Southern Family Values
I was raised in the coalfields of West Virginia, a place unlike any other in the United States. I was surrounded by poverty, though I didn’t know it, and a society that valued family above all else. Growing up, I was told that my mom, dad, aunts, uncles, and cousins were all much more important than friends and strangers and that I should uphold their wellbeing above all else. This belief is quite common in Appalachia, where families could be large and full of shared trauma that brought them closer together.
However, the opioid epidemic has proven too large of a trauma for West Virginia to handle. This, on top of lost opportunities with the loss of coal, shocked the region to its core. Families are now seemingly still allegiant to one another while also being torn apart. This was the case for my conflicted family as well. We’d die for each other if we didn’t kill one another first.
The fragile state of my family, one left in disarray with displaced children and mentally ill addicts, had left me fragile too. I had no idea how in the world I could feel close to my parents again, especially with the mental abuse I’d suffered from them as an adult. I had blocked a lot of my childhood demons away in the wake of my son’s birth, but the fresh scars would not heal. It was for this reason that I wanted to better understand my background. I scoured the Internet for hours trying to find information on relatives who had perished long ago, getting frustrated at every dead end I would hit. It was hard finding information from my immediate family as well, because they seemed grouchy at the thought. In the most traditional way, they said that the past did not matter and that their focus was on the future. The clearest emphasis was on the family that you had, not the family you wish you had.
Sometimes I wish that I had listened.
I found out that my mother and my grandfather were not biologically related. Everyone says that they just assumed that I knew and took the insistence to hear about it very personally. My grandparents told me that he was my grandfather no matter what, a fact I hadn’t once contested. Their insecurity in this was unfathomable to me. However, it did give me the chance to learn more. I started on the newest branch of my family tree, only to get stuck very soon after. I tried to reach out to my biological grandfather once, but he was never interested. My mother said that his wife was extremely jealous, so I just gave up on it. Sure, I felt kind of bad, but it didn’t break my heart too badly.
From there, I was desperate to get some new leads on my family tree, and I guess I was hoping to make some new connections. I had been told that family was incredibly important, but I was more or less estranged from my parents and my brother never talked to me, so it made sense. This led me to AncestryDNA.
I took the test, sent it back, and waited for results. When my results came back, I rushed to my computer. To be clear, I had no expectations with my ethnicity. I just knew that I was pretty white, so no shocks when I saw all that Irish, Scottish, and European heritage matched to my DNA. The moneymaker for me was the DNA matches page, where you can see other users you are related to. I searched my last name in the search bar to no avail. I was incredibly confused. I tried my grandmother’s maiden name, and some users popped up. I recognized a few of them, which led me to further question why I didn’t recognize any of the names that popped up as immediate relatives. A second cousin, a man whom I’d known from school, got me to thinking. How were we related? I’d never heard of us being related, but he had a surname that I knew my father was associated with, so I assumed that was how and that no direct family member on my dad’s side had taken the test.
For a couple of months afterwards, I would inquire about this to my family. I even slyly asked my dad if he was related to the man who’d shown up as my second cousin. He shrugged, told me he wasn’t sure, and disregarded the question as my typical nonsense. This was the response I had gotten from just about everyone else as well. I tried to explain the significance to them, but they didn’t seem to understand. Their insistence was that it didn’t matter. He was always and would always be my dad.
So I approached my mother. More accurately, I had cornered her on the phone. Could I have a different biological father? She skirted around the question, but I made my position very clear. I had physical evidence; I just needed someone to confirm the missing details for me. I heard her shuffle awkwardly as she told me that there could be someone else. She gave me his name, a name I recognized.
It hit me harder than I’d expected.
I cried all night, on and off for weeks to come, and occasionally still shed tears over the thought. It’s not because I feel differently about my dad (birth certificate father, or BCF, from here on out) or even my mother, who had asked me to keep this a secret. I was confused because this stranger was my parent, and family was important, but strangersweren’t. Who was he supposed to be to me? I assumed that since he was my family biologically, he was my family through and through. Automatically, I felt a kinship to him because I was supposedto. I clung to the possibilities of who he was, who he could have been in my life if given the chance. I wondered if my traumatic childhood could have gone drastically differently if only he had had a way to know. I believed in the possibility of him more than I believed in my own BCF, a stoic alcoholic that I hardly ever heard from.
If only I had known how dangerous this was.
I asked my mother to have him call me. Turns out, she was even dating him, which was an odd and uncomfortable turn of events. Long story short, he never called. I was heartbroken, my image of who this person could have been to me shattered. My desire for cliché parental love, the kind you see in “normal families” was shot down. I was angry. I still am. I still don’t know why I expected anything different; I suppose I was seeing the possibilities through rose-colored glasses.
The reality? This man had no responsibilities to anyone but himself. I also didn’t really know him, only his relatives from around town. Why would he suddenly change that for a 24-year-old that he really didn’t know? Most importantly, who said that we had the same idea of, or dedication to, family? This man did not see me as his family, in whatever case, and I had to accept it one way or another.
I still haven’t reached acceptance yet, but I am moving forward in my journey by asking my parents to be more involved in my life. Hopefully, they can fill the hole that I have learned only they can fill.