With families, no matter what kind you inherit, at some point you want to announce you belong to it.
I had the opportunity yesterday to spend a few minutes talking with Kaui Hart Hemmings, the author of The Descendants. She was very candid about her family history. That wasn’t at all surprising. I have read some of what she has written, including the 2008 article from which the above quote was taken where she shares her feelings about being adopted at age eleven by her famous step-father. She speaks about family. She writes about family. But, because her father is a well-known athlete and politician, most of what has been written about her family since her novel was made into an award-winning movie, references him.
Kaui told me that her mother has joked, “You’d think, reading all of these articles, you didn’t even have a mother.” So, I asked about her mom. “My mother and I are extremely close. She lives just down the street and is helping me raise my two children.”
Kaui’s mother is a descendant of the Wilcox family. She traces her ancestry to a native Hawaiian who married a descendant of one of the Protestant missionaries who came to the islands from New England in the 1830s. She has a rich Hawaiian heritage. “My mom’s parents…,” Kaui says. “They were very concerned with nature and being connected to the elements and to each other. My mom was actually adopted by my grandmother. My daughter is named after that grandmother.”
Her mother was adopted. Kaui was adopted. And, Kaui revealed, her son was also adopted. She seems to know so much about the families each of them were adopted into, I asked her if she ever feels compelled to trace her biological family tree.
“I think, for me, I’m interested in my biological heritage for curiosity sake. The more knowledge the merrier. I didn’t have the emotional pull or need to learn more about my biological heritage, neither did my mother. But, I think it is interesting, following the clues and the process. I’ve collected what I can about my son’s heritage, his mother’s side anyway. But, we’ve almost had to remind ourselves that these people we call family aren’t our biological people, that we were adopted, that the prints of our DNA come from somewhere else. These families we’ve inherited are our family.”
Before I let her go, I had to ask Kaui about one more thing. She’s quoted as having said once, “Growing up in Hawaii, I did not constantly think about my Hawaiianness.” Because Hawaii plays such a critical role in her famous story, The Descendants, I asked what she meant by that. She explained it this way.
“I’m writing right now about Colorado. It’s a vacation destination and you don’t often think about the people who live there. Hawaii is the same way. More important than the specific place is how the place shapes us. Ancestry is on my mind. How people we’ve never met before shape us and how the prints of their DNA are found in our own lives. I’m most interested in writing about how you find your fit and your place in your family. Declaring your part in the chain – defining your link. That plays a huge part in my books and in my searching.”
I love that – prints of their DNA, how place shapes us. In just a brief conversation, Kaui managed to put into words some of the very reasons why I spend so much time and energy researching my own family history. It’s not just about names and dates to fill in blanks on a family tree. It’s also about the stories of their lives, the history of the world around them. It’s about how that time and that place helped shape them and their choices It’s about how their choices helped shaped the world and the family that I’ve inherited.
For the rest of you, be sure to head on over to our Facebook page where I invite you to discover your own island heritage and enter to win a trip to Hawaii.
Until next time…