Friday, July 26, 2019

Anarchy In The DNA: The Obfuscation Game

"Whaddya mean you don't EAT NO MEAT??!!!! That's ok, I make lamb."

-My Big Fat Greek Wedding

As my hands clenched my mother's birth record, I searched for something that wasn't there: context. I was after all, standing in the whitest state in the nation, perhaps back then anyone who was darker was considered to be "black". What to do with this information? Let it ferment I guess, and start asking questions, but do so very carefully and very privately.

Keeping my mother's privacy and situation in mind, I did not ask her. Besides, I was going on a vacation to Italy, Sicily, and of all places, Africa (north). I was going to finally see my Sicilian homeland and did not wish to disrupt it. Besides, I also had a wedding to plan and a career to construct...

This newly discovered information had definitely taken root in me and I was definitely unsettled by it. Not for any other reason than I could not explain it by looking at myself or my mother. I could not see how we could have been black in any way. Sicilian, yes, Spanish, yes, Middle Eastern, yes, Cuban, yes, "negro"?, it just did not register.

So I went to my stepfather who was to be my best man at my wedding in a year's time. He was a retired Colonel in the US Army, a convivial man who had become special to our family. His response? "Don't tell your mother...."

So I went to my brother, a person with whom was a relative stranger to me in many ways, we were six years apart, and by the time I was 13, he was gone. I knew relatively little about who he was, what made him passionate about life, and how he felt about family and our history. His response is forever etched into my memory: "I implore you to not tell our mother."

Admittedly, I was taken aback by what seemed to be a direct affront to the possibility of being African American. Were these feelings of resistance grounded in shame? Fear? I thought that I may never get my answers as time elusively slipped on.

I had found a group online called "GenForum", and began to ask questions there, but unfortunately very few from Rutland County, Vermont lurked around in those trenches. However, there was a woman who did send a response to me claiming that my family was Moroccan. Fresh off of my trip from North Africa a few months prior, I was very receptive to this, but then some funny things happened as I discovered "RootsWeb"- census reports!

I wanted to verify that my mother was not lying to me before I questioned her, and honestly, I was in no rush to get to my final answer just yet. What I wound up discovering led to very much confusion and conflation on my part. My mother and her brother were raised by a couple of families, and the primary one was located in Fair Haven, Vermont. An old border town in central Vermont that sat in the lakes region and had its heyday mining for slate and marble. In fact, that area had the largest marble and slate mines  in the world by the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Many families had migrated to the area with grand hopes of sharing their craft and capitalizing. Many from Italy, Slovakia, Wales, Ireland, Lebanon, Syria, Ireland, Poland, had all made their way to that area and were helping to pull Adam's Rib from the earth once again.

Fair Haven was sandwiched between Whitehall, NY and Castleton, Vt. The deeper into the woods one gets, the more mysterious those town lines become, and game wardens rule the roost...

So I placed "Barber" (mom's father's surname) into the search function. How many of you realize that everything in life is an arduous task? That there are obstacles placed in the way of every single thing that you do? From the mundane- wake up in the morning, trip over shoes on the way to the restroom, to unscrewing the toothpaste, cap falls on the floor, you reach down then bang the back of your head on the sink kind of arduous? Well, blame me, I wrote that book.

 I fastidiously scrolled away and found entries for Barbers in Whitehall, NY:

Ha! Found the holy grail! Charles Barber, from Sicily, DARK complexion. That's all that I needed to exonerate mom. He had children, none of which bore my grandfather's first name, but that was ok. Being the ultra naive son who was just looking to exonerate his mother, this is all that I needed.
Score one for a round peg into the square hole!!!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Anarchy In The DNA, part due, dos, deaux.....

Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir


"AS GREGOR SAMSA awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into stiff arched segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely. His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, waved helplessly before his eyes.
What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream....."

