Relics, Registries, and Other Bastard Things

by Taylor Kirby

My birth certificate is an inventory of negative space. FATHER’S NAME. FATHER’S PLACE OF BIRTH. FATHER’S AGE. All of these data fields are empty, clean of the typewriter keystrokes that might otherwise list all the facts my mother knew. My father had been her partner of many years, after all.

Max Kirby. Michigan. 39.

I had to Google his obituary to calculate how old he was when I was born.

“This is a true certification of name and birth facts as recorded in this office,” my certificate reads. Whose job was it to confirm which facts are true? Can there be truth in omission? I’m not asking these questions rhetorically—how does the legislature of Colorado define the truth of birth facts? 

My father was in the room when I was born. Drunk, yes—back bent and sweating over the side of the hospital bed like the crushed can of his lunchtime Budweiser. But he was present in a way the state could’ve recorded if they were to collect such data, and in a sense, his name was ultimately entered into record—I was given his last name. Although my mother was choosing not to identify my father, her partner, on my first official government record, she chose to call me Kirby.

She told me she’d already decided on a course that would remove my father from our lives in the long term, so I wondered for many years if it occurred to her that she could choose more than my first and middle names. If she thought that paternal namesakes were legally required even when the law couldn’t effectively make fathers cut child support checks. When I finally asked her why she gave me my father’s last name while still bearing the bruises of his violence—she gave me the confused look of someone who’s been asked to answer a question with an obvious answer. “Babies are named after their fathers.”

She didn’t regret her choice, even if she didn’t feel like she made a choice at all. Not then, at least. 

The afternoon of my birth, and for many days after, she still loved Max. She hoped that maybe my arrival into the world might beckon the exit of his inexplicable anger. It did, for a time. Before my brain developed its hard drive for memory, we were a family.

Three decades earlier, the negative space on my birth certificate could have been filled in with one of two words: Unknown or Bastard. Filius nullius, or the child of no one, was a legal status given to American children born outside of wedlock well into the 1960s. If my mother died in certain states during this time, I wouldn’t have had the right to collect her life insurance policy because of my bastard status. See Louisiana’s appeal to the Supreme Court, dated 1968: “Louisiana’s purposes…are positive ones: the encouragement of marriage as one of the most important institutions known to law, the preservation of the legitimate family as the preferred environment for socializing the child….Since marriage as an institution is fundamental to our existence as a free nation, it is the duty of…Louisiana to encourage it. One method of encouraging marriage is granting greater rights to legitimate offspring.”

My birth certificate might fail an audit of factual information because my paternity isn’t unknown, as my father’s missing biographical information suggests, but rather undesired. However, as the only auditor in my case, I get to determine the scale by which I measure its truths. My mother knew the day I was born that Max would forever be the man who fathered me but only briefly the father who raised me. In giving me his last name—a single word that would become my sole inheritance from my father—but by not giving me record of his paternity, she managed to capture both of those truths in perforated paper and ink. These truths prevented her from marrying my father when she found out she was pregnant, as her parents tried to force her to do under the duress of a months-long silent treatment. She knew Max was a threat to her, to me, and therefore created an unideal environment for child socialization. She was happy to evade the state—its institutions and its narrow definition of birth facts—until she also managed to permanently evade my father. 

When I first read Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and learned about the history of bastard documentation, how birth certificates used to be emblazoned with the word, I envied Bone’s clean edges of her designation. If nothing else, her birth certificate has an answer where mine only had absence. I am a bastard out of time walking around with my father’s name, a complicated aggregation of half-truths and evasions that no one in my larger family wanted to look at directly. Even when my grandmother resumed communication with my unwed grandmother—and even when my grandmother took on half the work of raising me—my position in the family fit like a loose tooth in our genealogical jaws. After accomplishing some small honor in elementary school, a class-wide award for a writing assignment, my grandmother asked me, “See how God manages to find grace in sin?”

I look at my birth certificate now, and I want the stamp. I want the easy categorization. I want the state to call me a bastard because my mother made the difficult choice to not marry a man she knew would hurt her again, who could hurt her more behind the closed and limiting doors of marriage. There’s a celebration in that choice, in that truth. There’s power.

I am a child of no one. 

Good.

