When I was about 20 I started to trace my family tree. I didn’t finish doing it, and I eventually had to throw away the roll of wallpaper I ended up having to write it on. Everything got very complicated, and my parents ended up telling me I never should have opened that can of worms.
I grew up with both my parents, my two older brothers, and I had a good childhood. Dad worked 6 days a week, Mum worked part-time. Our Grandparents had unfortunately all died before I was born – I think some were alive when my brothers were born, but I’m not sure. My Auntie Freda came over every Saturday whilst I was growing up, and my Uncle Bill came every Sunday – they were Mum’s brother and sister, and as a child even I could tell they were both a lot older than her. My Dad had a sister called Wendy who popped over at the weekend to pick up a chicken (my Dad was a butcher), and Mum’s best friend Val also popped over for her chicken every Saturday.
We also had family in Wisbech who we didn’t see very much. Any time we had to visit Auntie Phil, we moaned and carried on, because her house smelt of cabbages and we didn’t like the journey. We were always made to go at least twice a year though. She was another of Mum’s siblings, and a lot older than her.
I can’t remember when I found out Mum was adopted. I think I probably asked her one day why her brothers and sisters were so much older, and she told me. She also shared a lot with me about how my Grandma never made a secret of the fact she adopted Mum, and would taunt her with ‘being sent back to the orphanage’ if she was ever naughty. I don’t think Mum had a particularly good childhood – she didn’t say much more about it, but being so much younger than your siblings, as well as having someone who adopted you but also seemed to not really want you can’t have been easy.
My Uncle Bill doted on my Mum, and right up until he died, me and my brothers were always his favourites. He would babysit for us, wrote the most incredibly thoughtful cards for our birthdays – just thinking about his spidery looping handwriting right now is making me sad he’s gone – and had photos of us all around his house.
The Good Friday when I was 8, we arranged to go and see Auntie Phil because it was school holidays. I really didn’t want to go and we all complained. We were shouted down by Mum, and I said I’d go but only if I could ride my bike up the road for a bit first. I learnt to ride my bike really late, and only mastered it a couple of weeks before, so it was all still a bit exciting. I was allowed to go to Lisa’s house on my own but no further, so I rode to Lisa’s, and then did a big skidding turn in the road to come home again.
Unfortunately, I fell off my bike, and trapped my leg weirdly underneath. I couldn’t move, not only because I was trapped, but also because of the pain. Finally, a van started driving down our road, and I really thought I was going to get run over. Luckily, a man got out the van and recognised me as ‘Gilly’s Daughter’ (I look exactly like my Dad, as well as every single person in Spalding knowing Gilly) – he picked me up, put me in the van, and took me home.
Mum didn’t believe there was anything wrong with me, and thought I was doing it to get out of going to Wisbech. She made me walk up and down the hallway, wincing in pain, until eventually my brother convinced her I didn’t seem to be lying. We got in the car and drove to the local hospital, where Elliot and Mum carried me in awkwardly as I had finally refused to walk because of the pain. Mum begrudgingly allowed them to x-ray me, still not believing I had an injury, and it turned out I had a fractured femur (thigh bone). Worse still, because I’d been made to walk on it, the bone had broken, but then been pushed into itself by the pressure of standing up, so they had to pull my leg straight, and then put me in traction. I was told it was a week in traction for every year you’ve been alive, and so 8 weeks in traction loomed ahead.
My Mum cried and cried, apologising over and over, and then proceeded to never miss a day visiting me at about 4pm. It’s only as an adult that I can see she felt so guilty – as a child I never thought it was Mum’s fault at all. I don’t know what went on between Mum and Dad, but he cycled 16 miles every day to the hospital after work to see me, and then got a lift home in the car with Mum after 8pm.
A few months later, I got out of hospital, and after physio got back to walking normally. Then we found out Auntie Phil had a really bad heart attack. Mum never made that visit to see her, because I was in hospital, so she was really upset, and felt guilty, and wanted to see her at the weekend. I think I probably got a bit spoilt in hospital, and so I complained about going to visit her, but Mum had none of it, and insisted I went with her. My brothers by this time were old enough to stay at home.
