I used to love rummaging through my mother’s picture drawer. I’d ask her to tell me about the people in the photographs, and when they were taken. There were black and whites, pictures of relatives I’d never met, as well as ones I loved dearly, mixed with photographs of my brothers and I at different ages. As I grew up, I’d notice family portraits lining the walls of other people’s homes, different sized picture albums on bookshelves, and framed memories on mantles. I wondered why my mother had hers hidden in a drawer, and why there was not a single family photo of all of us adorning our walls?
I grew up one of three children, or so I thought until an impromptu conversation that changed everything… Just 14 at the time, my mother and I were sitting in my room, talking about life, and love and tough choices. A girl at school had become pregnant. I said that she must be terrified, and feel so alone… We talked about the decision she now faced of what to do about a pregnancy, and a baby she was not ready for. As I spoke, my mother began to cry, as though a damn had broken, she could not compose herself. I pushed, and prodded as to what I had said to upset her? But before she could answer, I could see the truth in her eyes. She tearfully revealed a nearly 30 year-old secret, shared only with a handful of people. Pregnant at 16, she’d given birth to a baby girl, my sister, who she’d given up for adoption early into her little life. Her story cloaked in shame, the details spilled out between sobs. She went on to tell me that she’d become pregnant again at 19, with another daughter, and that she too, had been given up… Too much to process, I sat there, shell-shocked, weepy, and trying to console this broken lump of a person sitting across from me on my bed. I cannot remember how I felt in that moment. I was too preoccupied with my mother, who had gone to pieces before my eyes. In a flash, her grief infected me, no room for my pain, as the questions flooded in like the waves of a tsunami. How could I reconcile this new information with my then, current reality? How could this woman, my mother, who I knew and loved, be the same person, as that girl, who made those decisions? It wasn’t that I was judging her, or that this revelation made me love her any less. It was just that she’d been abruptly knocked off the pedestal she’d sat on my whole life.
Eerily, my mother’s unplanned disclosure was not unique. In a drunken confession, her own “mummy”, Mrs. Cook, revealed that she was not her mother, but rather her grandmother, and that the woman she’d thought was her sister, was actually her birth mother. My grandmother, Mary, had been forced to give up my mother after giving birth to her at age 16. Mrs. Cook had insisted she’d raise my mother as her own. A lie Mrs. Cook stuck to until my mother was just 9 years old. And so my mother knew firsthand the impact of accidentally saddling someone with the truth. A burden she’s regretted passing on to me since that fateful day in my room.
After my eldest sister was born, my mother and baby returned to Mary’s apartment, where she’d hidden out when she could no longer conceal her pregnancy. Soon the reality of having no means, and no plan set in. My father, in and out of trouble, and dealing with his own crises at home, offered no reassurance that they could make things work. He did not want his parents’ life: One of eight, poor, living with an alcoholic, and abusive father. And so, a decision was made, though, according to my mother, it never really felt like one. A little over a week after bringing home her first-born, a social worker came, and took her baby girl away. As my mother tells this story, even now, she’d insist that she has no regrets, and that she hadn’t spent every day after that feeling depressed and broken. I couldn’t believe her. I didn’t want to. There’d been some kind of compartmentalizing of events, a splitting off enabling her to move on. How else could I make sense of what I now knew? How do you let go of your children? How do you move on? These questions burned a hole in my chest when I held my own babies for the first time…
When my mother became pregnant again at 19, she would not bring the baby home, or have my father meet his daughter. She’d say, that somehow, she didn’t feel she deserved to keep her, nor would it be fair to her first-born because of the decision she’d since made. All of this, sat tucked away on the highest shelf in my mother’s mind until that day in my room when it all came crashing down.
Just two years after my second sister was born, my parents found out they were expecting for a third time. Now 21 and 23 years old, they decided they would marry. They rarely ever talked about what had happened. They kept their secret, moving ahead, as though somehow re-writing history. P.J became first-born, Tim middle-child, and I, the baby of the family, their only daughter.
It has taken me years to understand where my mother ends, and I begin. The longing she’d fought hard to disown, and sadness she’d buried deep, bled into me. I needed to disentangle myself from decisions made long before I was born. All of this had left me insecure about the one attachment I’d never questioned. After all, it could have been me she’d let go… After keeping the secret for over two decades, at 37, I went to my mother and resigned, relinquishing my secret-keeping position. Worn and bruised from the isolation, and weight of concealing a secret of this magnitude, I’d had enough. I’d never asked for this burden, instead it had been accidentally gifted to me. Time finally, to give it back to its original owners.
Shortly after that conversation, my parents told my brothers the truth… It was not easy. Both Tim and P.J reacted emotionally to the news, and to the fact that I had known for so long. Why me? Why had they not been trusted? They too were flooded with questions, and had to consolidate this new information with everything they’d known to be true before.
Then followed another brave step- to look for my sisters. First we found Linda, first-born, living just a short drive away, and looking so much like my mother. She embraced us right from the start. A fact that baffled us. I can remember how nervous I was to meet her, and how incredibly surreal it felt to experience such familiarity with a complete stranger. Looking into her eyes, I was looking into the eyes of my mother. The way she talked and moved, and even how her hand felt in mine… We cried, and laughed, and talked about things so tender and heart wrenching. My parents sat in their truth, and owned their story for the first time. But there was still a missing face in our family album…
Kathryn, second born, had not registered to be found, and so we were told it could take years to reconnect with her. My father’s colon cancer diagnosis two years ago, shortly after finding Linda, changed all of this. Within a month, they’d located Kathryn, living in B.C. She planned a trip to Montreal, just weeks after speaking to my parents by phone for the first time. Meeting her was equally surreal. She reminded me immediately of my father’s mother, and of my godmother, my dad’s youngest sister. She has my father’s eyes, and so much of my mother’s heart. Finally it was as though a piece of me had been restored. The circle, left open for nearly 50 years, now closed.
My parents believed that the truth would undo them; that they would be judged, even left, unworthy of the love they’d known under false pretenses. They never anticipated that this love could deepen, and expand as the weight of the secret lifted, or the repair that would come with reunion. For me, the secret, and keeping it, drove a quest for truth and connection that has shaped every aspect of my life. I am thankful to have had the courage to inspire my parents to face their truth, and break the cycle of secrecy. Ours is a story of love, and forgiveness, penned in gratitude for all that it has taught me. I cannot recall a single family photo in my mother’s picture drawer… This one, of all of us, hangs in a proper frame on the wall.
*My father read this piece before he passed away. He knew I would one day share it. He was so grateful to have found his girls, and to have been surrounded by all of us in the last weeks of his life.