This morning I woke up and looked in the mirror, and there on top of my head appeared to perch a fluffy chick, as if for all the world a tiny duckling had become separated from its mother and had – overnight while I was fast asleep – sought sanctuary on my head instead.
From the dressing table, I could swear I heard my hairbrush give a rich, sardonic chuckle. The brush is elderly, and has seen good service, but hasn’t been used once in the past two weeks, and is clearly sulking. There has been no need for it, and it is suffering an existential crisis.
The hair on my head that hasn’t managed to make its escape down the plughole, or into Katty’s vigorous daily sweepings, has morphed into a patchy duckling halo of white and yellow, some 2mm in length.
Today I have worn a scarf around it to keep my head warm. Although the sun is shining on the volcano today, the flat is not yet warmed through, and nor am I. I spend much of my day asleep on the bed or the sofa, daydreaming of the stem cells inside me starting to form their strategy for the war ahead.
They’re working out their units and their command structure: who goes where to do what, and how best to tackle the multi-headed insurgents of MS that hide in every corner of my body.
The scarf is fine and soft to the touch, of such beautiful shimmering green material that it feels as though my head and neck are swathed in a silken meadow. It arrived as a wholly unexpected gift today, from a friend’s mother, who thought I might need a boost. I’ve never met her, but the kindness of her gesture touched my heart, just as it warmed my head and neck.
I asked my friend how her mother knew that such a gift would be timely and welcome. “She’s just motherly,” she replied. “She knows.”
Most people are blessed with one mother. Quite a few have two. Only the very rare manage three. And I am among them.
One of my very earliest memories is of sitting on a staircase aged around three in our house in Sutton in Surrey, mulling on the word ‘adopted’. I knew it applied to me and that it meant that I was special, loved and chosen. It was a big word, and I didn’t really understand what it meant, but I knew just the same that I didn’t need to worry. It was simply one part of what made me, and something that I could figure out later on.
And somehow it didn’t bother me for years, or at least not until after my adoptive mother died when I was eleven. And then suddenly I had a sense, growing more urgent every year, that I needed to find my natural mother before it was too late.
To thank her for having me (I had been brought up to be polite and send thank you notes, but I had no name or address to send one to), and to say how grateful I was that the woman who had given me the gift of life had chosen the hard path of having me and then giving me up for adoption so that I could have a stable childhood and two loving parents, able to give me all the love and care that a child needs to grow and to flourish.
So, late in the last century, early one morning in the autumn of 1990, I set off to find my natural mother. Or perhaps, unnatural mother. For what mother gives up her child at six weeks old, except in extremis, a mother pushed to the edge by that very act of becoming a mother?
This was in the age just before the world changed irrevocably and a girl could set off with a battered suitcase, a scrap of paper and a sunhat, on her own, bound for the other side of the world. I was 23.
It was an era in which there were no mobile phones, no internet and no way in which to helicopter parent over your departing child (at least not that I knew of, although even by 1986 I do remember that Apple computers had just begun to change the world).
I set off for Australia via Heathrow to track down my natural mother, even though I didn’t know her name or where she lived. Or how old she was. Or if she was alive, or dead, married or single, happy or sad, or whether she’d be remotely interested in meeting me. All I knew was that if I were her, I would want to know the end of the story, or at least what had happened after the last cuddle or the last look before I was taken to a new and unknown home.
All I knew for sure was that I was adopted in Sydney at St Anthony’s Home for Unmarried Mothers, because my darling Dad pressed a small hand-written piece of paper into my hand with its address on before I left home that morning, with a kindly smile, saying ‘you might want this’. He and my WSM waved me off with their blessing, and instructions to write when I got there.
I had somehow inferred from that that he knew what I was doing, but perhaps not. So I travelled blithely onwards, assuming parental blessing for the very specific odyssey that lay ahead.
It wasn’t that I needed or wanted a different family. I did not. I loved and love mine with every living fibre of my being. The Wyatts and the Barons are my flesh and blood, even if they’re actually not technically my flesh and blood at all. But they are my family, my tribe. The family that chose me, raised me, loved me and love me still.