From, "The Metamorphosis", written by Franz Kafka

It was the year 2000 and my existence as I knew it was about to take an extraordinary turn. As humans we are constructed of happenstance, the unexpected, we think that we possess full knowledge of the self, but it is the unknowable who laughs at our conceit with great belly busting agility. There is no end to what we can learn, it is our ego which bends us into the intractable. I was in search of Thor's Hammer to break my id, my superficial self, into billions of jagged pieces as I sought to deconstruct Occam's Razor: for I instinctively knew the truth was lurking in the hardest to reach places of my self.

Where do I begin the impossible task? Back to where it all started...Vermont.

Entering into the summer of 2000 we were touring Castleton, the town of my mother's birth searching for prospective wedding sites. I decided to go into the town clerk's office and pull her birth record, as I had never seen it before and thought that it would be nice to see if there was any identifying information on her record. Once again my anxiety filled my body and replaced any sense of confidence that I once had. The office was something out of "Chipping Cheddar, Mouseland (for you "Angelina Ballerina" fans)- a teeny tiny brick building, nestled on a sleepy Maple shaded road, in a teeny, tiny, room of wood and paper, and one desk with a friendly woman manning the old corded phone.

"How can I help you today?" she prodded.

Completely unnerved, I probably mumbled something that sounded like "kouble minkka mamma kesh bret." What I was trying to say was that I would like to search for my mother's birth record. I repeated the phrase and was far more intelligible than my previous effort and she pointed me to a stack of ledgers with years written on the binding. The ledgers read "Birth Records".

I went to the year and month and found the entry for my mother. Then the clerk had to pull it, and that's when I heard, "hmmm, this is weird.."

Now, that cannot be good. Things you don't want to hear a proctologist or an oncologist say: "hmmm, this is weird", but a town clerk? I had a 50-50 shot at coming out of this without having to call the volunteer rescue squad...

"Is THIS your mother?'

"Let me see.. that's her name, birth date, wait, there's more?"

 As fate guided me, I felt like the obstetrician who is announcing the surprise of multiple live births to the unsuspecting parents.

"your mother has three birth records."

Ugh. I just haaad to go in here, didn't I?

"Well, let's take a look at what we are dealing with. One birth record she does not have a surname, and there's something else missing, but both of her parents are listed.. The second one she has a surname, and her parents are both listed, so it seems fine. So why the third? Ohhh, she is listed as illegitimate, huh, it is redacted on the other two. Wait, race is redacted on the other two (with some sort of white out agent) as well...." My body shook and my heart was stabbing my breast plate in a metallic thrash-like attack.

I stared at the line that listed my grandfather's race... "Negro"....

".....holy FUCK, I am black!!???"

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Anarchy in the DNA!

"Anarchy for the U.K. (DNA)
It's coming sometime and maybe
I give a wrong time, stop a traffic line
Your future dream has sure been seen through...."

Excerpt from "Anarchy in the UK"
Performed by The Sex Pistols
Written by Glen Matlock, John Lydon, Paul Thomas Cook, Stephen Philip Jones 
Copyright © BMG Rights Management US, LLC

When we last spoke, my girlfriend and I were about to enter the Lion's den and feeling like chum anyway, I decided to bring up all of the paper research with me in the event that anyone dare to speak about it. This was Thanksgiving, how bad can it be? My girlfriend and I stayed at my father's sister's house (aka "aunt") and dinner was to be held at her daughter's house (aka "cousin's house) one town over. I speak cryptically because while my aunt was always kind to me, I never really knew her three children as they were all quite older than I. I think the youngest is 15 years older, and the oldest is perhaps 22 years my senior. The middle cousin is the one whom I felt the most connected to in the abstract. He was a journalist (as was my father) and had traveled extensively holding a world view which I appreciated. Unfortunately, he was not to be there for the dinner. The rest of the family living in Vermont were to be present, especially my grandmother and my uncle Ruby. I loved uncle Ruby as we share the same birthday, and by virtue of that, he understood me in the most basic of ways of which my own father could not. I did not know uncle as well as I would have liked, but when families live far apart, one of the outfalls is connectivity. We did not have computers, we were only allowed to make long distance phone calls on special occasions, and we saw them two times a year. Not much sharing under those circumstances. I always felt like a stranger in their homes, not because of their countenance, but perhaps for that of my own.

