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Thursday, July 29, 2010

41. My Reading Life (5) Blumenthal: All My Mothers and Fathers

Of late – that is to say: over recent months – my reading life has been focussed on memoirs. In particular I have sought out accounts of adoptions – stories of women who have relinquished children; stories of children who grew up in orphanages; stories of children who discovered, earlier or later in life, that they had been adopted; tales of abandonment, tales of the quest for one’s roots.

Michael Blumenthal’s All My Mothers and Fathers is such a book. Blumenthal is younger than me by 6 years; he was born in 1949, the child of Germans Jews who migrated to America just before the Second world War, refugees who escaped the atrocities suffered by Europe’s Jews.

Michael Blumenthal is a poet, and was Director of the Creative Writing program at Harvard University for a decade.
When Blumenthal was 10, his mother – the woman he had always thought was his mother – died of cancer. It was soon after this that he discovered that his aunt and uncle were in fact his biological parents. Like me, Michael was adopted by a childless couple who longed to have a child. His adoptive parents were well off; Michael was ‘traded’ for material gain – his birth parents were set up in business in return for relinquishing their son. His birth parents already had two children ; Michael grew up believing them to be his cousins, when in fact they were his brother and sister!

The ‘all’ in the title of the book – ALL my mothers and fathers – relates to the fact that Michael’s adoptive father remarried; so Michael has three mothers – his biological mother, his adoptive mother, and his step mother.
The memoir traces the lives of one family of German Jewish people who sought ‘find their voice’ in what Blumenthal refers to as the rich cacophony that is America.

Although Michael was aware from an early age of his adoption, his origins were shrouded in secrecy. Eventually, in 1992, at the age of 43, he decides to write to Berthold and Nelly – his birth parents, to seek clarification. What prompts him is the birth of his own son – whom they are about to meet for the first time.
He writes:
I am writing to you today about a serious matter ...I have realised for many years ... how painful it has been fro me that neither (or both) of you, nor anyone in my “other “ family, has ever fully explained to me the circumstances surrounding my birth and adoption ... I have had to live with this imperfect knowledge – and you have had to live with the pain of keeping the “secret” of it for the past 43 years. It seems to me that now – while we are all still alive – it is high time that someone told me the WHOLE truth ... or at least what you know and can tell. I deserve to know, my son deserves to know...

My own adoptive families – the Carozzi family (my father’s side) and the Kipping family (my mother’s side) – shared the secret of my birth and adoption for 66 years. The information that I was adopted only came to light in a chance conversation between my aging Aunt Doreen, who would have been 80 at the time, and my ex-wife.
‘Of course you know Barry was adopted,’ Aunt Doreen said.
‘No,’ my ex wife replied.
‘Oh – well – you mustn’t tell him. We were all sworn to secrecy.’
So for two years my ex wife didn’t tell me. Eventually she told our sons, and they me – the next day! I am so grateful to them for their thoughtfulness, their understanding that I had some rights in this matter, that I had the right to know.
Blumenthal’s letter continues:

I would like, and deserve, to know what occurred during that strange time now almost half a century ago when I was born. No one should have to go through their entire life, as I have until now, with the story of their birth and adoption such a mystery. And I don’t think either of you has any idea how much pain and suffering and confusion these “mysteries” have caused me ... and may yet cause my son if they aren’t clarified.

What is it like, not to know?

For years I believed that the sense of separateness I felt stemmed from some fault, some flaw in me; that my ‘only child’ status, and the love that Linda and Herbie poured on me, the sacrifices they were willing to make, their determination that I should not have to go through the poverty they experienced during the years of the Great Depression, their determination that I would have a better life – that these things had made of me a spoiled brat, a ‘show off’, a self-centered child who thought (to use Linda’s words) he was ‘the only pebble on the beach’, someone who needed to be brought down a peg or two.

I was part of the Carozzi family, part of the Kipping family, and yet – not part. Somehow on the outer, on the edge. Tolerated. Memories flood back. The first story that I wrote, probably around the Christmas of 1949, after my first year at school...

