For many years my mother would simply say “I don’t exist” whenever I asked her about her parents. And for many years that seemed to be true. Other than their names we didn’t know anything else about them. We knew a great deal that wasn’t true about them, but we didn’t know much of anything else. There were times when she would say this as if it were all a big joke, but I always sensed the sadness. I could always feel the disconnect in her voice. It was as if my mother was driftwood ebbing and flowing along the waves.
Being the youngest of a large Catholic family from Lima, Peru, my mother had little to no memory of a mother or father — both died when she was young. She never spoke of aunts or uncles, rarely of grandparents. Storks and cabbage leaves were an actual likelihood in regards to her birth. Nothing else seemed to be reasonable! Worse, nobody in her family was willing to tell her anything about her parents. Instead, mystery and speculation swirled around my mother’s parentage.
“I don’t exist.” And if she doesn’t exist, then do I exist? Or my children? Any of us? My mother’s branch of the family tree always reaches out barren and empty while my father’s branch is heavy laden with too many Swiss and Brits, its fruit dropping from being overripe.
Time to time I will tease myself, googling her maiden name to see if the miracle of birth finally recorded itself hundreds of years only to become disappointed. Not only for myself but also for my mother who insists on not being real. And yet, finally, just the other night we all materialized right before my eyes. Once again feeling a touch of whimsy I went onto FamilySearch and typed in the mythical family name.
I hit enter.
And there he was: my mother’s father — my grandfather — just like always, but attached to him was his father and his father, and mothers, too. And there were wives, and some children. It was all like some amazingly constructed set of paper dolls, all holding hands together and waiting for my mother to hold hers out for them. All I could do was stare at the screen, were they really there? I counted the brackets — grandparents, a great-, a great-great, a great-great-great — I had people there. I was them and they are me. I could take out the ladder and help them climb up my tree, rustling the leaves and balancing out the English with the Spanish.
I called my mother the next day and all she could say was, “I do exist! Thank you for finding me.”
It’s good to be real.