I’m at a wedding in a family restaurant in small-town Manitoba. It’s a freezing December night, but warm inside the private dining room, which has been rented for the evening. It’s filling up with people, mostly middle-aged, some younger. Against one wall is an arch decorated with white ribbon and fairy lights, in front of which the couple will later exchange their vows. In another wall there’s a window where you can order drinks.
The Caesars have a pickle, three olives and a slice of luncheon meat in them. I tip the bartender, who acts surprised every time. Am I embarrassing her? Is this not done? I decide it’s better to err on the side of showoffy city slicker, and slip her another five.
The wedding present my parents chose for my dad’s half-sister and her husband is a carved soapstone muskox from the Winnipeg Art Gallery gift shop. It’s the work of an Inuit artist, my mom tells me the night before, unwrapping it to show me. The muskox has little foam cylinders stuck on its tusks—to keep them from breaking, or stabbing through the Styrofoam sheeting it’s wrapped in.
“It’s beautiful,” I say. It is beautiful. I’m not sure what they’ll make of it, my dad’s newly found, newly married family. What does a muskox have to do with love, romance, commitment? We should have got them something expected: a fondue set, a salad bowl, a bottle of Crown Royal in its velvet bag.
“Let’s get a photo of all the brothers and sisters together!” someone suggests. My dad stands in the middle, two women and one man flanking him—four offspring of a woman he never met. He is the tallest by far. Until a few years ago we never knew his siblings existed; until today I’d never met any of them. Now they are our family. My mom and I look at each other like what the fuck. My dad grins as shutters click. “He’s in heaven,” my mom says. Heaven is weird.
In 1945, when my dad was six months old, my grandparents brought him home. A tiny baby. They named him Arnold, which was close to Donald, the name his birth mother had given him. They weren’t exactly poor, but money was tight. His dad, my grandpa Jack, worked long hours to make a modest living for his wife Amy and their new child. They raised him Jewish, and he grew up in that tight-knit Winnipeg community, though not exactly of it. He learned to curl and play the accordion.
My grandparents called each other Mother and Father. They weren’t the gooey-cute grandparents I saw on TV and in movies growing up in the eighties; they didn’t pinch cheeks or slather kisses. They had a slightly formal demeanour that could seem standoffish but was maybe a hallmark of children born to and raised by Jewish immigrants to North America—unwilling to be too comfortable, too noisy or affectionate, lest they attract the attention of the evil eye or whatever passes for Cossacks over here.
They were hugely devoted to Arnold, encouraging his artistic leanings when he got a bit older, putting money aside for a private painting tutor when it was clear he needed more than what he got at public school. And they fought hard to make him feel accepted. He knew he was adopted from a young age, but he didn’t feel like an outsider, which he came to realize later was because his parents worked hard to protect him from any insinuation that he wasn’t fully theirs. He stood out in family photos, six feet four inches tall and lanky, next to uncles and cousins who barely reached his shoulders.
Many adoptees seek out their birth families at some point, but my dad never did. Not that he was indifferent. Questions, uncertainties, lived in him like a seam of quartz in granite. But he may have felt like he had more to lose than to gain by going down that path. He was very protective of his parents when they were alive, and later, of their memories. He seemed to take other adoptees’ journeys toward their biological families as a personal affront, as though it suggested that his parents were impostors.
My dad was contemptuous of genealogy, of the idea that blood ties meant something more than a kinship woven from a lifetime of care, that a child who was asked for, chosen, belonged less than a child who simply appeared due to the unremarkable mechanics of reproduction. “Who are these people to you?” he’d say when presented with a story of someone connecting with a person who’d appeared as a new, surprising nodule on their Ancestry.ca tree. Or at least that’s what he’d say to me later, recounting it.
He lived with a door always at the back of his consciousness. He’d never tried to pry or jimmy it, or even peep through the keyhole; he just knew it was there.
Then one night in 2007, the door was thrown open. My dad was in his mid-sixties, the age when many of his contemporaries were taking steps toward retirement, but he and my mom still worked full-time at the fabric store that had been in my mom’s family since the forties. Both his parents had died years earlier. He had recently recovered from cancer, and after a long, frustrating break, had started painting again. On the night in question, he wasn’t painting. He and my mom were in the kitchen, thinking about what to make for dinner.
In my memory, the phone rings. My dad answers, and for the first time in his life, he hears the words “This is your sister.” He learns her name—Barb—and that she lives in a rural municipality only forty-five minutes from my parents’ Winnipeg home. And Barb isn’t all there is. That night, my dad learns he’s the eldest of nine siblings, all of whom share a mother, Jean, who was twenty-one when my dad was born.
