Name, rank, branch
of service, dates.
One New Jersey, one
Virginia, both Bittle
An email from
another Bittle, never
knew my father
but his was
William, and in
James Owen became
a father yet again
and I complete.
And later still
a single picture
he in the back
row and the mirror
agrees that we
are truly family.
It’s difficult enough, Mom, that I
never got to meet you, to see your face
save in a college yearbook, to have
only a few relatives acknowledge
my existence despite the DNA test
that clearly links us, one to the other.
What makes it more difficult is
trying to figure out my heritage,
my geographic roots before our family
arrived in West Virginia, back
in the old country which for most
was Lithuania, but for some Poland
and still others Russia, as though
their village was loaded onto a horsecart
and dragged around Eastern Europe
always heading to the next pogrom.
Couldn’t our place have settled
on a country, rather than riding the tides
of the insanity the leaders then?
I always imagined it would somehow
be romantic, not in the Hollywood sort of way,
but in an idyllic, picturesque manner,
even if that denied basic reality.
Reality, when it comes to origins discovered
is overrated, for the normal percolation time
is denied, and the impact is sudden
with no restraints to temper the blow.
Way back when, you learned by stories
told by the elders, who know, or led
you to believe they did without question,
who painted word pictures, drew out
fading photographs that barely seemed real.
You believed them because they knew,
knowledge directly proportional to their age.
For me it was the inside of my cheek,
a wait, and an email, and then news,
place names barren of detail, Lithuania.
Later, village names, and only then visions
of pogroms, of flight, of a desperate search
for freedom and West Virginia.
Details were added, but the picture
was monochrome, a barren, wordless
palette and no brush to be found.
Even when I was briefly in Edinburgh
I dreamed of walking the streets of Lisbon
or Porto looking into the faces of older men
and wondering if this one was my father.
the father I had never seen, never known.
Was the one my Jewish mother described
in detail to the social worker who took me
from her shortly after she gave me life.
It is many years later, now, my mother
has a face, discovered in the twisting path
of a double helix, good West Virginia
Jewish stock, Lithuania left far behind.
I may someday visit Lisbon, I hear
it is a lovely city, but the faces will all
be alien to me, and there I will dream
of my day touring the Highlands
of Scotland, the Isle of Skye, and which
of the McDonald’s and McAllister’s might
be kin and which Tartan I can now
rightfully claim is my own.
I have never visited
the grave of my mother,
either of them, which seems most odd
primarily to me.
The mother I never knew
until it was too late to know her
is buried in Charleston, West Virginia
a place i intend to visit, grave site included
in the coming months, to see
where my mitochondrial DNA was planted
and grew into the odd shape
that greets me in the morning mirror.
The mother i knew so well, who could always find
ways to frustrate me when I was certain she exhausted
every possibility is buried next to my sister,
placed there by my brother who couldn’t quite
get the funeral together, at least not the one
she would have appreciated, with the near famous
all pump, never the right circumstances
so into the ground she went.
I will visit there too, someday perhaps,
but helical gravity will always
pull me to the Mountain State.
There is a statue of William Penn
atop the city hall in Philadelphia
seeming to stare down over the city
with bronze eyes incapable of seeing.
Hagar wandered the wilderness
after she was evicted by Abraham
at Sarah’s urging, the price
of jealousy, with bread and water
and the promise of a great nation.
It is pure speculation whether
Hagar was enslaved and freed
or, as we would claim it today,
employed by the family. In the end
the distinction matters little.
Penn remains blind atop the building
Hagar and Ishmael are long dead,
and Jefferson likely had children
with one of his slaves, or so
the DNA evidence indicates.
I am of Norwegian and Scottish
patrilineal heritage it appears
though my great nation is
a six year old girl and
almost three year old boy.
They were always almost mythological,
heroes of a people I could only
imagine as my own, knowing I came
from a far different place, one
of shtetls and pogroms, of seaside
villages, the beaches of Cascais.
It was half a lie, but I couldn’t
know it then, couldn’t guess
my dream was reality, my reality
a dream torn away by DNA.
In a moment my unknown Portuguese
father was unborn, replaced
by a faceless man of Celtic
soil who marched to the piper
highland or uillean, the bodhran,
who stood alongside Pearse
and Connolly, Bonnie Charlie,
and a century on, I’ll lift
a pint of Guinness in their honor,
take a wee dram of Talisker
and whisper Slainte to
the unknown generations
that brought me here.
tell a strange story –
acid, a trip you never
intended to take –
that walk you
into a world
that is yours alone
a foreign place
you now must
The hardest part, surprisingly, is
finding that one odd thread where
you least expected, and following it
back until it merges with another,
and another still until you recognize
that it is a weft, and the warp
slowly becomes more apparent.
Still it is nothing but carefully
interwoven threads until you allow
yourself to step back, and a pattern
appears slowly, growing more clear
as threads are recognized, and
the twisted threads of DNA
eventually reveal a rich tapestry
of the family you never knew,
never expected to know, whose blood
runs through your veins and arteries
and, ungrounded from your long
held beliefs of self, you find
footing in a soil unexpected,
but which touched deeply
does feel so very much like home.