As children, and at other stages of our lives, some of us have been asked, “What was it like?” or “How did it feel having other people’s children being cared for by your parents?” We were stumped by the questions because it had been our life since before we could remember. It seemed like an unnatural question asked about a natural situation.
Actually, growing up in a family such as ours has been a life of many stories. Because of who they were, or when they were born (1917 and 1920), our folks had lived what we can now call “lives of American folk.” Both had learned the spirit of sharing and could pass on multiple stories of learning the value of charity. It had been the rule of the day in their time, and the stuff that made the character of America grow in brilliance and virtue.
We were fortunate enough to learn of hardship that morphs into prosperity through our parent’s folklore, which was rich with history, symbolism, and entertainment. They became licensed foster parents in the third year of their marriage, after having their first of four children of their own.
Blending kinship by way of sharing one’s blessings is a life’s work, with extended challenges and immeasurable reward — the kind that multiplies infinitely. Adoption, whether formal or informal, is a universal and time-honored tradition. It is complicated and spawns many stories of courage, gratification, and human interest. It contributes to the immortality of those who engage themselves with it.
Our mother had been born on the old NY Central commuter train on April 18th, as it traveled through the Bronx and headed for Westchester. Her father had wrapped her in his white shirt, and the family was de-trained and sent to the old Lincoln Hospital. She was the first of five girls in what became a sibling group of ten. She and her sisters were all eventually placed in foster care — three in New Rochelle and two in North White Plains. One brother was raised with the New Rochelle group, one was grown by the time the family reached ten, and three brothers grew up in a little hamlet of White Plains that bordered the town of Greenburgh, a rural area where their father lived.
Many stories were told in folkloric remembrance to raise us as informed conduits of local Black history — character building and pride in the family name of Burghardt. Faith, diligence, and honoring the elders were integral to the messages (as was the unfailing mastery of tradition found in allegories and parables). “A heap sees but a few knows, a heap starts but a few goes” would be one of the popular sayings used to admonish us. There were many, some Biblical, others from elders who had influenced our elders.
Our Dad was born in a small Pocono Mountains resort town to descendants of two patriarchs who had come from North Carolina and Virginia. His father had come north as the son of a railroad employee and his mother was the daughter of the preacher who started the first colored church in town. Steeped in the rich post-slavery traditions of loyalty and kinship, his folklore was laden with tales of family frolic, business enterprise, and hospitality. His family surnames were Bevil, later changed to Beville, and Johnson.
Our life was characterized by a tradition of sharing that had been the carousel of our existence — we became defined by what had defined our elders. Family tradition was so colored by kinship, our parents became known as “Aunt Ethel and Uncle Bill” to all of our friends. Children who were raised with us became “sisters and brothers,” whether adopted or not.
Our neighborhood was predominantly African American, and there were other elders who were called “Aunt” and “Uncle”. Andrew Billingsley, E. Franklin Frazier, and others have documented this tradition of kinship as evidence of sustained culture in the Black Community. The tradition of storytelling and the oral tradition of preserving history are also evidence of culture. There is no replacement for the entertainment and validating powers of many stories come and gone.