JOE CARTER — “You look like you’re Ukrainian,” said the lady at the cosmetic counter.
I had been trying to blend in, just another dutiful — and hopefully invisible — husband waiting for my wife. Was she talking to me? “No, he’s not Ukrainian,” my wife answered without looking up. “He’s just a mutt.”
But as I stood there, attempting once again to fade into the background, I considered the prospect: Maybe I am Ukrainian.
It’s possible. The truth is I don’t know what I am, because I don’t know who my father is.
When I was a boy, I thought I knew. My mother had told me he was a Vietnam veteran, a Green Beret with the last name of “Love” (which I found ironic and cheesy and only slightly cool). But by the time I met Sergeant Love he was a shell of the man he must have been. He had lost half his right arm to shrapnel and only used his left arm to open cans of Budweiser.
The few times I saw him he was always half-drunk, either on beer or self-pity. He also had a tendency to ramble, which was how I discovered we weren’t related. At the age of fourteen I found a cassette tape he had sent my mom from Vietnam in which he mentioned that he’d “love me like his own son” and that he hoped to adopt me someday. The tape was dated 1971. I was born in 1969.
For twenty years I never broached the subject with my mother. It was only when she was nearing death that I asked her to tell me the truth, to tell me the name of my dad. She said she didn’t know.
Because of her answer, there is much I don’t know either: I don’t know how to answer 50 percent of my medical history forms; I don’t know if I have additional brothers and sisters; I don’t know what my last name should be (Carter is the surname of my younger brother’s father); I don’t know if I’m half-Jewish, half-German, or half-Ukrainian.
Mostly, I don’t know my back-story. If my life were a book, the prologue would be missing several pages; it would be missing half my genealogy. It would be missing the “begats.”
When reading the Bible, people often skip the genealogies. Why does it really matter that “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob . . .”, ad infinitum? My own truncated history, though, has given me a new appreciation for those passages, particularly the genealogies of Christ.
We modern Americans can fail to appreciate the significance of our forebears. We are radical individualists entering the world fully formed, having no need of history. But it was not always so. For both the people of the Ancient Near East and to the Jews of Jesus day ancestry was important since it told people what kind of person you were (Proverbs 22:1).
I appreciate this connection with the past and take comfort from that fact that Jesus’ own genealogy was traced through his adopted father (Matthew 1:16). Just as Jesus’ ancestry was traced through a physical lineage, my back-story — the one that truly matters — is traceable through my spiritual genealogy (“. . . you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” — Romans 8:15).
My hope is that someday I’ll grow up to be like my Heavenly Father. People will know what kind of person I am from seeing the family resemblance. Perhaps then instead of seeing me and thinking “You look like you’re Ukrainian” they’ll say, “You look like you’re Christian.”
Addendum: Sharing such details about my life is too close to navel-gazing for my taste. And I would be horrified if anyone thought my situation were worthy of pity. So let me clarify that lacking an earthly father was only a minor frustration in an obscenely blessed life. I can’t complain about anything, for I’ve lived one of the cushiest lives in human existence.
Joe Carter is a senior editor at the Acton Institute and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator.