Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Helping others

Having already said that my only regret in all this was not being sufficiently prepared for rejection, I have a real desire to ensure that other people start their search with the benefit of my experience. This came true sooner than I had expected. I noticed a brief message on the family history site recently which had been posted by an adopted man asking for advice on how to trace his birth family. For some reason, I just felt that contacting him was the right thing to do and we struck up an immediate friendship. I sent him an excerpt from this story and was very touched by his reply. Derek said that he had been incredibly moved by what I had written, because right up until now – at 40 years of age – he thought nobody else had the same thoughts, feelings and behaviours as him. As he read my story, he felt that I could actually have been writing about him. He was so relieved to discover that he was a ‘typical’ adoptee with a ‘typical’ adoptee attitude, and this reiterates my earlier statement that only an adoptee truly knows how another adoptee thinks and feels.

Derek was, like me, fortunate in having a supportive family and I was happy to be his ‘search mate’ for want of a better term! I did the actual research and then discussed my findings with him on each step of the way. Sadly, I discovered that his birth mother had already passed away – another scenario for which adoptees are never fully prepared – but through a developing relationship with other members of his birth family, he is now able to learn about his birth mother from them.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Aunt and Uncle

I was aware that my birth mother had a brother who had emigrated to South Africa many years ago, and whose address had not been passed onto my brother. James had got on well with his uncle and I thought it was rather a pity that they weren’t in touch. I asked on the family history site whether anyone could advise on the best way to track down a relative in South Africa and I received an email from a really nice lady who said that it was pretty difficult to trace anyone over there, but that she would have a go if I gave her as much information as possible (she was herself South African but living in Portugal!). I told her as much as I knew, names, dates etc, and settled back for the long wait. I couldn’t believe it when I opened my mailbox just four hours later to discover a very excited message from her – she had found our uncle because he lived two streets away from her own brother. Frantic emails crossed the world and by that evening, I had spoken to my uncle and put him back in touch with James. After Uncle Bill had got over his initial surprise (his first words to me being ‘I thought you’d been a boy’!), he was thrilled to not only have contact with his nephew again, but to have an additional niece as well. I was told all about his wife and son, and he actually rang his wife to come home from work and read our emails. Once again, I received a very warm welcome to the family.

I then started my family history properly, as opposed to tracing my birth family, and I discovered a whole website devoted to people with the surname of my maternal birth family. I emailed the person who ran the site – there was no name given – and introduced myself, explaining the whole adoption situation. Imagine my surprise to receive an email by return from this person, informing me that she was in fact my aunt. It appeared that my maternal grandmother had also had an illegitimate daughter who was put up for adoption – my Aunt Jane.

This is another reason why I couldn’t possibly have any regrets about conducting this search. My aunt had only carried out her own adoption search a few years ago, although her birth mother was still living at that point. Due to her birth mother’s age, she thought it best to contact her half-sister (my birth mother) and had been treated in exactly the same way as me. Initial acceptance and nice letters, followed by an abrupt rejection. Aunt Jane had also contacted Uncle Bill and whilst he was very polite and kind to her, he just could not believe that his mother had had another child that he didn’t know about (of course, what had confused the issue was that Aunt Jane was actually the result of an affair and was born between her half-brother and half-sister). As I had been in touch with Uncle Bill for some weeks now and was on good terms, I asked Aunt Jane if she would like me to email him on her behalf, and she gratefully took up my offer. I was able to explain to Uncle Bill that she was definitely his half-sister, that I had seen her original birth certificate naming his mother as her birth mother, and giving him some details about the circumstances surrounding her birth. He made contact with her immediately and they are both thrilled to be in touch with one another. My more unpleasant experiences with Wyn have helped Aunt Jane to realise that she wasn’t at fault for being born, any more than I was. We are in regular contact and found that we have much in common, particularly our love of the arts. She has found her own past much easier to accept now that we have shared our experiences, and of course she too has a new, extended family.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Even more family...

So, moving forward. Would it have been better to have left the past where it belonged? Why put myself through the emotional wringer unnecessarily? I can’t honestly say that I’d like to relive the searching experience but I don’t regret it for one moment. I have discovered a fairly minor – but hereditary – health issue and satisfied myself about the maternal side of my medical history. Of course, the very best bit has to be the lovely relationship I have with James, and that my relationship with Mum and Dad hasn’t suffered in any way at all. In fact, Mum and Dad have totally accepted James as my brother and as one of the family; because they love me, they love him in a way because he’s a part of me. Before I started searching, I didn’t feel that my life was incomplete in any way, but now that the search is more or less over, I do feel a huge sense of relief and satisfaction that everything has fallen into place. Added to which, there were several more amazing coincidences to come …