And I have not lacked for parenting. Wendy, my Wicked Step-Mother, the WSM has been a mother to me for the greater part of my life now, since I turned 15 or 16 (I am bad at dates, because they involve numbers), so for some 35 years. She is the WSM who cooks the best ever turkey for Christmas and Chanukah to feed the returning five thousand, and who makes the best chicken soup in the world.
Not to mention her turkey curry, which gets better with every passing year. One day, its fame will spread, and Heston Blumenthal will come asking for the recipe and be bitterly disappointed to find that there isn’t one. It is, like some of the best music, poetry and plays, an improvisation, that reaches its zenith around December the 27th every year.
That same WSM taught me that women can work and be mothers at the same time, and that art is not a luxury but an essential. Oh, and that painting one’s nails and putting on your best face in the mirror with lipstick and make-up is not vanity, but an essential part of being a well-groomed woman in this world.
I confess that Wendy won my heart in an instant when I was a teenager in Berlin. On one visit, around my birthday, she came bearing a Mary Quant make-up set, a shiny black treasure trove containing a magic rainbow of eye-shadows and lipsticks in all the jewel colours of Aladdin’s cave. This was the artist’s palette with which I began to create my teenage self.
I’m not sure that the slathered in make-up stage particularly delighted my Dad. Fathers never think their daughters need any make-up, perhaps fearing that it might be used to enhance their powers of attraction, which no teenager realises actually lie in their youth and the natural blush of a slightly chubby cheek.
Throughout my life, my darling Dad has been my rock and my anchor, a charming, personable yet slightly mysterious diplomat with the sharpest mind allied to the funniest jokes and the worst (best) puns. And great hair: still abundant and luxuriant, like the white of a dandelion blowing gently in the field, even at 85. And a lot longer and thicker than my veneer of duckling’s down today.
Though Dad did set us the most appalling example for most of our childhood by smoking and loving it, even as he hacked and coughed his way through packet upon packet of Silk Cut, with one cigarette permanently burning in the ashtray, and sometimes another in his hand dropping ash.
And always, in memory and indelibly inside in my heart and my soul, is Annemarie, my late Swiss mother, who showed us what love meant in every meal she cooked for us, in every hug and every favourite bedtime story told at night, even as my eyes could barely stay open as I forced myself to stay awake for the happy ever after that I knew would come.
Her love was in every fold of my clothes as a child, in every stitch of the jumpers that she knitted, in every carefully-ironed sheet that wrapped me in its starchy embrace at night. It was manifest in every hug, in every kiss for a scraped knee.
So did I need another mother, when I was already 23? Perhaps not. But I did need to know where I had come from, and more about the genes that had helped make me.
I was then in another liminal phase, no longer adolescent, but not quite adult yet. A student for five years, fresh from a year at City University with a post-grad in journalism, and soon to start a job at the BBC.
But in between I had four months or so in which to solve the mystery of my origins, and find out what had happened in 1967 (and, technically, in 1966).
My biological parents must have got together, I worked out, just as the world’s first vertical jump jet, the Harrier, was introduced, the year that the Hovercraft went into service across the English Channel, and just after England beat West Germany 4-2 to win the 1966 World Cup at Wembley. There must have been many babies conceived that month in England as well.
But my origins lay further afield. In 1966 in Australia, the severe drought that had affected much of Queensland and rural New South Wales had finally broken, and somewhere in its three million square miles that year, my natural mother and natural father had met and without quite meaning to, had created me.
The first month in Australia flew by. I had to get a job to support myself, and bumped into a friend from school on a Sydney street and another in a café, so at least I had somewhere to live – at Potts Point, overlooking Sydney Harbour, albeit from a distance. I took the sofa-bed in the living room, because it was cheaper. Then, walking down another street, I met my old employer from Alfred Marks, who found me a job as a receptionist, and kept on employing me, even as I took time off to do my research.
All I needed now was my mother’s name. In those days before the internet, finding people was harder, and St Anthony’s no longer existed in its old form. A kindly woman at that address said the hospital might have some records, but when I went to Crown Street hospital in Darlinghurst, they said the records had been burnt in a fire. But someone remembered an archive of duplicates, and a week later, I sat down to read the two brief pages that summarised who my mother was.
