What’s your name? Who’s your daddy?

28 Jul

Growing up, I learned how to navigate the rural/small town ritual of meeting someone and reviewing each other’s pedigrees. Even now, people peer at my ID and ask if I’m related to so and so, or fail to recognize the name and ask if I’m “from around here”, then begin to pry–pulling out family names from my mother’s side, double checking details, finding my place in their world.

My partner finds this mostly innocuous, mildly funny. Since he’s not “from around here”, it’s a harmless game to him. I can see the humor: spending 10 minutes in the parking lot gabbing about a cousin I haven’t seen in 20 years going to jail (again) makes for a good story later. I know the rituals, and I know the stories, but my role in the theater of these interactions is more complicated than I usually go into.

The ritual of reviewing someone’s lineage in every casual interaction might be funny, but it isn’t innocuous. It’s a way of establishing and maintaining hierarchy. Perhaps someone in your extended family is an elected official, or maybe someone recently recovered (or died) from a tragic accident. What if you have a run of cousins who are known bad seeds–ne’er do wells who are no better than they ought to be, given who their uncle was? Who lost it all gambling? Who moved a fence and stole 10 acres? Who poached cattle? The American Dream requires that some people be ground under the heels of the boots attached to the straps of others. In my corner of rural America, your “people” matter–that’s why everyone asks who they are. The grudges from 5 generations ago are often alive and well. Tragedies and successes are remembered.

I began using Jonas when I turned 18 because I needed to use my legal name for college, financial aid, employment, etc. It never occurred to me that it’s possible to create a new name with a simple visit and a few bucks at the Courthouse. Seeing Jonas on my ID gives very little juice to the curious. It’s a line long in years but short in members. My brother’s kids may be the last to carry the Jonas name in Columbia County. When this name comes up blank, people usually move into my mother’s mother’s families: Stevens, Powers, Tate. These names also have deep roots, and these lines have been much more fruitful. If I’m feeling generous (or want to grease a wheel), I’ll pull out these names. They’re mostly good people (many people even consider her a good person). No one asks about my other names.

My graduation announcements simply said “Melissa Dawn”. I didn’t want to confuse or offend anyone from any of the families that claim me as their own. When I was in high school, I was called Missy Young. Missy was a family nickname that continues to stick around (and I still cringe). Young is my third dad’s last name. The dad my mom never married and used to remind me has no legal claim. Young is the last name of the man who is dying slowly this summer. He raised me from the time I was around 4, gave me more stability than anyone else in my childhood. His mother’s extended family (the Williams’) continues to claim me as kin.

Jonas is my second dad’s name.  The dad who adopted me when I was a toddler, who paid child support until I was 18 and had weekly visitation until I quietly stopped going in my teens. He died my freshman year in college, back in the days before Facebook or cell phones. I had no idea he was sick for weeks, no way to return to Washington to visit, and no understanding that might be expected of me.  The money from the farmland he left my brother and me in a trust after he died changed the course of our lives. I probably wouldn’t have finished college without that yearly income. Saying we were estranged would be not only an understatement, but fundamentally incorrect–we never really had a relationship to be estranged from. My mother expected us to divorce him as effectively as she did.

My first dad’s last name is Foster. His son (my half-brother) contacted me via Facebook a couple of years ago, came over to meet our little family and share his life story. He gave my number to his dad. This is the man who allowed me to be adopted by his first wife’s second husband, who tried to “keep in touch” but was thwarted by so many factors. I vaguely remember meeting his mother (or maybe grandmother?) in a nursing home a few times. I vaguely remember my great-Aunt coordinating visits so we could see each other, until Foster re-married and became a Mormon. There’s none of THAT allowed in this family, thankyouverymuch. Foster got my mom out of her abusive father’s house, married her as her mother was dying, was part of creating me.

The man I call Dad chuckled when I said I told Foster to “take a number”. I didn’t, really.  I was polite, but I am exhausted by the pressure of all the family members I actually remember and know. I am overwhelmed by the history here and how I’m expected to know and play my role in it. I cannot even imagine a future that includes even more history. They probably both think I’m cruel, and I probably am–but it’s not intentional.

This visit has been full of uncomfortable opportunities to explore and explain my name and my daddy. I’ve often said that I’m related to everyone in two counties, mostly in jest. It’s actually true, depending on how you define related. Pre-kid, I would shrug it off, but watching people try to connect with my daughter (and seeing her response) inspires me to help untangle these relationships. You can’t choose your parents, but but you can choose how and why you define your family.





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