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…