I was seven or eight when my parent told me I was adopted.
It happened over dinner.
Flippant, I was initially too worried whether there would be enough gravy for me to make my potato swamp. It wasn’t a big deal – I think I’d always known – like I’d always known I was a girl. The conversation over dinner was just a gentle confirmation of what I’d always known. Initially, it just didn’t seem to matter, I had parents a family who loved me, a little over protective maybe, but a family.
I played piano, danced and sang. I enjoyed my childhood. My father used to sing Leadbelly songs to me in English in Polish. He had a very deep voice and though he didn’t always remember the words, he would always come up with good ones as he went along.
I was sixteen when I realized my father didn’t know all the real lyrics to Leadbelly songs he’d sing.
I had started to drink in the city; the bars I went to were drenched in sea shanties and the blues. It never bothered me; I think perhaps his lyrics with chorus were better.
My parents had moved to Canada by Sweden back in 1973. It was perhaps easier for them as both my father and mother had family there from before the war. A bit older maybe and unable to have children they adopted me in 1985.
I don’t think I gave it, or them or her much thought until I was fourteen or fifteen. Passing wonders, worries – the sort you get. If they’re okay – if they know I’m okay. Why…
That type of thing.
My Amother, not my Bmother, had a sister called Letty. It was short for Letitia and had been the name of her mother’s best friend before the war. My mother and her sister were close; they knew each other like bald horses, as you might say,
I don’t remember my Aunt Letty.
I have tried.
The memories feel as if they are there.
They just won’t come.
My mother would always remark, “You banged your head a lot when you were little.” As if that was it.
It is one of those things – you say “I can’t quite describe it” before you try and describe it. When written it infuriates people, when spoken it confuses and sits like a road mark that you will talk for a long time and probably about the same thing but different but same.
Maybe you have that too. Memories that sit like they are behind a garden wall in your mind – perhaps with some degree of fog – you are aware they are there. But you cannot reach them. Occasionally, your brain your memory echoes with the hints of what is there. Partially remembered sounds and the recognition of scents that when followed the mnemonic path lead only to…blank.
A heavy frowned frontal lobe – a sort of frustrated congestion.
My mother would tell me stories about my Aunt Letty. Sometimes my father would join in. But it was mostly my mother was always telling me stories about Letty. It was as if she was still a member of the family that’d gone on holiday and we could expect her back any minute now. Smiling, laughing, with new stories and presents for everybody.
Some of the stories would be about their time as bald horses. From the little mischief as children to teenage trouble. She’d tell me what horrors they were – the intricate ways they would make to steal – mostly food I think and mostly from their grandmother and relatives – people in their block of flats.
Mushrooms were often the subject – often my mother would say,
“If you ask – if I have memory of my youth – I tell you, mushrooms. I remember mushrooms. Picking mushrooms, preparing mushrooms, eating mushrooms. My father was a park ranger and between him and my mother, they knew everything you could eat in the forest and the field. My favourite was mushrooms.”
When I was younger it would really upset me that I couldn’t remember my Aunt Letty and I would ask my mother if she was sure I really met Letty, if she was not confusing people and things. She would always reassure me, yes, yes we’d met. Letty knew me, loved me, I’d just bumped my head a lot when I was small.
Perhaps it was their age – but as I got older my parents grew very protective and very controlling. I think, maybe they were too old to have a child. They loved me, but sometimes, I don’t know. I find it very difficult to see them and now stay as far from them now as I can. My father lapses through worry and control of me and my situation to being depressed – it is a hard wall depression – I think just, that of age. Sometimes he tries not to be, but still is, sometimes he is and I try to lift him from it. Rarely – he just isn’t.
Letty used to wear trousers; Letty had a tape of a tape of a tape of ‘After the Gold Rush’ that a cousin had smuggled her. Her favourite song was ‘Southern Man’ but she and my mother sang ‘After the Gold Rush’ best. And once at Christmas while preparing the twelve dishes they made their uncles cry and they didn’t even know – they were just singing and cooking.
It is funny, because as my mother would tell, their uncles barely spoke two words of English between the four of them.
When I was very young, Letty used to pick me up and swirl and spin, singing ‘Southern Man’ to me. They tell me I used to laugh so hard sometimes I’d get sick and start crying and keep laughing. Though I don’t remember – I like to look at her picture now and imagine. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much since and I often don’t think it’s fair that I can’t remember something so happy. But, my mother tells me I knocked my head too much, makes sense.
When I think about it, I’m not sure I want my own children. I love teaching them, I just don’t know if I want my own. I am terrified of getting pregnant. I used to be scared of a lot of things – I spent a lot of time on my own. I think it comes from my parents. They were so controlling, so protective – I think it made me scared.
