“What are years?” (cont.)

mum on gonzales beach

What are years, that they accumulate, that you hardly notice them, and then you do. I wrote about time yesterday and this morning I had the feeling that I was forgetting something. Something important. I looked in my datebook: no appointments. And then I remembered. 9 years ago today my mother died. 10 years ago yesterday my father died. (A sad synchronicity.) My father was difficult and I’ve written about him in “Herakleitos on the Yalakom”, an essay in Euclid’s Orchard. My mother wasn’t so difficult. I’ve written about her too, in “Tokens”. If you’ve read “Tokens”, you will know something of her story: that she was born to an unwed mother on Cape Breton Island in 1926, that she was given up at birth, raised in a foster home. She’d grown up knowing her biological father’s surname; it was the one she was given at birth. But she was kind of ambivalent about finding out about her biological parents. I think I understand that but I wanted to do some sleuthing after she died, and I did, and for years, I followed clues with no success. Then I did Ancestry’s DNA test and voila, I found her father. Well, I figured out who provided the sperm. He was in no way a father to her. In truth, I believe he was already engaged to the woman he married, a very accomplished doctor who became the chancellor of a large university. They had children who were my mother’s half-brothers, though she never knew this. I haven’t been able to figure out who my mother’s mother was. She is not even a footnote in the life of the man who impregnated her.

My favourite photograph of my mum shows her in all her beauty on Gonzales Beach with my older brother, her first-born. She and my father and my brother lived in a small cottage above the beach, now long-gone. She loved water, she loved the sun, and it must have been heaven in summer to walk down the stairs to the beach. In later years, when we lived on Eberts Street, she would walk with us to Gonzales Beach (because the whole waterfront along Dallas Road was contaminated with raw sewage; this would be the early 1960s), with a picnic, and we would swim and build sand castles. Did she remember the earlier house, the earlier walks to the shore, when she sat in the sand with her infant son, not knowing what the years would bring? Do any of us ever know?

Under Cape Breton’s rocky soil, under the parks in Halifax with their views of the sea, the sound of gulls, of commerce, of pianos and fiddles from open windows, under the earth the buried creeks hide their secrets. And you can hear something, a murmuring, a rill of original water, of origins, of fish in their lost habitats, eels, amphibians entering their dark waters,and in memory, birds at the vanished banks, their beaks poised, and secrets, secrets, my mother’s buried history in the damp ground where water longs for the sky.

I expected to find her parents, expected to solve the mystery of her birth, and instead I’m left with questions. Different ones than the ones I began with, and maybe unanswerable, but I understand some things more completely now. Her capacity for love, her generosity, her lack of self-regard, which made my own seem like vanity. I remember visiting the Foundling Museum in London and realizing how stories like hers still draw us to their mysteries.

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.

a morning poppy, in memory of my mother

morning poppy

So now I have tokens, left in the event she should return to claim me, in all my imperfections—a child who burned recipes, who resisted sitting on her bed to share details of her life, a life I thought she’d disapprove of, but maybe I would have been surprised.Was I the fairest object of her love all those years when I felt myself homely, lonely, my face too dark, my legs too thick? Did her longing eyes seek me? Was my own birth wondrous to her. I doubt it. She was alone with two young sons, my father at sea, as he would be for so much of my childhood. I’ve searched for her mother, who never returned, who never claimed her in word or deed, but maybe I should have concentrated more on her. Her true heart, her own plain virtue.

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.

–from “Tokens”, published in Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

“…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.

 

Tokens

We visited the Foundling Museum in early February of 2012, a year and three months after my mother died. We’d stopped in London for a few days on our way somewhere else and we wanted to do things in Bloomsbury, near our hotel, on that particular day. The Foundling Museum provides a glimpse into the culture of London’s Foundling Hospital, founded in the mid-18th c. as a place for unwanted babies or children their parents could not care for. (I am learning that these are two different concepts.) The Museum was in a gracious building on Brunswick Square, near Coram’s Fields, named for the founder, and a place for children (any person over the age of 16 is considered a adult and must be accompanied by a child to enter the Fields with their sandpits and football pitches, their swings and duckpond, a petting zoo, and trees for dreaming under).

My mother was a foundling, essentially, a child born to an unwed mother and given to a foster mother to raise until adoptive parents could be found. But the foster mother never released her, nor adopted her. I have puzzled over this for a long time.

Her foster mother made and kept the distinction between her two biological children (whose father, a doctor had died after the Halifax explosion, not from injury but from succumbing to the Spanish influenza due –as we were told– to exhaustion from having helped so many burned and maimed victims of the explosion) and my mother. One story my mother told: her foster mother would go to the homes of people who wanted to adopt my mother and would return saying, “I can’t offer much but I can offer as much as they can.” A kind of pride, a stubborn resistance to letting my mother go. But was it love? In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a child in my mother’s circumstances was marked. How simple it would have been to erase some of that stigma by adopting her, giving her a name with a legacy of stories to nestle into.

