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