“…a hole on my sleeve the shape of a heart”

my mum

In an essay about my mother, in Euclid’s Orchard, I wrote this:

As an adult,I seldom asked her what she knew about her biological parents, though I did try, at least twice. The first time, she cried. The second time, she said her foster mother had discouraged her from trying to find them, saying that they knew where she was and never contacted her. My mother told me that she had decided to figure out who they were when our family went to Nova Scotia in 1963, but seeing her foster mother after a long absence—my parents lived in Halifax in 1953 before moving to the West Coast—convinced her that this was her mother, this was the person who’d raised her and to whom she owed loyalty and love, and she abandoned her plan to locate her birth parents. Could I try, I asked. And she was fierce in her disapproval. So I quietly put the notion aside. But she did say that her foster mother had a copy of her birth certificate with the names of both parents. Her birth mother was a MacDougall and her father, a MacDonald. And his was the surname she had until she married my father in 1950. She’d been told that her biological father was the brother of a prominent Halifax physician.

Last summer I sent a sample of my DNA to one of the companies offering to analyze it and tell you who you are. Oh I wish. The results came back and there are still as many mysteries as there ever were. But I’ve been following up on some clues, writing to people who show up as probable 2nd or 3rd cousins, and I think I may have found the trail leading to my mother’s biological father. He would have been 30 years old when he fathered her. Five years later he was married and he went on to father two sons, both dead now. One of them was a physicist which is interesting to me in light of the fact that one of my own sons did his first degree in physics and mathematics before going on to complete a PhD in mathematics. (You’ll know this if you’ve read Euclid’s Orchard!) The man whom I believe was my mother’s father wasn’t (as far as I know) the brother of a physician but he married one and she came from a family of doctors. Stories have a way of changing as they are told over decades and perhaps my mother was told a slightly altered version of her parentage. Perhaps not. Maybe I haven’t remembered it accurately.

And as I sit again at my desk and try to puzzle through where to go next, what to try, I am wondering if it’s worth it. To me, yes, but to anyone else? A recent review of Euclid’s Orchard suggested that it’s boring material to readers who are not part of my family. (“Stories of ancestors, whether couched in the author’s discovery or not, can only be as interesting as those people were, and let’s face it, many of us are not. It requires tremendous skill to animate lives, let alone make sense of them, and Kishkan gives it her best in this book, breaking many of the essays into segments, weaving in ruminations to liven things up. Yet, by end of the book, I felt that nothing was truly made sense of, the knot-work made more complex, having been intellectually tackled as opposed to emotionally teased apart.”)

Yet the story of a child, kept from knowing her parents, and their own history, which might have been romantic or violent or simply sad, is a tale at the heart of many families. We can learn the precise composition of our DNA, what we are in terms of our ethnicity (for me, it’s 53% Eastern Europe, 21% Scotland, Ireland, Wales, 19% Great Britain, and tiny bits from Iberia, Scandinavia, and south Asia), but the question of who we are might still haunt us. As it does me. Yesterday I sent off material to a researcher in Ukraine who will help me to trace my family there, in preparation for a trip we will make in the fall. I want to know what lives were lived, were abandoned, were reconstructed elsewhere, in part as homage and in part as escape.

What you think you know is the shaky foundation on which you try to build something. The photograph above, for example: I’ve always thought the dark-haired girl on the left was my mum. She looks like photographs of me as a child. But my mum was born in 1926 and these girls now seem a bit old-fashioned for girls in, say, 1938, which was when the image would have been taken if my mum was about 12. It’s a postcard. Did people still do that in the late 1930s? I have a few photographs-as-postcards from my dad’s family, taken (I know) in the very early years of the 20th century. So who knows? Maybe that girl is my mother’s mother. Maybe there was a connection between the house she was raised in (a widow who took in foster children) and her biological mother. I’ve already found names on a list that suggests that the foster mother’s late husband knew the father of the woman my mother’s biological father married. Yes, the knot-work does become more complex the more you try to tease it apart. That’s the nature of stories across time and continents.

Does any of it matter? In Euclid’s Orchard, I said this about my mum:

At the Foundling Museum, a spyglass, a hairpin, the handle of a penknife. Padlocks, a tiny black hand pierced with a hole for a ribbon, a handful of coins, pierced, notched, worn thin by thumbs stroking, stroking, stored in the archives. I have My Sin,a tweed coat, a memory of Mrs.Nobody on her chair in the kitchen. I have a hole on my sleeve the shape of a heart but no scrap to match it with and the sound of a creek running underground on its way to the sea,with everything of my mother in it, and nothing. I have every regret for the way her life began, and ended, a motherless child, so far, so far from her home, no one looking for her in the listservs, among the dry records of Vital Statistics, no one, no one but me, my face against the glass case of all those unclaimed tokens, those stories begun perhaps in love and ending in sorrow.

And stubbornly, I want to make sense of her story, even though she will never know I’ve tried.


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