The experiences of the last years provoked an interest in genealogy and on joining a website for family history, I was contacted by a lady who thought we had a name in common on our family trees. The name she quoted was that of my (birth) maternal grandmother, and she asked in what way I was related to this person. I contacted her and explained the adoption situation and she came back with a totally unexpected response - my grandmother was her great aunt, making her my third cousin. My original birth certificate gave my place of birth as a private dwelling and I’d so far been unable to make any connection with the occupants and my birth mother. I asked my cousin if she happened to recognise the names of the people living at that address when I was born and she did – they were her grandparents! She then emailed me a photograph of their house and it was lovely after 40 years to see a picture of my actual place of birth.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

So Many Lies

Wyn’s family had allowed her back to the family home after she’d had Sally, and she then took a job locally. It was there that she met John, who was six years her senior. He claimed to have been educated at boarding school in Ireland and was a qualified accountant, but was currently employed in temporary work until he found a suitable position. John befriended Wyn and I can imagine that here was a young woman, a single mother who had to work to support her child and to prove her worth to her family. She succumbed to the affection and attention given to her, and he wept when he told her that he was unable to father a child. Unfortunately, Wyn found out the hard way that this wasn’t true. This is where the truth starts to deviate from the facts outlined in my adoption records. My intermediary, Maria, had discovered in her first phone conversation with Wyn that John had not in fact been sent away to America. He had firstly denied paternity, and then vanished from his lodgings. A subsequent newspaper article stated that he had been imprisoned for petty theft. I suppose that we would all understand Wyn’s wish not to admit these unsavoury facts. I don’t blame her for wanting to save herself from the embarrassment of having to admit to the Adoption Society that not only had she fallen for such an easy lie regarding his fertility, but that he was also a common criminal.

I felt absolutely no desire to have contact with my birth father, but still thought that it would be sensible to try and obtain his medical history. Even now, I have no wish to make contact with either him or any of his family. He behaved dishonourably towards both Wyn and myself, and I could see nothing to be gained from having any contact with him. Although he has proved extremely elusive (and no wonder – if he could lie about so many things, who is to know whether even his name was correct?) I was able, with some help, to make contact with his then landlady. She informed me that he had only lived in her home for a very short time, and it was her late husband who wanted to provide a room for John as a favour to a friend. However, the most salient fact she was able to provide was that he had not come to the area from Ireland – he had come direct from the nearby psychiatric prison. This was probably the piece of information that upset me the most. I immediately, and as it transpired, wrongly, assumed that his apparent mental illness would be hereditary. On making some enquiries as to the type of prison in which he was held, it appeared that ‘psychiatric’ was used in a fairly loose sense. This tied in with him having told other lies, and it is therefore fairly safe to assume that he was nothing more than a fantasist and petty criminal. I am no nearer finding his whereabouts, as Wyn was not prepared to discuss his possible date and place of birth. Although I am well organised and like everything neatly in its place, I think I will have to accept that this will be one part of my past that I can’t tidy up; it will have to remain outstanding.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

What about a father?

I think it was probably at this point that I started to feel rather sorry for both Wyn and Sally. To this day, I still don’t understand why their reactions were quite so extreme; I can only assume that they had a lot of bitterness and anger inside them that needed to be released. Perhaps this has helped them to come to terms with their respective pasts and they can now move on too? If that were the case, then the distress I suffered would be worth it; for two people to be purged of any shame or stigma lurking in their memories. After all, Sally knew that she was born illegitimately, as her stepfather had legally adopted her upon his marriage to her mother when Sally was five years old. We all process information differently in our minds and therefore our reactions are diverse. Who knows what goes on inside another person’s head?

I think the most important realisation for me is that I don’t hate Wyn or hold any grudge against her. What would be the point of my having anger inside me when I have been so hurt by the anger of others? Of course I can’t forget what happened; the whole episode will be forever etched in my mind, but it need not be an unhappy memory. Perhaps the experience might have made me a nicer person? Or am I more tolerant of others’ grief and distress? I have by no means led a charmed life but I do have much to be thankful for and I don’t take anything or anyone for granted. However, Wyn does appear to think that this whole episode is hers, and hers exclusively. She doesn’t seem able to realise, or accept, that we have both been affected – equally – and therefore I am just as entitled as her to have thoughts, feelings and emotions. Wyn seems to want to blame me merely for existing yet obviously I had no choice in the matter, and this is precisely what I want my inner self to accept – that I should carry no blame.

Of course there is another person with a certain amount of involvement who I have only mentioned briefly in passing – my birth father. Not many adoptees have their birth father’s details on their original birth certificate; a baby’s father either had to be married to the baby’s mother in order to be named thereon, or otherwise accompany the mother to register the child in order to prove that he had accepted paternity. My birth certificate was no different to the norm, and there was merely a line through the ‘father’s details’ box. When there had been mention of my birth father in the past, I was told that there was no chance of him and my birth mother marrying, and so his family had sent him off to America to work in a bank. Indeed, this was exactly the information that was contained in my adoption records, but with a little more detail.

Friday, 24 April 2009

...and two sisters

James and I talked for over an hour, and neither of us seemed to want the conversation to end. We agreed that we would ring, write and email, and then arrange to meet in the near future when we’d got to know each other a little better. I told James that I’d been brought up as an only child and so I’d never had a brother before; his answer? ‘Well, you’ve got one now’! I had never craved siblings at any time in my life, but now that I had one I was thrilled, and what a wonderfully warm welcome he had given me.

