A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Joyce Maguire Pavao in London.
When I traveled the United States in Spring 2012 on a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship, making contact with Joyce was central to my project being a success. She opened up professional networks to me that I would have otherwise had no contact with.
For me, Joyce became a mentor. Her enthusiasm and support meant a great deal. More than that, I’m very glad to have made a good friend in Joyce.
It was Joyce that said to me “You not only need to ask the grandmothers who decided to keep their grand-children why they did that, you need to ask the grandmothers who decided to give to give their grand-children away. Why did those grand-mothers choose to give their grand-children to strangers?”
I’m paraphrasing, but it is the gist of the question she posed. In many cases, grandparents will be central to the decision being made to whether a child should be adopted out of their family.
I can’t imagine the impact it must have had when my grandmother Sheila found out her 14-year old daughter Sandra was six months pregnant. This was in 1969, in a village in rural Staffordshire, the north midlands of England. For such a small community, that must have been tough.
It must have been shocking news in the community, the subject of much talk and gossip. But to credit my birth-mother Sandra, and my Mum and Dad Sheila and Neil, if they ever did feel the pressure of local rumors, they never passed this onto me.
And through all of that, I was kept in the family.
Only once did I ever see someone be cruel to my Mum about this. It was a couple of years before she passed away, and I was at an antiques fair with my Mum. Dad had died a couple of years before and we were having a day out in Buxton, a beautiful historic spa town close to where Mum lived.
This woman came up to Mum and me – I’d never met this woman before. I’m glad I don’t remember this woman’s name. She was with her grandson. She asked my Mum Sheila how she was and Mum introduced me as her son.
This woman kept saying, “But isn’t this your GRAND-son, Sheila? Isn’t that right?” Poor Mum was squirming. I have no idea what this woman was actually trying to achieve by saying this, and was horrified that this woman kept pushing the point. Did she not realize? How could she not see how uncomfortable this was making Sheila?
A couple of years later when Mum passed away, I was organizing her funeral, and the local undertaker Mr Sigley was a very kind and lovely man.
Being adopted by my grandparents, it can be confusing when I explain how I’m related to people in my own family. For example, my adoptive Mum is my birth-grandmother, but I call her Mum. I was writing the notice for the local newspaper about Mum’s passing, and I happened to refer to Mark as my brother. Over the weeks with the funeral arrangements I’d referred to Mark as my nephew – as weird as that might sound, by adoption, that’s what he was.
“Oh.. Mr Sigley, perhaps I need to explain..” I wanted to clarify and confusion.
“Leon .. there’s no need to explain. We live within a small community. I know your situation.”
At 39 years old I was being told by an undertaker I’d never met before that he knew all about my back story in that one exchange. How I came to be, and who I was. He did it kindly, and he did it with grace.
As for that woman at the antiques fair – she needs to learn that people need to be judged on what they do for others and how they behave through life, not where they came from. My Mum is my Mum, and I’m no less her son because of that.
Why didn’t my grand-mother give me away? I’ll never know the answer to that now but I’m thankful she wasn’t a grandmother who gave her grandchild away.