I’d just read a lot and spend time with my cat. I still read a lot, but my cat is dead. That cat anyway, I do have a new one, he is nice but not the same. I thought a lot, about what scared me and what made me anxious. Sometimes I think some of my nervousness comes maybe from not being able to remember Aunt Letty. Then I think of how protective my parents got. I don’t know what they thought, though now I think I spent too much thinking. It took me a long time to be brave. Now I do what I want.
I tried to be vegan for a few years – but it is too tiring in Poland. My Aunt Letty was strong – my mother used to tell me about how she never wanted a husband but didn’t mind having a man.
Often she would use this as an excuse to sing ‘Southern Man’. There are some things my parents used to cook that I can’t even smell anymore like meatballs and pork chops. All the heavy traditional food, also I hate cucumber soup.
I never wanted to be married – I was afraid of losing my independence. I think that was one part of being afraid. Maybe I wanted to be like Letty so much I was scared to be anything. It would be easier if I could remember her. I think asking him to marry me was a step in moving past the fear and anxiety and worrying about what people would think or thought of me.
Asking him was a good break from that, from them from worrying what people thought. Though we did it in secret, so my parents wouldn’t find out, so I didn’t have to invite them, so it could just be about us. What is it about anyway if not just the two of you? Polish weddings are good, yes you have fun, but it is exhausting and it is like – you are there performing for your friends because they’ll give you gifts and money. Who needs that?
One time, one of the priests from our area – he was very friendly, mostly with the girls though. He organised trips and had practices in his house. He organised a ski trip for us and we had after school classes with him at his house. He was very friendly – you don’t understand then I think, older yeah it’s weird, then it is just someone being friendly and one of my friends was flirty, she was attractive and I don’t think she understood what she was doing and she wanted me to go with her.
When my father found out – he said I was not to go to the priest anymore, he was angry and he went to speak with the priest. I never went to the priest’s house again.
When my parents told Aunt Letty, she was so angry she went to talk to the priest. She had my father drive her to the priest that night. They don’t know what she said, but the priest was not long in our area after that. That’s just Aunt Letty, my mother would say, it’s a pity you don’t remember her. Yeah I’d say, a pity I banged my head so much when I was small.
I don’t know about my childhood sometimes. I think sometimes I’d like brothers and sisters that I could ask what happened because I think for my young bit, I don’t remember things right. I think I have great ability to remember things happily and I don’t think this is always a good skill.
Though I’m not sure it’s a real skill or if I just tell myself I have it when I’m thinking. Aunt Letty always looked on the positive side of things, she never seemed to let worry drag her ankles. It was very difficult to be down or stressed around her, but don’t mistake, she could still be a hard woman. She got what she wanted, fought for it too, stole it if she couldn’t win it by fighting. All the time she used to tell me all these things when I’d sit in her lap – poking my belly to make a point – I don’t remember now, banged my head too much they tell me, but they do tell me she did it.
When I was younger, in my teens it began, I used to worry more about my Bmother than I did when I was a child it was just wonderings. As I grew I would think adult worries and worry them for her, as I learnt more I added more worries to her. I thought maybe she was poor, maybe she had been sick – many worries. I wouldn’t always do this, just now and again.
In my twenties – I would wonder if she was okay – I would wonder what she thought. I would worry that she worried about me.
I wanted to let her know I was okay.
That it all turned out okay.
That I’d turned out okay.
That – everything was okay.
In the hope that perhaps she wouldn’t worry anymore.
That is, if she was worrying – which I felt a little bit that she was.
I looked for her.
When I had my chance – when I wasn’t afraid.
I think it is what Letty would have done.
It was difficult and my parents were not very helpful in the beginning.
They told me where or how they got me.
It took quite some time and many meetings to get everything okayed and with the changes in the systems even then the papers were partially lost or hard to trace.
I was directed to the place – school or home.
I visited a lot. While they tried to find the papers – I even tried to help while I was there – I – when I was there, it was, orphanage is the name, yes – it was an orphanage.
It was very hard.
They had women there, waiting to give birth, waiting to give their children over. The women in charge told me some of them were there for their sixth or seventh child in a row.
It didn’t matter what they said – they refused everything, sterilisation contraception anything. Many of them were very religious. Many didn’t seem to know better.
It was very hard.
I try help them, the staff, the -. Just small amounts.
As I went. Always visiting to try and find her.
I remember seeing the children first time. There were many in the room, all in enclosed beds. The smell, it was – they’d try get your attention. Anyway they could. The only way they could.
Some would cry with their arms out.
Others would stand or sit and bang and knock and bump their head against the bars of their cot bed.
if they banged and knocked their heads, they’d get picked up.
So they did – over and over.
Banging banging knocking knocking, crying.
Just to be picked up, only to be picked up.
They knew you see.
They knew and I think they’d always known and they did what they needed to, to get picked. Up or I don’t know, just picked.
I never went back.
I gave up.
I’m happy though.
I still think about her sometimes.
But it’s too hard. To keep looking.
To go back.
I still think about Letty too and how I don’t remember her.