Briefly, I was part of that mysterious organism, a biological family; no one cared about my virtues or my bad behavior.
Eva Moves the Furniture
Over the years, Roger and Merril and their children became my second family, and gradually my second family grew; as of this autumn, I have nineteen “relatives.” These relationships are ones of deep affection and many satisfactions.
Soon after my mother’s death, I began the process of adopting a nearby family.
I don’t have children and, after the publication of Eva, I no longer tried to find out more about my dead parents. Genetic solitude, I believed, was my lot. But last year a former student, who was doing her own genealogical research, mentioned that she had come across my family tree. I sent her a list of questions, and a few weeks later she sent some answers.
I already knew that my maternal grandmother, Barbara, had died in childbirth. Now I learned that she was the eldest of five children. With her parents and siblings, she had emigrated from Glasgow to Brisbane in 1911. Three years later, aged twenty-six, she sailed back alone on the HMS Orvieto. In October of 1914, she married her childhood sweetheart, and they settled near Glasgow. It was a romantic story, my grandmother and her boyfriend keeping faith for three years, finding a way to be reunited just as the War broke out. Perhaps someday I would use it in a novel. Barbara and her husband had a daughter who lived only long enough to be named: Elizabeth Isabel McEwen. Then a second daughter, my mother: Evelyn Barbara Malcolm McEwen, whose birth killed Barbara.
Once again, I believed I had reached the end of my family history, but a month later, my student forwarded a letter that began: “Hello, my name is Gayle Phipps. My grandmother was one of Barbara’s sisters . . . ”
Is it a fault of nature or nurture that it never occurred to me that my great-uncle and three great-aunts might have had children? Having given up on my own genes, I seemed to believe that everyone who shared them would do the same. Now I discovered that Barbara’s siblings had all stayed in Australia, and all married and had children: Eva’s first cousins, my first cousins once removed. Many of those children had children, my second cousins. Suddenly I was an orphan with more relatives than I could count.
According to 23andMe, Eva’s first cousins share 12.5 percent of her DNA and 6.25 percent of mine. My second cousins share 3.13 percent of my DNA—or, to be more precise, we each have 3.13 percent of our great-grandparents’ DNA, but not necessarily the same 3.13 percent.
Gayle, my new second cousin, shares her DNA with many people. She has a father, four siblings, three daughters, and four grandchildren, but for some reason she was still excited to learn of our small genetic connection. She kept writing to me. One night, I opened an email to find three photographs I had never seen before: Here was my mother as a plump toddler, a shyly smiling schoolgirl, and an elegant young woman. From the other side of the world, a part of Eva had come back to me.
Almost a year after Gayle first wrote, I boarded a plane in Boston and flew through endless darkness to Brisbane; my journey took twenty-four hours, as compared to my grandmother’s two months. In the bathroom at Brisbane Airport, I stopped to look in the mirror, my blue eyes and brown hair, my dark eyebrows and straight nose. It was seven a.m. on September 5, 2018. After more than forty years, I was about to meet a genetic relative. I hoped to feel something new, extraordinary: a kind of recognition.
In Arrivals, a woman stepped forward to embrace me. Gayle is around my age, around my height. Taking in her green eyes and fair hair, her slightly upturned nose, I felt only affection. As we drove north to Elimbah, the town where she and her husband live, I kept stealing glances. She did not look or sound familiar, but what would that mean? My father and my two great-aunts, the only relatives I remember, did not look familiar; they looked like themselves.
After more than forty years, I was about to meet a genetic relative. I hoped to feel something new, extraordinary: a kind of recognition.
An hour later, on the patio at the back of her house, I came closer to that elusive feeling when Gayle’s father, John—my first cousin once removed—stood up from his wheelchair to greet me. His light blue gaze was electrifying. Was it the extra three percent that made a difference? Or was it because John’s long, bony face is so Scottish? He said something I couldn’t hear. At ninety-four, every part of him is old, but his voice is the oldest—tiny, worn-out. Swaying slightly, he kissed me.
My first event in Australia was a funeral. Bonnie, another first cousin once removed, had died five days before I boarded my plane. After lunch on the patio, we drove north from Elimbah to the seaside town of Caloundra.
Bonnie’s daughter, Robyn, greeted me on the steps of the funeral home. “Mum knew you were coming,” she said. “Just last week she told me ‘Margot will be here on September 5th.’ We hoped she would hold on for you.”
