and was horrified when tears filled his eyes. He said something in a low voice that I couldn’t make out, smiled faintly, and turned away.
“He isn’t the father,” Eva, his mother-in-law, said sadly.
“Surely he can’t be sure—” This was too hard, too definite a mark against Rachel.
Soon it wasn’t much of a secret. Rachel didn’t care who knew. She began openly propositioning her male friends, Christians included, my boyfriend especially. I was bewildered, hurt, and threatened. I did not even try to talk to her.
That was twenty years ago, and I have not seen her since. Though I often wondered about her, I never tried to contact her—she’d made it clear that she thought I was priggish, and I did not want her to accuse me of prurient curiosity as well. She embarrassed me out of her life, as she intended to do. Her mother told my mother as much.
But until my parents moved away, Eva kept my mother up to date on Rachel’s doings. When the baby was a toddler, Rachel and her husband divorced. She left her job at the steakhouse and became a topless waitress, bragging to her appalled mother that she made more money in one night than her current live-in boyfriend made in a week. And yet she wasn’t happy; she was never happy, at least not for long.
Eventually she had other babies by different fathers. I don’t know what she did with all the children, but I know she gave up the first for adoption, then tried (and failed) to reclaim her years later, when the girl was eleven. “What can you expect?” Rachel said, excusing each new heartache. “Blood will tell.”
If she’d wanted, she could have mustered experts to back her up. Excusing sin is, for devoted determinists, child’s play. When in 1924 Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnapped and killed a 14-year-old boy, Clarence Darrow argued that the defendants were simply products of their genes and environment.
“Nature is strong and she is pitiless. She works in mysterious ways, and we are her victims. We have not much to do with it ourselves. Nature takes this job in hand, and we only play our parts,” Darrow said, defending the wealthy young Loeb.
What had this boy had to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not his own mother. . . . All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay.
This has become the typical excuse: We are the products of forces beyond our control; DNA is destiny; we are what our environment, our genes, our collective history, make us; and therefore we are not responsible.
The Fathers’ Sins
This is not what Rachel was taught; this is not what the Scriptures say. “Each is to die for his own sins,” decrees the Mosaic law. “The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son,” says the prophet Ezekiel. There is no corporate familial guilt, and no corporate familial excuse.
Rachel knew that. So how could she say genetics, history, the black hole of the past had pulled her in? Was it just an excuse for choosing drama, tragedy, and tawdry glamour over plain old hard work and virtue? She had been hurt, but perhaps she’d rather hurt herself than let go of her anger toward her birth mother, forego forgiveness than forgive.
Yes, I am psychoanalyzing. I want to understand why, when so many things went right for Rachel—she was loved, she was clever, she was beautiful—she nevertheless tied her ship and her soul to the one sinking thing that had gone wrong, let her life be ruined by someone else’s sin, someone else’s past. It is heartbreaking.
And it is common.
Jeremiah, who on the one hand says that “each one will die for his own sin—the one who eats sour grapes, his own teeth will be set on edge,” also points out that while the Lord shows love to thousands, he also brings “punishment for the fathers’ sins into the laps of their children after them.” “To the third and fourth generation,” Ezekiel adds.
This hard statement is not proscriptive, however, but descriptive: The consequences of sin often are handed down through the generations. We are responsible for our own choices, but we are not magically protected from the consequences of our parents’ choices, as children born HIV-positive can attest. Sometimes we have to fight our ancestors’ battles as well as our own: biological battles, environmental battles, spiritual battles.
Which is why my family hid dark secrets from their children.
The Family’s Secrets
When my father was small, his grandfather—a Christian—became very ill. Before going to the hospital, he went to shave and dress properly. His family waited, but he did not come out again. He had cut his throat with a straight-edged razor. A grandchild saw the blood; it reminded him of butchering chickens, and he has not eaten chicken since—which caused my parents to let slip the tale over supper one night, over chicken, after I was grown.
“Why haven’t you told me that before?” I asked.
My father sat in silence for a long time. “Some doors,” he said finally, “some doors, once opened, can never be shut again.”
Later, in his physician mode, he was more forthcoming. “Suicide runs in families,” he said. “Not in the blood, except perhaps in a tendency to chemical depression, but in the mind, the memory. We didn’t want any of you kids to think it was an acceptable option in this family. Some things it’s better a child not know.”
Rachel knew the woman who gave birth to her was a prostitute. But so did her sister, who did not follow that path. Knowing might be a contributing cause, but it is neither a necessary nor sufficient one. Most children know their parents are fallible human creatures.
Indeed, Rachel and I grew up with a boy whose parents both had been divorced numerous times. At the fourth or fifth wedding his father stopped vowing “till death do us part” and substituted “so long as our love shall last.” “That may be my dad,” the boy said grimly, “but it isn’t me.” He and his wife have been married twenty years. He was shuffled between his parents, watching ongoing marital problems, having no immediate example of stability, but he had a choice, and he chose not to be like his parents.
Rachel’s early days with her biological mother surely left deep scars, wounds that have never healed. God knows. But she grew up with a strong and healthy family. She could have chosen to be Eva’s child, and not the prostitute’s. That’s essentially what her own daughter did—she changed her name, first and last, and listened to her adoptive mother, who told her, “You are not your mother. You are yourself.” The girl deliberately distanced herself from her past.
