I am Italian. My family traditions included sauce on Sundays at midday, large gatherings for special occasions such as communions, confirmations, weddings, funerals and holidays. I grew up in a neighborhood with friends that were for the most part Italian, and with families quite similar to mine. Mostly, as a child and young adult I took my heritage for granted.
I have two Korean-born children, now young adults. As they were growing up, I made sure they had ample opportunity to learn about their birth culture and birth history. We participated in festivities at the local Korean church, they attended Korean summer camp, I bought books in English and Korean, and Korean fairy tales and fables. We were very active in the local Korean adoption support group and sent letters to the Korean adoption agency to keep them up to date with how my children were progressing through the years. We made several attempts to find their birth families in Korea, to no avail. We discussed travel to Korea through the years with varied interest from my children. We (they) have yet to return.
Somewhere in my late 40’s I became more aware my Italian heritage and began to claim it. I went back to the family tradition of sauce on Sundays and started a process to obtain dual citizenship for Italy, a new opportunity for me. I reconnected with extended family on my father’s side. Still, I never felt a longing to travel to my roots other than to experience Italy and European culture and see the world, much like my desire to visit Paris, London, Prague, South African, Greece and Spain; none of which held a personal connection for me.
I had the good fortune to travel to Italy in June of 2012. As we were planning the trip, I wrote to my paternal uncle and aunt for advice on how to manage all I hoped to see in one two-week trip to Italy; Rome, Tuscany, Venice, Florence, Pisa, Pompeii, the Amalfi coast. They made very helpful suggestions and then asked when we were traveling. We discovered our trips to Italy would overlap, and they generously offered to host us for 2 days in Gaeta, the birthplace of my grandparents.
I fell in love with Italy as soon as we landed. Our first 9 days were spent in the Tuscan valley. There, I felt peace, deep relaxation and a sense of grounded energy that I never before experienced. The countryside is gorgeous, the language musical and passionate, and the people the same. There is something magical about walking through the stone streets of towns that are more than a thousand years old!
We then traveled down to Gaeta to visit my aunt and uncle. My father had died more than 30 years ago, and we lost touch with his siblings and my extended paternal family. I did not know my uncle and aunt very well prior to our visit, so I was somewhat apprehensive. I didn’t want to impose, and worried a bit about how we would all get along. They were so very warm and loving, and welcomed us into their home in Italy (although they have lived all their lives in the US, they visit Italy for several months each year). They shared the local history and lore. We spent time on the beautiful beaches of this small fishing village and swam in the warm Mediterranean Sea, ate locally grown foods and enjoyed the inexpensive yet delicious local wines.
On the 2nd day in Gaeta, my uncle took us to the see the homes where my grandmother and grandfather were born, roughly six blocks from each other on the same street. Born 16 years apart, the families did not know each other in Italy. But my grandparents found each other in New York. At 16 my grandmother married my grandfather, 32 years old.
All we could see of the homes in which they were born was the doorway and wrought iron balconies of each apartment. Yet, to stand in the street below my family origins was a profound experience. I felt that my feet had roots in the very earth. This is where I am from, I thought.
Later, upon reflection, I thought about those who know nothing of their roots, who can never know their birth history or stories. With no connection to any biological family members, my children have an incomplete story – their birth mothers were unmarried and it was unacceptable to be an unwed mother in Korea when they were born. We were told (and believed) that had their mothers raised them, they would have no social standing, no access to education and no prospects for gainful employment in Korea. At that time, their birth mothers each felt they had little choice but to place their babies for adoption so that they may have opportunities in life. The extent of their knowledge is pretty obvious in their own faces – physical descriptions of their birth mothers (dark hair, dark eyes, and fair complexion).
My great fortune in the adoption of my two amazing children is no doubt a painful fortune for their birth mothers, as it sometime is (or may be) for my children in the future. With little information and little ability to communicate and or access to more, how will they ever experience that sense of connection, rooted to their origins, understanding and knowing from whence they came?
The same is true of the thousands of adopted individuals in the U.S. who don’t know their story, who don’t know their origins, who were placed with adoptive families and feel as if they were dropped onto the planet, uprooted and un-rooted. Most love their adoptive families; and at the same time, most do feel a complicated sense of belonging and not belonging. Many have a hunger to know their origins, to hear their family stories, to feel the power of their birth history.
The great cloak of secrecy shrouds their stories. Sealed records ensure a lifetime of not knowing for adopted people in most states. The Geneva Convention (1949) recognized an individual’s right to know their origins, yet more than 65 years later, adopted people are still denied this right.
I grew up in my original family. Although I had little interest for quite some time, I could ask questions whenever I wanted of any one of my dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, and such. I have my original birth certificate; I am able to trace my grandparents’ travel from Italy to Boston, MA, to Rochester, NY. I can conduct a genealogical search because I have names, knowledge, and connection to my ancestors.
Shouldn’t we all?