A few days later, not only did I receive the photographs and a letter from James (what a handsome brother I had!), but also a letter from Rebecca, my younger half-sister. James had already told me that she was a single mum to two girls and studying for a degree. Therefore, she relied fairly heavily on her parents for childminding and was very close to them, particularly to her father. However, her letter was very pleasant; she was happy to find out that she had another sister and would like to be in touch with me. I rang her and we had a really nice chat, although I have to be honest and admit that the conversation didn’t flow in quite the same way as it had with James. Again, we agreed to keep in touch for a while and then make arrangements to meet, although my instinct was telling me that I might have to work hard to keep this relationship going (so this was the ‘grey’ response!).

I was totally unprepared for the letter that arrived the following week from Sally, my elder half-sister. I had obviously been so pleased by James’ and Rebecca’s letters, that to receive any different from Sally would be out of the question. Sally’s was not only typed but was written in an extremely formal manner, as one might write to a business associate. It was four pages of pure anger, hatred and vitriol. I have never received anything like that directed to me before and truly hope I never encounter such a letter again. She had given me strict instructions on what order in which to read the letter – two pages were written on receipt of my initial letter of contact, and two pages written after she had discussed me with her parents. Oh, I mentioned the anger but I didn’t mention the lies…these were more hurtful than the tone of the letter. Here was one very angry lady – but why? Often when an adoptee puts in an appearance, the child who thought they were the eldest is pushed out of pole position, but this wasn’t the case with Sally – she was still the eldest in spite of me. I have no doubt that she wished to remain loyal to her mother, first and foremost, but perhaps learning of my existence had brought questions to her own mind. Or maybe she had wanted to trace her own roots and make enquiries regarding her own birth father but had been afraid to talk to her mother about it. I tried for a long time to make allowances for her behaviour but I still couldn’t see myself as the blatant troublemaker she was making me out to be. Sally was under the impression that I had been blackmailing her parents; I was appalled at this accusation as I had certainly never had anything to do with her father. I’d only used his name once, and that was on a gift card which I’d sent to Wyn and her husband when they moved house. I even checked the meaning of the word ‘blackmail’ in the dictionary in case I had been under a misapprehension, but no, it was as I thought – it meant either extorting payment, or using threats or moral pressure. Wow, what an accusation! This letter was becoming somewhat surreal; I know that we hadn’t been brought up as sisters, and hadn’t even known of each other’s existence until so very recently, but I still could not comprehend how someone could behave in this fashion towards a blood relative. Sally’s letter finished with a flourish – she would instigate legal proceedings against me if I ever dared to contact her, her parents or her sister ever again. Part of me wished that she had bothered to get to know me, so that she would realise what a wrong judgement she had made of me, but the other part of me thought ‘Well I’m just relieved not to actually know this person’.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

I've got a brother!

By return of post came a letter from my half-brother (the ‘white’ response!). It was a short, but really kind and lovely letter and, looking at the bottom first to see who the letter was from, what touched me most was that he had signed his name with one kiss underneath. He had to be friendly if he’d put a kiss! He confirmed that my facts were correct and that he was indeed my half-brother; he had no idea of my existence and was therefore shocked at the revelation, but pleasantly so. He gave me his phone number and asked what I would like to do next – ring him, write back or meet. Impetuous as always, I opted for ringing him, the quickest option! Obviously my heart was pounding as I waited for him to answer the phone, only to get his wife because he was putting his children to bed. She sounded very nice, and said that she would get James to ring me back soon. The next hour passed incredibly slowly (of course!) and during that time, I must have driven my husband mad as I was imagining that James must have changed his mind otherwise he’d have rung back by now.

Then the phone rang, ‘Hi Mandy, it’s James’. Wow – this was my brother; I could hardly speak for emotion, excitement and fear of saying the wrong thing. I needn’t have worried – our conversation flowed naturally with no awkward silences and I was amazed that we just seemed like two old friends catching up. We answered each other’s questions and told each other about our families; James was married with three sons, which meant that I was an auntie for the first time, and my son would finally have some cousins! I do remember telling James that I’d thought long and hard about writing to him and his sisters, as his mother had told me that they were a very close family and wouldn’t welcome an ‘outsider’. He was really surprised to hear that she had said that, and dropped something of a bombshell – his mother hadn’t spoken to him, his wife or his children for the last six months. Initially, I was horrified, automatically assuming that this was my fault. The last thing I wanted was to cause trouble within an established family. But no – there had been a very petty disagreement which had led to Wyn telling Sally that she wanted nothing more to do with James.

I did find this very odd on the one hand – how could someone not speak to their grandchildren, even if they were cross with their son? – but somewhat reassuring on the other hand – maybe Wyn’s behaviour was a little irrational and I wasn’t to blame for absolutely everything? There were many more issues here but that story is my brother’s to tell, not mine.