It looks like me

One Saturday, in late May 2002, Leonard paid an unexpected visit to his youngest daughter Vicky. As they sat on the sofa chatting and drinking tea, Vicky could sense that her dad had something on his mind, as he was toying with a brown envelope on his lap.

She didn’t press him, and eventually he opened up the envelope and took out a photograph. Leonard asked his daughter who she thought it was in the picture, “It looks like me, but obviously it isn’t,” she replied. After a deep breath Leonard told her, “It is your sister”.

Well, Vicky’s sister was called Kate and it certainly wasn’t her. Her dad could obviously see the confusion in her face and began to tell her more of the story. The photograph was a picture of Ellen, taken when she was about 40 years old, in roughly 1986. Ellen had been born to Vicky’s mum, Jane, in 1946, before she had met Leonard. Jane had been in service at the time and had been packed off to a home for unmarried mothers in the next county. Jane was the oldest of 9 children but the only one of her siblings to be aware of the pregnancy had been May, the next oldest and her closest sister.

It is not known where Jane went after Ellen was born, but she tried desperately hard to keep her. Sadly, when Ellen was six months old it proved impossible to bring up a baby and hold down a job; Jane had to put her up for adoption. This was early 1947.

In the years that followed Jane and Leonard married and had five children together. They moved away from Jane’s home county of Berkshire and went north to Lincolnshire, moving around but never very far, and finally settling in Nottinghamshire. The children grew up and some had families of their own and life went on, as it does. Jane became ill with Multiple Sclerosis which grew worse as the years passed, and by May 2002, she was quite poorly, having had a stroke two years previously and suffered with breathing problems. Despite this she retained her sharp mind.

Those intervening years had seen Ellen in a loving adoptive home in a county close to Berkshire, getting married, having children and grandchildren of her own. She had always known that she was adopted but, as is often the case, did not want to upset her parents by looking into her roots whilst they were still alive. So the day came when she felt able to begin her search.

Ellen employed the services of a specialist in the adoption field and was surprised that the results were soon successful, with the family name she was looking for being Jones. Ellen had her birth certificate which gave her mother’s name as Jane Jones. The researcher put Ellen in touch with a woman called Pearl Jones, who turned out to be Jane’s late brother’s wife, who lived fairly local to Ellen. Yes, she recognised Jane’s full name but knew nothing of a child. Pearl gave Ellen the number of Jane’s closest sister, May, who was the only other person to have known about the baby in 1946. After a while, and several letters and phone calls with Ellen, May decided to contact Leonard who tentatively said that she could give his address to Ellen. Fairly soon afterwards Ellen wrote a letter and sent a photograph of herself to him, which takes us back to the beginning of this story.

Jane had been honest with Leonard from the start, but Ellen had never been mentioned again; Leonard had no interest in bringing up another man’s child.

Leonard asked Vicky how she felt about the situation. Well, what could she feel? Shock, obviously, after all the stories of ‘it didn’t go on in my day’. But certainly not horror or disgust; more like interest and empathy, and a huge wave of sympathy for her mum, who must have gone through torture every birthday and Christmas that she missed with her first child.

As Vicky was the youngest and remained closest to her parents, she had been the one to be told first. How her siblings would react she and Leonard could only guess, but they hoped that they would be equally accepting. Vicky was delegated the job of telling her older sister, Kate, first. Vicky broke the news to her the next week after they had visited Jane in hospital, and after her initial shock, she also took it calmly and with curiosity. It is a bit of a blur as to who told their three brothers, and when.

The next day Leonard visited Jane alone and read out a letter which Ellen had written to her. Such a sweet letter which started by saying that she felt no anger or blame for being given up for adoption. Ellen wanted to visit her mum and the task of broaching this subject was again left to Vicky. In hindsight it seems a ridiculous notion that a woman would have refused to see the daughter she gave up nearly 60 years earlier but, feeling very protective of her mum, Vicky would have done everything in her power to keep Ellen away, had Jane said no. Of course, she said yes.

It was arranged that Ellen and her husband would travel up on the Tuesday, visit Jane, stay overnight locally and visit her again before travelling home on the Wednesday. Vicky met her new sister and the visits on Tuesday and Wednesday all went to plan.

Vicky went to the hospital after work on the Thursday for her usual visit; Jane was not very talkative but never was these days. When Vicky kissed her mum goodbye, she promised to bring a book to read to her the next day. ‘The Secret Garden’ had been a favourite when Vicky was a child and she loved her mum reading it to her.

Later that evening Leonard phoned; the hospital had rung him and things didn’t look good for Jane. Vicky and her husband dashed off to the hospital and met Leonard just as he was entering the ward. The curtains were pulled around the bed and when they went through, there was a young nurse sitting there quietly crying. They were too late, Jane had died.

Vicky has no recollection of the nurse leaving the bedside and will never even know who she was, but will forever be glad that she was there at the end and cared enough to be upset.

It is Vicky’s firm belief that Jane had been waiting for the moment when her first-born child had found and met up with her and was then content to go to sleep for the very last time, happy that she had seen her daughter again after nearly 60 years.

Vicky went to great lengths to reassure Ellen that none of the family felt that she bore any blame for Jane’s death. Their mother had simply decided that it was time to go.

It seems that, in the early days, Jane had been allowed to visit Ellen from time to time and Ellen remembers being given a dolly in a red dress by the nice lady who used to visit her. The visits stopped when Ellen was about 3 years old, which probably coincided with the time that Jane and Leonard moved up north.

All that is known of Ellen’s father is that he was in the American Navy.

Leonard slowly made his way through Jane’s belongings, and in the bottom of her knitting bag, found this picture. He knew it was of his wife but had never seen it before and suspected that the baby was Ellen. He sent a copy of it to Jane’s sister, May, who confirmed that it was indeed Jane and Ellen. It could so easily have been thrown away with the knitting bag, but is now treasured by Ellen.

Rosie Knees

© Rosie Knees 2008

(Names have been changed to protect privacy)