We’re at my Aunty Vonny’s, and I’m sitting on the couch, writing a story about a farmer and a crow, while my cousins are outside playing tiggy or hide and seek among the sheds and out houses and fruit trees in Aunt Vonny’s back yard. I’d always framed that story accounting for my separateness as a result of my peculiarities. I was a strange little, ill at ease among his cousins –nearly all of whom were older - living in my own world.

Perhaps I was simply an outcast, not included, because I wasn’t really one of them. It is difficult not to conclude that what was at issue had something to do with the primitive notion of ‘blood’ – the belief they held, probably unconsciously, that I was not of the same ‘blood’.

Michael Blumenthal puts it like this:
I belong entirely to no one. I’m not really my father’s... I’m not really my aunt’s and uncle’s... I am not really anyone’s. I am piecemeal, dismembered, scattered, my paternity divided, my maternity – or what I know of it – deceased... I am a boy with two homes and the keys to neither.

One of the things I found it hardest to cope with, in that first month after my ‘enlightenment’ was the collusion of my whole family, of both my families, in the secret that my mother had insisted be kept. Every cousin, every aunt and uncle, knew. And had known for decades. Even my youngest cousin, almost 20 years younger than me, had known since she was a teenager.

My father died in 1989, my mother in 1991. Why didn’t they tell me then? The question kept gnawing away at me.
During the final three years of Linda’s life, as her health declined, several people had tried to persuade Linda – my adoptive mother – to tell me. But she had kept that secret for almost 50 years. There was no way that she could change. She must have believed that I would react badly, that I would disown her, cease to love her, cease to regard her as my mother. That would have been too much for her to bear, I think. And so she maintained her silence, to the grave. As had my father.

Some of my cousins said, ‘We thought you knew.’
One, perhaps feeling the guilt of their deception, the injustice of their silence a little more keenly, said, ‘Did we do the wrong thing, keeping it from you?’

Discovering the truth has had many positive aspects. Many aspects of my life and of my personality began, suddenly, more explicable. More importantly: I discovered that I have a brother. He had not known of my existence. He was three when I was born. Our mum had left Heyfield and given birth to me at The Haven, a home for Unmarried mothers, in Fitzroy. As far as I can ascertain, no one in the Bertram family knew of my existence.

When I met my brother for the first time, we stared at each other for many minutes. I saw the deep dimple in his chin. My beard masked my dimple, but I assured him it was there. We stared at each other – examined ears, hair line, the shape of our noses, the colour of our hair – looking for similarities.
‘When you were little,’ he said, ‘what colour was your hair?’
‘Blond,’ I told him. ‘I had blond curly hair till I was four.’
He slapped his thigh triumphantly, like a punter winning a bet.

The next day, when he took me to our mother’s grave, and we stood there looking at the dull rectangular concrete, with her ‘married’ name EDWARDS, I found myself holding back tears. Before we parted, we hugged.

‘What, finally, is blood?’

What is this feeling of connectedness that is so strong and deep and primitive?

Michael Blumenthal puts it this way:
What, finally, is blood? Who are these people? What are these people to me, and I to them? What force, what inexorable claims of destiny and blood, have brought us together once more?

There are two contrary forces within each of us, two impulses. One is the impulse to be tribal, to have our place within the tribe. Over the last 50 years we have witnessed the slow disappearance of extended families, the drift towards nuclear families, a plunge into fractured families. The tribal family – in which, as the old saying goes, blood is thicker than water, is a rarity these days. In the forties and fifties, almost the whole the Carozzi clan – my father’s clan – lived within walking distance of each other. Grandma Carozzi, Aunty Rita, Aunty Ina, Uncle Arthur, Aunty Vonny, and my dad. Garrie, all lived in Coburg. All lived within easy walking distance. Most of the Kippings lived in or near Hamilton until the late 40s and early 50s, when the drift to the city began.

Families, churches, football teams, political parties, even local neighbourhoods – these tribes , often interlinking, drew people together, gave people a sense of belonging. Tribes allow people to define insiders and outsiders.
The other impulse is our human impulse to individuation – to be ourselves. It is the impulse to be an individual, and not to be contained and stifled within the narrow expectations of ‘the tribe’. And so we are pulled by these tidal forces, toward the two competing hemispheres – the hemisphere of the instinctual tribe and the hemisphere of the individual, the separate self.

