My grandmother’s parents never told her she was adopted

Sarah Whitehead’s grandmother discovered by accident when she was 25 that she was adopted but kept it secret for 35 years hoping her parents would tell her. But they never did

Like many scousers, Grandma June has always been a prolific storyteller. When my sister and I were young, she would often tell us stories about the terror of the Liverpool blitz or being an evacuee on a train to a remote Welsh village.

Grandma grew up as an only child in Toxteth with her parents, Sally and Billy. Billy was a physiotherapist and Sally was his assistant. Sally was very superstitious, hastily closing open umbrellas in the house or shuddering at the sight of a broken mirror. She could also, it was said, see into the future and would often call out a looming fatality or pregnancy when she had the “feeling”.

While some of my fondest memories came from listening to Grandma’s stories of childhood, I was not aware until much later that her biggest story was still waiting to be told. When I was 11, she showed me three rings and asked me to choose one, saying that when I turned 21 she would give it to me. Ten years later, as promised, I received the silver engagement ring on my 21st birthday, and with it a handwritten letter telling the following story.

It was a summer evening in 1959 and Grandma, aged 25, was the last patient in a doctor’s waiting room. The receptionist was leaving and handed my grandma her medical records. She had recently undergone an operation and, curious to know what had been said about the procedure, began reading them. Halfway down a letter from her GP, amid details about the operation and previous medical treatments, she read: “Of course she is adopted, which may account for her behaviour.”

“I sat there in complete shock,” Grandma wrote in the letter. “My first instinct was to go and buy my mother a big bunch of flowers, for looking after someone else’s child and never once throwing it back at me when I had been the usual cheeky or disruptive teenager. However, after thinking it all out, I realised that I would have to tread very carefully not to damage the relationship between us.

“As they had kept it a closely guarded secret, it was obvious I could not just barge in and ask for details. So, I did nothing – thinking they would tell me the whole story one day.”

But they never did tell her and, for 35 years, she did not tell anyone what she had discovered in the doctor’s waiting room. By the time Grandma turned 60, her father had died, and her mother’s memory was rapidly surrendering to Alzheimer’s. She knew that, very soon, there would be no one left to answer her questions about where she came from. One afternoon, my grandma decided to seek an answer. She went to her aunt, the last remaining sister on her mother’s side of the family, who was still living in Liverpool.

“You have no idea what courage it took for me to ask that first question,” Grandma wrote in her letter. “When I went round and asked her [my aunt], she acted as if I had taken a revolver out of my handbag! She had been sworn to secrecy and I think felt a huge sense of guilt.

“She made me lunch and, after she had come to terms with me wanting to know, told me the whole tale.”

All the documents surrounding the adoption had been passed on to the aunt, who immediately stuffed them in the back of a drawer until one day the weight of them on her conscience became so great that she threw them into the fire.

She was, though, able to recall most of the details from memory. “I think she found it quite calming. She had been there when everything had happened and now felt it didn’t have to be a secret,” Grandma told me.

It emerged that she had accompanied Sally to Bolton train station to pick up my grandma, who arrived under the care of a nurse. There the six-month-old bundle was passed over and taken to her new home.

Her aunt recalled that the train had started its journey at Euston station, which led Grandma to write to several London orphanages. She received a reply from the National Children’s Home in Kilburn informing her that she had been under their care for several months. Next, she sent away for her full birth certificate and, from that, discovered the names of her biological parents. A faint picture of her past began to reveal itself.

Grandma had been born in London to a girl called Nora who had worked in an insurance office. Her father, Jack, was from Ireland and was listed in the records as a “variety artist”, although his age and address were unknown.

The “unfortunate event”, as Nora later put it in one of her letters, took place on a family holiday in Kent, after which there was little contact with Jack (a close friend of Nora’s mother), who returned to his wife and two boys in Ireland. “So a ratbag in all senses of the word,” June told me. The shame of having a child in such circumstances was too great for the family and as soon as she was born, my grandma was put into the home in Kilburn in 1933.

June then discovered that, although Jack had died, Nora was still alive and living in London with her husband, who she had married a few years after my grandma was born. The couple had two sons. A social worker made the first contact with Nora in 1995.

Nora said that she used to receive photos of June as a child but that, when they stopped coming, she thought she had been killed in the Liverpool bombings of May 1941 [June had actually been evacuated to a small town in Wales].

They arranged a meeting in 1996. “It wasn’t how you expect it to be,” wrote Grandma. “I couldn’t make the connection between us, I kept telling myself she was my mother, but I felt no different. Her husband rarely left her side – I think the situation made him quite uncomfortable. I had the impression she always wanted to talk longer, but we never did.”

The meeting was followed by several telephone calls in which Nora was able to speak more freely, talking about her own mother, who had often been very controlling. Grandma only saw Nora once more after that, by which time she had moved to a retirement home. It was here that she took her engagement ring – the one that I now own – off her finger and placed it into my grandma’s hand. “Please know that I always thought about you. I had never forgotten you but my mum always told me what to do and I always listened to her.”

Nora died soon after.

“She did not say sorry for what had happened or express any form of regret, but I think the ring was her way of showing me she still regarded me as her child – in a way,” said my grandma.

Some of the superstition from Sally’s side of the family had stayed with my grandma, who not so long ago called me up sounding anxious. “How is your love life?” she asked.

“Awful,” I told her.

“I think you should stop wearing the ring – it’s bad luck.” Grandma explained that she had recently contacted Nora’s two sons, her half-brothers, and on talking to them learned that their father had been abusive to Nora. The ring must be tainted. “Take it to the pawn shop and go on holiday,” she told me.

I never pawned the ring. It seemed to symbolise one of Nora’s few sincere expressions of how she truly felt. “She had such a sad life. She went from being under the control of her mother to the control of her husband and never had a time of just being free.”

To appease Grandma’s superstition and my sentimentality, it now sits in its green velvet box in my old room in Liverpool. Over time, it has taken on a new meaning and every so often I look it and I am reminded of my grandma, the storyteller. Not once during her tales about Liverpool and her parents did she ever hint at being adopted. I think perhaps those stories were her way of asserting her connection to Billy and Sally. Besides, I was also worried that getting rid of it would be bad luck.

“I will always think of them as my parents,” she said. “They brought me up and I will always feel like I belonged to them.”

“Now it’s your story to tell,” she wrote at the end of her letter.


Sarah Whitehead

The GuardianTramp

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