This is why one man I know refuses to speak of his son’s “birth father,” calling him instead “the progenitor.” “Intimate names are for intimate relationships,” this friend, a poet, told me. “That man has no close connection to my son, no influence over him, and I won’t allow language to suggest otherwise.”
Seeking a more physical distancing, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law moved with their girls to New Zealand, escaping negative ramifications of a too-open adoption, allowing their children the time and space to firmly identify with their new family.
Compelling Flesh & Blood
So are blood bonds irrelevant? Is it simply a case of mind over matter, a case of minimizing harmful physical connections and emphasizing beneficial spiritual ones?
Not entirely. We are bodies as well as spirits, and bodies do matter. We are fascinated, most of us, by our genetics: by children who look like us, by parents who give us a glimpse into our own physical future, by DNA that connects us to our crimes, our lost loved ones, our hopes and our fears.
Another of my nieces will never know anything about the woman who left her as a foundling in China, and this is a sad thing. It might only be a small sadness, dwarfed by the great happiness my niece’s parents give her every day, but it is a loss—just as the parents who gave her up have suffered a loss—and it would be cruel of us to think her ungrateful if she one day feels curiosity about the people who gave her life, athletic limbs, poor teeth, a rosebud mouth. Though sometimes we may wish it were not so, there is something powerful, compelling, about one’s own flesh and bone and blood.
So what is the answer? Blood matters, and yet matters not at all?
Adopted children come face to face with this paradox. Being forced to confront it may feel like a burden, but it is a gift: It is the mystery that everyone born of the flesh and the spirit lives within, a division that only the Only Begotten, his arms wide, can bridge.
“Remember who you are,” my father always said when I left the house. When I was young, I thought he meant that everything I did reflected on our family. When I was older, I understood that he meant me to remember a truth that goes further back than he and my mother do—for when and how did my flesh and bone and blood begin?
Blood Will Tell
They did not begin with my parents, my grandparents, a suicidal great-grandfather. They began in the beginning, when God spoke the physical world into existence. In the beginning—somehow, some way—Spirit fathered flesh.
Thus Luke’s genealogy of Jesus concludes, matter-of-factly, with “Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” God is our Father in a way more literal than we can grasp. Human parentage is but a shadow of this divine parentage, the human father but an echo of our divine Father.
Some of us—like Rachel—desperately need to believe that “God is our Father” more than metaphorically. We need to believe with all our hearts that we can rightfully identify with the first Father, that his biological claim on us trumps the claims of interceding generations of ancestors.
But this is where my mind balks. God the Father, our Father, has no physical body, no blood. Yet without either—out of nothing—Spirit created flesh. The nuts and bolts of that are beyond me.
“You deserted the Rock that fathered you,” Moses says to the wayward Israelites. “You forgot the God who gave you birth.”
So do we all, to a greater or lesser extent. We forget—or we put away from us, out of sheer bafflement—how our bloodline began. We think flesh is real, and spirit less real. We think things we can see are more substantial, more meaningful, than things we cannot see. (Perhaps it was as a corrective that Moses called God “the Rock.”) And we think that never the twain shall meet, that there is an impassable divide preventing spirit from fathering flesh, preventing flesh from returning to the spirit who made it, preventing any real interaction between we-who-are-flesh and they-who-are-not.
God, of course, in his gracious forbearance reminded us that he fathered us, and did so by performing the miracle of life-giving again. He who gave us birth, gave us rebirth; he who once created us, re-created us; he who once crossed whatever line exists between spirit and flesh with a spoken word, crossed the line between spirit and flesh with the Word.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” John says. “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
Spirit became flesh to reconcile us with the Spirit who created our flesh. Christ’s blood was spilled to restore us to the one who made our blood. We are reborn to the one who long ago gave us birth. We partake in Holy Communion of the bread and wine, the flesh and blood, and somehow we become his flesh and blood, bound to him, bound to each other.
Blood will tell, Rachel said, and she was right. But it is Christ’s blood that tells the best and truest story: We are adopted children, yes, but we are adopted by our birth father. We are lost sons, needing Christ to lead us home, but we are sons.
Our Body’s Maker
Five years ago I went to a funeral in my hometown. One of Rachel’s sisters was there, and I asked after Rachel. “She’s doing great!” her sister said brightly, but she looked away as she spoke.
“Is she . . . where is she working?”
“At a shoe store.”
I want to call that a good sign, a deliberate step in the right direction; but Rachel, like me, was in her late thirties, and time and gravity happen to us all. It well may be that she was forced out of the body-selling business.
That’s all right, too. It may be through the decline of her body that Rachel returns to the Spirit who knit it, and who is willing to resurrect it in a form more glorious than she or I can imagine, for the One who made our bodies often calls us to him through them. He knows how we are formed; his eyes saw each of us in the womb. He is our Father, and he does not give up on us easily.
And I guarantee that today in the congregation where I grew up, there are men and women—some of them quite old now—who welcomed Rachel when she arrived as a child, who grieved when she left, and who pray for her to return. If she does return, they will welcome her with open arms and fatted calf.
After all, they are the body of Christ, her blood kin.
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“Remember Who You Are” first appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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