That Bonnie, even in her last days, had remembered my name and wanted to meet me just because our grandmothers were sisters made my heart pound. Inside the funeral home, I gazed at her portrait hopefully. She gazed back: pretty in her brightly patterned blouse and red lipstick, not remotely familiar. Her coffin lay in a patch of sunlight at the front of the room. The celebrant, after reminding us to turn off our phones, launched into the eulogy.
“Bonnie played many roles in her long life. She was a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a niece, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, a sister-in-law, an aunt, a great-aunt, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, a friend.”
Listening to her bland words, I was instantly enraged. Here it was, rampant, flagrant: the infuriating fact of family, of that stupid thing called DNA which cannot be earned, or bought, or acquired after birth; which trumps hard work, talent, virtue, patience and luck; which cannot be lost through bad behavior, or given away for any reason; which is part of us from our first breath to our last. My adopted family is wonderful—I feel endlessly lucky to be included by them—but I never, never take them for granted. How enviable to be able to behave badly for a year, or ten years, and still be a sister, a daughter, an aunt.
Then Bonnie’s surviving son came down the aisle, giving out red roses to family members. There weren’t enough for everyone. All at once, my rage was gone; I very much wanted a rose. Sitting in the pew beside me, Gayle sensed my longing. She offered me hers and then, when that didn’t feel right, said, “Let’s go together.”
We slid out of the pew and walked towards the sunlit coffin to lay our rose beside the others. I placed my hand on the warm wood, hoping my unspoken words would reach Bonnie.
Before I left Boston, I sent away for two DNA tests and spat into the little tubes provided. I had never been curious before, but on the eve of my journey I suddenly wondered about other ancestors. What if my DNA revealed more surprises?
Waking up on my second morning in Elimbah, I knew at once that I was not in Scotland, not in America. The birds were greeting the new day. Later, Gayle would point out to me the butcher birds, galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos, lorikeets, whistling ducks, ibises, and laughing Kookaburras that visit her garden. Lying in the half-dark, listening to their strange cries, I thought about what a foreign world my great-grandparents had chosen.
My adopted family is wonderful, but I never take them for granted. How enviable to be able to behave badly and still be a sister, a daughter, an aunt.
As I made my second cup of coffee, Gayle appeared: Would I like to say hello to Dad? She led the way across the grass to the separate building where John has a cozy flat. He was already up, seated in a chair, wearing a version of pajamas. While Gayle sat on his unmade bed, I perched on his walker. It shifted uneasily beneath me as I leaned down to listen to him.
Without preamble, blue eyes flashing, John began to talk about the time his father had tried to kill him. After hitting him with a belt, his father had seized a milk bottle and pursued him around the table. His sister had managed to slip between them and seize the bottle.
“If she hadn’t,” he whispered, “I’d be dead.”
In the last year we lived together, my father wrote me letters about what a disappointment I was. He silently placed them on the table where I did my homework. My stepmother muttered under her breath that I was a spoiled brat, a slut who didn’t tidy her room. But they hit me only once. No wonder John left home at fifteen to work on a dairy farm and milk ninety cows a day.
After we, and the birds, breakfasted—porridge for us, little balls of mince from Costco for them—Gayle and I set out for the south side of Brisbane to collect John’s sister, who was coming to stay in Elimbah. As Gayle drove at exactly the speed limit, she talked about her parents. Her mother was bipolar, she said, or maybe schizophrenic.
“She never hurt us kids, but Dad was afraid she’d stab him. The last six months he lived with us, he slept in a locked room.”
John could have married a thousand women who would have treated him kindly. Was it luck or genes that drew him to one who would replicate his father’s violence? My parents’ marriage, at first glance, seemed equally improbable. Everyone at the boys’ school was astounded when my father, aged forty-nine, gave up being a confirmed bachelor and married my mother, the school nurse. Only recently did I realize he and Eva had each lost their last surviving parent that spring.
We pulled up outside a modest bungalow on a quiet, tree-lined street. A woman with shining white hair, wearing a raspberry-pink cardigan, appeared on the porch and greeted me with an amazing sentence. “I’m Gwen, your grandmother’s niece.”
Gwen is eight years younger than John, much more robust, but her light blue eyes are less electrifying. Inside she couldn’t wait to show me her gift: a delicate teacup and saucer, decorated with heather and Scottish bluebells. “It was your great-grandmother’s,” she said, “part of her wedding china.” The cup, when I picked it up, weighed barely an ounce. How many relatives must have held it?