My mother knew her biological mother’s name – McDougall. My mother had her biological father’s name: MacDonald. She was born in Sydney, Cape Breton Island. Her foster mother was in Halifax. Why didn’t she stay in Cape Breton, why wasn’t she fostered there, or adopted there? I wondered if there was some connection between her biological parents and her foster mother. She was told her biological father was the brother of a Halifax doctor. But no more than this.

At the Foundling Museum, I was moved to see the cases of tokens left with children accepted at the Foundling Hospital by their parents, usually their mother. Tiny keys, buttons, hairpins, a spyglass, thimbles, coins, playing cards, a single hazelnut, a bone fish. There were small fragments of fabric, snipped from an item of clothing, a piece of patchwork with half a heart stitched on it in red. They were carefully wrapped with billets – forms containing information about the child: serial number, date of admission, physical characteristics – and then sealed with wax, the child’s name and number written on the outside of the packet. If a parent returned, he or she would have to describe the token or bring a matching fragment of cloth. By then the child’s name would have been changed in order for a new life to begin (Charles Bender became Benjamin Twirl but when his mother presented the other half of the red heart on patchwork, he re-entered his old life). Or as was often the case, the child had already died.

“The most important fact about the tokens is that . . . they were left as identifiers – they were not gifts for the children, keepsakes or love tokens, as has often been stated. They were official “documents” – easily recognisable items that could be used to prove the identity of an infant if the parent or parents found themselves in circumstances to take it back.” – from An Introduction to the Tokens at the Foundling Museum, by Janette Bright and Gillian Clark.

After my mother’s death, I took so many papers and photographs home with me, only gradually sorting them in a cursory way to figure out how and where to store them. There was a bag which had been sent to my mother by the neighbour of her foster mother and sister in Halifax, a woman who inherited the contents of their house after the death of my mother’s foster sister. (My mother received a thousand dollars and charm bracelet.) The bag contained a photo album with pictures of my mother as a child (she’d never had anything like this to show us when we were growing up and asked her about her childhood), and many papers of various sorts: her foster sister’s nursing history, clippings about Halifax history, and to my surprise, a mylar envelope with the remnants of a telegram in it.

The telegram is foxed and tattered; there are signs that it was once folded and in fact the top of it is still folded, the part indicating that the form is the Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s Telegraph and outlining the terms and conditions.

It was sent from Glace Bay, N.S. on December 9th, but the year is unreadable, to Dr. Watson, 108 Agricola Street, Halifax, and the message reads as follows: “Can you take my practise at once and remain four weeks. I am to be operated on tomorrow for appendicitis. Answer and state terms.”  Then the name of the sender: the initial(s) is/are hazy (there might be one, or possibly two) and occur just where the telegram has been folded but the surname is MacDonald.

Dr. Watson was my mother’s foster mother’s husband. He was born in Jamaica to a family of Scottish sugar traders from Mull; the family moved back and forth as the business flourished and changed. I don’t know how he ended up in Halifax but my mother’s foster sister said he’d been part of the Grenfell Mission, providing medical services to remote communities in northern Newfoundland and Labrador. My father remembered a journal kept in a roll-top desk in the Watson household in Halifax which he said should have been part of the National Archives and I’ve often wondered what happened to it after my mother’s foster sister died.  It wasn’t in the bag of clippings and old nursing yearbooks.

I send out emails to the library in Glace Bay, to Vital Statistics in Halifax, and to a Cape Breton geneaology site, hoping that someone will be able to tell me something about my mother’s biological parents, something about Dr. Macdonald who sent the urgent telegram and who (I am hoping) might prove to be a link in the chain of my mother’s family. I study the telegram for hidden meaning and come up with nothing. Or everything: “…official “documents” – easily recognisable items that could be used to prove the identity of an infant…” Is this why it was saved in a mylar envelope and kept with a photo album showing my mother as a curly-haired child in a garden with dogs?

Vital Statistics tell me this:

Ms. Kishkan,

 Birth records and birth certificates are restricted documents and can only be issued to those stated on the record or their parents.

 Regards

 Yours truly
Vital Statistics

I write back to say that my mother died in fall of 2010 at the age of 83 (but I was wrong; she was 84) and it was likely that her parents were also deceased and so couldn’t the next of kin have access to her birth certificate? And the person who signs him or herself as Vital Statistics replied:

Birth records and certificates are restricted for 100 years from date of the birth.

 Regards

 Yours truly
Vital Statistics

Will I still be alive in 2026? Will I remember? Will the trail, however faint it might be now, however overgrown and forgotten by almost everyone alive, will it have disappeared completely? I put my hope in the agencies on Cape Breton Island itself, hoping that they will recognize that “the most important fact about the tokens is that . . . they were left as identifiers”  and that they help me to make an identification, across 8 decades and a continent. My mother’s ashes were cast into water on the west coast of Vancouver Island as well as under a tree in my garden so she will never know the sad circumstances of her birth but I want to add to the archive I am keeping in my heart, made of small details: that her hair was dark and curly in childhood, that she wanted a middle name (she loved the name Sybille), that the Halifax she grew up in was full of old houses and leafy streets, that someone heard her first infant cry and either reached for her with love, or didn’t.