Six of the siblings—Barb, Sharon (whose wedding we later went to), and four brothers—grew up together and knew their mother, sometimes living with her, sometimes in foster care or with other families when Jean was ill. Jean was born to a farming family in Saskatchewan, and had been put up for adoption herself. My dad didn’t share paternity with any of the other kids. The man Jean named as his father denied it, and had fled the scene shortly after my dad was born.
Not long before Jean died, she told her children that there were three others—three kids given up for adoption before Barb, the eldest of the six, was born. Barb took on the role of detective, tracking down the rest of the kids. She filed a search request with the Manitoba Post-Adoption Registry for the name she knew was given to my dad at birth. She had already found the other two sibs; my dad was the last missing piece.
In reality, it was my mom who answered the phone that night, and the call wasn’t from Barb, but from a post-adoption specialist with Manitoba Family Services. My mom knew right away what it was about. She tells me much later that she considered hanging up the phone—some instinct to protect my dad from whatever would come next. But she passed it over, and he learned there was a contact request from a sibling. There were so many files backlogged at the registry that three years had passed between Barb’s search request and that phone call.
He could have refused the request, gone back to dinner. But like the bear in the song, he went over the mountain, to see what he could see. He agreed to be put in touch.
My dad and Barb exchanged letters, and not long after, they decided to meet. The place they chose was the Forks, a historic site and tourist destination in downtown Winnipeg. It was almost comically loaded. The Forks, or Nistawayak in Cree, is named for the crux where two rivers, the Red and the Assiniboine, converge. It’s a meeting point on both a geographic and human scale; archaeological records point to human exchange in the area going back six thousand years. That kind of over-the-top symbolism would have been irresistible to my dad.
“I was nervous before that meeting,” Barb tells me later. She and her husband Joe arrived at the Forks and looked around for my dad in the busy main market area. Joe thought he spotted him, based on the description he’d given Barb on the phone, but before they went over, they stopped to buy a notebook for him, to keep some memories in. The cover read Personal Notebook and had a drawing of a lifesaver encircling a lighthouse.
They followed my dad outside, and Barb went to approach him. She stopped, feeling panicked, but Joe urged her on. She greeted him, and they stood smiling at each other. “Finally we meet,”my dad said, “after all these years.” She felt right away that he was her brother, the person she’d been wondering about since she first learned of his existence.
As for my dad, he thought that he and Barb had nothing in common except for genealogy. They seemed to like each other, though, and he felt they had an unusual intimacy for two people who had just met. Much of their conversation, that day and since, consisted of constructing their backgrounds for each other, drawing a narrative out of the fog—something my dad referred to as “living in reverse.”
He would get to know more of Barb’s family, which was big, mostly rural, Presbyterian and totally willing to embrace Arnold as one of their own. They began to call him uncle, brother, as though they’d known him always.
This ease was not entirely two-sided. “Do we have to start celebrating Christmas?” my mom joked, with a horror that was only half-pretend. We were a small family, urban, Jewish culturally, not religious. Our love language was complaint. Titles like aunt and cousin were earned through the accrual of jokes, gestures, kvetches, routines, some of them lasting years; they couldn’t be handed out like Halloween candy. And yet, here we were.
My dad being found by his biological family wasn’t the answer to a lifetime of questions. It just changed what the questions were. In the notebook Barb gave him, my dad wrote: I DO know what it’s like to think you have been wrong about something your entire life...
At the wedding, I check out earlobes and hands and noses. I can’t look at my dad’s face and see any resemblance to his siblings. He looks like my dad, and they look like strangers. Yet in these detached samples, maybe there’s a line of some kind. One half-brother does remind me of my dad in the early nineties, when he wore a goatee and ponytail, like this brother wears now. But is it just superficial features that make me think I see something of family there? My dad has never resembled anyone, except maybe me. It’s a new experience, looking for familiarity beyond my parents’ faces.
We always assumed my dad’s height was from his biological family—surely he came from Norwegians or Swedes, burly giants from the rugged fjords. But this family is short, too. My dad looms over his half-sisters and brothers, one of whom reaches up to put a ginger arm around his shoulders. Sometimes things show up in people and there’s no knowing why.