Gwen and I had exchanged emails, but only as I sat on her porch, eating salmon sandwiches, did I begin to understand the mystery of her affection for me. Although she was born thirteen years after Barbara died, her mother had talked to her often about the sister whom she still loved, still missed.
“Did they write?” I asked hopefully.
“No, that wasn’t Mama’s way.” Gwen paused, searching the leafy street for words. “She carried the person she knew with her, in her mind.”
Gwen couldn’t wait to show me her gift: a delicate teacup and saucer, decorated with heather and Scottish bluebells. “It was your great-grandmother’s,” she said.
The salmon sandwiches were followed by homemade chocolate cake, thick with icing, and cups of tea. My great-aunts served meals like this fifty years ago. While cutting the cake, Gwen remarked that she’d noticed recently that she has Granny’s hands. “I looked down one day and there they were, the little fatty lump on the thumb, holding a plate of biscuits. She was always offering people biscuits.”
As I pictured my adopted mother Merril’s hands—small, plump, hugely capable—Gwen continued her history. A couple of years after they were married, she and her husband, believing they couldn’t have children, adopted Petey and Kathy. Almost immediately they had had three babies of their own. “It was hard,” she said. “Five children under five. I felt badly that I couldn’t enjoy them.”
Did she regret the adoptions? I wondered. I did not dare to ask.
She went on to describe how Petey, in his early twenties, had begun to worry that he was the result of a one-night stand. He decided to look for his biological parents and found them with surprising ease. Their relationship was the opposite of what he’d feared. After giving him away, they married and had three more children. His mother was dead, but he had met his father, his siblings.
“How amazing,” I said. Surely, with so much DNA, he had felt that recognition I craved.
Gwen shrugged. “He saw them a few times, but he doesn’t anymore. He prefers all of us.”
Petey has lived next door since his divorce. He takes care of Gwen, and drives a van, delivering hygiene products. We were finishing the chocolate cake when he came over to welcome me to Brisbane. He was well-groomed, clean-shaven, and I could not stop staring at his single tooth, the lone survivor in his lower jaw. Was this normal in my third family? As soon as he drove away, to my relief, Gayle burst out, “Gwen, his teeth!”
My father was only seventy-two when he died and I never thought of him as anything but old. Not long after my mother died, he remarried a woman close to his own age. Throughout my childhood, he moved in a haze of cigarette smoke, dressed in one of his two increasingly threadbare suits. He taught geography and mathematics; I remember him explaining why the sum of any number multiplied by zero is zero. Meanwhile Roger, my adopted father, more than twenty years younger, took us sailing and walking in the hills. He taught English, and talked often about the books he loved: Why did Macbeth believe the witches? How did Wordsworth write “Tintern Abbey”?
Until the age of nine, I could always escape the cigarette smoke by going to Merril and Roger’s house. Then something terrible happened: My father took a new job and we moved to the Borders of Scotland, a hundred miles away.
Alone with my father and stepmother, the shape of my first family became clear. One day the school bus was canceled due to a snowstorm. “Off you go,” said my stepmother, opening the door. I walked the three miles to school alone, along country roads. When I arrived, cold and soaked, the teachers were shocked: What on earth was I doing here? That night I wrote another desperate letter to Merril, begging to come home.
Over the next decade, I spent as much time as I could back at the boys’ school. After my father and stepmother died, I began to refer to Merril and Roger as my parents. My adoption of them was largely successful, but not entirely. Today I have almost no contact with my older brother, who once played a shining role in childhood games. He joined the army and, in retirement, lives in a part of England I seldom visit. When he lists family members, I fear he forgets me. Happily, all is not lost—his younger son has become a novelist and a friend.
Back in Elimbah, I expected John and Gwen to fall into cozy conversation, but they barely said hello. John took refuge in the television while Gwen helped me to draw a family tree. We began with my great-grandparents and their five children: Barbara, Isabel, Tommy, May and Evelyn. As we worked on Gwen’s branch, she confirmed the stories her brother had whispered that morning. Her father was terribly hard on John. He wasn’t her mother’s first choice, she added; the man she liked had left her and gone off into the bush.
