The Son Rises

Given up for adoption as an infant, the author sets out to climb his family tree


"No, just leave my eyebrows," I told Bill Coplin, my barber at Dogtown Barber Shop. Bill wanted to trim them -- all barbers do -- because they're bristly and the urge to shear is great. And that was precisely why I wanted them intact. "I want these descendants of Scottish Highlanders to see my eyebrows in their full glory. For all I know, they're a sign of manliness."

Mac had provided me with several names of our Nova Scotian "cousins," most of them on Cape Breton Island. I'd called two or three, invoking his name and asking for the favor of a visit. The most receptive was a fellow named Colie MacDonnell. "You say you're the great-grandson of Sam MacDonnell and Mary Anne Gillis?" he asked.

The author as a three-year-old with a department-store Santa in Grand Rapids. Adopted from a Kalamazoo orphange at three months, he grew up an only child.
All photos courtesy of the author
The author as a three-year-old with a department-store Santa in Grand Rapids. Adopted from a Kalamazoo orphange at three months, he grew up an only child.
Adoptive mother, Virginia Stage, who felt that “nothing your dad or I tried to teach you rubbed off”
Adoptive mother, Virginia Stage, who felt that “nothing your dad or I tried to teach you rubbed off”

"That's right," I said. And then, as I'd done scores of times, I explained my situation, how I'd located my real mother, who'd told me the name of my father, and that through the Internet I'd been able to trace my lineage.

"Well, come on by," he said.

I flew in with a friend on September 11, 2002. The next morning, in a rented Ford Explorer, we drove up the coast and a day later set out for Cape Breton Island. Nova Scotian mainlanders consider Cape Bretoners "outlanders." Not that the people are backward; it's just that why would anyone want to live in such a remote area, where the winters are brutal and employment opportunities limited? And, truly, from the minute one crosses the bridge at Port Hawkesbury and heads up along St. George Bay, two things become clear: The view is stunning and amenities are few and far between. You learn to plan. Fill up on gas when you can, buy a case of beer instead of a six-pack.

Colie MacDonnell, who is 72, worked at the Co-op in Port Hood for 44 years. Now in his retirement, he sells gravestones. The Co-op is a combination grocery-hardware store, the only such establishment for miles around and the one place everybody stops. Thus, Colie knows everyone and, as an avid genealogist, can readily determine who's related to whom.

"Now Mary Anne Gillis is both your great-grandmother and my mother's sister," he'd say. "That makes us third cousins twice removed. I think that old house, she and Sam's, is still standing. I can show you the place and introduce you to some of the cousins who're still kickin'."

And that's how it went for two days, Colie presenting me to a batch of elders related to us primarily through Mary Anne Gillis. With each visit, his genealogy book would come out and we'd thumb through the roster of names until we concluded just how we were related. At Jessie MacDonald's, for instance, we determined that her mother was a first cousin to Mary Anne Gillis. Jessie, now 90, is my third cousin, or great aunt, or something like that.

Genealogy is an exercise in abstract thought. In Nova Scotia the connections were shooting off into winding side trails, and trying to understand these collateral relationships was like trying to think three moves ahead in a game of chess. In short, there were no immediate relatives to be found -- instead, there were folks like Jessie MacDonald and Bill Graham, whose ancestors had been my ancestors' brothers and sisters, cousins and aunts and uncles. Still, it was heartening to meet these people whose genes I shared. And though I couldn't meet any direct descendants of my Scots forebears, I was able to see where they'd lived and were buried.

Best of all was seeing a picture of my great-grandparents, posing for the camera before a rail fence, a barn in the background. Mary Ann is short and plump, her dark hair pulled back. She wears a print dress and spectacles. Sam, a full head taller, rests his forearms on the top rail, his large hands dangling downward. He too wears spectacles, and a cap. A pipe juts from his lips as he squints into the sun, a smile on his craggy mug. This picture was taken in 1943, the exposure likely 1/60th of a second. I am so appreciative of that merest slip of time.


"You realize that if you have a date with her we have to come along?"

Rohan Fernando was serious -- although both of us were quite aware of the absurdity of the comment. The day before, at the Red Shoe Tavern in Mabou, I'd met Carolyn, a graduate student at Dalhousie in Halifax, and we'd talked for hours while two old men, off in the corner, fiddled to their heart's delight. We still had two days, and I'd asked Carolyn if she was free the following evening after we finished shooting.

Rohan was intent on filming everything I did, from scribbling in my notebook or swimming in St. George Bay in my boxer shorts to conversing with pretty Cape Breton Islanders about my current odyssey. It would kill him if I said something in casual conversation about the day's events and he didn't get it on tape. Sometimes I'd have fun with him, saying: "Rohan, come quick! I'm about to utter something profound."

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