The Family Tree

The day in question I had geared myself up for confronting my mother. The fact that I had to steel myself to talk to my own mother might give you an insight into our relationship. She’s the kind of woman other people might describe as “Formidable”. She can be incredibly kind and thoughtful but my friends often say, “I love your mum but I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her”. It’s fair to say she does things on her terms, she reacts to things based on how she feels rather than considering other people’s feelings. Last year on my birthday my neighbours had joined us for a few drinks, the mood was fun and light-hearted, we were drunk and our children were playing together. I had dressed my friend up in my Dirndl, the Austrian national dress which my Great-Aunt had made for me on my last visit. We joked about having our own Oktoberfest. Then my Mother and My Step-Father arrived, she swept in like a cloud of doom, her pinched face and his resigned one immediately alerted me to her vile mood. For some unknown reason she decided to join us in the kitchen but the monosyllabic conversation and her sullen mood soon caused our friends to absent themselves. As I recall the evening I can still feel my heart sink, the childish disappointment of my party being ruined. Clearly she and my Step-Father had had some kind of argument but under any circumstance if I had a disagreement with my husband I would endeavour to hide it. On my child’s birthday you wouldn’t see anything other than harmony regardless of how I am feeling but for some reason my mother feels like everyone else deserves to also be miserable when she is and she has no qualms about showing that.
I deliberately chose a Tuesday evening to question her because I know she would not be staying over to babysit my children the next day and would therefore be leaving soon so I could reflect on the conversation and would not have to tolerate one of her sulks should she decide to go into one. As it was she took the conversation fairly lightly, I had mentioned my Father a few times recently, speculating whether he was a twin and whether it was a hereditary thing that caused me to have a twin pregnancy so she was probably unsurprised about me going down this route again. On this occasion however I had decided not to be put off by the fact that she claimed not to know anything and I pushed through. I suspect she was a little mindful of my emotions for I had only recently had the miscarriage and was still prone to emotional outpourings. I suspect she felt some pity for me and was therefore more forthcoming than in previous conversations. I say previous conversations as if there had been many but there really had only ever been a handful.
The first time my mother told me about my Father I was around 8 or 9 years old. My favourite teacher Mr Rivers had set us some homework and my mother was helping me.
Mr Rivers was the most wonderful, inspirational man you could imagine. Being in his class, was the ultimate goal for all of the children at my school. Mr Rivers was a one off; He was very tall, well over 6”4 and his slim frame only accentuated that. He wore corduroy trouser in bright blue, red, green, anything but black or grey and always teamed with an equally bright shirt in some crazy clashing colour. He wore little wire rimmed round spectacles when the fashion was for heavy dark frames and he smoked strange cigarettes he rolled himself, in brown cigarette papers that smelled like liquorice which he had a unique, inverted way of holding so that the cigarette was cupped inside his hand ensuring child ever got burnt on the lit tip. Of course what we loved about Mr Rivers wasn’t his eccentric style, it was his wonderful lessons. Instead of History he taught Greek myths and legends, while other children learned practical skills we heard the cautionary tales of Careless Carol and instead of PE we kept fit skipping around the playground learning country dancing. He taught us about art and we recreated Botticelli paintings and I can remember a whole lesson on the meaning of the word “Oomph”!!!! Mr Rivers seemed to genuinely know and care about each child. On Fridays our classes were mixed up and we did recreational activities like sewing or basket weaving. I was devastated not to be in the group lead by my beloved teacher but knowing my love for the arts he somehow managed to switch my group and soon I was lucky enough to be learning all about opera and at the end of the term a rabble of over excited south London children were taken to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to see Tosca!
Mr Rivers knew how I loved to write stories and every parents evening he would say (with Oomph) to my mother, “There are books in this girl, you must encourage her to let them out!”. In my early 20’s I learned from a friend of my Aunt that Mr Rivers had died of bowel cancer, she made a spiteful slur alluding to his sexuality. I still regret not slapping her. Whatever he was or wasn’t in private is irrelevant, he was a very great man who showed children in a deprived inner city neighbourhood that it was ok to be who they wanted to be. I still feel the loss of him, I’d like to be able to thank him.