While Blumenthal doesn’t deal with the aspect of our being in these particular terms, the longing for absorption into the tribal, and the pressure to be one-self, is everywhere apparent. Perhaps these discomforts are particularly strong for those of us who are adopted. As Michael writes: I am a boy with two homes and the keys to neither.
One particularly potent observation of his resonated with me:
He refers to ...the classically Freudian counsel to a prospective father: that the best thing a man can do for his son is to love his son’s mother. But how, I wonder, can a man with a past like mine ... love anyone ? In the schizoid world of my psychological needs, two sometimes opposed desires – the craving for passion and the need for security – dwell side by side. And if a divided heart, as Faulkner suggested ..., is a prerequisite for writing, the inkwell of my heart must surely house ...a James Joyce – or , at least, a Phillip Roth – in the making.

And then there is the whole question of multiplicity, of the multiple selves who are tenants in this ‘tenement of clay’:
Whitman was large,... contained multitudes. Why is it, then, that I, a medium-sized man trying to make himself at home in a world not entirely of his own choosing, can’t I manage at least to contain a small crowd?

He goes on the further explore his problem – which, I recognise, is my problem as well, and echoing William James' take on the multiplicity that lies within each of us:

One chooses, if one can, from some sort of stable centre, from the self’s locus of constancy amid all its external flux. But I, it sometimes seems... have no center: I am both a Gern and a Blumenthal, a chicken farmer and a furrier, an immigrant and an American, a son and a stepson. I am blood and water, divided and dismembered, a man trying to put all his eggs in a single basket.

There is, in Michael Blumenthal, a deep dissatisfaction, a deepest sadness that comes from not knowing his place. He describes how, despite having a great teaching job at Harvard, fantastic students in a beautiful city, with marvellous friends and a history of sweet, generous, interesting loves’ he is, nonetheless, glum. Which brings him to ask of himself: ‘Amid such plenty, how can such ingratitude exist?’

Like Michael, I have much to be thankful for in my life. Although I’m well past retirement age, I continue to teach, and almost every day I enjoy my teaching; I teach year 8, year 9 and year 12, and for the most part, they are decent, friendly young people who treat me with respect; I have a loving partner and five loving children; I have friends; and I have had a brother for almost a year.

Michael’s friend describes him, though, as always up on the diving board, and never relaxing on the lounge chair. And maybe that is true of me, too. Two of my oldest and closest friends, Meryl and Peta, both say of me: ‘I don’t know anyone else who could do what you have done – come back to secondary teaching and make a go of it.’ Another of my friends who has retired has pretty much chosen to relax in the lounge chair: golf, walking, catching up with old friends ... the full catastrophe.

But it’s true – I do choose the diving board. Have done for as long as I can remember. My brother is much calmer, much more settled that I am. Our mother’s life throughout the 1940s was turbulent; she moved around a lot, from one place of work to another – as a station cook, a housekeeper, a barmaid. She gave birth to my sister Lynette in Deliniquin in 1947; worked as a housekeeper in Balnarring; lived in Melbourne for a time. But throughout those years, and the various men she became attached to, and who – it seems – used and abused her, Heyfield remained her tribal home, where the extended Bertram clan loved her, accepted her. As Robert Frost wrote: ‘ Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’

Michael Blumenthal finds in ‘the circumstances of his birth and adoption’ – or rather, in the secrecy surrounding these things, clues to why he is as he is:
Suddenly I understand why I have become what I am: a man who needs to bear himself into the world each day by speaking his life. I see how the tidal surge of grief needs to come ashore, how the force that drove no water for so long needs to well up inside the tangible body of flesh until a new wave can rise behind it. I see how , for almost thirty years, I have dipped the wafer of my grief into my mother’s dying ...

As for me, I look back on a life of always being up on the diving board, a life of needing to do more than others needed to do to gain acceptance, a life of feeling an outsider, a life spent desperately trying to join –or create - a tribe in which I had a place. And I have become a man like Michael, who must ‘bear himself in the world by speaking his life’.
Roland Barthes wrote: ‘If there is no longer a Father, why tell stories?’ My brother and I may have had the same birth father. When our mum was 16 she fell in love with a local man. I’ve given him the cryptic name: Marty Person. He may be my father too.

