I’ve been noticing for some time that the most-read post on my blog is the one called Parental Secrets. I wrote it when I found out unexpectedly that I had a half-sister that was adopted into another family when I was a child. A half-sister I didn’t know existed until six or eight months ago. It’s curious to me that this is my most-read post. People seem to Google the term ‘parental secrets’ pretty frequently, which makes me even more curious about just what it is all those people are searching for that they don’t already know about their parents and think they might find on the Internet.
Today, I finished Jeannette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? A Winterson fan, I ravaged the book daily on the train into the city every day this week, and wrapped it up when I got home tonight. I loved it, but for reasons unexpected. Her writing is entirely different than that in her novels, which makes sense, considering the whimsy, the fantasy, the intricately woven metaphors in her fiction. That style is not suited quite so well to the telling of a personal history, though her genius with words is still evident throughout the memoir.
After I graduated from high school, I went to college for exactly one semester. I happened to take an English Lit course, and one of the assigned readings was T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, the first poem of his Four Quartets. Even if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may not know how that poem tore open the meaning of passion for me. When it was assigned by my professor, he handed out off-center photocopies, made from a book opened and placed face down on the copy machine, odd patches of dark shadow in the corners, text warped in a subtle curve where the center crease of the spine refused to lie flat. I still have that photocopy, smudged from having been handled so many times, the texture more fuzzy cotton than paper where it has been folded in half for twenty years, tucked away in the box of sacred things I save.
I began reading Jeanette Winterson’s books a few years later, I think, though I don’t remember specifically when it was. As I delved into Sexing the Cherry, Written on the Body, and The Passion, I occasionally felt something familiar about certain phrases, certain lines in her novels. I couldn’t name it at first – but I slowly began to feel that some of her writing reminded me of Burnt Norton, specifically with reference to the presentation of time. I shrugged it off, thinking I must be imagining things. I continued to notice subtle similarities, though, and eventually, I read a sentence that matched word-for-word a line I knew was in Burnt Norton. I was thrilled in a way that may make sense to no one but me, but there was something about the fact that I’d made this connection through my own observations that seemed profound. No instructor had pointed me in this direction, and I had no idea what Winterson’s background was. I just loved the things I was reading, and I stumbled across a connection that had great meaning for me.
I have no idea if it was conscious or not that Winterson wrote what she did. Perhaps it was pure coincidence, or perhaps I fabricated this connection because I wanted it to be there. It doesn’t really matter, though. What mattered was the depth of feeling the experience inspired in me, and still does. So, by now, you can probably imagine the satisfaction I felt when Winterson spoke of Eliot’s Four Quartets, and even included a direct quote from Burnt Norton in her memoir. It made that thin thread I thought I saw so many years ago a little thicker in my mind’s eye.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? spoke directly to my soul, in more ways than I can recount here without turning this into a novel itself, which I am perilously close to doing already. One of the ways it did so was in Winterson’s rich description of her experience as an adopted child. I haven’t known many people who were adopted. The only adopted person I’ve known well seemed not to care a whit that she had been separated from her birth parents, but I figure she has to be the exception. I assume it has to be very difficult to come to terms with not knowing who your parents are, wondering why they gave you away, thinking on bad days that you wish you had the life you were born to, a life you convince yourself you should have had. Mostly, though, I think it’s one of those things that you just can’t know as an observer. Winterson’s story peeled back layers for me, though, bringing me perhaps as close as I can come to understanding, from the perspective of an adopted person, the nagging feeling that something in you is missing, always has been, and always will be.
Of course, this brings me back full circle to the beginning of this post. Over the past months, the subject of adoption has become much more personal to me. I’ve slowly gotten to know more about the half-sister I never knew I had. The experience has at different times both satisfied me and left me wanting. I’m sure my half-sister has felt more extreme versions of those feelings than I have. At first, we emailed each other frequently, and I poured out stories about myself, searching for the characteristics we might have in common. Over time, our communication has become very spotty, and it seems we don’t know what to say to each other. Is blood thicker than water? If I’m honest, I don’t think so, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting deeper connections. It doesn’t stop me from searching for those places of convergence, where the things that are important to me come together in a way that makes them bigger and bolder than they were when they stood apart. Perhaps the irony in all of this is that even though I wasn’t adopted, I, too, have always had a nagging feeling that something in me was missing. When it comes down to it, who doesn’t? Sometimes it seems the more we look at our differences, the more we realize we’re all the same.
P.S. If you are so inclined, you can read Burnt Norton here.