What Might Have Been

Last week I wrote about visiting family – the lies we used to tell, the ways we kept our distance. This week, I met some new family, and I can’t believe the difference. I went to New York to visit my birth family. They’re not like the family I grew up in. Nobody had to lie. We didn’t have to stick to safe topics of conversation. Everyone was very warm and welcoming. I know that if my own mother had ever had a baby as a teen, out of wedlock, she would have done all she could have to keep it secret from our family, and this kind of reunion would never have happened.

That’s not my birth mother’s style. Tears gathered in my birth-Yiaya’s eyes as she hugged me for the first time. She told me that they had wanted to keep me but they couldn’t, and had dreamed of this day. I’m not that sure she wanted to keep her 17-year-old traditional Greek daughter’s illegitimate kid, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

I met my half-brothers. The oldest never even said my name. He called me “Sis” all the time. My younger half-brother welcomed me to the family and chatted up my husband.

I met my birth-aunt, who fell in love with my children. Thanks to her and the rest of the family playing with them, I hardly saw them all day.

My birth-Yiaya’s brother and his wife came bearing gifts for my kids, but I didn’t see very much of them. They’re the old generation and the new generation kept me pretty busy. Even so, they tried to talk to me a bit.

I did spend a lot of time with their daughter – I don’t know what to call her. A second-cousin? She’s my birth mother’s cousin, anyway. We took the kids to the park and we could not stop talking. My husband noted that she and I have similar builds, and similar features from the nose down. He also noted that everyone in my birth family was disarmingly beautiful, so much so that it prevented him from taking pictures, lest they deemed him a creep.

My second-cousin told me that as soon as she heard about me she started to think about what might have been. My second cousin is only a year older than me, so we would have been the closest in age. What might have been if I’d grown up in this family? I can’t help myself from at least entertaining the thought.

For one thing, I’d have grown up close to family. My cousins lived one or two hours away, and I had another in a different state. We saw the out-of-state family twice a year and the others every couple of months. I maintain contact with one or two of them, but the rest haven’t contacted me in years.

My birth mother’s row house in Astoria, Queens, is attached to her mother’s and her niece lives downstairs. She sees family all the time. Had I grown up with her, I’d have known what a close-knit family was like.

Everyone in my birth mother’s family was so honest and genuine. When I’d see family, my mother would tell me what I could and could not discuss. I wouldn’t be surprised if my cousins received similar briefings. I have to say that the cousins ourselves were more honest with each other than the adults, but we didn’t see each other often enough to build close relationships.

If I’d grown up with my birth family, I’d have grown up more Greek than I did. My cousins were the only other Greek people I knew growing up. Some of them went to Greek school for language lessons. Some went to Greek elementary schools and one grew up more like me – with extended family as his only connection to all things Greek.

I was glad not to grow up that Greek as a kid. After all, no one around me was Greek, so I just wanted to be Italian and Catholic like everybody else. My town was Irish and Jewish too, but I was too dark to pull off Irish and my parents made it a point to separate themselves from the Jews. Now that I’m an adult, I wish I could raise my children more true to their heritage. They are only a quarter Greek, so maybe a quarter of a Greek upbringing is all they need, but I feel a responsibility to give them at least that quarter.

Maybe none of that would have happened. My birth father told me that when he told his parents he was going to be a dad, they said they’d move to a larger house so he and my birth mother and me could live with them. He’s Cuban, and he eventually moved to Miami, so maybe I wouldn’t have had all of the Greek stuff. Maybe I’d have been raised primarily Cuban. They both live among their countrymen, so either way, I would not have seen my culture as freakish.

Of course these scenarios are all rhetorical. What did happen, did happen. I grew up in my town with my parents and my friends and my relatives were far away. I always wondered about my birth mother and wished she’d come get me. I never thought about my birth father because I figured he’d left my birth mother when he’d heard she was pregnant.

Now that my birth mother has “come and gotten me,” I’m having a whole new experience. I have an additional family to add to my tree. I’m just getting to know them and so far it’s been one of the most exciting experiences of my life. I hope to really get to know my new family, and I’m looking forward to letting them get to know me. Maybe my children will get the Greek upbringing I want for them. Maybe they’ll learn what it’s like to be close to family. Whatever happens, I’m grateful for the whole experience.