Last week, I met my dad’s entire family, for the first time ever. For me, this was an amazing experience, but it's about 10 percent of this story. The rest -- essentially the back story leading up to the grand reunion, isn’t really my story at all, it’s my dad’s, and I hope he won’t mind me telling it.
My dad was adopted when he was seven -- his mother was a single, Irish Catholic living in London in the 1960s, and she was pushed into giving him up under duress from my dad’s foster parents, and her new partner.
Although she gives away very little, and can sometimes come across as emotionally detached now, she once confessed to my dad that she used to stand at the end of his road and watch him playing in the garden after she’d given up any right to him.
When I was 15, and my dad was 40, he was reunited with his mother when her younger son, my dad’s half brother, decided to track us down.
I think it’s fair to say that my uncle didn’t really think through what he was doing. He didn’t consider the possibility that my dad didn’t want to be found (he did) or that the whole reunion might not go swimmingly (it didn’t).
My dad’s mother was never able to articulate how she felt, the probable guilt and shame she felt over giving my dad up for adoption. To myself as a teenager she came across as vague and slightly cold. However, keen to make up for lost time, my dad tried to see her as much as possible. taking my baby sister over to see her every week, driving across London every Christmas morning to bring her and her friend over, and then driving them all the way home in the evening.
Maybe she found my dad’s behaviour overwhelming, because she soon pulled back, and my dad swiftly responded by doing the same thing.
As someone who knows very little about his background or where he’s from, my dad still wanted to find out more about his mother’s family. He knew that she left Ireland as a young girl, only returning once when her mother died, and that she was the oldest, a sister to three boys.
They were a devoutly Catholic family, and so she never told them that she had a child out of wedlock (I love that term), or that she’d given him away, so they had no idea that he existed. She was almost in her seventies she was reunited with my dad, and even at that age, couldn’t bring herself to tell her family what had happened.
I doubt she ever would have said a word, so my dad decided to bite the bullet and do it himself last year. After some gentle persuasion from my mother (who pointed out that if her aging family were still alive, they wouldn’t be for much longer), he wrote them a note. He had enough information from his mother to find their address, and one carefully crafted letter later (how the hell do you open a "You don’t know me, but I’m your long lost nephew" letter? Especially when you don’t want to give your elderly uncles a heart attack?), contact was made.
Later last year, my dad went to Ireland with my mother to meet his uncles -- three lovely, gentle old men, who still live on the land they’ve owned all their lives, where my nan was born. The family resemblance was incredibly striking, as were their similar mannerisms and personalities.
Both of my parents were thrilled by the experience, and last week I traveled to Ireland with my parents and my sister to meet them for myself. They are all elderly, and not in great health, so my mum was keen that we meet them as soon as possible.
Meeting three people who were so like my dad (who I adore), was an incredibly strange and moving experience. But despite the obvious similarities, we found ourselves making small talk about the flight over, how busy the roads were, and what the weather had been like (awful).
The whole experience felt odd and hurried -- all three of my great uncles are elderly, and so the youngest’s wife, who my dad had the most contact with, took us on a tour of the nearest town, only allowing us a short time to spend with the people we’d come to see.
I don’t know if she wanted to make sure they didn’t tire themselves out, or if she misunderstood why we were there, but it certainly made the whole thing feel like a bit of an anticlimax.
Despite that, it made me start to appreciate, on a tiny level, what it must have been like for my father to have no blood relations -- to not be able to look at someone and appreciate where he came from.
And I never really understood what it was like for him to be reunited with his mother after all that time, only to discover that the connection between them wasn’t really there.
In the end, the whole thing was both more amazing than I could have imagined and a bit of a let down. But I’ll definitely be going back as soon as it's polite to invite myself -- how often do you get to gain a whole new family, however tentatively?