After Gwen and John’s generation come Gayle and Petey and my other second cousins, their children and grandchildren. My grandmother is the odd one out: She went back to Scotland; she had only one child; she died. My mother followed her example. On the large white sheet of paper, every other line leads to descendants, more and more, stretching out even to the crack of doom. Barbara’s line of the family tree ends with me—no spreading branches, no place for birds to nest. Did I somehow learn at an early age that reproduction was dangerous?
“But you’re on the tree,” Gwen said, patting my arm. “You can’t get off.”
Barbara’s line of the family tree ends with me—no spreading branches, no place for birds to nest.
Tired of struggling with the many marriages and children, we turned to the crossword puzzle. Elaine, Gayle’s oldest daughter, who lives with her parents, joined us. We all three turn out to have terrible spelling. Perhaps, Elaine joked, there was a spelling gene we’d failed to inherit.
I asked about her daughters. What I really wanted to ask is whether she and Gwen thought there is a gene for “second sight.” My mother, Eva, saw people who were not visible to most other people—in my novel about her, I called them “companions.” I myself, so far, have no direct experience of second sight, but last December Gayle wrote to tell me John was very ill in hospital. They were afraid he might die. Then one night his mother appeared at the end of his bed, wearing a white dress with a blue sash.
“We’re not ready for you yet,” she told him. “Pull yourself together.”
The next day, on an outing to the Glasshouse Mountains, I met Gayle’s younger brother. Mark was entirely pleasant, but as soon as he asked if I’d been to Australia before, I understood that our cousinhood meant nothing to him. As we stood looking at the mountains, he told me how Captain Cook had named them because their twisted shapes reminded him of the glasshouse furnaces of his native Yorkshire. Mark’s lack of interest shouldn’t have surprised me; I had learned long ago that affection does not always follow DNA. When my father died suddenly one October afternoon, I was shocked but not sad. When Roger died, I could not write a paragraph for months.
Back at the house, I found Gwen in her room, reading. “Come and talk to me,” she said. I sat on the edge of her bed and asked about second sight. Did her mother have it?
“Oh, yes,” Gwen said with satisfaction, “but not as much as Granny. She was the one with the real second sight.”
I hoped she would describe something personal—foreknowledge of Barbara’s death, perhaps—but the example she gave was of Granny predicting the outbreak of World War II. “I’m sure she knows you’re here,” Gwen added, “and she’s glad.”
I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I felt surprisingly happy.
My family tree proved very useful during the barbecue Gayle had organized in my honor; I slipped away periodically to consult it about the thirty-odd guests. First to arrive, because they couldn’t come later, were Gwen’s biological sons: her “hairy men,” she called them. Both were bearded; each had a reassuring number of teeth. Unlike Petey, neither particularly wanted to talk to me. We discussed kangaroos and Scotland.
As soon as they left, other people began to arrive, most bearing food. Heather, another first cousin once removed, stepped into the house bearing a meringue cake and a folder of family photographs. From the latter, she produced an envelope, which she handed to me with a flourish. Inside was a lock of dull brown hair: my grandmother’s.
While I gazed in wonder, Heather explained that her father had returned to Europe to fight in World War I. After being wounded, he made his way to Glasgow, where Barbara nursed him. He brought a lock of her hair back to Brisbane and now she thought I should have it. Later, in Boston, I would cut a piece of my hair and lay it alongside my grandmother’s. Mine is similar in texture, slightly darker in color.
Both Gayle and Gwen had remarked, more than once, that the family member I most resemble is Gayle’s sister, Helen. When she came through the front door, I saw at once that she is thinner, that she has blue eyes and a straight nose, that her hair is wavy—but, once again, I felt no flare of recognition, no deep connection.
Did she feel the same lack of feeling? I couldn’t tell. Like Gayle, Helen has a father, sisters and brothers, daughters, and grandchildren with whom she shares fractions of herself, little mirrors. We talked about her recent trip to Tasmania. Then we each slid away into other conversations.
That evening, after the last guests had gone, Gwen and I once again attempted the crossword. We were stuck on fourteen down when she remarked, “Of course, we had no idea Barb was illegitimate until Gayle went on Ancestry.com.”
Early in her research, my former student had mentioned this. I had been intrigued—my grandmother, the love child!—but my living relatives had displaced the dead. In my back and forth with Gayle, I had given no thought to that single, harsh word on my grandmother’s birth certificate. Now I remembered that, until she was three, Barbara had lived with her grandparents while her mother worked as a housekeeper. On New Year’s Eve, 1891, her mother married Thomas Malcolm and he became her father. Was she, like Petey, the child of devoted parents who had arrived before marriage was possible? Or was she the child of an earlier tryst?