Irena, it said, had been the daughter of Polish immigrants, who’d arrived in Sydney on a ship from Europe after the Second World War. She had an older sister Sonya, and was 5’7”, brown-haired and hazel-eyed.
My natural mother was brought up Catholic, and was just 16 when she became pregnant, and 17 when she gave birth. Irena liked “good reading” and jazz, and hoped to become a teacher. In a brief section on “biological father”, it said that Alan was Protestant, 6’2” and had a pilot’s licence, and was the drummer in a jazz band.
But there I had reached a dead end. No surname, and how many tens thousands of immigrants had arrived in Australia after the war, seeking a new life away from the ruins of Europe?
I wrote articles for the newspapers, asking for anyone who knew of my mother to come forward. I went on TV to discuss adoption, at the time a subject much in the news as the Australian government debated changing the laws to remove the veil of secrecy that had surrounded the adoptions of my generation.
And as a result, one evening I was invited to a party hosted by an Australian MP. With the confidence of at least one glass of chardonnay, I began chatting to a friendly chap about my dilemma. How was I to find this mother of mine, so near and yet perhaps beyond my reach?
“I’m the chief registrar of births, deaths and marriages, so maybe I could help,” this miraculous man said. “I can’t tell you her surname, but I can look up your birth certificate – the one you’re not allowed to see – and tell you if it’s there or not.”
The next morning I rang him from my reception desk at a tedious accountancy firm, which provided me with a free telephone and enough rent for my sofa-bed.
“Have you found my birth certificate?” I asked him.
“Yes, I have it in front of me,” he said.
“What does it say?”
A long pause.
“You know I can’t tell you – it’s against the law.”
“I know her first name is Irena. Could you tell me the first letter of her surname?”
“And the second?”
“And the third?”
“And the fourth?”
But my Scrabble hand was now full. The chief registrar of births, deaths and marriages was not willing to betray a single letter more. Hmm.
“What does it end with?” I asked.
“It sort of ends in –ski, but it’s not quite –ski,” he said enigmatically.
We chatted a little more, but I knew that those four or five letters would be enough.
After another month of searching through public libraries, voting cards and shipping records for New South Wales, I thought I had finally found the family I was looking for.
Only two families fitted, and the most likely ones, the Niedzwieckis, had travelled over to Australia around the right time, though it was slightly later than Irena herself had recalled.
In fact, the shipping records I finally tracked down showed that on February 21st, 1950 the Niedzwiecki family had left Delmenhorst Staging Centre in Germany “for further emigration”.
On March the 7th, 1950 they sailed on the ship “Amarapoora” from Naples in Italy to Australia.
But where had they gone? Another week of combing through the electoral registers of New South Wales by hand, until finally I found them in Werris Creek. There for every year until the year of my birth, when they had moved. But why, and where to? And where was Irena now?
Fate kept on happening, as the writer Anita Loos put it in one of her books. I can’t remember whether it was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. (She did say that “it isn’t that gentlemen really prefer blondes, it’s just that we look dumber.”)
A friend I had made in the course of my quest knew I had come to a dead end, and carried on the search through the phone books of Australia. She rang to say there was an Anna Niedzwiecki in Brisbane, and that perhaps she could be my natural grandmother. Would I like her to call the number and find out?
I would, and she did. And it was indeed Anna, my natural grandmother, who said that Irena would be home from work after 6pm, and that I should call back then.
So I did. The next day, I quit my job and got on a plane at Sydney airport, bound for Brisbane, and the mother I had never really met.
I was in a daze, wondering if I was doing the right thing. Arguing with myself, back and forth in my head. It was right to go. No, it was silly. So close to finding what I’d always hoped for, but so nervous about what I might find.
But I do remember the landing – the lights of Brisbane brighter and brighter, stretching on for endless sprawling miles, like a neon promised land. Somewhere down there, my mother was waiting. The mother who gave me up when I was six weeks old, and disappeared, leaving no memories, no keepsakes. Just her genes and a question mark carved deep into my soul.
I sat at the back of the plane, and as everyone else got off, trailing baggage or talking excitedly, I watched. And waited. I couldn’t move.
