London and Stonehenge, Days 12 and 13
Driving southwards to London, I see a road sign for Luton, Bedfordshire, the town where I was born. I have never been there before. With my daughter asleep in the car, I make the split-second decision to exit the highway when I see a sign for the hospital. I am glad I did; it turns out that Luton Hospital is only a one-minute detour from the highway. I drive slowly by, finally seeing the place where my mother gave birth and kept me for 9 days before giving me up to a foster family. It helps to put an image to a name I have only seen on paper: Luton Hospital, where I was registered at birth. Seeing it brings a small sense of closure. I get back on the highway and continue on south.
London! It is wonderful to be back here again. I am an unabashed fan of this city and have been for as long as I can remember. As children, we used to visit Piccadilly Circus, The Embankment, Big Ben and Trafalgar Square: I have a photo on my living room wall of my siblings and me in the Square, covered in pigeons. That was back in the sixties, when Beatlemania had taken hold of the city – and much of the world.
Like most places, London has undergone big changes since then. The chasm between the haves and the have-nots has, sadly, widened. There is much anxiety and speculation about Brexit and what comes next, what with Theresa May’s loss of majority power after a recent snap election. The charred remains of Grenfell Tower cast a pall over the city. There have been random attacks as well. The sense of unease is palpable, and yet the city appears to have so much buzz and verve about it.
We stay in my favourite area of London: Hyde Park, near Notting Hill. We are two streets away from the Underground Tube and in a lively neighbourhood with a fabulous choice of foods and restaurants from around the world. This is the London that I love. We hop on a double-decker city bus for the equivalent of $3.00 each and tour a good part of the city, enjoying panoramic views from the top-floor, front-row seats. It is unfortunate that my other daughter is not here with us so that we can maintain a family tradition of taking a siblings’ photo in Trafalgar Square. Instead, I have someone take a picture of my daughter and me. Minus the pigeons this time: someone tells us that they have been removed from the Square.
London, although large, is an easy town to get around. The rickety but famously reliable Tube and the bus service are stellar. Nearly everything is within walking distance. Terrorists be damned: we walk along the Embankment, view the London Eye from across the Thames, cross the Tower of London, visit Westminster and Big Ben, which is partially covered in scaffolding due to repairs, and walk The Mall up to Buckingham Palace and along to St. Paul’s Cathedral. I would love to take in some museums and art galleries, but I am the lone voice in favour. We relax instead among the natural greenery of Hyde Park, watching the joggers go by and people playing catch with their dogs off-leash. It is great fun introducing my daughter to a place that I love so much. In the evening, we go to the theatre district, where I finally get to see Les Misérables after so many years’ wait. I could spend a week or two here going to different plays each night; so many of the shows sound appealing. We walk around later that night after the theatre, feasting our eyes on the bright lights and people-filled streets. There is a sense of liveliness everywhere. People are not putting their lives on hold or letting fear get the better of them. My love affair with London is as strong as ever, despite – or perhaps partially because of – all her complexities and contradictions.
London holds a special place in the history of both my adoptive and biological families. My adoptive mother and her sister were born here. Their family had a house in London in the thirties, until the war started. During the Blitz, families were advised to take the children out of London and get them to safety in the countryside. And so they moved out of the city and down to Angmering on the Sea, in West Sussex, when my mother was six years old. However, as the Blitz gained momentum, the Germans would approach London from the southwest, and Angmering found itself directly in their flight path. They would literally bomb their way up to London. Having been warned that Angmering might be the next target, my mother’s family pulled a midnight move. They arranged for a friend from Stone to drive to their house in the middle of the night, salvaging what furniture and belongings they could, and headed out in the dark up to Stone, where they spent the rest of their days. Their house in Angmering was hit and destroyed by German bombers just 48 hours after they left.
London is also the place where my biological mother was living when she met my father, and where I was conceived. Rendered motherless at the age of two following her mother’s death due to illness, my mother was the baby of the family. She had, as far as I can figure out, seven older siblings. She left Dublin at an early age to find work in London. She appears to have been working as a hotel domestic or shopkeeper’s assistant as a young girl of 22. My father was 30 when they met. The adoption records I have of her describe her as beautiful, intelligent and vivacious.
