The following is a reprint of an article from Carol Barbieri which first appeared in the AHHerald on March 15, 2001:

“What nationality am I?” I asked my adoptive parents one day.

“You’re Italian,” they said to me.

“But I don’t look Italian,” I replied.

“We’re Italian, so that means you’re Italian,” they said. “That’s all you need to know.”

But that wasn’t all I needed to know. 

I needed to know why I had blonde hair, fair skin, and light eyes. I needed to know why I looked different from all the other members of my family. I needed to know why I was the only golden puppy in an entire litter of brown. 

I needed to know more. I pressed my parents for more information.

“Well, you are part Italian,” my parents said. “And they told us that you’re also German, French Canadian, and American Indian. And maybe Spanish. Oh, yeah. And you’re part Irish.”

“Irish?” I thought. “Now, that feels right.” That’s what I look like. Irish.

St. Patrick’s Day was always met with a bit of resentment in my Italian family.

“Why doesn’t America have an Italian holiday?” my parents would say. “We’re just as proud to be Italian as the Irish are to be Irish.”

Proud to be Italian? Proud to be Irish? 

Honestly, I never quite understood why anyone would be “proud” to be any nationality at all. I mean, a person has no “say” in the matter, when it comes to being born into a family. You have no control over it. You have about as much choice in being born Irish as you do about being born with green eyes. 

Have you ever heard anyone say, “Hey! I’ve got green eyes and I’m really proud of them?” 

Well, I haven’t.

Being born any race, color, or creed is a matter of chance not pride.

Besides, I’ve always felt that, if you’re “proud” to be one nationality, you indirectly imply that you’re glad that you’re not another nationality. What you’re saying is that any other nationality is “inferior” in some way. It’s kind of an insult.

I’ve always tried to teach our sons to be proud of their accomplishments, not their nationality. I wanted them to be proud of who they were, not what they were. I wanted them to be proud of the kind of person they worked so hard to become. 

And yet, there was a part of me that wanted to be able to tell my sons about their ancestral roots. I wanted to be able to tell them from what European port their great-grand parents sailed, when they first came to America. I wanted them to know their culture. I wanted them to know their family history. I wanted them to know their family story.

Not an easy thing for an adoptee to do. Almost impossible, actually.

Luckily, I stumbled upon a little clue, when I was doing a medical search for our son. I happened to find a neighbor, who owned the house next-door to my maternal grandfather. 

“Your great-grandmother had a thick, Irish brogue,” she said to me.

“Really?” I replied. My heart was beating with excitement! 

“Yes,” the neighbor said. “I used to hear her singing out in the backyard, while she was working in her garden.”

At that instant, a mental picture came into focus: an old Irish woman, tending her garden, singing an old Irish ballad. I experienced indescribable joy.

If you’re not adopted, you might not be able to relate to that kind of excitement. Your family history may have come to you over the years, bit by bit. You may have asked a question about your grandmother and someone had the answer. You may have wanted to know what color your grandfather’s hair was and what he did for a living, and someone in the family was able to tell you. 

But adoptees don’t have that luxury. And it is a luxury to an adoptee, to learn anything at all about their past. It’s not a right. And when someone is able to give me any piece of information about my past, they may as well have handed me an entire pot of gold.

A while later, I came upon another little piece of information about my great-grandmother, when I was looking through the Census. I learned that her maiden name was “Graham,” and that she was born in Belfast, Ireland.

Born in Ireland? 

For the first time in my life, I wanted to go to Ireland! I wanted to do an Irish jig on an Irish shore. I wanted to wake up in an Irish castle. I wanted to stand on the top of an Irish mountain, look out over endless green pastures, and scream, “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!” to the Irish sheep! 

I wanted to eat Irish soda bread in an Irish countryside inn and drink Irish beer in an Irish town pub! I wanted to kiss the Blarney stone, pick a four-leaf clover, and see a rainbow! I wanted to find a leprechaun, slap him on the back and buy him a pint.

Maybe it was because now I had some proof of my heritage. Maybe it was because I knew for sure that my great-grandmother’s song was singing in my heart and my soul. Maybe it was because there were no more “maybes” about it.

And now my Irish eyes are really smiling.

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Allan Dean

Allan Dean is editor, publisher, and founder of the Atlantic Highlands Herald. Published since 1999 and selected in 2000 by the Borough of Atlantic Highlands as one of their official newspapers, making...