I returned home yesterday from New York City, a quick cross-country jaunt with just one of my children, to see my brother and explore the sights. Of course, we went to Ellis Island, not just because we were tourists, but because ever since a college course in genealogy, I’ve been somewhat addicted to tracing my roots. To sail past the Statue of Liberty and stand in the great hall at Ellis Island, I thrilled at the idea that I was seeing what my ancestors saw, walking where they walked.
I spent a morning in the NY Public Library, searching through microfilm, copying census and death records. My great-great grandfather, Frank Becvar, had come from Czechoslovakia and lived with his wife Barbara and their many children in a tenement on 72nd Street in Manhattan. He couldn’t read or write. He spoke Bohemian. When he died of tuberculosis at age 30, there wasn’t enough money to buy a headstone. His wife and several of their children went to work in a cigar factory. Even over a century later, there are no rose colored glasses to make their lives seem anything but hard.
Searching through records, I noticed something that for some reason had never before caught my attention. Frank’s mother was only 13 years older than him. Either a date was wrong or the person was wrong. Something was wrong. And then I found the answer, in some old, musty documents. He was adopted as a young man by the Becvars.
Over the years, I’ve spent many hours working on this line, tracing them back to their roots in Kutna Hora, near Prague. My knee-jerk reaction to the adoption was this: So the Becvars aren’t even my family? And then I felt guilty. Horribly guilty. As an adoptive mother to two adored children, how could I have had that thought? How did it even enter my mind? Yet it did, and it made me wonder how my two youngest feel when I talk about our ancestors coming from Lithuania or Ireland or Czechoslovakia. Or when I show them pictures of their great-great Uncle, the World War II flying ace. As they get older will they shrug their shoulders and think, they aren’t my family. I know that they feel attached to us, to their parents and to their siblings. And to their grandparents and cousins too. They know them. They love them. We’re family. But if they stood on Ellis Island, would their hearts flutter? Stretching back over the generations to names like Sunlitis and Pospisil, would they feel any connection? I hope that they would, and yet I would also understand if they didn’t.
I called my elderly grandmother on the phone today to tell her what I’d learned in New York and to ask her one other question. Why couldn’t I find her mother Elizabeth, Frank’s daughter, on the census? I saw his widow’s name and their other children, but no Elizabeth. My grandmother said that after the father’s death, Elizabeth went to live with her grandparents. It kept her out of the factories. “Which grandparents?” I asked. “The Becvars,” she said. “They raised her and she loved them dearly.”
The Becvars raised her. They were poor too. Did they care that she wasn’t their blood granddaughter? Did they count the cost each time they fed her? Clothed her? Kissed her goodnight? At least according to my grandmother, they didn’t. And I like to think that’s how all of my ancestors would feel about our dear Qiu Ju and our cherished Yun Xi. They’re family.
I can only hope that my children feel the same.