Packing Lists and Passed-On Traits

Me with my hiking gear overlooking Zion National Park in Utah, Nov. 11, 2018. Photo by audre rae photography.

Thick wool hiking socks, check. Eight pairs of underwear, check. Windbreaker, check. Like many overachieving daughters of single mothers, I’m a planner. I’m packing for a late-autumn trip to Utah. There, I’ll meet a sister I didn’t know I had until two months ago. The over-planning and packing help contain my excitement at meeting my new sister, Sammie, who is 18 years younger than me.

My mom and biological dad were never in a relationship, and he never called after I was born. I’ve never met him or anyone related to him—until now. My own mother gifted me an AncestryDNA kit for my recent birthday, so I spat in the tube and sent it back, hoping for some answers. Growing up, I had strong male role models—my loving maternal grandfather, my generous uncle, my patient stepfather, my erudite step-grandfather. Searching for my biological father was secondary to fulfilling my and my family’s beat-the-odds expectations. I managed to limp through college, secure a few jobs in my field, and escape the cycle of too-young pregnancies and stunted careers my mom constantly warned me about.

In early 2016, my mom and I combed Facebook profiles to find the man who matched her memories. When I got married, I decided I wanted to close this chapter of my life before having children. I wanted to know who this man was and whether he was a good person, whether he cared about life and had the same insatiable thirst for learning I do. I added the closest-matching mystery dad as a friend. To my shock, he accepted my friend request. His Facebook profile lists him as living in Nevada, just west of the Utahan border. I wrote him a long, detailed message as soon as he accepted my request, and waited.

“That’s understandable,” a friend sympathized. “Older people sometimes don’t know how to use Facebook.”

It’s been almost three years since I sent the initial message. I began to doubt I had the correct man.

If you are the person I’m looking for, I would like to meet you and get to know more about you, I wrote. I should be clear; I’m NOT looking for money or any sort of financial retribution. I just would really like to meet you in person and have a dialogue with you and ask some questions about your life.

Crickets.

*     *     *

Hat, gloves, scarf. The forecast tells me the weather in Salt Lake City and the surrounding area will be sunny but cold. Laptop so I can write on the plane. Family photos.

My AncestryDNA results matched me with a first-degree relative, or “close family member” with “extremely high” confidence.

The AncestryDNA results sped back to me this summer, linking my strands of identity with a young woman in Salt Lake City—Sammie. AncestryDNA called our familial connection a first degree one. Sammie’s biological mother had drug and alcohol problems, and, to my horror, she repeatedly left her three daughters, all of whom have different biological fathers. According to family memories, Sammie’s biological mom once lived in a trailer with an ex-boyfriend, just west of the Utah border in Nevada. The ex-boyfriend’s name matches my biological father’s name—the name of the man I friended on Facebook. The Facebook Messenger icon notified me he read the message eight months after I sent it.

In one of her first emails to me, Tabbie, Sammie’s adoptive mom wrote, My instincts believe you have a half-sister. What do you think and how do you feel about that probability?

Turns out, I feel surprisingly calm, but crestfallen. Sammie’s existence and her biological mom’s link to the man on Facebook confirmed he was my dad. The stormy backdrop of drugs, poverty, and other children in his past confirmed what I already knew but hadn’t wanted to admit to myself—this man was not a person I needed to meet. Yet, I wanted to know the far-reaching effects of his influence. Was this young girl like me? I responded in my effusive way, already connecting with this new sister and her devoted, warm, and smart mom.

Here’s what I’m like, I wrote. I detailed my general character traits, my major life events, and my goals.

I’m a fastidious, over-confident perfectionist. What is my little sister like? Tell me everything.

Shampoo, conditioner, and hair product. Sammie and I both have the same thick hair as the man who provided the crucial half of DNA for our separate existences. I compare the cowlick in my edgily cut bangs to identical loops of unruly hair in his photo and decide I like that I got his full head of hair.

I proceed with caution, wanting to be a good influence on her. She is only a freshman in high school, I remind myself. I consider hiding all those drunken photos of myself on Facebook from my early twenties, every digital proof of beer-clutching. Nah, I decide. I’d rather be real.

*     *     *

Sammie and me in Salt Lake City at Wheeler Historic Farm, Nov. 12, 2018. Photo by audre rae photography.

Long-sleeved dresses, leggings, makeup bag, check. Sammie, our biological dad, and I share the same wide, high cheekbones and almond-shaped blue eyes, the same strong chin.

Supplements and vitamins. My husband and I want to have a baby eventually, some time after I graduate from my MFA program. I want to be sure my system already has everything a developing embryo would need in those crucial first few weeks—folic acid, Vitamin B12, zinc, the works. I wonder if I’ll pass on these facial features. I wonder whether my and Sammie’s other two half-siblings, both their existences confirmed from combing this man’s Facebook photos, know we exist. I recall my tendency to let perfectionism paralyze my writing work, my missed assignments in college, the ignored bills and failed classes. The depression and anxiety I experienced over shirking my duties. Are all these tendencies from him?

I am terrified I will pass on this predisposition to quit things and abandon people. I am scared my genes will create a monster.

