As a child, I was something of an amateur sleuth. I never liked the word nosy, it held negative connotations for just being curious or inquisitive. It was the early 1980s and I, along with many others, was a big fan of Jessica Fletcher and Perry Mason and, inspired by them, took every opportunity to delve into boxes and drawers in my parents' bedroom that were not meant for my prying eyes. Locked drawers were no match for me – they merely heightened the challenge. It was on one such occasion, as I pawed my way through a drawer in my mother's desk, I came across the box that contained the letter.
It was yellowed with age, frayed at the edges, and scrawled across the front of the envelope was my mother's maiden name and the address of a home she had not lived in for many years. The letter was postmarked from England and even at the tender age of eight, the wording appeared mysterious and cryptic to my young mind. While I don't remember exactly what it said, I remember being struck by how vague the language was, mentioning how a mutual friend had inquired about my mother, not having seen her for many years, and hoped she was keeping well. The return address was alien to me, and of course the whole encounter piqued my childish curiosity. Naturally, I never mentioned the letter to my mother – that would have meant confessing that I was being "curious" around her things again, which had not worked out well for me on previous occasions. Over time, as I grew from a child to a teenager and eventually an adult, the memory of the letter faded but I never totally forgot about it and I instinctively knew that it held the key to something important from my mother's past. I just didn't know what that was.
My sister and I had always been somewhat aware of our mothers' life before we came along. We knew that after school she had trained as a radiographer and worked in the UK for a short while before returning to Ireland and enrolling in the Royal College of Surgeons to study medicine. We knew she had been engaged to a doctor before she met our father and that it had ended in heartbreak. We just didn't know the extent of her heartbreak.
Vocation as a GP
She had recovered, as people do, and went on to marry my father who she had met while completing her residency in a Dublin hospital, where he was her colleague. She had gone on to become a doting mother to two daughters and found her vocation as a GP. She cherished working in her garden and enjoyed restoring antiques. She was a loyal sister and a good friend. She had loved fast cars and cooking Indian food. She was a mother who adored her daughters and was hesitant letting them go, even when they became adults.
She was in the very early stages of Alzheimer's when she confided in us about the sister we had never heard of
This last trait made sense later, when we learned about the secret she had kept to herself for so many years – a daughter that had been born while she was in the UK and placed for adoption. That portion of her life she had never shared with anyone, family or friend. Not even our dad, the man she would marry. It wasn’t until I was a young adult, many years after I had discovered the letter, that my mother finally chose to reveal her secret to us.
She was in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s when she confided in us about the sister we had never heard of, the first time she had spoken about it to anyone in over 30 years. She never brought the subject up again and I suppose we were nervous to question her further, loath to begin a conversation that we felt sure would cause her pain, and as her memory deteriorated, the opportunity to have the conversation was lost to us forever. Over time, our other sister became something of a mythical figure in our lives, always there but never really spoken about.
Mum passed away in 2009, after seven years battling Alzheimer’s disease. Of course we were devastated, but she had been lost to us for a long time, so there was some relief that she was no longer suffering. I vividly imagined her restored back to her former self, celebrating her liberation from illness with my grandmother, who she had adored, and my father who had died some years previously. I didn’t believe in heaven or hell, but I knew that wherever she was, it had to be a vast improvement on her final years on earth.
Four years after Mum’s death, our sister finally found us. She had first learned of her adoption when she found her original birth certificate in her parent’s bureau at the age of eight. Her quest to find her birth mother began as a teen and ended five years after Mum’s passing when she was in her early 50s. It had taken my mother’s daughter many years of searching and overcoming obstacles, but she had persevered. The journey that brought her to us took her over 35 years. She had faced closed doors, records that had disappeared and walls of silence. She was hindered in many ways along her journey, but she persisted.
The “letter” was sent to Mum in the 1980s as a result of her perseverance although sadly at that time Mum felt unable to respond. She had a husband and two young children, and a mother that would have been heartbroken she never came to her in her time of need. A mother who herself had been sent away at a young age by her own parents for committing the cardinal sin of being born too early and therefore became a constant reminder of her own mother’s shame. Ironically, my grandmother had also been a midwife who, after her own experience as a child, devoted her life to caring for expectant mothers, regardless of their “situation”. And still, Mum had found it too difficult to confide in her, preferring to oversee her own destiny.
It was my aunt who broke the news that the sister she assumed we knew nothing about had surfaced. She immediately recognised the furtive looks that passed between my sister and me, as we meekly admitted we had known about her existence for some time. My aunt hadn’t known about Mum’s secret and although she was shocked and hurt at being kept in the dark, finding a new niece after my mother’s passing brought her bittersweet joy. The weeks that followed comprised countless phone calls and emails back and forth until the day arrived that we finally met our sister, and our aunt met her first-born niece.
Sitting together for the first time as a family, we sifted through the ashes of my mother’s life, trying to piece together a timeline that made sense and between us all, we unearthed a story replete with heartache, betrayal and loss. We learned more about our mother’s first engagement and how it had ended abruptly in the summer of 1960 with a phone call from the groom cancelling their wedding, after she had set sail for New York on a shopping expedition with my grandmother to buy a wedding dress for a wedding that would never take place.
She had returned home heartbroken, her wedding plans in tatters and nobody, it seemed, knew why. It was around this time that my mother discovered her pregnancy and in the blink of an eye, the life she had mapped out for herself vanished into thin air. And still, she confided in no one. Not her sister, not her best friends and not even my grandmother, with whom she had been so close.
By all accounts my mother had relocated to the UK in late 1960, determined to keep her secret just that, citing a new job as a radiographer as her reason for leaving Ireland. From the scraps of paperwork our sister had managed to uncover in an effort to find her birth family, it appeared that upon her arrival in the UK, Mum moved into a flat with a woman that nobody among her family or friends has heard of or even heard my mother allude to. In the paperwork, she was referred to as my mother’s best friend and she was the person who, after my sister’s birth, delivered her to the orphanage where she would remain until the day that she was formally adopted.
My sister was born in the spring of 1961 and afterwards, this friend disappeared from Mum’s life, never to be heard from again. One year later, the same woman married the man who had broken my mother’s heart some months previously, a man we discovered had also moved to the UK and assumed the role of her referring doctor throughout her pregnancy while also negotiating the finer details of my sister’s adoption.
Mum signed the necessary paperwork and returned to Dublin a few weeks later, a changed person, I have no doubt. She returned to college, graduated, worked hard and met a man she would eventually marry. She had a good life, and had more empathy than I thought possible in a single person. She seemed happy, but knowing what we know now explains so much about the sadness that emanated from her at times.
As a family, we will never really know the precise circumstances around the decisions that she made so many years ago, but her heartbreak has never been in dispute. Sadly, she never had the opportunity to meet her firstborn daughter, but undoubtedly she was never far from Mum’s thoughts.