What if I didn’t like my mother? What if I didn’t recognise her? She had a lovely low rich voice on the phone, the first and so far only time we had spoken the night before. But what on earth was I doing?
I was thousands of miles from home, about to meet a stranger. And I’d packed in my job after a one hour phone call with my mystery mother.
For what? To excise the question mark, and all the ones that lurked beneath. Where did I come from? Who was she? What did she look like. Why had she given me up? And did she ever wonder about me, her child, in all those long years?
Yet now that I had landed in Brisbane, I wasn’t sure that I should be here at all, nor that I’d necessarily like the answers to my questions.
I had heard some of the answers on the phone, when Irena finally came home and I could call her.
That day of waiting had been endless. Her number was written on a piece of paper that was now scrunched and damp from handling. I had scrutinised it endlessly like a talisman that could decide my fate; held it close in my hand like a prayer bead and wondered and worried at it in my mind.
At last it was 7pm, and I sat by my bed as I rang, the door shut tightly against the noise of my flatmates. When Irena finally picked up, the voice at the other end of the phone was warm and deep, husky with nicotine and good humour. I liked her voice immediately.
Even on a crackly phone line, the one word ‘hello’ had an upward Antipodean inflection and a big smile behind it. Though it was a shock to hear a broad Australian accent. I hadn’t worked out that my mother would sound quite so Aussie.
What do you say to your mother when you call her for the first time? What do you call her?
“Hello, it’s Caroline.”
And there was a pause.
“I think I’m your daughter.”
And after another pause, the reply.
A smile in her voice.
“Yes. I think you probably are.”
And then came a long laugh at the sheer oddity of the situation, and I could hear her light a cigarette at the other end of the line and take in a deep lungful of smoke.
Another pause. I didn’t know what to say. This was my mother, but the questions that had burned in my mind for so long deserted me.
“You sound so English!” she said. “So proper.”
“Tell me about yourself,” my mother said. So I did.
“Well, I’m 23, I’ve spent the last three months looking for you, and the past twenty three years wondering about you. I’m going to train to be a journalist at the BBC in January. I’m 5 foot 7, blonde, blue-eyed. Not very slim. More curvy. I had a wonderful childhood and a lovely mum and dad and…” And then I stopped, wondering if talking about my parents might upset this new-found parent.
But it didn’t. She wanted to know all about them. So for the next twenty minutes I told her about my life, my school, my adoptive mother’s death from cancer when I was 11, my beloved Dad, and a précis of university life, and my American, recently ex boyfriend, Karl.
Irena sounded happy to listen, with the odd puff of smoke audible at the other end, and murmurs of interest, and then a comfortable silence when I finally stopped talking. All I could sense was a crackle through the curly telephone line, an umbilical cord between Brisbane and Sydney, and a warm glow that now somehow connected us after 23 years apart.
And then she answered the question that I hadn’t asked but that had hovered unspoken behind this call. Why give me up for adoption?
“I wanted you to have a good life,” she said, slowly, “and I knew I couldn’t give that to you. I was 17, and just too young.”
She was a teacher, she said, at a secondary school, and before that she’d been a primary school teacher. And when she found out she was pregnant, she was 16, just 17 when she gave birth.
“Are you married? Do you have any other children?” I asked her, curious but also worried that I might be intruding on her life, into a family that knew nothing of her first child, and at the same time oddly worried that I might have siblings who might not welcome such a revelation.
“No – only you.”
We talked for a long time. Irena was easy to talk to, with a warm voice and easy manner. A good listener.
Irena had moved back in with her own mother Anna, to look after her when Anna was ill. Irena never moved out again. So at the age of 40 she was living back at home. It was a bungalow in Tingalpa, a suburb of Brisbane, and her mother Anna – known as Mamma – was better now.
It sounded to me rather more as though Anna might be looking after Irena again.
I described my search for her, and how I’d spent months talking to journalists, and speaking on talk shows in case she was watching, because the law in Australia barred me from knowing my natural mother’s name.
She had seen none of it, busy at work and with helping her sister Sonya, looking after nephews and her niece Alison in Brisbane.
