On discovering a lost sister

07.15.11

First appeared in oh comely, issue 3.

I was eleven when I first found out I had a sister. Breakfast in our backyard on a Sunday and my mother freshly returned from a ‘business’ trip to the East Coast where she’d gone to meet the daughter she’d given up for adoption twenty-six years earlier. The early spring sun was dripping through the trees as she told us and I saw tears glistening in my older brother’s eyes. Being eleven, I think the enormity of such a revelation passed me by initially, but I’d never seen him cry before and the sight was sufficient to set me off too. In the years since, I’ve always found our tears hard to explain. That is, there’s no strict emotion to which they correlate. It wasn’t sadness, or joy, or pain. Rather, it was something more subtly drawn, a shifting in family dynamics that, being so young, I could only dimly perceive.

The secrecy of the trip seemed fitting, though. Up until this point nobody knew about the child except for mum’s best friend and my father. Despite being only 21 when she fell pregnant, she had kept it hidden from everybody: her parents, her nine siblings, the baby’s father. She simply wore increasingly loose fitting clothes for five months and then departed, telling everyone she was going on a trip to New Zealand. Instead she used the money she had saved up to go travelling through Europe and took herself to Ballarat until the baby was born. She even arranged for pre-written postcards to be despatched from New Zealand at regular intervals. Not much gets past my mother.

I can’t imagine what the isolation must have been like for her then, stuck in the country without family and friends, waiting for a child to be born just so that she could give it away. It must have been achingly lonely, but for mum that was the only possibility. Being raised a Catholic, and dealing with the mores of the time, abortion was never even a consideration. Neither, evidently, was staying with the father. Despite years of gentle prodding, mum has never told anyone anything about who he may have been, but for the faintly ridiculous fact that he was a “ski enthusiast”. Not even my sister knows who the man was.

Mum didn’t feel she could reveal it to her own family either, although not for the reasons one might expect. When she finally did tell grandma, in 1996, the day after mum had herself met her daughter for the first time, grandma’s reaction was a tear-choked “Why didn’t you tell us? You know we would have raised it as our own”. But for mum that was the exact reason she hadn’t. Always poor, Irish immigrants, grandma would have been looking after seven children of her own at the time.

So my mum left. Aptly enough, my sister was born on April Fool’s Day, 1968, after a full day’s labour. She was whisked away before my mother could lay eyes on her and was adopted out to a farming couple in northern Victoria.

So, to return to the question of those tears. Shock was part of it surely, but I think it was something deeper than that too. I think it was a reaction to the sudden humanisation of my mother, the realisation that for the first time in my life she wasn’t a semi-abstracted deity, but was, rather, just a person, frail and fallible, with a history and secrets and a life beyond my seeing. But every child has moments like that, it seems: those points in time when they realise that their parents exist in the same order of being as everyone else and so have to rearrange their love accordingly. It’s a fall from grace, of a sort, but most of growing up is.

Yet in the absence of that sheen of invulnerability, one’s parents suddenly become a lot more interesting and vital. Rendered human, it’s possible to see with some clarity what it is that actually makes them remarkable. I don’t pretend to understand the full scale of what giving away her baby meant to my mother, nor how she resolved it all in her own mind. But by any measure it’s an incredible set of decisions to have made, and to have lived with. In discovering them, I can only look on in quiet wonder at the woman she came to be.