Flashback to the 1960’s. The pill is approved for contraceptive use in the US in 1960. In England, it is approved for married women only, starting in 1961. Before my time. Abortions were still illegal, back-alley affairs. The Catholic Church held much power over the reproductive rights of women. Unmarried mothers in Ireland were usually sent into institutions for unwed mothers. The Magdalen Laundries were a series of homes for “fallen women”. It is estimated that 30,000 women were confined in these institutions across Ireland up until 1900, and they continued to exist until as recently as 1967. For the women who were held here, their lives essentially became hell on earth. They were belittled, berated and often abused. It did not matter if the woman got pregnant by rape, incest or by clergy. She had sinned, and was “fallen”. Women were powerless while celibate men made all their life decisions for them. For the babies, it was often a death certificate. Bereft of nutrition, many starved to death or died of treatable infant maladies, then were buried in unmarked graves. The Tuam mother and baby home was one of these institutions: News broke just before we left for Ireland about the discovery of a mass grave of babies and children at the home there. This legacy of how unmarried mothers and their children were treated by the Catholic Church is Ireland’s greatest tragedy, along with the famine.
But my mother, thankfully, was in England. There were options. The hospital and the local Children’s Society arranged for a foster mother to look after me, until a suitable adoptive family could be found. I was adopted at the age of three months.
It is time to head south from London. A meeting has been arranged by my biological mother’s sister, who has been in contact with me over the years. We are headed down to Stonehenge in Wiltshire. We will meet in a parking lot outside a tea shop in the neighbouring village, then see how the meeting goes. My biological mother has been reluctant to meet with me for years now. I have learned that she has suffered from possible brain damage and memory loss. When younger, she and her partner bought old houses in England, renovated them and then flipped them for profit. One day, she fainted on the job and had some sort of aneurysm. Exposure to the chemicals in the restoring and stripping products may have been to blame. She is notoriously secretive, according to her siblings, so it is hard to get any information from her – possibly due to memory loss, possibly not. There is no way of knowing how she will react; will she change her mind during the encounter? Will she share any information with me? I have been warned that it is extremely difficult to get her to talk. I am going into this with an open mind and low expectations. I have questions, but don’t know whether any of them will be answered. Her siblings are thrilled to learn that she wishes to finally have contact with me. That, at least, is encouraging.
We drive into the parking lot. I see her, sitting alone on a park bench. Her sister is approaching from the car. I am so nervous that I am unable to park the car properly. My hands are shaking. We introduce ourselves, then walk over to a tea shop around the corner. She is wearing a crucifix around her neck. My mother had cataract surgery which did not go well and she has lost sight in one or both eyes. She is nonetheless beautiful. We order tea and my aunt talks to us about our trip so far and her relatives in Boston. Small talk to break the ice. After tea, it is suggested that my mother and I go for a walk around the block, while my aunt and daughter follow behind a bit. She agrees. I hesitate to ask too much, although there are so many questions crowding my mind. My mother tells me that she is being punished for the mistake she has made, and that her life has been hell. I find that she is incredibly hard on herself. I try to console her by saying that she has done nothing wrong, that I have had a good life, that she did a brave thing by having me and by giving me up for adoption. That she did the right thing. And I thank her a few times for it. And then, eventually, I ask her about my father. And she drops a bombshell. My father was married with two kids, a fact she says she only found out later. I am stunned by the revelation, even though in the back of my mind all these years, I had known it might be a possibility. I want to ask if he knew about the pregnancy, but I cannot find the words. It is not the outcome I had been wishing for. This means I have siblings, but for obvious reasons, I will not be able to meet them. I will not be able to contact him or his family. Private lives – and past secrets – will remain private. This means no Long Lost Family BBC Documentary. The search stops here. And I will have to come to terms with it and find closure with what I now know.
It is time to go. She asks my daughter for our address. I am happy to have met her, finally, and saddened that things have not worked out differently for her. She is blessed, however, with loving sisters and brothers who care a lot for her. I leave her with a hug and I thank her for meeting with me. My last words to her before we part are: “Please don’t feel bad. You did nothing wrong.”
It was a different time, with different mores back then. I am thankful that things have changed, at least in some parts of the world. Although it hasn’t been easy, I am grateful that I was adopted and I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I now have a great new extended family here. And have finally met my birth mother.
Our voyage has come to an end. And so we leave London, full-circle, the place where my story begins and where it ends. We head down to Gatwick and fly out of the UK, back to Montreal. Exhausted, and with far too much for my brain to process, I reach out for my daughter’s hand. It has been an incredible, emotion-wrought trip. I feel a closeness to her. She has shared in my journey, at the moment of its unfolding. We have discovered our family’s story and history. No more blank slate to fill in – at least on one side of the family. My daughters and I have had our challenges – and pretty major ones at that. But how happy I am – and filled with a sense of overwhelming gratitude – to have two daughters to share this crazy whirlwind of a thing called life with. To have had a daughter’s hand to hold at all.