Garrie, my adoptive father, was a loving and kindly man, a very simple man of little education, who learned to neither read nor write, and left school at the age of 14 from Grade 5 at the local Catholic parish school in Coburg.
Is it for my fathers that I write? Is it for my fathers that I am always on the diving board, driven to climb up there where others will see me, and constantly face the awful abyss in front of me?

One final insight that MB has introduced me to; he writes:
Years later - when I first discover the psychologically astute insight that the best thing a man can do for his children is to love his wife, and when I first experience problems trying to sustain intimate relationships with women – it begins to occur to me that, in part at least, the source of my difficulties is that the love of my father’s life has never been either of his wives...

How can a man love his wife if he cannot love himself? And how can a man love himself if he does not know who he is?
A ‘psychologically astute insight’ that has come to me as I read MB’s book is this:
I am one of the lucky one. The couple who adopted me, while not without their faults, were loving. My mother, in particular, was perhaps too loving, at times smothering me with her own need to be loved. I cannot bring myself to resent their silence on the matter of my true origins.

Even had they told me, I doubt that I could have avoided the emotional turmoil of my mid 30s. Although I do think that, had I known I’d been adopted, I would have spent less time in therapeutic care, less time on the psychoanalytical couch, delving every few days into the stories and emotional complexities of my life.
And had they told me, or had me relatives told me, I might have been spared some of the resentment I now feel. Had I been told, I would have had the chance of meeting my sister, who died in a car accident just 9 years ago. Told early enough, I would have had the chance to meet my other sister, who died in 1977, at the age of 30.
In October, 2009, I went to the 89th birthday party for my Aunt Nesta, the older sister of my mother Gwendoline. When I arrived, my aunts and cousins looked me up and down.
‘You know who he looks like, don’t you?’ they said to each other.
And as one they said, ‘Tiger.’
Tiger was my grandfather, Nigal Arthur Bertram.
‘He’s got the Bertram nose,’ they said.
I was welcomed warmly into the Bertram clan.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

40. My Reading Life (4) : Isabel Allende - My Invented Country

Isabel Allende is Chilean by birth, but lives in the USA where she works as a writer and journalist. Like me, she was born ‘in the years of smoke and carnage of the Second World War. Her uncle was the Chilean communist, Salvador Allende whose three year rule in Chile ended in a bloody military coup, which placed the dictator Pinochet in control, and ushered in two decades of barbarity. Isobel went into exile, first in Venezuela and later in the USA.
Allende’s ‘invented country’ is Chile – the land of her birth, the land in which she grew up, and from which she escaped. I enjoyed her memoir. I learned much about Chile.
In her introduction, she observes:
In Chile ... only dangerously disturbed patients visited a psychologist ... In my family no one ever resorted to therapy, because the idea of confiding intimate matters to a stranger – and a stranger we were paying to listen – was absurd. That’s what priests and aunts were for.
Allende’s writing is full of deft touches like that: That’s what priests and aunts were for. Allende does it often, gives me – as her reader – that shock of recognition. She finds ways to say just what she means. I want to say – yes, of course, that IS just the way it was: Aunts and priests were the ones we turned to when our soul ached.

My Invented Country is a work of nostalgia, that ‘bitter-sweet longing for things, persons or situations of the past. The condition of being homesick..’ as the dictionary defines it. Nostalgia is a melancholy, and slightly saccharine, sentiment, like tenderness.
But the exploration of the past requires care; as Allende observes: Minotaurs lie in wait in the labyrinths of memory.
Much that Allende writes resonates with me. She and I are of about the same age. She writes (and it could be for both of us – indeed for those many of us who were born in the forties):
At my age ... you begin to remember things that have been erased from your mind for half a century. She goes on: I haven’t thought about my childhood and adolescence for decades.
This observation is not true for me; of late I have had strong cause to revisit my childhood, and to rework every story, every memory.