Hiking boots, check. Two pairs of jeans, check. Tissues, check.

Facebook is full of emotional landmines in the weeks leading up to my trip. Crying, I delete a comment from a well-meaning aunt about one of my recent essays. I post pro-flu shot sentiments to provoke anti-vaccination followers. My antagonism swells to unlikely proportions when I come across photos of a young man I used to know. He gambled, drank, and snorted away his income, neglecting his two special-needs children. Now, he has an Instagram to showcase his art and writing, and he posts quotes from Dr. Seuss and Picasso like,

You have brains in your head. / You have feet in your shoes. / You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

I guess nobody told him that if you have children before you’re ready, you don’t get to follow dreams on your own terms, your preordained path, your preferred schedule. You do not get to steer yourself any fucking direction you choose. Those dreams are deferred. Or, at least, those dreams are deferred for the people who take on the responsibility of raising those unexpected children.

I know this young man’s story. His ex-fiancée sent him back to his home state, and he rarely calls. However, I don’t know my father’s story. I’m not sure why he didn’t want to be involved or why he never called or why he never responded to my message. Maybe he was too broke to be a father. Maybe it was drugs or alcohol. Maybe he cared but thought his progeny would turn out better without him in our lives. But I will never know because he never tried.

I want to shake them, all the collective abandoners and non-committers. I want to make them responsible. I want them to know their poor life decisions impact their biological children even from afar. I want them to know their left-behind kids will struggle with emotional security. We will fear abandonment. We might crave attention. We may have so-called daddy issues. I delete the young man on Facebook and block his account on Instagram. But, I don’t delete my biological dad.

Sweatshirt. Sweat-wicking top. Sweatband to keep those bangs out of my eyes on hikes. I type these into the list and avoid checking social media.

The lists also help cool and compartmentalize my rage.

*     *     *

“How tall are you?” my new sister asked through the screen, backlit by autumn sunset.

“Just shy of five-seven,” I said. “But I have long legs.”

That’s my height, she told me. “Amazing!” I said, because it is. “What size shoe do you wear?” Sneakers, check. We also have the same size feet.

I wonder what other commonalities we share and begin to forget my disappointment that our shared DNA source wants nothing to do with us.

A few text conversations confirm our shared ambitiousness. Her dream college is Brown.

She has planned her freshman year around preparation for a political career culminating in her appointment as Secretary of State, Tabbie wrote in one of our first email exchanges.

Previously, she wanted to be a veterinarian, and at her preschool graduation she announced her intentions to become an obstetrician, Tabbie wrote. She could pronounce it, so why not!?

My sister Maddie, right, and I sleeping on the couch after a long swim meet—mine, not hers—in late Summer 2002.

Maddie, my mom and step-dad’s daughter, the kindhearted and musically talented sister I watched grow up, has the same wickedly funny tongue—a similar drollness. Sammie and Maddie are six years apart, separated by at least six states. But, when I talk to them, their clarity of world views, passion for future generations, and humanitarian hearts sound the same. Maddie texts me:

I want to meet her! She sounds so smart!

And Sammie texts:

I never really believed DNA could account for personality and core traits, but here I am, standing corrected…I feel like I’m talking to a future me! I can’t wait to meet you in person and one day the rest of your family.

My heart swells. One can never have too many sisters, I muse, thinking of my husband’s sisters—my creative, accomplished, and exuberant sisters-in-law.

*     *     *

I add Wisconsin cheeses and dog treats to the packing list, gifts for my new family members. A birthday gift for Sammie. Her birthday will be only a few days after my visit, and just two weeks after Maddie’s birthday.

The Build-A-Bear poodle I gifted Sammie for her birthday in Utah.

My new sister and her mom already bestowed a nickname on me: Poodles. A smart dog. Sammie’s favorite dog breed. One of my new sister’s goals is to be fluent in five languages. Currently, she is fluent in English and French, thanks to her French immersion school. Russian, Mandarin, and Spanish are next on her list. She is the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper, a rare honor for a freshman. My undergraduate major and first career was journalism. Our shared affinity for languages and words makes me ecstatic. I take in this information from her mom’s emails to me between gleefully translating poems from French and Spanish for my MFA translation class. I studied Spanish and Italian in high school and undergrad, and speak and write Spanish for work.

I wonder what else I can bring with me to Utah. I look around my house, walls adorned with family photos, and make a note to take lots of pictures on this trip. I look into myself. Unlike my empty suitcase, which waits for the fruits of my over-planning, I am crammed with predispositions and history, with affection and mistakes, joy and complicatedness. Weary from investigative work, lost optimism, and my own engrained judgments, I gave up on my biological father. But, my heart expanded so easily to embrace Sammie and Tabbie, and in such a short time. If he responded, I would answer, because he gave me Sammie, whose brain and humor so closely mirror my own. I know I have room for more familial love.

I look at the list, identifying those invisibilities I’ll carry with me. Many words. My smile. Warmth. An open heart.

 

E.P. Floyd is lead editor of flash prose, an interviewer, a blogger, and an assistant blog editor for Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch TicketLitbreak MagazineReservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection, and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.