My necklace is the only piece of jewelry I wear every day that isn’t threaded through a cartilage piercing. A silver origami bird the size of my smallest finger pad hangs from a chain of tightly coiled metal. I take it off only to shower. If I forget the intimate gesture of clasping it under my hair before I next leave the house, seeing my collarbone uninterrupted by the chain’s inverted triangle makes the skin above my heart feel exposed by its absence.

But even when I do remember, when I reach to put the necklace back on and don’t immediately find it where I thought I left it, there’s a moment where I think it’s lost. There’s a moment where I hope it’s lost.

The bird and the chain that keeps it grounded on my chest were given to me by my mother’s ex-boyfriend before he was her ex, before he became the man who threw my mother down a staircase and let the wooden steps do the work of cracking her hip bone into discrete pieces. She didn’t go to the hospital for days after. The questions doctors ask in these situations can feel less like a wellness intake than they do an interrogation, and if my mom were to give the wrong answers, she thought she’d leave the hospital only to return with her body broken in a new way. 

I was a senior in high school at the time. When my mother told me she thought she pulled a muscle after slipping on the Colorado ice that layered thickly around our front door, I believed her. I knew her boyfriend, R., screamed at her, and I knew I carried around a fear and resentment of him that kept us from being in the same room as often as I could manage, but she’d protected me from believing his abuse could lead to something of this magnitude.

For years she’d tried to get me to refer to him as my step-dad, to take twenty dollar bills she gave me and turn them into Father’s Day cards and unsentimental trinkets. She even wanted me to take his last name—one that was proudly biblical, like “Abel.” It was her newest iteration of an old plea, one that started when I was in elementary school. So, even though I saw my father for the last time when I was eight years old, and though I didn’t remember enough of him to miss, I insisted on holding onto my name. 

His name,” my mother would yell at me every time the conversation came up. And it came up often: when school officials questioned why a woman who didn’t share my name was picking me up for a doctor’s appointment, when I brought home certificates from field days and deans’ lists. I refused the name change, always, and I refused to do more than give R. an unsigned card that my mother ended up buying for me. Filius nullius, no matter who she moved into our home. 

I was old enough to know about the psychological reality of the cycle of abuse but young enough to blame her for falling prey to it anyway. I was aware, distantly, that my coldness toward R. sharpened the tension of our household but treating his presence like a carpet stain I’d trained myself not to see was my only way of exerting control in the situation.

After being bedridden for three days after the “fall,” my mother had to admit whatever was wrong wasn’t going to heal without medical intervention. We were uninsured, so rather than take an ambulance, she asked R. to get his coworkers from the Department of Transportation to carry her down the stairs and into a car. One of the coworker’s wives asked her in a knowing way if she needed help. “I fell on the ice,” my mother insisted.

At the hospital, the doctor told us my mother’s hip was broken in such a way that a jagged bone could have easily severed her femoral artery and killed her within minutes. That she escaped this fate after remaining untreated for days—after being carried down the stairs by a cluster of men who were trained to remove roadkill from highways, not women with near-fatal injuries from dangerous homes—made even the doctor use the word “miracle.” My mother was immediately put under for emergency in-patient surgery. 

We lived thirty miles from the nearest hospital, which meant spending over an hour alone in a truck cab with the man who almost killed my mother every time I went to visit her. These were often nighttime drives, when the roads were empty, and we both passed the time listening to wind whistling through a gap in the front window’s weather stripping. When my mother came home, days later, R. had rearranged his work schedule to take care of her. She wouldn’t be able to walk for months. He signed up for the graveyard shift and left for work when I got home from school, at which point I became the caretaker on duty, managing meals and bedpans and the increasing depth of my mother’s depression. 

We were living in a small mountain town at the time, renting a house seated on acreage at the base of three fourteeners called the Collegiate Peaks. The location was my mom’s lifelong dream come true—she could sit in her backyard every day and stare at what was, to her, the most beautiful landscape in the world. She’d finally escaped the metropolitan areas that wore her down with their traffic and neighbors and grocery stores with more than seven aisles to endure. Drive twenty minutes in any direction and she could be at the world-class Mount Princeton Hot Springs, the crest of the Continental Divide, or a campsite backed up against a glassy lake that mirrored, and somehow amplified, the incomprehensible scope of the Rockies.