As I previously alluded to, my upbringing was not a happy one. When a child's spirit is broken at an early age, defense mechanisms kick in and sometimes they can be unruly. I displayed all kinds of trauma related responses, but my best weapon was constructing fantasy-I escaped. With only one sibling who is six years my senior, I was alone a lot. A boy certainly sharpens their hyperbole when left to their own devices. For your benefit, I have pared it down as it is my endeavor to remain wedded to the truth.

Now, let's focus on my girlfriend a bit. In my real life fantasy, I was now living as a Sicilian American man. I had assumed the role in every perceivable way, learned to speak the language somewhat proficiently, learned how to cook the food somewhat proficiently, had dabbled in Catholicism and retreated (religion was never welcomed in our home as children), and had begun my training as a classical vocalist. So, I had the cultural bases covered and now I needed to seal the deal with gusto, and my girlfriend was the ticket to it all. Both of her parents were half Italian American, she was fluent in the language, had studied in Italy, and had desired to make it her permanent home in the future. Those were all attractive qualities to me, but obviously not the penultimate qualifications for finding a life companion. No, that came in her keen ability to steady me in ways that life had been unable to. Part of my early trauma caused me to lash out at everyone and thing, and to trust absolutely no one, and there were to be no exonerations of wrongdoing. Although I am still a work in progress, she brought me to a greater level. I knew that she would also be instrumental into my re-entry into my Vermont family given her mysterious ability to keep me in my boat.

It had been almost a decade since I had last seen my family in Vermont, and the first time since I had changed my name/identity. I am a very anxious person by nature, but at this point I was at a bursting point. I had in earnest been studying the genealogy of my father's family trying to make the connections from his direct paternal line to the rumored armigerous ( "entitled to arms") family in England. It was a source of pride for me to hold on to that, but I truly wanted to establish that connection as proof. I arrived with much research under arm with hopes of having a discussion with my family about our history.

It was Thanksgiving, and I was looking forward to a true Vermont feast. My aunt had taken over the role of cook as my grandmother had reached her 90th year and begun to slow down (two years prior she had a triple bypass, and three weeks later she was on her roof fixing the slate shingles), so to give up cooking was the end of an era for me and for her. We will all get there for better or for worse.

When we entered they all stumbled all over the place trying to figure out what to call me, it was very funny indeed. My stoic family, not very wordly was now met with the dichotomy of using an Italian word other than "pizza" or "pasta". It was decided that my new name was "you". "Hey you!" "You! How have YOU been?" I wasn't expecting a miracle, but you'll be glad to know that after a few years one of them actually called me by my new name. Yes, it hurt, but as far as I was concerned my life was anew.

We had a pleasant meal of silence and chewing, then there was some polite laughter. It was actually quite nice although I knew that they were thinking that I was nuts. Who changes their name?? Yes, it is an existential issue.

My girlfriend was affable and charming, a hit. I wasn't even worried about that, but in hindsight, she truly was my buffer.

Then IT happened....

"Hey grandmother, look what I have....!" I shook my grandmother's birth certificate with haughty pride at her. I was surprised that I could find such a thing on Ancestry, my new best friend.

I had no idea that a 90 year old woman could jump from a resting position with the force of a gazelle on the African Savannah, but boy did she!

"What have you got that for!! What do you want to KNOW!!!" her eyes bulging THROUGH her glasses (never seen that before!).

"It's you! It's beautiful." I cowered.

She retreated to her resting position with a green pea lodged to the corner of her mouth, and I so wanted to gently flick it off, but I knew better, I needed both of my hands for what I was about to encounter.

My girlfriend then found me later and whispered, "WHAT is she hiding???"

"I haven't a clue and really don't care....."

That was in 1999, and in 2004 when I decided to take the road less traveled, the road that would lead me home, the road replete with potholes, car crashes, bridge out signs, black ice...( you get the picture) was DNA testing.......