She writes of a writer who felt like a stranger in her family and her hometown.... nearly all writers have experienced that feeling. It’s a feeling common among writers:
Writing, when all is said and done, is an attempt to understand one’s own circumstances and to clarify the conditions of existence...
During my middle years, the years of my ‘mid life crisis’, in my late 30s, I spent three and a half years in therapy. By then I’d given up on priests well and truly, and had no aunts I felt close enough to. My marriage was broken, and I was in a mess. It was not a new feeling. I’d begun keeping a daily journal in 1976. I think that starting that journal marked the moment of awakening for me; I knew that not all was well in my life. It took another 5 years before the centre ceased to hold, till things fell apart and anarchy was loosed upon my world.
By the end of those three and a half years I’d come some way along the path to sanity. My sense of separateness was in large part a result of having been an only child, reared by a loving though somewhat neurotic mother and a kind but emasculated father. I was spoiled, over-protected, and to some extent shunned by my aunts and uncles for these reasons. They were ‘righting the balance’, I thought; showing me that I was all that special; certainly not as special as my mother wanted to believe.
I have no idea if that account of things is true. As Allende writes, at one point:
What does it matter if these events happened or I imagined them? Life is, after all, a dream.In the dream I had of my life, that’s how things were. At the hour of remembering, no one wants verification of facts, the legend is enough.
[I’m not so sure about that. Over the past nine months I have hungered after facts – desperately yearned for some clarification about what my mother was like, who my father was, when my mother made contact with my adoptive parents during the months or years she lived in Coburg, in Bruce Street, only a mile up Reynards street from my home at 82. I’m short on facts and short on legends, so I have had to create my own.]
I love the way Allende writes about writing: Every book is a message in a bottle tossed into the sea with the hope it will reach a different shore. I think blogs are the same; and songs; and poems.

She observes:
I often ask myself exactly what nostalgia is. In my case, it’s not so much wanting to live in Chile as it is the desire to recapture the certainty I feel there. That’s my home ground.
I became an exile before I came to know my home soil. Yet what I feel for Gwendoline is something akin to nostalgia. It is a deep yearning to somehow recover those first three months of my life, those months I spent with the woman who bore me and gave me life.
Nostalgia is a slow dance in a large circle. Memories don’t organise themselves chronologically, they’re like smoke, changing, ephemeral, and if they’re not written down they fade into oblivion... There are moments in all human lives in which our fate is changed or twisted and forced to follow a different course.

And so Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country explores the many moments in her life when her fate was changed; it explores the nostalgia that lies at the heart of every memoir, that longing to return.
... the mental processes of imagining and that of remembering are so much alike that they are nearly indistinguishable. Who can define reality? Isn’t everything subjective? If you and I witness the same event, we will recall it and recount it differently. Comparing the versions of our childhood that my brothers tell, it’s as if each of us had been on a different planet.
Allende describes how each ten years or so she takes a look back and can see the map of my journey – well that’s if it can be called a map, it looks more like a plateful of noodles.
I read this plateful of noodles with much joy. Her reflections on change, the way that ‘knitting has passed into history’; her observations about what we done as we write memoir; her recognition that he stories she tells are, at their heart, fabrications – these things bring me much delight as I read.
At the end of her book she makes the essentially jerry-built nature of our life storying abundantly clear. She writes:
In the slow practice of writing, I have fought with my demons and obsessions, I have explored the corners of memory, i have dredged up stories and people from oblivion, I have stolen other people’s lives, and from all this raw material I have constructed a land that I call my country. That is where I come from.
As my life rolls inexorably on towards our common final test – the one everyone passes – Isabel Allende’s book has brought me some comfort, and has reassured me that the quest is worth pursuing .
Her final paragraph is a wonderful and fitting climax to the book:
Don’t believe everything I say: I tend to exaggerate... I can’t be objective... In any case, what’s most important doesn’t appear in my biography or my books, it happens in a nearly imperceptible way in the secret chambers of the heart. I am a writer because I was born with a good ear for stories ... The profession of literature has defined me. Word by word I have created the person I am and the invented country in which I live.
I’d like to be able to write like her. And I hope, one day, that I’ll complete work on my own invented country. And even if no body else reads it, at least I will have written it. And that, in itself, is sufficient.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

39. Autobiography (9) These novels will give way, by and by ...

Herbert Garrie Carozzi, Barry William Carozzi, Linda Robina May (Kipping) Carozzi, circa 1955/56

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist, once made the following observation about the likely future of writing:
These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries and autobiographies – captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which really is his experience, and how to record them truly.

