A face from the past

Christmas 1992.

I had just come home for the holidays following my first semester at university. The family had gathered for the usual yuletide festivities. Dad quietly announced that he had something to tell us. He had received a rather startling phone call just after I had left for university in September, but he had wanted to tell us all to our faces and so he had waited for my return from Norwich.

My father, an only child, had been called by his half-sister.

His long-lost, black, half-sister, who he never knew existed until that moment.

Apparently my grandmother had been involved with a black American serviceman stationed near her home during the war. Needless to say the child, Mary, had been quickly packed off to a care home. Children born out of wedlock in small Devonshire towns were not to be spoken of, and illegitimate children of another race were to be hushed up and disposed of as quickly as possible.

This triggered something in my father’s memory – he recalled, as a small boy of maybe five or six years of age, seeing his mother in hospital, and a small, black, hairy head poking out from a blanket in the cot next to her bed. He thought nothing of it at the time, and obviously it was never explained or even spoken of again.

Mary had managed to track him down and eventually summoned up the courage to call him. Over the course of the following year or so they gradually got to know each other (and the rest of the family) through more phone calls, letters, and regular visits to our home. Despite her troubled early life involving various homes and institutions, none of them very pleasant, and constantly interrupted and incomplete schooling, she had made something of a life for herself and her partner, and was warm, friendly and funny, and seemed happy. As the initial period of discovery came to an end, the relationship settled into a more normal, less intense one of Christmas cards and less frequent, but still regular, calls.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen her, but it’s good to know she’s there. Apart from anything else, she’s a reminder of the surprises life can hold in store, even regarding things that you previously thought of as stable and unchangeable like family history.

As my father said with a wry smile, it certainly altered his perception of his mother a little…

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7 thoughts on “A face from the past

  1. rasman1978 November 21, 2007 / 1:31 pm

    Excellent post!

    My family tree has some similar leaves. I have an uncle that’s not quite right in the head. When he was younger, he ran off with another girl that had similar problems. Without telling anyone, they had a half dozen or so children that were immediately taken away from them by the state. Every five years or so, another lost-in-the-system cousin of mine turns up, many of them with birth defects and sad tales of institutional childhoods.

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  2. simonlitton November 21, 2007 / 1:45 pm

    Wow. So this sort of thing happens to you ON A REGULAR BASIS?

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  3. rasman1978 November 21, 2007 / 2:38 pm

    They just want to meet their father. When they do, they see just how incredibly strange and socially inept he is and they go scurrying back to the people they love and trust. So it’s not like they attend our family reunions and such.

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  4. jagosaurus November 22, 2007 / 10:21 pm

    That’s a wonderful story.

    I have a great uncle who has kept two families in the mountains of North Carolina. The families are literally on the opposite sides of a mountain from each other. As far as we know, he has only one official, legal wife. Still, the simultaneous families, and the fact that they only discovered each other recently, makes you wonder.

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  5. birdandpickle November 27, 2007 / 1:58 pm

    Yes, that’s a wonderful story, Simon. Believe it or not, I recently learned of an unknown aunt too–only she remains unknown. This story breaks my heart: My dad’s brother confessed to me that he got a letter from a woman who said she saw my grandfather’s name (my dad and uncle’s dad) on her elderly mother’s birth certificate. This was maybe 25 years ago. Two crazy things, though: 1) the woman lives here in Denver, where I now live, and 2) my uncle threw the letter away and doesn’t remember her name. He never contacted her. So I’m living 1,000 miles away from home, and I’ve technically got family here that I’ll never know. I scan the streets, honestly, looking for a thick hair, a cleft chin and sunken eyes. It makes me especially sad that she was trying to connect with her past, and my uncle didn’t help her. Now it’s lost. I think he was afraid that my grandmother (his mom) would completely freak out if she knew her husband (long dead) had fathered another child, even though he was only about 16 at the time.

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  6. simonlitton November 27, 2007 / 2:15 pm

    Wow – that’s so sad. And frustrating, I imagine.

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  7. Peter November 28, 2007 / 11:50 pm

    A wonderful true life story Simon, especially since your father managed to build a healthy relationship with his black half-sister.

    It may have taken more than a couple of years, but they were united. Many families still go to great lengths to keep up appearances, valuing the “family reputation” over personal happiness , even in 2007.

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