Although she was out of hospital, Auntie Phil didn’t look good. She lived in a tiny council flat, and most of her children and Grandchildren were there – as a consequence it was jam-packed, especially as I believe she had about 30 Grandchildren. Mum seemed really sad and tense – I was just annoyed because I wanted to be at home drawing, and instead was sitting with a load of my cousins who I’d literally never met before, who are all older than me as well as being boys.
Suddenly Auntie Phil started to convulse. Everyone started shouting things and running at her, and it seemed like everything was in slow motion. I remember her eyes rolling back in her head, her mouth frothing, and then she slumped. I couldn’t bear to look at her, so after that I just stared at the fish tank – I remember that fish tank so clearly, even now.
The next thing I knew, Mum told me she had to take Auntie Phil back to hospital because she’d had another heart attack. I probably moaned and asked when I could go home, but she silenced me with a ‘look’ and said my cousins would look after me. As it was a Saturday, I sat in Auntie Phil’s flat, watching fish, for what seemed like hours, while my cousins drank beer and watched football on the television. Every now and again I’d ask when my Mummy was coming back, or the phone would ring and one of my cousins would say, ‘no news,’ to no one in particular.
Finally, Mum came back, and shouted at my cousins because no one had made me a sandwich, and then we drove home. We sat in silence for most of the journey – I can’t remember when she told me Auntie Phil had died, or whether I just guessed. All I cared about was going to Church Parade in the morning because I was carrying the flag for the Guides.
So the next morning I walked to Church as normal, and told them all my Auntie died the day before, because I thought it might get me some sympathy. When the vicar said we should pray for anyone who had lost someone, I felt a little thrill when the other Guides all looked at me, and I tried to look brave. I wasn’t really that upset I lost my Auntie, I never liked visiting her anyway.
After Church Parade, Mum had said she’d pick me up. When she was late, I thought I’d help her out by beginning to walk home – I knew that I’d probably pass her on the way and she could take me the rest of the way home. However, I made it all the way home without seeing her, and the car wasn’t in the driveway. I sat on the doorstep waiting for her to come back.
Finally I saw the car come round the corner. Mum slammed the car door, ran over and started shouting at me. I honestly couldn’t work out what I’d done wrong. She kept saying, ‘today of all days!’ and throwing her hands in the air. Uncle Bill followed her out of the car, came over and hugged Mum, and took her inside. He poured them both a whisky and orange, and she sat snivelling at the kitchen table.
Uncle Bill came over.
‘What on earth did you do that for, Chloe?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We thought you’d been hurt or taken away!’
‘Well, Mum was late picking me up, so I walked home.’
‘We’ve been driving up and down for ages looking for you. Your Mum doesn’t need this, today of all days.’
‘I don’t understand what I did wrong.’
‘Chloe, her Mum died yesterday, she’s very upset.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Your Auntie Phil was your Mummy’s Mum, you knew that didn’t you?’
No, as it happens I didn’t. I was always told she was Mum’s sister. As it turned out, I’d watched my Grandmother die the day before. I felt so angry that no one had told me I had a Grandparent, whilst feeling guilty for being pleased she died so I could get sympathy at church. I felt guilty for every time I didn’t want to visit her, and even felt guilty for having broken my leg and therefore stopping my Mum from visiting her before she’d had the heart attack.
Since then, I’ve pieced together what I think must have happened from stories Mum told me, so some of this may or may not be true. Phil slept with a sailor called Herbert when she was 15, and because she was so young, her mother adopted Mum when she gave birth at the age of 16. Mum was brought up as Phil’s sister without knowing it was really her Mum, but was always told she was adopted. I don’t really know when Mum found out Phil was her birth mother, but I don’t think it was still while Great-Grandma was alive.
All the tension and sadness to do with Auntie Phil now makes sense. Mum felt she had to visit Phil at regular intervals, even though she hated the fact she’d been brought up as her sister. She was bullied and threatened by my Great-Grandma who loved to remind her that she wasn’t her own daughter, but not told until she was an adult that she was in fact related to her, as well as the rest of the family. To make a member of your family feel like a stranger is cruel and unusual punishment for daring to be born out of wedlock.
So this is the reason I finally threw away the family tree. All the cousins, all the shifting generations, marriages… it all became too complicated for me to simply draw on wallpaper. It seemed kinder to Mum to throw it away, and maybe get some peace.