I grew up knowing my father was maybe a Gypsy, the kind that travelled around Ireland with beautiful spotted horses and painted caravan wagons. Or maybe my mother, like Janet of Carterhaugh, met Tam Lin in the forest and battled for him with the Queen of Fairies.
The government told me she was 32, he was 28, they were married, but not to each other.
The social worker told my adoptive mother that my biological mother was very smart and a cheerleader, and my father was devastatingly handsome and Irish.
The birth certificate, for which I had to travel to the county seat, says I was born in Owosso, Michigan. It lists my adoptive parents as my parents but also says adopted.
Owosso, Michigan was home to the romantic adventure writer James Oliver Curwood, who often featured animals as his main characters. That’s all I know about the place I was born.
The idea of disguised or secret parentage is common enough in literature, from King Oedipus to Harry Potter. Jesus Christ himself has a mystery father. Even they knew one parent, or had solid information about their parents from someone who knew them. (Except for Oedipus.)
I took comfort in that as a child. I devoured the Greek myths from an early age. The idea of a woman turning into a laurel tree to escape the forced embrace of a god made more sense to me than some of the shlop they taught us at school. I discovered Norse mythology in about third grade, reading D’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants with such excitement I could barely breathe. (I pulled my current copy off the shelf to check the spelling just now.)
I never cared much about why my mother gave me up. I have faith it was a good reason. I hope she benefitted from it. I would like to know, more than any other thing, where this strange obsession with horses – which no one in my adoptive family shares in any degree whatsoever — derives: did I inherit it from a horse-loving parent, or is it something I came up with all on my own?
I’ve thought – of course I have – about finding one or both parents. Three things deter me from such a quest. One, it’s time-consuming and can be expensive to find parents no one really wants you to find.
Two, there is the possibility of heartbreak. A friend recently found some of his biological family members, via the same DNA test that confirmed to me my Irishness, and it came to light he was the product of a rape. The resulting emotions and relationship changes are complex.
In my case, the government information, which doesn’t seem to match with what the social worker told my adoptive parents, gives me pause. The last thing I’d want to do is open old wounds. (Look what happened when Oedipus found his mother! I don’t want to have to gouge out my eyes.)
And third, then I’ll know. Then I’ll have to read fairy tales and myths the same way everyone else does: from the outside.
The two most constant loves in my life are horses and stories. The horses, oddly enough, were a serious cause of contention between my mother and I. I suppose the intensity with which I read every word about them, memorized facts, and studied photographs of different breeds, served to remind her I was not really her child, that I had a different origin, different biology.
And the stories. It’s a family legend how I would make my parents hoarse begging to be read one more story, such that if a guest came and expressed interest I was quickly handed off to a new reader. And, like many writers, I was an early and voracious reader.
I’m grateful for the availability of mythology and world anthologies of fairytales and folklore when I was young. The worlds they opened to me, enhanced by my recognition of the Otherness, the Outsideness, of so many of the characters, shaped the way I look at the world. I don’t know if I took to those stories so intently because I was already, from pre-literacy, on my way to becoming a writer, or if I became a writer because of the strange things those bizarre, often dark stories introduced to my early consciousness.
It’s been enough to teach me that “Once upon a time” is a fine place to begin a story, and that “happily ever after” is a fate to be avoided.