At the time, novels were beginning to be the dominant literary form.
History has not supported Emerson’s judgment however; novels – especially what used to be called trashy novels – romances (or penny dreadfuls as my mother insisted on calling them, the Mills and Boon style of novel to which I gave the name Nurse Ducketts) – continue to sell in huge numbers. In the past decade we’ve seen the phenomenon of Harry Potter, the continuing popularity of romances, and other publishing phenomena such as the Twilight series and the Stif Larson Girl who books.

Emerson’s expectation - that ‘true records’ of personal experience, in the form of diaries and autobiographies, would replace the essentially escapist style of literature – proved ill-founded. It took Eliot, writing perhaps five decades after Emerson, to clarify the reason: ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality.’

It’s as if we say: give me half truth and fabrication, give me gothic extremes or sentimental pap, give me escapist fantasy any day in preference to ‘experience recorded truly’.

Why might this be? Emerson again pointed the way. The problem lies in his: If only. If only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experience.

Elsewhere Emerson wrote: The years teach much that the days never know.

And perhaps that is also another way of stating the problem. In the daily chaos of experience, we have trouble working out just what is going on. Or perhaps it’s not so much the chaos ‘out there’, but the trance in which most of us live our lives. We all know the experience – we drive out of our driveway to drive to work or school or a friend’s house; we arrive there and have no recollection of the journey. It’s as though we’ve been in a trance; we’ve not been paying attention. Perhaps we rarely pay attention; perhaps we are rarely ‘fully there, IN the moment’.

I’m picturing you, the reader, sitting there, reading what I am writing. Reading can be passive; I ask you to be an active reader. While I’m gathering my thoughts, gather your own. Form your own list, either mentally, or on paper, as I gather mine. Let us go, you and I, back to the most significant moments, the most significant events of our lives.
Let us do, first of, what the phenomenologists suggests. To the extent that we are able, let us bracket out all preconceived notions, all prejudice. Let us give an account that simply tells, in its purest form, the experience. What happened.

To begin. What is your first memory. Your earliest memory. I shall tell mine in the third person:
A small child is walking along, beneath the leaves of an avenue of trees – elm trees or plane trees. He is walking with an old woman. Her hands are old, the skin like dry leaves, and marked with old age spots – liver spots. The child is very small, and his hand is being held in the hand of the old woman. It is autumn, and leaves fall from the trees, the brown, dry leaves of late autumn. The child senses some parallel between the skin of the old woman’s hands, and the skin of the leaves. The child senses that this old woman is his grand mother.

Later, I come to associate the old woman in the memory with my grandmother on my mother’s side: Edith Kipping. That is my earliest memory. It returns to me, like images from a dream, throughout the next 40 or more years of my life. It feels an important dream. My readings in the field of psychology suggest that this dream must have some significance; it must mean something, it must be about something important.

I eventually relate the dream to my mother, and ask her: ‘Why would I remember that event?’

My mother is by now in her early 80s. She will die within three years. By this time, I am in my mid-40s.
‘When you were perhaps two and a half ', my mother tells me, ‘your grandmother came down for a visit. I was due to have a baby – your baby sister. Mum came down to lend a hand during the last stages of my pregnancy’ . She pauses while I take in this information.

‘She looked after you while I was in hospital. She walked you round to see me one day.’

