Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mother Country by Jeremy Harding

Memoirs of an Adopted Boy [And The Search For His Birth Mother]

This excerpt gives away the ending.

Mary laughed and asked for a refill. She was exuberant and funny. None of us could quite believe what had happened.

When I began to resist the pull of alcohol and tried to figure Margaret and Mary’s description of the family, it was clear how vastly separated we’d become by circumstance.

Turning what Margaret and Mary said about my three brothers into a generic profile, I could make out the shape my life would have taken if I’d stuck around. I’d have been the father of five children ( 4.3 to be exact) conceived by two partners. I’d have left school at an early age. I’d be living, on average, no more than a half-hour walk or a short bus ride from my mother’s. The odds were against my setting foot outside England very often: London would have been an unconditional and rewarding fact of life. I’d have made jokes about my mother’s Irishness – nothing cruel, a tug of the leg now and then – and regarded myself as a pure English product, by disposition and default. A lot of what went for the brothers was true of the sisters, from what I could tell – including the fact that they, too, lived close to their mother.

Yet any more detailed account of the differences between the person I was and the one I might have been by remaining in the clan was pointless. The serious distinction between Margaret’s people and me, the thing that set us apart, I suppose, was the fact that I’d been able to pile up wealth, incapable of functioning in the world without the thought that it was there to fall back on. The gratifications of surplus were not so insistent, or possible, for my brothers and sisters. Nor were they for Margaret. There’d been accumulation, but not the kind you could liquidate if you needed to. Whatever else she was, who ever else she’d been as a working person, Margaret preferred to think of herself as a daughter, a sister, a mother and finally a grandmother. To that extent, she was laying claim to a way of life, or you could say it was all she had.

But I didn’t have to say anything. I’d felt edged into a wonderful, puzzled reticence, robbed of the words for things I knew well: difference or affinity by social group and background; wealth and poverty, having and making do, and the gradations in between. Margaret and I had stumbled through the battle lines of the British class system like a pair of ragged picnickers – and now we were spreading the rug over the grass, determined to ignore the great forces all around us manoeuvring for position.

Perhaps some new pressure – the pressure of ‘blood’ or ‘nature’- was responsible for the momentary lapse in my habits of describing people. But that seemed unlikely. What would blood prove if our meeting had turned out badly, as reunions can? Supposing Margaret had thought me a callow little prig who knew nothing about real life? If the blood-tie could bring love and loyalty to bear, it could also be an engine of bitter disappointment.

And for a moment, in a flash of intelligence I never quite regained, the process Margaret and I had begun turned into a second adoption. A two-way adoption without rules, of course, since either of us could pull out without prior warning, and at any point. But otherwise the similarity was striking. And if blood could go either way, then it wasn’t the main consideration, any more than it was in an old-fashioned infant adoption, where natural and social identities were reinvented in a single fluent movement.

What mattered was to want to engage with another person, and to continue to believing this was a good thing to do. Margaret and I were embarked on an experiment that had begun as a matter of chance, whose outcome would be determined largely by chance For as long as we proceeded with care, it was likely to go well.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘but if you are having a good time, and you say that you are, then you won’t object if I do what I shouldn’t and smoke another cigarette.’

‘Tell me,’ Mary asked, ‘is this at all how you imagined it?’
I hadn’t imagined it.

‘But weren’t you nervous?’

‘It’s fine,’ said Margaret with an air of confidence, as though she were dragging us away from slippery ground. ‘We were all nervous. You were Mary, And I was, I’m sure. And he was, I suppose. And now we’re none of us nervous.’ She pointed her finger at me a laughed. ‘You’re a nosy prat, by the way,’ she said. ‘That’s my honest opinion.’

‘She means,’ Mary said, ‘that someone like you who gets to find someone like her after all these years is a proper little busybody.’

‘That’s exactly what I mean,’ Margaret said.

We were pleasantly high on the drink. I looked at Margaret’s face and then Mary’s, and tried to fix my own in the mirror. We lingered over the glittering remains of our feast – the red paper napkins hunched beside the bright empties and the half-done glasses – while the waiters circled. I was sitting at the westerly edge of my life, where no story could ever surprise me by the manner of its ending, and I was holding the hand of my first mother, also my last.

Outside, the light was orange and the day was old. By the time we had dealt with the bill, the other tables were reproachfully clean. I ordered a cab for Mary Hannafin and the former Miss Walsh.

[ The author’s search for his birth mother also turned up many surprises about his adoptive mother]

1 comment:

  1. With the outbreak of war, Irish immigration took an unforeseen turn. Briefly, in 1939 and 1940, the number of Irish leaving Britain for home was larger than the number entering Britain for work. But the demand for manpower was irresistible. Within a couple of years there were three thousand people leaving Ireland every month and arriving in Britain. Two or three of the Walsh and Hannafin boys enlisted, some, like William Hannafin, in the Irish army, others in the RAF and the British army. There was a pang of conscience about enlisting in the British services: in a well-known travesty of British military justice that caused anger and dismay in the family, Patrick Downey, Christina’s brother, had been executed outside Salonika in 1915 for insubordination. He’s refused to fall in for a fatigue, and then to put on his cap. Even so, joining the forces was an obvious way out of poverty… Margaret saw the out the war from Limerick, with a diminished band of brothers and sisters. Her father was already dead. She left for England in 1947 and found work as a chambermaid.