There are two stories of my name. Growing up I was given the Gaelic version. The European heritage matched the narrative of my face: eyes that faded to gray-blue in spite of my mother’s campaign for brown from the window into the NICU, lighter hair, and skin that burns instead of tanning. This was reinforced each Saint Patrick’s Day when elementary school teachers would create some variant of a shamrock or pot of gold with our names. “Your name is very Irish,” they would explain, rendering my name with an O. I liked being very something. A Very Something helped combat the endless comments made by acquaintances and strangers that my mother was somehow not my ‘real’ mother. Her dark brown hair and eyes combined with her ability to tan in the Pacific Northwest must mean I was not her child. There was no father to provide any visual cue to reassure strangers that everything was fine. Eventually we learned to smile at people and the doubters would laugh with recognition, read the sameness in our faces with relief: how silly of me, of course you are related.
As it turns out, my name is Hispanic. The name I share with Mom is her father’s, a Chicano Army veteran of two wars who fathered at least seven children we are aware of. All of them beautiful, most of them brutalized in every way children can be by his incredible demons. Like all humans—even ones we hesitate to grant this distinction to—he is complex. He prefers the Anglican form of his name. Born to Spanish speaking migrant workers in one of two Texas border towns, his mother explained he was the ‘bad’ twin, who killed her angel, the sibling who did not live. He lived up to these expectations, first taking his aggression out on small animals before he took a child bride—the whitest he could find so his own children would not field the burdens of a tradition that he thought went out of his way to hate him. His first wife lives still, brilliant and invalid and claims a familiar myopia: “I never thought that when he was done with me, he’d move onto the children.”
My grandfather joined the Army as soon as he was able. As is the tendency of truly awful people, he’s lived for what feels like ever, planning trips to Europe we hear about in the news because the passport office questions his citizenship, and taking his Sundays alone over a newspaper, coffee, and a doughnut in a neighborhood shop. The interactions he does have with his various franchise-families involve asking us not to speak to each other.
For my own heritage I received no clue except the occasional Latino/a person who pronounces my last name differently—it sounds beautiful when they do, a real thing, and doesn't have the nasal quality I've heard for so long. It’s supposed to be accented, apparently. I have memories of my mother taking offense at racist comments directed at Mexicans. Virgen de Guadalupe was a favorite image. Day of the Dead to cope with the loss of her best friend. Rosaries and skulls. The tall candles in colored glass, she threaded strands of light around fallen branches and hated overhead light fixtures—“Cayce, turn off the sun, will you?” But, these were better explained by Mom’s interest in all things Gothic as the décor veered from Baz Luhrmann’s notion of Verona to Mantua and back again over the course of many rentals and several years.
I don’t ask about my grandfather. How would I even begin such a conversation? The other side of my family tree is lost forever in my absent father, whom I still search for with scraps of detail: tall, blond, eyes like mine, high forehead like mine, a sister somewhere. And melancholy. The few who knew him make a point of mentioning this and in turn I use it to explain my Edward Gorey aesthetic, the black sheep in my Tim Burton family.
For the most part, the children made different, tenuous kinds of peace with their pasts. If you ask them, they’ll agree the resilience and fire probably come from him. The proclivity for violence, too. One relative willing to talk about my grandfather explains: “Growing up [during the 60s] everyone thought we were Native American,” and “For as awful as he was, I wish we would have at least gotten Spanish out of the deal,” suggesting that there is a desire to reconnect with that heritage, but also acknowledges my discomfort and silliness. Another fucking white girl who thinks she’s Chicana on campus. I’m not. And yet, it’s familiar somehow, the fogged reflection in a dream.
Practically speaking, at least the Spanish classes would irritate him and I need the background for my research. The rest of it remains part of a growing list of questions I must make peace with never finding answers to. Definitions I can’t claim, the dreaded non-identities of absence, almost, and not quite right.