The Man in Our House Was Not My Grandfather After All (Part I)March 23rd, 2007
by Emma Ashwood
One of the strangest things about life is the way that it rewrites itself. One moment, there you are, with the facts of your existence spread out in front of you, tidy and accessible, like a picnic on a blanket.
Perhaps you look away. And when you look back, everything is different. Rearranged by a glittering train of ants.
It’s a little Alice-In-Wonderland. It’s a little unnerving. It seems to happen all the time. Here’s an example.
My mother and my granddad, who turned out just to be a nice old man who lived with us
Growing up, I had two surviving grandparents. My father’s mother. And my mother’s father. The latter, my granddad, had lived with us for as long as I can remember.
Pipe in mouth, he sat watching TV, patting out embers that sparked on his cardigan and trousers. He did not take part in the life of the house. He was unpredictable. And grew more so. After a while, he ventured less out of his room. He became reclusive.
My parents used to argue about him. My dad was afraid he would set the house on fire. Left alone, chaos would unspool from his fingertips. Left alone, he would rather starve than eat. By the time I was in my late teens, he had not left his room for half a decade. He was diagnosed with emphysema. My mother nursed him day and night. He was a dying ghost, haunting our house.
I felt guilty. I think I was afraid of him. Afraid of his sickness. The phlegm on the floor. The way he’d stop mid-conversation and look fixedly out of the window, chewing emptily.
After he died (aged 89), my mother said something odd. She said she didn’t think that he was her father. We thought it was the grief. But that wasn’t it. She was able to be honest with herself for the first time.
it was odd to think that the man she had nursed for so many years had kept a lifelong secret. But she was right. As it turned out, my mother had been adopted. She was 51 when this was confirmed with a birth certificate.
The birth certificate gave her a surname, the name of a village and an itch to investigate. But who would be there fifty years later?
My parents visited the place. They walked through the churchyard, looking for gravestones bearing the family name. There was little to find. They knocked at the church door, hoping to see old Parish records. No-one answered. My parents weren’t really expecting anyone to do so.
They were leaving when a cottage door opened. A man emerged onto the doorstep, a shocked expression on his face. He said to my mother, “You had better come in.”
We had always believed that my mother was English. We thought she was born in North London to a couple in their early middle age. We believed that she was an only child.
As it turned out, not one of these things was true.
This is my real grandfather.
My real grandfather who is faintly reminiscent of someone famous
He was Italian-American, lately from California. I can’t tell you his name (but it wasn’t Elvis). He served in the US Army in the Second World War. He was stationed in a small village in England. He met a girl. I can’t name her either. She became pregnant. Her family hushed it up.
The man who had come to the door was a relative.
He and his wife had spotted my mother walking through the village. They had never seen her before but they knew exactly who she was. The family secret had come home.
Of course, that was only half the story. As my mother sat drinking coffee in their sitting room, in this suddenly-arrived mirror world, they told her that she had a brother - a full brother, who didn’t know she existed. What was more, his mother had given him to his aunt as a baby, so he’d grown up believing his aunt was his mother and his mother his aunt.
Let’s go back to the 1940s. The Italian-American soldier had made his English girlfriend pregnant. Her family wanted to hush it up. She gave birth to a little boy. The family arranged that the baby be given to her married, older sister to bring up.
It was the way of things during the war, during the 1940s. Apparently, it happened a lot.
Eventually, the soldier returned to California. But their affair had continued until the time he left, in spite of the re-housing of their son. And before they said goodbye, she was pregnant a second time.
Her family was horrified. There was no space and no money to bring up a second baby. They sent the mother-to-be to a tiny village in Wales to have her daughter. They had the baby – my mother – adopted by a middle-aged couple in London. And then everyone kept quiet for 50 years.
People were good at keeping secrets then. They must have been. To divide a brother from his sister and never tell one about the other. To keep the secret of a second child from a father. To pretend that a son was a nephew.
I don’t understand it. The characters alienate me. They are thin, inexplicable figures. I feel the urge to fictionalise. To ascribe motive and feeling. But I can’t do that without apportioning blame. Instead, I worry over the events like beads.
So, my nationality and family were somewhat different to what I’d thought. My mother had a new identity and a brother.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. And things hadn’t even begun to get weird.
Got 23 seconds to spare? Read my 7-line story in Opium Online.