A bit of a writing-in-semi-public-forum-as-mind-purging exercise – something I promised to do in as part of setting goals with three writers who are also doing the hard, stumbling, inarticulate work of generative writing right now.
Four years ago on April 4th, what would have been Pops’ 88th birthday, I learned that my paternal DNA comes from another person. I refer to him as biodude. This discovery, in more common naming, makes biodude the “Not Parent Expected” or “birth father” (I shudder at that naming), and Pops the “birth certificate father” or BFC, and leave me with the designation of “being an NPE.” None of that naming resonates for me: while I do have a Not Paternal Parent Expected in the genetic material that launched me, I do not separate birth father and birth certificate father into two categories. Rather, my genetic material carries residue of a biodude, and my material, psychological, emotional, and cognitive resources link me to just one father – a man who did sign my birth certificate, and even more: a man who claimed me at my birth as beloved daughter even as he simultaneously understood the circumstances of my conception.
If I am “being” anything, it’s not “being an NPE,” it’s being Donna and Dave’s daughter, an only child raised in a nuclear family comprised of Gram, Grumpy, Great Grandma Ellen, Great Great Aunt Edna, Great Uncle Dave, and Uncle Richard (aka Puzzy, my fairy godfather) alongside my Pops and Mom. With the exception of Mom, the lot who raised me are the Welsh-Irish-Scotish-English and Norwegian family who raised my Pops. Emphasis on the Welsh, as Gram credits her ways of thinking (and believing) to her Welsh Grandmother Hannah Evans Stafford – and credit my Gram with doing the same.
And, in the spirit of Pops, who loved inventing words and phrases, my NPE calls on using a childhood nickname to recast the NPE acronym: Nene’s Paternal Experience.
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Four years ago on what was the 18th year following on Pops’ death and 26 August 2000 memorial service, I wrote a second eulogy – this one celebrating the man who chose to become my father. With this eulogy-essay, I invited one my family and friends to help me form and revisit questions, accept and appreciate partial recollections, and make sense of – as well as do a bit of rage at – the secrets. With that second writing, I freed my older cousins and kindred to share speculations they’d heard, to share stories about my parents before they were my parents, and to remember how they’d observed us together – the new information adding new layers to existing perspectives.
In some of the “rough cut” personal essays within this blog – The People We Carry, Through the Looking Glass, Never a lie. No longer a secret, This Is Going to Hurt – I’ve been aiming to work out why I’m actually quite happy, thank you very much, with what I’ve come to know.
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The current rough cut essay (which is so-dang-nearly-impossibly-slowly-emerging that it’s not fit for readers) has me tangled up in personal narratives and qualitative research that don’t resonate when writers generalise NPEs as experiencing ambiguous loss, and holding almost exclusively negative reactions to “the initial discovery of a previously unknown biological parent.” (Grethel, Michele, Jennifer Lewis, Rob Freeman, and Courtney Stone, 2022. “Discovery of unexpected paternity after direct‐to‐consumer DNA testing and its impact on identity.” Family Relations.) My own research clarifies why I belong viscerally, cognitively, affectively, somatically to Pops.
This is my rewriting of a key sentence in the research paper’s discussion section: “This participant described a positive reaction to the discovery of the previously unknown information that her non-biological father (aka ‘birth certificate father’) immediately chose, personally and publicly, to name her as my daughter. That Evans-Stafford-Svelsted-Alexander family was a gift, and nurtured ways of thinking that required me to reflect on complex problems, to navigate ambiguity, to learn from grief, and to move forward with one grounding premise of the Highlander Folkschool: a two-eyed approach to learning and social justices – one looking at where I am/we are, and the other to where I want to be/to who we want to become. And as painted on The Garrick’s façade in Belfast: A nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise. A nation that keeps two eyes on the past is blind.
This is all generative writing with my already drafted notes and sketches pushed aside, a space for talking out loud as i promised those other two writers I’d do in stumbling moments.
Right now I think that these are the essay sections:
- One Month
- One DNA Test
- One Pops
- One to Grow On
And these themes are weaving into a story about thinking differently, thinking in two-eyed ways about grief and ambiguity, change and complexity.:
- Learning through grief.
- Practicing hiraeth as a forward movement.
- Inhabiting liminal spaces.
- Navigating wicked problems.
And there’s a playlist – usually the thing that comes last – the runs in my head between writing while streaming #bbcradiowales on Minnesota weekends, and working-at-my-desk afternoons.
Three songs from Pops’ memorial service
the only lyric is a riotous cackle at the beginning
The Surfaris – video
In the Garden
Loretta Lynn – video
And he walks with me
And he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known
Just as I Am
Mahalia Jackson – video
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt
Fighting and fears within without
Four songs that link to the sections
Secret keepers, we’re all the same
Looking for some kindness when we meet someone
We get years of practice camouflaging shame
But the armor we’re wearing weighs a ton
Secret keepers are lost and found
Spare a little kindness when you meet someone
You never really know what they’re carrying around
May it only sting a moment
When you dive into that blue
This is the sweet spot of your life
‘Cause by the time you hit the surface
It has rearranged you
This is the sweet spot of your life
You left in such a hurry, I had so much left to say
I’m just passin’ by thought I’d stop and say hi
And that I miss you, Happy Independence Day
I think of you most every day…
Those photographs are fading away
Faces coming loose from their names
Walk home to where your bound
Walk on through rain and cloud
The hills will hold you now
And a mix of songs and performers that I also live in my current writing head:
- Automobile, Angel Hotel
- Stay Together & Get Back Up, Dub War
- All I Needed Was a Song, American Aquarium
- The Platters
- Glenn Miller Band
- The Weavers
- Nat King Cole
- Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
- Johnny Cash
- The Joy Formidable.