In reading about Libby, it occurs to me that for many, if not most of us, the ability to know ourselves is contingent on knowing where we came from. But it’s harder to know from whence we came in certain circumstances, and the not knowing makes finding ourselves that much harder to do.
I have a close friend who is really into genealogy. She has traced the origins of her family back to Jamestown, William the Conqueror and Charlemagne. Pretty cool stuff. She has binders full of documentation proving her ancestry, and she, her mother and her daughter enjoy the connection to their greats and great-greats and beyond. I envy her. I’m the daughter of immigrants whose parents all died before I was born. I can’t trace my family tree beyond the names of my grandparents, none of whom I ever knew. One grandfather died in the early 20th century in Russia, while the rest died a long time ago here in the States. I’m pretty sure I come from peasant stock all around; no conquerors or kings in my family history.
But, then, I don’t really know. What I do know is that if I were looking for places to belong, the Jamestown Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the British aristocracy are not places I would look. The children of my wonderful sister-in-law are in the same boat, having been adopted from China. They have no idea where they come from genealogically or genetically. Like our protagonist, Libby, my niece and nephew must leave their genetic history blank in high school biology class because they don’t know anything about their DNA donors.
I know that my sister-in-law works hard to give her kids a sense of community in many ways, partially as an antidote to not knowing anything about their biological families. My sister-in-law is involved in her kids’ school communities, they are all active in their church, and they belong to a group that honors the Chinese heritage of the children. It is very sensitive and insightful of my sister-in-law to make sure her kids are well grounded, to offset the lack of 411 on their origins.
I’ve had many people ask me if I am interested in going to Russia to explore my heritage. But the truth is, I wouldn’t know where to start. I’m not even sure exactly where my father’s family was from; he never liked to talk about it, so I never pressed. He’s long gone, together with every close relative he had besides me and my brother. So, no information there. My maiden, Uchitel, name means “teacher” in Russian. I’ve often fantasized that my ancestors we’re teachers and philosophers, and maybe that’s where I get my didactic tendencies. But my desire to belong to a greater community of which I’m a hereditary member will likely be unfulfilled. Because I don’t know where I come from I don’t know all there is to know about who I am.
So I’ve had to make my own way forward without the benefit of clear vision in the rearview mirror. I think it would be cool to know my family crest, or even to have a family that has a crest. But even with my similar lack of knowledge about my origins, I try to make better decisions than Libby did—no hire-a-sire for me (I also avoided the dial-a-moyl when we circumcised our sons, unlike one of my friends). I’ve had to find myself without a roadmap, so to speak. And I’ve done a pretty good job, I think, although it’s taken me longer than it might have if I’d known where to look in the first place. And, in the end, we all must determine for ourselves who we want to be, regardless of from whence we came. Identity is a tricky business, and it is the work of a lifetime to figure it out or to create an identity that fits like a second skin. If we want to be comfortable in those skins, we must choose who we are with care. It may be easier if we know our ancestry, our genealogical tables, the patterns of our DNA, etc. But those same facts, if known, can sometimes constrain us, so who knows whether it’s better to know? I don’t know that, but I do know—now—who I am. I trust that Libby will also figure it out by the time I get to the end of the novel.