This is my first St. Patrick’s Day as an Irish-American. Ok, that’s not exactly right. I’ve been an Irish-American since the day I was born but I just found out about my Irish roots a few months ago.
What can I say? I’m adopted and my ethnic identity got a makeover. It sounds weird doesn’t it? For adoptees, it’s a normal experience, particularly for those of us who found out about our adopted-ness late in life. We grow up associating with one or more ethnic groups only to find out we’re actually related to an entirely different population.
I grew up on Chicago’s Southwest Side with a Polish-American mom and a German-American father. Polish and German. Kielbasa and sauerkraut. That was my ethnic stew and I never questioned it.
My life story began to crumble 11 years ago when I found out I was adopted, a detail my adoptive parents took with them to their graves. Last year, after starting my adoption search, I found blood relatives and other people who were close to my family. They told me the truth about my birth mother and the situation that led to my adoption. They revealed family secrets which of course were secrets only to me. I also did DNA testing hoping it would help me find relatives on my father’s side. Today I have a new ethnic identity, along with stories about my biological family, birth certificates, a death certificate and a stash of old faded photos.
Many of the things I’ve learned are painful. My mother’s childhood and the poverty, sadness and sickness that scarred her and other members of her family have made me cringe. Those photos of Lillian with her four other children – my brothers and sister – and the pictures of Lillian’s siblings and other relatives are fascinating to look at, yes. But there are days when looking at the photos makes me want to cry. A photo gallery of dead relatives I never knew. So dreary.
Finding out about my ethnic heritage has been one of the happier discoveries in this adoption search. My ethnic identity is alive, intact and part of who I am today. Nobody can take it from me. It’s something I share with my son. After all these years, Jake, who is 14, finally knows what his mother contributed to his ethnic makeup.
Just like Barack Obama, I’m not 100 percent Irish-American. I don’t know anything about my biological father’s background though it’s safe to assume his ancestors came from Western Europe, too. Judging from all those Irish and English surnames among my DNA matches, I think I must have a fair amount of Irish/English/Scottish blood in me.
When I think of Irish-Americans, I think of fun-loving, smart, articulate people. Who wouldn’t want to be a member of their club? Happy St. Patrick’s Day!