Monday, August 25, 2008

Family matters

“Shall I be mother?” I ask the woman sitting across from me in the tearoom of a hotel in South Kensington. I pour tea for both of us. The woman sitting across from me looks familiar, with features similar to those I look at in the mirror every day, but we haven't been formally introduced before. We last met 41 years previously ago, when she gave me up for adoption.

Although I had been searching for my mother for more than nine years, with the help of two law firms, I had done so only in a half-hearted manner, easily dispirited. And, although my adoptive parents had been lovely, they were not enthusiastic about my search. In fact, they seemed hurt by my interest. Then, at work one day in New York, I received an e-mail from the social worker who had been on the case for a few weeks. He wrote that he had made contact with my mother and enclosed a note from her. She said everything I had wished she might say — that she hoped I was happy and well, that she would love to meet me and that she, too, was happy and well. I wrote back and said I could be in London by the weekend.

As we sat there, I peppered her with questions. After a while, she pulled out a set of family photographs and a card, which she handed to me. She had received it 41 years and three months previously. “Would you like it?” she asked. “No,” I said. It was a note from the parents who raised me, a kind note, which had accompanied a vase filled with freesias. She had also kept the vase. It smashed at some point in 1975, and she kept all the pieces. Had something terrible happened to me in 1975? No, I assured her.

As I talked about my schooling, I was aware of a look of concern on her face. I had been raised by two perfectly lovely people who made sure I was well educated, well loved, well fed. But I had still managed to be expelled from six schools in a row.

When I mentioned being expelled from just one, my mother said: “Oh, that must have been terrible for you.” I left it at that. No need to mention the arrests, the university expulsion or any of my more grim living situations.

After a few cups of tea, she said she had something strange to tell me, and that I should prepare myself. She built up the moment with a few more cautions, which were quite unnecessary — after all, I had been waiting for this moment for a long time, and had gone through dozens of scenarios. I had expected this woman to be living in the north of England, on which my search had centred for nine years. I’d expected her to be drunk and angry and chain-smoking, unpleasant and unkind about the posh background she had afforded me. I expected her to demand money.

Or I expected something spectacular — to be Mick Jagger’s love child; a connection to the royal family. I assured her I was quite ready for whatever weirdness she had to tell me.

“Well,” she said, “your father and I ended up getting back together several years after you were born. We had two daughters and have lived together for more than 30 years. So you can meet your father and your two sisters as well, if you like.”

“Oh,” I said. “You’re right. That is strange.” Of all the things I had imagined, a romantic story like that hadn’t occurred to me.

Two hours went quickly by. I suggested that she invite her husband, my father, to join us. He was there within 10 minutes.

I was raised by a couple who were in their late thirties when I came along, so this couple, barely past 60, seemed young to me. My natural father looked like me and had a soft Irish brogue, just as I do when I drink too much or get angry.

We sat for another hour. All the while, I kept trying to think of a way to describe the family who had raised me without saying “mother” and “father”, but it was impossible without coming up with awkward phrases. Coincidences mounted up. My father told me that my mother went out and bought a pack of cigarettes right after hearing from me, the precise reaction I’d had to hearing from her. After getting back together, they had lived at the same address in London for 30 years. As a teenager, I had lived a five-minute walk from their house. We used the same Tube stop in the 1980s. We must have walked past each other’s houses a hundred times.

My father also told me a funny story about once being in his office and seeing a three-year-old boy walk in wearing a camel-hair coat. The boy said: “What are you doing?” My father said that he asked his boss, who had arranged the private adoption, if I was his son, and he was told yes. He said he knew I must be doing okay if I was wearing a camel-hair coat at the age of three.

The process of finding these people had been so tricky, I had given up on several occasions. I had been told to attend a self-help group in New York, to obtain written authorisation that I was of sound mind. At another point, a law firm promised that it was moments away from discovering my family’s identity, but could I manage another £10,000 fee? No, I said. On it went, for nine years, until they popped up quite by accident, when I least expected it and when the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

My father suggested that we have dinner. It was a Saturday night in Chelsea, and a nearby Italian restaurant said we could have a table in an hour. We walked up and down the Fulham Road.

They pointed out the pub where they had met in 1966, both of them new to the city. I had drunk in that pub dozens of times; it was next door to my grandparents’ home. They showed me the flats they had been living in, evidence that they had nowhere suitable to raise me. Both of them were a five-minute walk from the home I grew up in.

Over dinner, my mother described the circumstances of my adoption. She had been 19, and had wanted to keep me, but neither of them had enough money to raise a child. Everyone who talked to her told her she had to give me up. Even my father.

She described the London hospital where I was delivered, how the nuns there were unkind to her, disapproving of her condition, and how you could smoke and drink Guinness on the ward.

As we had coffee, I suggested that, maybe, I wasn’t their son after all. They roared. I was relieved: they had a sense of humour. My father paid. “You never pay around me,” he said.

The next morning, I flew back to New York, spending the whole flight staring at the photographs of my mother and father, of my two sisters, of other family members. Little more than a year before, I had got married; and when my wife, Hanna, had our first daughter, Evie, and I held her, I saw, for the first time, someone who shared my blood.

Now I was looking at a whole cast of characters who shared my blood. It was completely settling.

A few weeks went by, during which my mother, father and sisters e-mailed back and forth. It took me a few days to tell my wife about this new-found family, but when I showed her all the photos my mother had given me, she immediately framed them and put them on the wall in our flat. Every morning, as I walked to my study, I would pass by two big frames containing photos of my new grandfather, parents and sisters smiling on a beach in Thailand. It was all so fresh — none of the loaded sadness of regular family pictures. A clean slate.

We had planned a christening in England for my daughter just a few weeks after that first meeting. We arranged a lunch in London where I would meet my sisters for the first time, where my mother would meet my daughter and where my wife would see where I had come from. I had the same experience of a time warp. My wife and daughter fitted right in. I sat with my two sisters, women who looked oddly like me, only 13 and 15 years younger, and pretty. They were the kind of sisters you might wish you’d grown up with. My daughter didn’t object to being passed around.

My wife and I went on to the country, and had the service in the same church where I was christened. More than 100 family and friends came, 30 of them children running around in the same fields I had grown up in. Here, I had embarked on my search nine years previously, when my brother got married. I was adopted and he was a natural child, and I wanted some of his connection to this extended group of people we both called family.

When it was over, we escaped back to London and saw my new family. They were just as relaxed as I had remembered. After the charged atmosphere of the family I grew up in, it was a relief to be around these new yet familiar people who had no demands, only boundless curiosity. They looked around where we were staying and my mother said: “You’re too posh.” I assured her I couldn’t be.

I put it to my new old mother that I had this oddly settled feeling, one I had never felt before. “That’s because we all love you,” she said.

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