But she was so, so happy that I’d rung, Irena said, and that I’d persisted when it all seemed to be in vain. She had tried to find me too, she said, but had no idea where to start.
“So will you come to meet me?” Irena asked, almost shyly, after we’d talked for an hour or so.
“How about tomorrow?”
“Yes. Can you meet me at the airport?”
“Yes. But my sister will have to drive. I lost my licence for drink-driving last month. This hasn’t been an easy year.”
I laughed. I rather liked this irresponsible mother of mine.
“See you tomorrow. I’ll call with the time of the flight. Good night.”
I’d asked Irena on the phone how I’d know it was her at the airport – how would I recognise her? She’d said that she and her sister would be waiting at arrivals, and that I would know them by their noses. Hers was long and pointed at the end, and her sister’s was quite noticeable as well. Irena said that she had long dark straight hair, and her sister’s was bobbed and blonde.
I had half-thought that my mother was joking about the noses, but she wasn’t.
When I finally got off the plane and walked slowly through the door to arrivals, there they were.
Unmistakeable. Blonde and brunette, side by side.
The brunette slim and girlish, wearing olive trousers but no shoes.
The blonde rather more formally dressed.
The girl with the long dark hair was my mum, and she looked more nervous than I did. And she was so ridiculously young. She didn’t look old enough to be my mother. Her sister Sonya next to her was more composed.
Suddenly, I felt a wave of incredibly English reserve wash over me, and went over to them, hesitantly extending my hand and trying to disentangle my hair, which had got caught up in my backpack.
Irena took one look at me, and enveloped me in the tightest of hugs. She smelt of sweet perfume and cigarettes, with just a hint of white wine. I hugged her back, for twenty-three years’ worth of separation.
There was barely anything of her. She was so skinny. And so young. When I pulled away, I noticed that she had tears in her eyes and a broad smile.
Somehow she wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all, and I had no idea how to feel.
“Shall we have a cigarette?” she asked.
I’d waited for this meeting for 23 years. I’d never quite believed that it would ever happen. And when it finally did, it felt odd, unreal, as though I were waking up under anaesthetic, numb and unable quite to feel my limbs or speak, or swimming underwater to some still distant shore.
It was wonderful to meet Irena at last – the phantom of my dreams, the Polish mother that I’d wondered about for so long. Yet I was also completely numb. While Irena and Sonya cried, I felt a British reserve envelop me.
Then Sonya hugged me too, and took photos, and suddenly we were all talking at once. About the journey, how warm it was, about anything at all apart from the bizarreness of travelling halfway around the world to meet a woman whom you didn’t know, who’d given birth to you 23 years before and who had never seen or spoken to you again.
As we left the airport, Irena and I reached simultaneously into our handbags for a cigarette, lit it, and laughed. Outside, the air was hot and steamy, by this stage of November well into an early Brisbane summer. The November bugs swarmed around us, and the heat trickled down my neck.
We found Sonya’s car, and Irena and I sat in the back. She held my hand, and smiled, but the numbness didn’t go away. We made polite conversation. About Irena’s job, about Sonya’s four children – my cousins. So there were cousins too?
Yes, Micah, Alison, Simon and Joshua. A good Catholic family. Sonya went to church, Irena didn’t, but sometimes accompanied Anna, her mother, known to all as Mamma.
I kept stealing glances across at my mother as the lights of Brisbane flashed by.
Were we really related? She was so girlish, still a flower child of the 60s, her long hair a glossy black, the lights outside giving her a madonna’s halo. She hardly looked old enough to be a mother at all.
There was, though, a hint of sadness about her, beneath the smile. It was a smile that looked as though it could sometimes hide a deep melancholy, masked behind that wreath of smoke. Her nose was indeed long, with a bump at the end of it, and she looked not one bit like me at first glance.
But then after more surreptitious glances, I noticed that the oval of her face was similar to mine, and as we sat in the car in a moment of silence I looked at her hand. I recognised it. I held it up against mine. We both looked at our hands. Each was exactly the same, palm mirroring palm, finger on finger. The same long fingers, the same slightly spatulate ends. Every finger met and matched as we held them up together, and Irena scrunched her hand around mine and held it tight. Her strong square nails were just like mine. Identical.
