SERIES: Part 5
For days, I’m drawn into the silent, lonely glow of the outdated May House website; online portal to the ancestral home of the May family, now a museum in Prestonburg, Kentucky. I scroll through page after page, amazed to think I am actually related to the well dressed, stately figures in the antique photos. Reading their stories, I am fascinated, disturbed, and in awe of what I find. They were leaders in their community; some of the first settlers to Kentucky, which at the time, was forested and wild. They were also slave owners; one was a Confederate Colonel in the Civil War. On my mother’s side, I’m descended from Natives and slaves. I’ve always known my father was white, and I know this country’s history so I’m not surprised by what I read. It is some consolation, however, to discover that the sons of my slave owning ancestors became abolitionists.
On April 6, 1904, Jean Davidson May, granddaughter of the Confederate Colonel, married a doctor named Thomas Holland Johnson in Tazewell, Virginia. The newspaper announced it as “one of the most beautiful marriages that has occurred in Tazewell for a long time… tastefully and artistically decorated with laurel and ferns taken from the mountain nearby.”
According to the family tree of my new DNA match, Thomas and Jean were her great-grandparents. And since this match is estimated to be my 2nd cousin, that means they are likely my great-grandparents as well!
This DNA match is my only real lead. I’ve sent her messages through the Ancestry website, but she hasn’t responded so I’ve been tracking her like Jody Foster’s crazed fan. I found her Facebook page and scoured her friends list, all her photos, and posts. I’ve found every genealogy forum she’s been on and read every single thread she’s written or responded to. I found her private email address and messaged her there as well. I’m tempted to send her a message through Facebook, but maybe that’s one step too far.
I want to talk to this woman. I need to. I now understand that growing up without a father created a void in my psyche that I somehow blocked out. Not long ago, knowing only my Venezuelan mother, I considered myself a first generation American. Now, I’m discovering hundreds of years of burrowed roots and ancestors whose bodies are buried HERE in this land I’ve never fully felt part of. I come from these people. They are mine.
Crystal blue eyes stare me down as I examine the man on my computer screen. He has a strong brow and cheekbones, and his gaze is intense- something I’ve often been accused of. I think I see some familiarity in his bone structure, but I’m starting to see myself in every face if I look close enough. He is a lawyer in Florida with a passion for antique planes. Dressed in a beige pilot’s jumpsuit, he stands before his bright yellow WWII Steerman Aircraft in smug defiance- or at least, that’s how my insecurity interprets his gaze. Who am I to consider myself part of his family?
I know I’m related to him, I just don’t know how yet. He’s one of the many descendants of Thomas Holland Johnson and Jean Davidson May; they were his grandparents. His name appears in his father’s obituary along with his mother and brother, but his is the only photograph I find. He’s around the right age, but I know my father was a musician, not a lawyer. I suppose he could have changed with time, but I don’t think this man is my father. It’s not a verdict I come to consciously, but I feel nothing when I look at him.
I’m frustrated by my DNA match’s continued silence. Why won’t she respond? Though I’ve always thought being a bastard was just an outdated stigma, I now find myself wondering if I’m an embarrassing family secret. Did my mother lie? Maybe my father did know of my birth but didn’t want me.
In my imagination, antique photos of ancestors occupy the internal space I’ve created for my father’s family. I see old fashioned Southern ladies with puffy sleeves and flowery hats. They sit on a large porch around a table set with dainty appetizers and sweet tea in their hands. I can hear the clink of ice and their drawling, prude judgement in my head.
“She’s illegitimate. What does she want? She’s not one of us.”
I have to remind myself over and over that the circumstances of my birth are not my fault; that I have a right to know where I come from. But every insecurity I pretend I don’t have is surfacing, telling me I don’t belong.