I grew up without a father. I have a photo of a tall handsome man holding me on his shoulder – I must have been one and a half, perhaps two? – but I have no memories of him. And when I was eleven he committed suicide. It meant little to me at the time. Only later, as the inevitable quest for identity began niggling, did I begin to question my mother, my older siblings, aunts, cousins … no two stories matched. What I learned was not about my father but about the subjectivity and unreliability of memory, particularly evident with respect to family stories.
Because I am a writer, skilled in creating what cannot be remembered or verified, and have discovered that such creations often approximate quite closely what we might call the truth – or at least an emotional if not a factual truth – I embarked on my story, tapping away at it in an expanding document called Mad Hatter. I researched my father: online, in various Archives, with family interviews, in history books pertaining to WW2, in books about Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, of which my father had been a member, and leader of the Stockport, Lancashire branch.
During my research I came across a newspaper article reporting that my father had been taken to court in 1953 by one, Vera Brennan, for child support of an infant daughter. This was a big moment in my quest, switching attention from my father to a half sibling. It was confirmation of my dead mother’s vague references to “possible half siblings, one, two, maybe three, with one or two different Irish women.”
I posted on Genealogy.com and after five years of silence came a response from a Dubliner – Maire Staunton (née Byrne). Already well into Mad Hatter, speeding along with an Irish narrator named Maire Byrne, it took me a moment to realize that I had just received an e-mail from one of my characters. Pure coincidence some might say, but for me it was a moment of fact and fiction overlapping, causing me to question even further this thing we call fiction. Maire wrote that she had reason to believe I might be blood-related to her adopted cousin Ann Gwilliam – and, to cut to the chase, Ann did indeed turn out to be that infant born in 1953, drawn to us by my quest.
Some months later Ann travelled from New Zealand, and I travelled from Canada, and we met up in England where my two full sisters live. It was a joyful meeting for us all, and especially for Ann who had longed for genetic family all her life. This, however, was only the beginning.
Ann had searched previously for a brother born to her mother and our father, but the adoption agency had been unable to disclose his whereabouts. Now, as we all were aging, she tried again and was not only given a lead on her brother, but was shown a newspaper article showing, on one page, our father holding baby Ann on his shoulder, and on the facing page another small girl – Helga – also on his shoulder in that distinctive position, and with a different mother at his side. Three girls, all riding on Daddy’s shoulders. My two older sisters. Our deceased brother. Our family was expanding.
We tracked down Helga who welcomed us, and told us that her mother had borne a previous daughter who had died very young – that made eight children. We discovered that our half-brother, Liam, (Ann’s full brother) had died at age 36 in sad circumstances – an unexplained decline after a childhood full of promise. The revelation of our family mysteries engendered even more mysteries – things we can never know.
Everyone turned to me as a writer to document this unfolding family story, but I had already written it – not exactly as described – but more or less, and with some strange “coincidences,” mostly in names echoed in this parallel reality, such as Maire Byrne, my Irish narrator, and other significant names chosen, as I thought, randomly. But most important was a girl and her brother born to an Irish woman out of wedlock, as Ann and Liam had been born, though they never met. Ann, adopted by an Irish Catholic family, suffered guilt about her illegitimacy, even though we three sisters embrace her fully and love her for our kinship.
When I saw that double-sided newspaper article with my half-siblings on Daddy’s shoulder I realized that my mother had seen it too, and that her offhand remarks about “one, two, maybe three half-siblings, with one or two Irishwomen” had been clues thrown out for her sleuthing child, writing and puzzling even then, and that the humiliation of betrayal had not allowed her to say more.
My conclusion is, if you lack answers to your vital questions, plumb your imagination, create a scene, and if there is a parallel scene out there in the universe your creation will draw it to you. Lean against the brick wall, wait actively, moving ahead with a story that will work the magic for you.