My childhood home had a family room with no functional familial use beyond offering a great spot for hide and seek behind the couch. It was merely the room we walked through to get to the garage whenever we went anywhere. There was a large black and white portrait hanging predominately in the center of the room that always scared me when I was young. It was of a gentleman from the 1800s who didn't look the least bit friendly. Our home had black and white pictures everywhere. For a reason I have never quite ascertained, it was very important for the images of those who came before us to be displayed throughout the home.
I was so proud when I finally asked the story of the scary man in the family room. It turned out he owned a home that had a secret basement which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. My young mind was always trying to understand, and my tender heart was always trying to differentiate between, right and wrong. There was nothing more right to me than a person making personal sacrifices to save others from the evils of slavery. I was excited to tell people that I had such a cool ancestor in my family tree. At the same time, I was aware that it wasn't really my family tree.
Having been adopted, there were never times that either I felt 100% like a member of the family or that others went out of their way to make me feel 100% like a member of the family. Because of this, I was always careful to preface any recountings of my great-great-great grandfather's story with a reminder that I had been adopted. Its pretty sad just to type that. Imagine a child excitedly telling you something about their family but believing that you needed to know it wasn't really her family. Take that revelation one step further to acknowledge that she was comfortable in that place and those who should've taught her there was no variable didn't feel it was necessary to do so.
When I was in middle school, I remember being frustrated telling my friends about my family legacy because they didn't feel like it was as cool as I did. I was even more frustrated by the fact that my family didn't seem too incredibly impressed, either. It was more of a matter-of-fact and his picture was something my mother had basically won in a family lottery of items passed down when someone or other died. The portrait was added to the wall of the room that no one really used as many other pictures of people no one could recall had been throughout the house.
To this day I wonder if my brother and sister, who were not adopted and are related by blood to this man, would be able to tell you his story. I wonder if they even remember the amazing history we were given about our family and the strength of those who came before us. It feels as if they have no knowledge or care of actual legacy whatsoever.
I recently started creating my own family tree on ancestry.com. It was a journey to see how far I could go back with the very limited information I have about my natural family (my grandmother came from Italy and I have her Americanized name). But I was really excited to see if I could work on the tree of the family I grew up with and know as my family. I was hoping to eventually get back to a place where I could learn more about this house and its place on the Underground Railroad. During my search I got several hints from the website about family members that others had in their trees and I would open them to get the information they had already found. I got a hint last week that my sister had created a family tree and I excitedly went in there figuring she would have all of the same people I did and it would make my job pretty easy. Instead, I found a family tree quite devoid of very important information. Apparently, in the legacy she is willing to leave to future generations, she did not have a sister. She had a brother, my brother. She had parents, my parents. But she did not have me.
The word legacy is powerful. It reminds us of all that has come before to create and enrich all that exists in this place. The lessons one generation determines necessary to pass on to the next are inside of that legacy. The traditions of community and interdependence come from that legacy. The stories of pride and remembrance come from that legacy. Even as a child I felt not quite entitled to the legacy of what came before me. But because it was the only one I had, I wanted to claim it nonetheless. I would certainly, at least, be thoughtful about the legacy I would leave future generations. The pain of realizing that my legacy will be quite irrelevant and forgotten to those whose lives I have shared is indescribable.
The saddest part about all of this is the fact that the very members of my family who have known me my entire life and should, by now, have found a way to empathize when I explain my feelings, refuse to hear this retelling beyond waiting for the pause so they can defend themselves. But many people who are completely removed from this story with no emotional connection to me whatsoever will come much closer to understanding my pain than those who can actually witness and lessen it.
Throughout my life I have gone through phases where I would remove myself from my family completely to dispel the pain of their carelessness and intolerance. I have always allowed criticisms, both internal and external, to counter my own better judgment and reenter my family out of commitment and dedication to the thing which it was meant to be. But the truth is: It is not what it was meant to be. It is never going to be what it was meant to be. The thing that it is creates pain. And alienation. The thing that it is expects acceptance of things I find unacceptable and ignorance of things I find to be imperatives.
Loneliness is the only substitute I've found for vulnerability. Neither are exemplar. Neither are healthy. But let no one question why those are the only two alternatives I have found after considering the legacy I have been afforded.