As we’re taking our seats for the ceremony, my mom yelps “I forgot to bring Kleenex!” My mom is not a crier; she’s one of the least sentimental people I know. But in this moment, she’s fully committed to being the crying lady at the wedding. My dad, too, is in character—the proud eldest brother. I imagine myself in the role of the zany cousin from Montreal, with green hair and a thrift-store skirt, but the family is too laid back and won’t even give me the satisfaction of being weird about it. I’m not sure if I feel good or bad about this.
Part of me wants to feel a connection—even friction would be something—and another part is reassured that I am, in fact, entirely a product of my upbringing and little else. Mostly I’m glad they’re nice. And my dad looks happy—if not the centre of attention, at least somewhere in the ballpark. On the drive home, though, on the snowy highway back to Winnipeg, he’s strangely quiet.
Many years ago, a therapist told me “Sometimes adoption doesn’t work.” I nodded. It later occurred to me that this was a bonkers thing for a therapist to say, given the context, but at the time I couldn’t stop thinking about that idea—of an adoption working, or not working. Of a branch being grafted onto a tree; of it shrivelling and falling off. Of parents raising a changeling, who would never be anything other than that—a stranger in the shape of a child.
Adopted kids, on average, grow up in better circumstances than non-adopted kids, according to a 2015 study that uses some fairly limited metrics of what makes a good home. Their parents tend to be more stable and higher-earning; they’re read to more; they get more home-cooked meals and eat them around a family table more often. This makes sense if you take into account how difficult it is to adopt. The process is stringent, and the standards prospective parents have to live up to are very high.
As they get older, though, adopted kids start to display a particular set of struggles at a higher rate than non-adopted kids. They tend to do less well in school. They read less; they’re more likely to have ADHD; they’re more likely to have behaviour problems. They’re more likely to have addictive personalities, though research around this is fuzzy. Addiction has been clearly linked to trauma, and adoption—or, at least, the early separation of a gestational parent from a baby—is generally thought to be traumatic by people who study these things. It may be specious to hop easily along these stones—adoption, trauma, addiction—but it’s not easy to dismiss either.
I don’t know what to make of this data. It seems unbearably cynical to look at adopted kids as preprogrammed for a lifetime of struggle. I deeply want to believe that family exists apart from blood. In fact, I do believe it. I believe in chosen family, queer family, freakfam, what some call your logical family, as distinct from your biological one. And of course, plenty of kids raised by their birth parents have problems, too. Who can claim a perfect childhood?
Still, the statistics haunt me. I wonder what kind of profound, cell-deep damage my dad carried with him, what bruises the separation made on his squishy baby brain. Would he have been happier, healthier, if he’d grown up Donald? I think for him, the question was unthinkable. Just the fact that there was a question, a set of options—left or right? Up or down? Donald or Arnold?—was enough to drive him crazy. So he mostly chose not to think about it. And whatever turmoil he suffered, he mostly suffered alone.
After the first contact from the post-adoption registry, my dad asked the agent if his birth mother was alive. She called back a few days later, while he was walking to his studio, to tell him she had died just six years earlier. He wept. He felt he had just lost her, for the second time.
One of the first things I remember learning in high school physics is that two parallel lines will never meet. No matter how far you extend them—even to infinity—they can never touch. Recently, though, I heard a particle physicist on a podcast explain something that now seems obvious.
If two people stand on the Equator, hundreds of kilometres apart, and begin to walk due north, eventually, at the North Pole, their paths will intersect. Imagine their surprise, each thinking they’re on a solo journey. The reason for this is the curvature of the Earth. From their perspective, it’s as though something is drawing them together, some unseen force, but it’s not a force, really—it’s the shape of the ground they walk on.
“I don’t know about this whole family thing,” my dad says. This was a couple years ago—a decade had passed since the first meeting. He was now in his seventies. He’d become Facebook friends with a dozen members of his birth family, but the stream of memes and photos on his timeline meant little to him without context. The iridescent glow of discovery had gone out, and they were left looking like normal people, people he wouldn’t otherwise have crossed paths with. “Sort of like anyone’s family,” I say.
He connects with Barb and Sharon, though, off Facebook. They have occasional visits and phone calls. In some ways, learning about them helps him guess what his life might have been had he not been adopted—an image of himself in parallel. And maybe it’s possible, at a certain point, to look at that parallel life without judgment, without wondering if you would have been better off or worse. Knowing those two lines will eventually meet as the curve of the earth brings them together.
Or to put it another way, he went over the mountain. And all that he could see was the other side of the mountain—his life in reverse.