Now she was restrained to a hospital bed that was set up in our basement, the only floor of the house with a restroom. All she could see of the Colorado wilderness were the slices of sky visible through the one-foot-tall window wells flanking the ceiling. I sat near her bed while she cried almost every day. At the hospital, she’d told me what really happened to her hip, and she insisted that she would leave him as soon as she could walk, as soon as she could get a job and save enough money to put hundreds of miles between the two of them.

She didn’t leave.

I did, though. 

My mother was barely able to limp her way through the tour that was programmed into my college orientation half a year after the accident. I resented her for it at the time, and maybe even years later. I was sure everyone could read my family’s history in the Morse code of her uneven gait, and the new life I was so desperate to claim for myself was already becoming inextricably chained to my past. I wanted to be free of my mother’s abuser. That meant wanting to be free of the evidence of his abuse, too. Three months after orientation, R. helped me move into my dorm because my mother’s hip could only maneuver so many staircases at a time before threatening to pitch her down them again. 

I said goodbye to her, and to him, and wore the necklace he’d given me every day of my first year of college. Then, as now, the bird helped confirm my belief that I was an evacuee—that I shouldn’t feel guilty for never once becoming homesick.

A few months ago, a barista complimented the origami metal that hangs from my throat. “Thank you,” I said, reaching for the charm like I always do when someone brings it up. She didn’t know that its beak is sharp enough to wake me up in the middle of the night with a sting of pain close to my carotid artery or that my mother has tried to buy me replacements for Christmases and birthdays and even Easter Sundays. She didn’t know that I stood before her like a shelf displaying relics of abuse—that as she complimented the necklace one of my mother’s abusers gave me, I payed for my purchase with a card emblazoned with the surname of another’s.

I was the one who catalyzed the separation of my mother and R. I had to return home for the summer after my freshman year. The dorms closed for three months, and all my friends were moving back to their parents’ homes much more happily than I was. My mother was renting a different house than the one she’d had her hip broken in, this one smaller and more run down. The linoleum of the kitchen floor was old enough to wrinkle like waterlogged paper, and the washing machine occupied an unfinished corner of the living room. It was harder for me and R. to avoid each other. I spent as much time as I could out of the house (not spending time with my mother in consequence) but because my friend was sleeping in our living room after his parents evicted him for coming out as gay, R. tended to be on his best, most performative behavior when we were all home together.

I woke one night to the clumsy impact of R. throwing a set of keys at my face. “Go find your fucking mother,” he said, his drunk tongue pushing saliva out of his mouth with every word. He reached for something else to throw—I don’t know what—but I dodged the object in the same movement as I pushed myself off the bed. 

“Where is she?” I asked. He let me walk unharmed through the door frame, but he followed me close enough to breathe directly onto my neck.

“That fucking bitch walked away from me,” he said. “Get the fuck out of here.” He kept repeating some version of this speech, increasingly incoherent, while I stumbled around the house collecting a pair of shoes, my phone, and one of my mother’s jackets that was holding onto months of cigarette smoke in its fabric. It was 2 a.m.

My friend was already waiting for me outside. He’d been woken up by having his thin blanket torn away from his sleeping body. Even in July, he was shivering in the cold of under-oxygenated mountain air.

“What’s happening?” he asked, following me to the truck. “Your mom won’t answer her phone.”

I couldn’t speak, not even to say I didn’t know. The keys fumbled in the ignition as my fingers shook, only one of many parts of my body that was trembling uncontrollably. We’d gone to bed knowing both my mother and R. were out of the house, likely drinking at their favorite townie bar. I couldn’t imagine where else she’d be, so my mind filled in the gaps in the worst of ways—I pictured her unconscious or otherwise injured by the local pond, or in the local pond, or so drunk she had no idea where she was or how to get somewhere safe. She’d leaned into drinking, confessing to me she almost didn’t hate R. when she drank as much as he did.

I pulled out my phone to try another call before backing out of the driveway, but my friend, breathing heavily next to me in the cab of the truck, pushed my hand into my lap. “Look,” he said, pointing to R. charging out of the front door directly toward us. “We have to go, now.”

We left. We continued to call my mom. She continued not to answer. “We should call the police,” my friend said, but I’d been raised to never call the cops. Not with my father around. Not with R. around. “Unless you want to get me killed,” my mom would say.