And if my long journey, and Gayle’s generosity, were based on our genetic connection, that 3.13 percent, what did it mean if we did not share a great-grandfather? Was my grandmother the odd one out—the leafless branch on the family tree—because she was illegitimate? The questions rose before me, twisted, impenetrable.
I had learned long ago that affection does not always follow DNA.
Then Gwen spoke again. “I was watching you and Helen this afternoon. I could see your profiles, and it’s clear you’re part of the family. It’s absolutely clear.” With equal firmness, she wrote in the answer to fourteen down.
Perhaps Helen had reached the same conclusion. As she left, she had embraced me and said, “When you miss me, look in the mirror.”
At Brisbane airport, I had stood on one side of the river, greeting people; now, five days later, I stood on the other. Gwen left on Sunday morning, whisked away by one of her hairy sons. John did not emerge to say goodbye to her, but sent a gift: the walker he had bought, too late, for Bonnie. Might it be of use to Gwen?
“I don’t need it yet,” Gwen said, “but what a nice color.” She waltzed the blue walker around the patio.
Caught up in her pleasure, I said goodbye as if we would meet next week. Only as her son’s car drove away did I grasp how long it will be before we share the crossword again.
That last evening, we met Mark and his wife at a restaurant opposite Bribie Island. I sat next to John, leaning toward him, as he told me about the time in his life when he put a bottle of beer under his bed every night, ready for the morning. Again, he described his father’s violence. He and I have almost nothing in common—in other circumstances I might not even like him—yet I hung on his every word.
Back at the house, beneath the strange stars of the Southern Cross, I felt a piercing sadness as I kissed him goodbye. Soon his mother will appear at the end of his bed to say they’re ready for him. This, I thought, must have been what it was like for the Malcolms when they left Glasgow in 1911, saying goodbye to everyone and everything they knew. And for my grandmother, when she sailed back, alone, in 1914.
The next day, I flew to Canberra to visit a Scottish friend who lives there with her husband. They wanted to take me to a place they love, a lodge in the hills several hours from the city. If the streams were high, they warned, we might have to walk the last few miles.
We drove on increasingly bad roads, past gum trees and low scrub, and managed to ford the three streams. Then, as night fell, the Land Rover got stuck in the snow. We put on our rucksacks and set out. As I followed my friend’s head lamp, I had a clear image of myself, walking in darkness through knee-deep snow, on the other side of the world.
The next morning, in brilliant sunshine, we snowshoed up the hill behind the lodge, passing wallaby tracks and the intriguingly rectangular scat of the wombat. The landscape was beautiful, intensely foreign—in some other, possible life, it might have been as familiar to me as the hills of my Scottish childhood.
But I did not stay in Scotland, Barbara’s home, Eva’s home, the home of my beloved adopted family. I now work and mostly live three thousand miles away. Did Barbara’s DNA tip me toward that choice? Or was it when we moved to the Borders of Scotland that I began to learn to love at a distance?
Soon after I returned to Boston, the results of my DNA tests arrived. My ancestors are, disappointingly, all northern European. But good news, 23andMe announces: If I release my email address, 1,005 relatives are waiting to get in touch. No, no, I think, and press Delete.
When I look in the mirror, I still see only myself. During my five days in Elimbah, I was surprisingly happy when some people recognized me as a cousin. Others, like Gayle’s brother and Gwen’s sons, did not. Both responses make sense to me. Genes are about probabilities, not actualities. Like Petey, I am deeply fortunate to have my non-DNA family, even if our relationships depend on mutual affection; even if they have no name.
But on Sunday, September 9, 2018, in a restaurant opposite Bribie Island in Queensland, Australia, I had supper with my first cousin once removed, two second cousins, and a second cousin once removed. Briefly, I was part of that mysterious organism, a biological family; no one cared about my virtues or my bad behavior. I am glad to have glimpsed what that is like.
Margot Livesey was born and grew up on the edge of the Scottish Highlands. She has taught in numerous writing programs, including Emerson College, Boston University, Bowdoin College and the Warren Wilson low-residency MFA program, and is the author of a collection of stories and eight novels, including Eva Moves the Furniture, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, and Mercury. She is the recipient of awards from the NEA, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband, a painter, and is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing was published in July, 2017.