It is a long and complicated story and would probably fill an entire book, but the piece that follows is just one small part of it. During the past ten years I have shared it with family and a few close friends, but now perhaps the time is right for it to have a wider audience.
Tissues at the ready?
I’ve always been bizarrely fascinated by the kind of stories in which long-lost relatives are finally reunited, and their relationship is ultimately proved, by means of a pair of long-separated objects. But these stories belong in the realm of fairy tales with unexpected happy endings, not in the real world. Or so I’d always thought…
As a product of the post-war baby-boom, I was born at a time when money was scarce and luxuries were even scarcer. For much of my childhood the family didn’t even own a camera, so photographs of my early years are very few and far between. Hence, the ones which do exist (mostly taken on borrowed Box Brownies) have become all the more valuable. Which might explain why I’ve kept them all – including one particular picture which, for my whole life, I’ve never really liked.
The photograph is a grainy black-and-white 3” x 2” enprint. It was taken at my first Christmas, when I was four months old, and shows me (dressed in my best but still baby-bald) sitting propped up on cushions on a dark velvet-upholstered sofa. I appear to be waving at the camera and half-smiling. The photo could have been quite pleasing, if it had been a simple above-the-waist shot:
But it isn’t. It’s a full-frontal. And thanks to the low angle of the camera and a very unfortunate pose, the picture is dominated by a most unflattering expanse of terry-towelling nappy.
Many a time, when I’ve come across my baby photos during a periodic clear-out, I’ve glared at this pre-pubescent knicker-flasher and reached for the waste paper basket. But somehow (by divine intervention?) she has always found her way back into the photo box…
For as long as I could remember, one of my favourite childhood bedtime stories was the one about how "we chose you to be our very special little girl." Brought up as an only child, and with little or no knowledge of the facts of life (That Sort Of Thing was just not talked about), I accepted this at face value and had no idea that it was in any way out of the ordinary. It was only during my first year at secondary school, when adoption was being discussed in a biology lesson, that I finally twigged what that bedtime story actually meant.
The rest of that school day passed in a blur, then back at home I plucked up the courage to ask. In a way, I suppose I had always known (my adoptive parents were wonderfully frank; they had never attempted, or intended, to conceal it from me), but the inescapable truth still came as a shock. I was shown the birth and adoption certificates which were issued when my adoption was finalised. They showed the date of my birth (which I already knew), and that I had been born in Wales (which I didn't know), but contained no other information to suggest that I had ever been called by any name other than the one I had always known. And for many years after that, it never crossed my mind that I might have had a different name at birth. Nor did I imagine, at that stage, that being an adoptee might make any significant difference to my life. I was, and had always been, part of the only family I had known – and in any case, adoption was a one-way ticket.
Or at least, it was – until a change in the law in 1975 made it possible to open doors which had previously remained firmly closed.
And so it was that some time after my adoptive parents died, I made a few tentative enquiries – and eventually obtained a copy of my original birth certificate. This was when I discovered, for the first time, that my name had not always been Susan. I had begun life, and had spent the six months before my adoption was legalised, as Edwina.
Further enquiries revealed that my birth parents had subsequently married – and I later discovered that they had even tried, at that point, to get me back. They went on to have two more children, both boys, and had emigrated to Australia in the 1960s, where my father had died in 1982 and where my brothers (both married and with families of their own) and my mother (who has since remarried) are still living.
How we finally made contact – and why my parents had not been able to keep me – is another story entirely. But during the early email exchanges which frequently flew between Manchester and Melbourne, one of my brothers told me that when our mother learned that I had been found, she had shown him a photograph of me as a baby. I was very moved to learn that she had wanted to keep some small memento of the daughter she had been forced to give away – and even more moved to think that she should still have it, almost half a century later. He borrowed it from her, scanned it and emailed it to me. The attachment was labelled “edwina_baby.jpeg”:
Any doubts which I might have had about having finally found my birth family vanished the moment I opened the attachment. The very photograph which I had always hated had been the very one that my mother had always loved…