“We can’t,” I said.

“Why not? They can help us find her.”

“We can’t.” 

We drove down Main Street, where the town’s three bars were, and we circled the pond. It had been an hour, and I had no idea how to find my mother. 

My friend’s phone screen lit up to announce an incoming call.

Her voice, loud enough to hear without speakerphone: “Get home now, I need help, please come please come please come.”

Back at home: me and my friend standing outside, listening to glass breaking, to a woman screaming, to a man threatening murder.

“As soon as I find my gun, I’m going to blow your fucking brains out, bitch.”

We could hear him from the street. 

My friend’s voice, so quiet: “You have to call the police.”

The phone already against my ear, a professionally calm operator crackling through: “911, what’s your emergency?”

My voice, somehow separate from me: “Hello? He’s going to kill my mom.”

I was close to crying for the first time that night, sure of what I was saying and sure it was because the person in my ear told me the police were on their way. That when it happened, it would be entirely my fault.

Shortly after, we could hear the sirens circling in. The front door opened, and my mom stood silhouetted in the light that framed her. “What did you do?” she asked. Her voice was edged with anger and something else—something buoyant. I ran toward her, shoving away my friend when he tried to stop me, and took her hand. Blood stained her lips; a small cut traced the line of her cheekbone.

“Come on,” I said, coaxing her down the driveway.

The police showed up with a SWAT team because I confirmed there was a firearm in the house. Officers circled the house with rifles and pistols drawn, and my mom told them R. had ran out the back door and jumped over the fence. Still, they aimed a megaphone toward the property and performed their lines: “We have the house surrounded. Come out with your hands above your head.”

Neighbors poured out of their homes. From their perspective, the action was only just starting to escalate, but from mine it was over. We were taken to the police station for statements. My friend and I reported our names. “Taylor Kirby,” I said, spelling it out for the record. The officer who was taking down our information turned to my mom and asked, “You said you had a daughter? Where is she now?” 

Restraining orders were filed automatically—my mother didn’t have a choice. When R. turned himself in a few days later, though, she didn’t press charges for being repeatedly punched in the face, for having her tooth chipped, for being threatened with a deadly weapon. But it was over, really. She didn’t go back.

When I left for college again, a month later, I was still wearing the necklace.

Maybe I’m being cruel.

She’s offered to pay for my name change, to manage all the paperwork that would come with issuing a new birth certificate, a social security card, and a college degree printed “the right way.” There’s a shelf in my bathroom stacked with boxes of gifted necklaces. When I hold them, compasses and mermaids and other charms that depict imagery she knows I love dangle from my fingertips, but I’ve never even tried them on.

I want to believe in reclamation. I want to believe that I can truly inhabit my name, that I can change the signifier to point only to me and the ways I move through the world. I want to believe meaning-making is possible—that a necklace isn’t a story belonging to who bought it but rather the story of whose pulse warms up its cold metal every day, of a woman who was the first person in her family to walk across a college graduation stage. That it matters that the necklace is in the same photos as the cap and gown and diploma that says “Kirby.” But my mother believes in a different kind of reclamation. How do I separate the needs of my own story from hers? 

Maybe that’s not the right question. Those truths are easy and therefore hollow. I can change my name, legally, and publish under another. I can wear the mermaid charm the few times a year when I see her. But first I have to learn how to want to do that work, how to see it as a kindness instead of a battle lost.

Somewhere in between the space of not sharing a name with my immediate family and being entirely absent from the list of surviving family members in my father’s obituary, my last name came to feel uniquely my own. I didn’t escape the patriarchal system. My name is a man’s name, just as my mother’s last name derives from her physically abusive father and his father before him. But maybe escape isn’t the goal. From a very young age, I was given a choice about how I wanted to present myself to the world. My mother used to have the power to change my name without my consent, but she didn’t. I chose. And as a result, I get to feel like I choose every day. But what am I choosing, exactly?

I was my mother’s daughter in that police station whether the officer recognized it or not. When strangers point out my necklace, they don’t see a hip bone fused together with metal rods or a face bruised by a ring of keys—they see something they liked enough to remark upon, something that injected a small moment of pleasure into their day. These things are mine, and I don’t want to lose them, even though I’ll keep thinking through what it means for them to become lost.

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