I am born.
It is 12:55 am on a cold Canadian winter’s night. My mother has labored long, but I have gotten myself stuck in her birth canal, hesitant, I suppose, to come out and greet the world. She births me through a slit in her abdomen, just as her mother before birthed her, and I, thirty-two years later, will birth my own son. The women in my family give life through our stomachs, it seems, and our babies stubbornly resist having to leave the womb. It feels like there ought to be lesson somewhere in that.
I am born, seven and a half pounds of skin and soul, dark eyes and hair. I was supposed to be a boy, actually. My mother is so sure she’d have a son that she flippantly made a deal with her close friend that she could have me if I turned out to be a girl; there’s even a makeshift contract, signed by both parties, I’m told, in jest. And then, just after midnight, there I am; pink, and writhing, and wet, and female. I sometimes wonder whether my parents felt a twinge of disappointment when they first laid eyes on me.
I am swaddled, and photographed, and I lay still, quiet, taking in my surroundings. I am given names: Elena Teresa Ann. My two middle names are to honor my paternal and maternal grandmothers, respectively, and Elena is a name my mother had come across that she liked the sound of. It is a derivative of the Greek ‘Helen’, which means light; the bright one. It appears my parents knew from the moment of my birth that I was made to shine in the dark places; and oh, in the years to come, there will be much darkness. But I will learn that the darkness is not my forever; I belong, after all, to the resurrection people. My bones cannot help but remember what it feels like to shine, and I always, always manage to find my way back to the Light somehow.
I’m afraid I’m getting ahead of myself, though. This is only the beginning, and in the beginning, I was given life, despite being caught within the throes of a long, bitter December. That realization will prove itself useful to me in later years–even in the midst of winter, I learn to listen for the soft heartbeat of spring beneath frozen ground.
My mother is twenty-three, small and pretty, with short auburn hair and bright blue eyes that she inherited from her father. She, her sister, their parents, and her grandparents are first-generation Scottish immigrants, having made their way to southern Ontario from Edinburgh in the early 1960s. My father is nearly twelve years older than her, tall and dark, also the son of immigrants who hail from the northeastern region of Italy. He leaves us eventually.
Heritage is especially important to families of immigrants, I learn. There is a great deal of pride that comes from knowing from whom and where we come. My father’s absence leaves gaping holes in my knowledge of his side, but I am able to piece together scraps of what I can from old photographs and conversations I eavesdrop on when everyone thinks I am sleeping. When I am in the fourth grade, I am all of a sudden hit with the realization that my last name differs from that of my siblings, and I start to ask the questions. I discover the man I call father has been given that title in name but not in flesh or blood, and no one can tell me the whereabouts of my biological dad, or if he is even still alive. I am left fragmented, a feeling I carry with me still, in the throes of never-ending identity crisis that continually leaves me questioning who I am and where I fit in this world. It is accompanied by a deep loneliness, and a tinge of grief, because I feel like only part of a person, untethered to anything resembling heritage, or home. Perhaps this is why my mother’s family speak so much about their birth country, to compensate for what my father has left me lacking. I come to see myself as only a page in the greater story; me, yes, but also a part of so much more. I am languages and cultures and skin tones weathered from sun and wind. I am thick accents and heavy bloodlines. I am time zones and tradition, stories passed down from the old country, generation upon generation of those who lived in the tension and wrestled their way through to the other side. Struggle, it seems, threads itself through every chapter of my family’s story, including my own, the labor of simply living intricately entwined with everyone I know and love.
The above, italicized passage is an excerpt from my first book, which I am diligently (albeit slowly) writing in the fringe hours of busy days. It is only a third of the way done, and I wrestled with sharing that piece with you, because I am a perfectionist who cringes at revealing the unfinished pieces of herself. Yet here we are.
The book, which is to be a memoir, is woven around a central theme, one I think all of us can probably relate to, at least a little bit: the longing for Home. I’ve lived an unsettled life, and though my story is unfolding every day, there are missing pieces and gaps of the unknown that are found in the early chapters. I know very little of my biological father (who in fact, at this point, is now presumed dead) and though I am angry, and hurt at his leaving, there is a part of me that wishes I could sit with him, ask questions, learn of the man he was and the bloodlines that have passed on to me. I want the missing pieces of my story returned to me. They were stolen, and I want them back.
Now is probably when you’re starting to ask yourself why I’m telling you all of this, and if there’s any sort of point to this bout of self-reflection I’m currently in; there is. Because here is what I know: there are a whole lot of us in this world who have been handed stories we never wanted. If we’d been able to write them, things would have turned out much differently. Maybe there are gaps. Maybe there are chapters that are too painful to read. Maybe we feel small and insignificant and like we don’t have much of a story at all.
But what might it look like if we decided to take our stories back? Take them back from mothers and fathers who hurt us, lovers who left us, friends who betrayed us, children who broke us? Take them back from Despair and Discouragement and Darkness, Insecurity and Insignificance? What if we decided to live into a different ending? What if what was lost could be…redeemed?
Tonight, I took a deep breath, felt it catch in my throat a little, and I did something I’ve been thinking of doing for months. I ordered a 23andme DNA kit online, and it should arrive in the mail in less than a week. Through a few drops of saliva, I will be able to discover my family ancestry, learn traces of our history, and gain a connection to the people, places, and migration stories I carry within me.
I don’t know what I’ll find, and when I think about getting those results, I’m filled with a weird mixture of fear and exhilaration. But I am opening myself up to share this journey with any of you who’d like to join me on it, because if there’s one thing I believe with all of my heart it’s that at the end of the day, we’re all just walking each other home (Dass, R.)
So stay tuned…