And then, in June 2020, my dad died. It wasn’t Covid-19, but it wasn’t not Covid-19 either. The stress of the pandemic wore him down. He was drinking more than usual, worrying. He stayed away from his art studio for months, scared of infection. Finally he went back, on a Monday, and resumed the painting that was, more or less, his life’s work. He had a probable heart attack there five days later, on a Friday, and died. He had no history of heart problems but, of course, his family medical history was partly unknown. Sometimes things show up in people and there’s no knowing why.
When someone dies with no warning, no preamble, one of the many things that’s lost is the chance to ask what was what. In trying to understand the story of my dad’s adoption, I’ve by necessity had to contend with the story of him—who he was, who he believed himself to be. I DO know what it’s like to think you have been wrong about something your entire life...
What had he been wrong about? Did he ever come to terms with it? What loss did he carry with him, and did it ever get smaller? I can’t know. Instead, I’m left with anecdotes, questions, speculation. A notebook with nine pages filled in. And grieving him means also grieving the parts of his life that don’t belong to me—that belong to another family. One that missed their son, their uncle, their eldest brother, before they had ever met him.
One thing I thought about in the days following my dad’s death—days when I more or less felt myself to be having an out-of-body experience, watching my meat-sack carry out tasks as though from the wrong end of a telescope—was that my grandpa Jack had also died suddenly of a heart attack. Part of me felt like even in death, my dad was asserting his paternal bond. This is how Leventhals go, he might have said. It’s tradition.
I’ve collected adoption stories all my life. I can’t seem to help it. They gather in my brain-pan like pebbles: Moses among the bulrushes, the Ugly Duckling, Luke Skywalker, Finn the Human, Loki, Superman, Spider-Man. Scratch a protagonist and you’ll find, often as not, an adoptee.
These stories are a touchstone of Western Judeo-Christian culture, and they follow a particular script—a feeling of set-apartness, a call to find your biological family and claim your birthright, for better or worse. The moral, most of the time, is you can’t know who you are or what you’re capable of until you know where you come from.
But in asking who am I? and turning to bloodlines for an answer, I wonder if we disappear up our own curiosity: climbing our DNA helix like a ladder, then pulling it up after us. This goes for all of us, not just adoptees. I think we love adoption stories in particular, though, because we love the idea that we can make sense of ourselves, if only we had the right information. It’s seductive as anything, but at least for my dad, it was only that—an idea. And ideas mean little without practice.
Next to the adoption-stories folder, I keep another mental file. In this one, I collect stories of families who make their own logic. I’m lucky to know a few: best friends raising a kid together; open adoptions where the child stays connected to their birth parent; families who routinely foster friends’ children; couples who have made a pregnancy from donor sperm, from a known donor or a bank. The permutations for how to assemble a family’s building blocks are many. My dad’s legacy is that maybe I’ve always felt this on a level deeper than intellectual. I feel it in my bones, which are knit from material both strange and familiar. I feel it in my blood.
I’m grateful to have met some of my dad’s birth family, but more than relatives, I hope one day we can be something better—I hope we can be friends. I think about that muskox sometimes, imagine it on a shelf somewhere in Manitoba, watching over a family with my dad’s same round cheeks and open smile. And watched over by them.
Lately, I’ve gone back through some of the emails my dad sent me in the last few years, messages where he was clearly thinking through this whole family thing. Attached to one is a photo of my grandparents standing outside their apartment on Flora Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End. My grandma Amy wears a long elegant coat with a luxurious fur collar; her hair is wavy and glossy. My grandpa Jack is in a pinstriped suit, his hands in his pockets. They look sharp as heck. They would have been dressed up for a special occasion, maybe a wedding or bar mitzvah—these clothes would have been their Shabbat best and only.
They are a dozen years younger than I am now, but they don’t look young, not by modern standards. Even though he’s smiling, my grandpa seems serious, ageless, his features austere. He’s like a traveller from another world. It’s hard not to feel this about any black-and-white photo from almost a century ago, about any photo of the dead.
My dad sent me another photo, a later one, where they look more like the people I knew. My grandpa’s hands are again in the pockets of his dark suit. My dad’s in this one too, a dorky adolescent in horn-rimmed glasses. At twelve or thirteen he’s already as tall as my grandpa.
He wrote: I came out of the system, by the blessing of these wonderful people. They gave me everything, and I hope, before I go, to pay them forward.
And I can see the resemblance. It’s strong.
Anna Leventhal is a writer living in Montreal (Tiohtià:ke).