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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.

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