Here Suddenly Mummy shares memories of her family and recognises, through her reflections, the importance of identity…..
There were three photograph albums created of my parents’ wedding back in the early 70s. I now have two of them in my possession. They are quite beautiful really in their black and white simplicity. My mum peeps out from behind the thick rims of her glasses looking rather like Nana Mouskouri. My dad is thinner than I ever knew him, extremely clean-shaven, slightly gawky in his wedding-day suit.
In one shot, the camera peeps through a keyhole at a young couple kissing. There is the church, the flowers, the guests, the promise of a future.
Of course, once a marriage dissolves, the number of people who care to keep such reminders dwindles. I don’t remember whose unwanted albums I now have, whether my parents’ or my two sets of grandparents’. Both my parents have new spouses and new albums now and it seems as though I am the only one to whom those aging collections of images hold any meaning. I keep them in their original boxes in a little-used cupboard. Almost guilty secrets.
My parents officially separated when I was thirteen, and divorced a year after that. Fairly soon after they had both moved on to new partners. I was the only child of their marriage. My older half-sister, although legally adopted by my Dad, was quick to take sides in the divorce and soon took to calling the man we had both called Daddy by his first name only as if he was a stranger to her.
In the space of a few months, my Mum moved out, my sister emigrated, my paternal grandmother who had lived with us for seven years got her own place, our house was sold. Some of these people never saw each other again. For years after, the only link between these people who had lived as family, who had been family, was me, standing there like an unavoidable monument to a dead marriage.
A couple of years after the divorce, while looking for something or other in my Mum’s cupboards, I came across a plastic bag stuffed full of little paper and plastic wallets. Photographs.
Hungrily, I opened each wallet, spilling them all out around me on the floor. Pictures of my Mum with my sister as a baby before my Dad and I ever were. Pictures of me as a baby, of all of us, on holiday, in the garden, Christmas, birthdays, smiling, group shots awkwardly posed with background landmarks, Stonehenge, the Houses of Parliament, various seasides.
Nobody was home so I took my time, picking through them, checking the back of each one for dates, names, places. Instinctively I knew that I had to take some of them, to keep them safe, to be the person that treasured this past that nobody else seemed to want anymore. I stole them. I made a collection then that I still have today – not so many that anybody would notice, but enough so that I had my own timeline of our lives in pictures.
My stepmum knew both my parents before they were married. She hadn’t been my stepmum long before she told me that my parents’ marriage was in trouble from the start. Even when I was a babe in arms, the love between them was gone. From the moment I heard that I longed to know that my parents did indeed love each other; that my Mum married my Dad for love and not because he was safe and ordinary and boring, the opposite of her first husband, or because he was prepared to take on my fatherless sister and raise her as his own.
I longed to know that I was conceived and carried and birthed with love. I asked my sister once. She said yes, they loved each other. I don’t know whether I really believed her.
And this is just a divorce. Such a common thing these days that it hardly merits a mention. Compared to the disruption and dislocation of adoption, it’s almost nothing. I got to grow up knowing both my parents, knowing who I was and where I came from. I have had to put some work into accepting that identity and valuing it, but where I have had a winding journey, my son will have an uphill battle that will probably continue for his whole life.
Sometimes I admit I roll my eyes a little at some of the things said and done in the name of ‘identity’. I am impatient. I want to move on, get on with our lives. But one day my son will want to see the pictures, will ask whether he was conceived, carried and birthed with love. He will want to know that his origins are not a dirty secret or an embarrassment that everyone wants to brush under the carpet. Because, although it may be far from a fairy tale, the story of my son’s origins is the story of him. That school picture of his dad, those few photos of him and his birth mum, the tiny collection of toys that the social workers gathered from her abandoned home, the little trainers that I would never have chosen for him – these are all he has of a past that belongs only to him.
I am grateful that I met my son’s birth mother many times. I will be able to speak of her with warmth and compassion and understanding. It has often seemed to me that I am the only person to willingly remember the history that gave rise to my existence. I hope that my son never feels that way.