And then we compared feet, hers still bare, as I kicked off my shoes. They were the same, too. Toes the same length, gap between big toe and second toe just the same. Big, strong, peasant’s feet, made for walking barefoot through the fields, and for Irena, even tonight at the airport, going barefoot in town.
And as she spoke, a warm melodious caress of a voice, her laugh and her timbre were the same as mine .
Yes. I’d come to the right place, I thought at last. This really was my mother. I hadn’t, somehow, been sure until that moment. There was no proof, no certainty, I had no documents to prove it.
But hands and feet don’t lie. Nor voices. Irena was undoubtedly the mother I’d been searching for, although not quite what I’d expected.
A slightly fallen angel, perhaps, rather than a Madonna, but real, my own warm flesh and blood. And I was undoubtedly the flesh of her flesh, returned in equally unexpected form, perhaps not what she had expected either, this polite, plump and proper English girl.
And then after an hour or so, the car finally stopped, and I could see that a tiny figure of a woman was waiting outside a little house at the end of the pathway.
She had grey curly hair, and a kind face and a hesitant smile on her face. She looked nervous, too. She was in her 60s, and wore a flowery dress.
“That’s Mamma,” said Irena. My natural grandmother, Anna.
Mamma looked from a distance just like my adoptive mother – petite and with grey hair and a gentle expression. And when she turned to look at me and spoke, it was with the Polish accent of her childhood, mixed with Australian, but not much. It reminded me of my late mother’s Swiss accent when she spoke English; a voice I hadn’t heard in so many years.
Mama held out her arms to me, slightly uncertainly, and took my hand in hers.
“I’ve waited for this moment for 23 years,” she said.
“I’ve prayed for you every single day of my life. I’m so happy that you have come home at last.”
And with that she burst into tears, and so did I.
Inside, the bungalow was neat and clean, and bursting to overflowing with mats and ornaments, dolls, rugs, and trinkets on every surface, and a big television in the corner. Dinner was cooking and it smelled delicious. Mama had made pelmeni and meatballs, summoning up a big Polish feast in her little kitchen.
Irena headed for the table in the kitchen, and made straight for a bottle of vodka on the sideboard nearby.
“We must have a toast!” And someone found shot glasses, and poured cherry liqueur with vodka for all in generous quantities.
“To the lost, who’ve come home!”
“To the lost – and the found!”
And again a babble of voices, asking questions about my other family, my childhood, my adoptive mum, as Sonya and Mamma tried to serve dinner as we drank and talked. And talked and talked. So many questions – a lifetime’s worth.
But there was one I’d not had an answer to.
“Who was my father, and what was he like?”
A long silence.
“You don’t need to know about him!” said Mamma, emphatically.
“He was no good.”
I’d laughed when I’d seen the form Irena wrote, aged 17, to give to the nuns at St Anthony’s home for unmarried mothers. It was the ‘non-identifying information’ they had given me when I turned up to ask for my mother’s name.
They couldn’t give me her name, they said, because it was against the law. But the teenage mother – my mother – had been asked for information about the father of the baby – my father – and written that his name was Alan. He was, she wrote, the drummer in a jazz band, 6’2”, slim, Protestant. And feckless.
I’d liked the sound of both of them on paper, and was by now utterly intrigued by the word ‘feckless’.
As it turned out, the teenage Irena was absolutely right. Her instincts were correct, although they hadn’t stopped her falling in love with the handsome, feckless Alan. The 19 year-old drummer in a jazz band with his own private pilot’s licence had not, she sensed, been mature enough to enter into fatherhood, though he was clearly keen on the early part of it.
“Did you see him again?” I asked, by now emboldened by the vodka.
“Not after I had you, no.” And now it was Irena’s turn to burst into tears.
Tonight, I am lost in memory again, and the sun has long since set over the volcano. There is so much more to tell of this story, but I am tired, and my stem cells are demanding sleep so they can continue to gather their resources for the fight ahead. Tomorrow is a day of rest, so no blog, to allow the stem cells some time for thought and strategy.