So one of the tasks given to us by Mr Rivers was drawing up a family tree. I think we must have been tracing the children of Zeus or something like that. My Mother sat patiently helping me trace back relations and fill in links. It soon became clear there was a glaringly obvious void, every woman who had a child also had a husband; with the exception of my mother. I remember being very surprised when she asked if I knew I had a father, all my life I had only known that although everyone had a father I didn’t. He hadn’t died, he hadn’t left there just was no father. Presumably at some point I had asked but I was young enough that the memory of that was lost to me. So for her to mention my paternity was completely out of character. I nodded my assent, although I wasn’t overly familiar with the facts of life I knew enough to realise two parents were required. She told me his name and that he was from South Africa. They met when she worked as a dental nurse, his sister was married to a dentist, he was in London studying at Film school and joined the group from the dental surgery for a night out and that was how they had met. She explained they’d been boyfriend and girlfriend but it hadn’t worked out. She told me that he was a lovely man and that after I was born he had called her to say he heard she had a baby, he wanted to know if it was his baby and if so he would like to be involved. She told me that she had denied that I was his child and ended the call. As a child I took information and accepted it, I might have asked questions about factual things but I never a questioned an adult on their choices and behaviour, I respected the hierarchy of age and family structure but on this occasion I must somehow have broken from my conditioning because what my mother was telling me simply didn’t make sense. Why, if my Father was a good and kind man who wanted to know me would she keep him away? She hadn’t loved him, she explained, she didn’t want him around, his family were well off and foreign and she was scared they would take me away, she didn’t want my time spent elsewhere for she loved me so much she wanted me all to herself. The last part, in my childish innocence I accepted, for above all things I knew myself to be loved. As a child I knew that we were poor, I never had the clothes and the toys my friends had but what we lacked in material goods my Family made up for in time and love and care. There was never a single time that I can recall when I asked my mum to play with me or read to me or pay me attention in some way when she refused. We went to the library, the park, she saved all her spare money for trips to the seaside and museums, we spent hours baking and drawing together. When the firm she worked for had Christmas functions she insisted I went along too, so as a small child from a poor background I came somehow to be dining in high end West London restaurants with 30 adults.
As an adult I had a boyfriend when I lived overseas, the evening after he met my mother for the first time we were drinking wine and listening to music and from out of nowhere he began to cry. When I asked what on earth was wrong he said “Nobody has ever looked at me the way your mother looks at you, nobody has ever loved me like that”.
My Mother wasn’t the only one, I was the only child in a small close knit family, my Grandmother retired from work to take care of me, my Grandfather, a quiet intelligent man would take me all over London, looking at the sights and watching the changing of the guards. While she was still alive my Great-Grandmother called me “The sunshine of her life”. So for this reason the 8 year old me accepted my Mother refused to share me. She asked if I wanted to meet him and I did, at the time her friend lived in South Africa, she told me to go to bed so she would call the friend and get a telephone number for my Father. She would arrange things. As I closed the door behind myself I saw that she was drinking, which was unusual, she stared into the fire in a way which unnerved me. Unless prompted she never mentioned my father again and as far as I know the phone call to the friend was never made.

On the recent occasion I prompted her by asking if my Father was a dentist, for some complicated reason I thought this might be the case. No, she thought he might be a photographer or work in film. Mum went silent, clearly she wasn’t going to furnish me with any information other that the answers to my specific questions. I pushed on, getting yes and no answers until she offered to show me his profile on facebook. The was my chance, I had of course searched extensively for him always coming up with a blank. “I don’t like doing this” she said as she logged on, “I hope you aren’t planning to contact him”, this time I was the reticent one. And then it all became clear where I had been going wrong, the Paul Morris I’d been looking for since I was 8 was in fact called Paul Morrison. I felt an awful pulsing sensation in my head and gladly released my Mother from her interrogation. As she left I sat in the kitchen with my head in my hands, what a fool I had been, somehow time in those 28 years since we spoke had fogged and changed the name in my memory, I had been chasing a man who didn’t exist. Then suddenly the cloud of anger at myself lifted, yes I had wasted many years but now, if I wanted him and if he wanted to be found he was only a few clicks away…..

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