Sometime in late 1945 my mother gave birth to a stillborn girl child. It was my mother’s third full term pregnancy. Or that's what she told me. The first child, a boy, was stillborn – sometime in 1941. He would have been my older brother. These are the facts related to me at various stages over the course of the forty odd years that Linda and Garrie were my Mum and Dad.
So that is what I make of that experience. I have recorded these events truly. At 45 I believed that when I was around two and a half my mother gave birth to a stillborn girl child; and I annex onto this story a psychological explanation.
It's 1945. I'm 2 or so. My parents have told me for months that I will soon have a little brother or a little sister. My mother goes off to have the baby. My nanna comes down to Melbourne from Hamilton, to help out. One day she walks with me to the hospital. Perhaps my mother is beside herself, at the loss of a second baby. Perhaps Garrie is at home distraught. Perhaps it is to the emotional whirlwind that is stirred up by this terrible loss that I am attuned. The memory is there because it is associated with strong feeling. Perhaps the two and a half year old that I was realized, at some level of his being, that events of great import were occurring, and the memory of aged and withering skin, of falling leaves, of my tiny hand held firm by her ancient hand, on a grandmother’s one visit to Melbourne are all that remains.

Our lives, our identities are formed out of the stories that we tell, the stories that are told to us.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

38. Autobiography (8) Sixty eight years ago - further explorations into my origins

The General Store at Paradise Beach, near Sale.
My mother was post mistress and managed the general store from 1954 till her death in 1961.

The story thus far (for new readers who may not yet know the story)

On July 28, 2009, at the ripe old age of 66, I discovered that I was not the natural born son of Garrie and Linda Carozzi. They had legally adopted me when I was 4 months old. I discovered that my birth mother was Gwendoline Esther Bertram, born in Stratford in 1922, lived in Heyfield for much of her life, died at Paradise Beach in South Gippsland, in 1961, at the age of 38. I found, too, that I had an older brother, Arthur, who is now 70, and two sisters, Lynette and Glenda, both deceased.

Now, read on ...

Constructing a bridge to span the 68 years since my conception to the present day is proving an all but impossible task. Had I known the truth ten years ago – twenty years ago when my adoptive parents died - perhaps I might have been able to discover more details. Twenty years ago more of my aunts and uncles would have been alive, and be more in charge of their faculties.

Aunt Nesta and Auntie Dorrie were once the repositories of family lore. They might have known something. But the eldest daughter of Tiger and Lily is long dead, and Nesta’s mind is all but gone. I wrote to the Salvation Army, to their archivists, hoping to discover some details: when was my mother admitted to The Haven? How long did she stay there?

I had developed a theory, a skeletal account of what may have occurred:
Gwendoline found she was pregnant – probably late in 1942. She had fallen pregnant the first time around the time of Nesta’s wedding. She had given birth to Arthur in early 1940 – in March. He was approaching three now. Gwendoline’s parents had allowed her to bring the baby Arthur home, and had helped and supported her. But now she was pregnant again. She wished to save her parents from the terrible shame of that bringing another illegitimate child into the world would result in. Perhaps she decided quite early that she would relinquish the child. Perhaps she even contemplated an abortion – a thing almost impossible to organize in a country town, where everyone knew everyone else’s business. But in the big city …

Or perhaps she was just confused and undecided. But she knew she’d have to be away from Heyfield soon – before her condition became obvious to all. The family was poor; there were many mouths to feed. Tiger and Lily had ten or more children, and most were still at home.
Finding work and bringing in some money would have been good excuses for going to the Big Smoke, and heaven knows, they could do with more money. So she left Heyfield and travelled to the city.

The Haven was well known in those times as a home for Unmarried mothers. Fallen girls and women could be admitted into The Haven in the period leading up to the birth of their child. The Haven assisted unmarried mothers; there young women could ‘hide their shame’. Most were encouraged, and in some cases forced to give up their children for adoption. They were required to work in return for their food and lodgings and the medical help they received.

Many of these refuges for unmarried women were strict and brutal places, where the girls were regarded as sinful and lustful and therefore undeserving of pity or compassion. Often they were humiliated. They were required to undertake hard physical labour – doing laundry or cleaning or making garments. They were not paid for their work; the institutions received the payment for outside work. The girls were slave labourers, working in appalling conditions – sweat shops.
In my story, Gwen was treated in much the same way as all of the other unmarried women. When her baby was born – when I was born – I was snatched away. She wasn’t even allowed to hold me. Her breasts were bound to ensure that her milk didn’t come down, and she was encouraged to leave the hostel as soon as was practicable – after a few days, no more.
As for me, I became a ward of the state until such time as someone adopted me. I was given ‘institutional care’ – and in those times it meant I was left alone except for meal times, when I was fed with a bottle.

Girls were then expected to go and make a fresh start to their lives, and to forget about their small … mistake. The babies were ‘put up’ for adoption once the staff had established that the babies weren’t abnormal in any way.

That was my theory, my 'most-likely-scenario' guess about what may have happened. But I wanted more than I theory; I wanted some 'facts', so 'information' that would help me to confirm what I imagined to be the case.

So I sent a letter to the Salvation Army archive section, asking for information: When was my mother admitted to The Haven? How long did she stay there after my birth? What did she do during her time there? What other information might there still be about my time and my mother's time at The Haven?

Their response came within a week:

The Salvation Army holds minimal records relating to individual residents of these services.
Unfortunately, the Salvation Army is unable to locate a great deal of information relating to your request. I can confirm that the dates you were accommodated were from 8th June to 11th September 1943. While there is no record of the date your mother was admitted to The Haven, I can advise that she was discharged on 14th September 1943.

Why did Gwen stay for so long? My reading of the literature suggests that girls were ‘bundled out’ of The Haven and other such institutions as soon as possible after the birth of their child. They were often deprived of the opportunity to hold their new born baby; officials worried that any such contact would simply make the task of separation more traumatic.

Could it be that Gwen was undecided? Or perhaps there were complications, and she needed to recuperate. It is inconceivable that she would be in the same building as me for over three months and have nothing to do with me. Thelma, my sister-in-law, suggested that perhaps she was required to work during that time, to repay her debt to the Salvation Army.

Many woman who relinquished babies speak of the pain involved, of what a terrible thing it was – to give up a child. And how that pain never left them. Was that how Gwen felt? My aunts tell, me that Gwen was soft-hearted. There she was, caught between the Rock of Social Righteousness and Judgment, the gossipy self righteous communities of churchgoers who would condemn her for her wickedness and the equally unpalatable alternative of giving up a child she had carried for 9 months, and with whom she stayed for 3 months after his birth.

How impossible her situation must have seemed! She had told no one of her 'predicament'. How could she return to her forgiving and supportive parents with a second child born out of wedlock? How could she leave her baby in an orphanage? Whatever course she chose would have needed enormous courage; such an act of will.

Perhaps the Salvos convinced her that they could find a good home for her baby. They knew of a family, a childless couple who were unable to have children, and who were desperate for a child to nurture. They were not wealthy or educated people, but they would give the child love. These people had survived the rigors of the great Depression; they would do all in their power to provide the child with a good life.

I can almost hear their line of argument:

Look at you; you have one child already, and you’re finding it difficult enough to care for him. You only manage that because your parents have been compassionate and forgiving.

What chance do you imagine you will have to marry if you have two illegitimate children. One mistake is bad enough, but two … What man would burden himself with two children that he didn’t father? Whatever way you look at it, you and the child would be better off if you gave him up for adoption.

These people we have in mind have been married for seven years and have tried and tried to have a child. The woman has fallen pregnant – indeed, she carried on baby full term, but sadly that babe was still born. And she’s has miscarriages. The doctors say they’ll never be able to have children. Think what joy you will bring to their lives. He’s a working man, an unskilled labourer, in his late 30s, and she’s a working class girl from the country – much like yourself. She’s 36. She’ll never bear children. You’re 20. Your whole life is ahead of you. Unlike her, you’ll be able to bear many more children.

Can’t you see that giving up the child is best for everyone – for you, for your son, for your parents, and for this childless couple?

As I write, yes, I can hear the voice – perhaps of Annie Bassett, Head Matron at The Haven in the mid 1940s – that quiet, strong, persuasive voice cajoling, persuading, insisting to Gwendoline that she give up the child.

Three days after I was discharged - into the care of Linda and Herbie, I assume - Gwendoline herself left The Haven and returned to Heyfield, to my brother Arthur, and her parents, and her many brother and sisters. And our lives took their separate courses.