Jan's View

By HarlingDarling

Family secrets

In the exhumed folder of mysteries that I uncovered in the store room, there were some of my first photos - well, ones that I developed myself at Rochdale Art College. I was 18 when I went there in 1973. In these photos my brother Dave is 2 years and 3 months younger, and Pete is a further 15 months younger. My Mum would be about 54 or 55 and Dad a couple of years younger. Nana was born in 1900 so she would be around 73, her sister Betty (the original Betty!) was a few years younger.

These were taken at home, the house that we are in t he process of selling now. Standing in the lobby where the light is good, in the case of the lads and Dad. Nana is in her own home, Betty is somewhere indeterminate and Mum is sitting in the front room in front of the purple brocade curtains. I have those very curtains here in Sweden! Some things were meant to last, the linings fell into shreds when I washed them but the curtains themselves are fine. I assume there is some synthetic in there...

The prints were a disgrace! Full of scratches and dust all over the place. My photographer Dad would have been scandalised - he taught me the rops himself and there was no dust on his prints! I can only assume these were dashed off just to have a look. I haven't found any better ones so I guess I decided they were not worthy.... they feel very worthy now. Thanks to the wonder of digital photography, I have cleaned them all up and removed the worst of it. I notice I even had the neg in the wrong way in one of Pete's pictures. Sloppy 'apporth!

2 Years after these pictures were taken my Mum had developed cancer, which was already spread when it was found. She died as I was finishing my degree in 1977. My brothers lived in the house with her as she deteriorated (how terribly hard that must have been) and the tale was that she was made ill by the treatments and would be better later on. She was in fact dying, my Dad knew that and my older brother was told by the family doctor when he went to get medicine for his teenage acne. Such a dreadful thing to do! The Doctor said he should know as he was the oldest son (!) and should support Dad. It was spoken about once, and never mentioned again. Dave was instructed not to talk about it to anyone, especially his interfering and war-pathy sister. Life was to go on as normally as possible and my job (not that I was told) was to come home and be cheerfully optimistic and boot Mum. Which is exactly what I did. 

I was finally told my mother would not live much longer when there was 2 weeks of life left in her, and I was sent back to college in Sheffield to work on my final show and keep up the pretence. I wanted to stay home of course, and that wasn't allowed. Mum hadn't been told either but she must have known, and she kept the same story going as well. I blame no-one for this charade, everyone did the best they could in a sad and scary situation, but seriously? So many missed chances for conversations, declarations, time for wishes and hopes to be expressed! When I saw Billy Elliot, that fabulous film that is so close to home, I wondered where my letter from my dead mother was. But if you are pretending, even to yourself, there is no place for such things.

But here the lads are still in school, life is amusing. Dave is trying to look as lost and gormless as me, parting his hair differently and doing the face! Pete looks like the handsome youngest child he was. Dad is off to work at the brick-yard, with his heavy working clothes on as he was mostly working outside, laying bricks, building things, doing rooves. Mum is happy her daughter is getting the education she was denied, and looks relaxed, apart from those hands perhaps... Nana, her mother, is looking unamused and stern, with her hand on Mr Hindle's shoulder - he was staying with her whilst his house was renovated. They had an understanding.

Betty is doing what Betty did best, showing her feelings, laughing with delight at something or other. She was such an important person in my life, and in Mum's life. She was much more a mother to my Mum than her own mother was, they were more alike as well. Nana had given birth to at least three more children without being married, and they were all either dead or in care, my Mum was the only one she could afford to keep in the poverty and unemployment of the 30s. So if Nana looks a bit shut down and stern there are reasons. 

She was actually an incredibly grateful person, made happy by the smallest things - and she was popular with so many people. She was also incredibly closed and was never ever going to talk about any of the horrors she'd endured in her past. Ever. I uncovered some of her story after Mum died, since no-one had said a word about the facts of her early life - but I had picked up on things, like you do if you are a "sweeper" and notice stuff. Even my Dad didn't know - they shared their life for 25 years, and she kept her secrets. When I told Dad what I'd uncovered it made him feel so shocked he had to lie down. By then he was married to Joan, my mother's Canadian cousin who left her home and her unhappy marriage-in-name-only at the age of 58 to move to a much simpler situation, but one full of love.  

When Dad died my brothers and I wrote the service together and contributed to the eulogy. Dave wrote it and read it, and said that Dad had been married three times - that surprised a lot of the people there! He'd had a brief marriage in the war, been sent to Canada (!) for 2 years and returned to no marriage. That was the secret he thought he'd kept to himself too, Mum knew of course, but no-one else in her family was told, and in particular the kids were not to know. The idea was that we might feel insecure if we thought a marriage could end and a Daddy could disappear... a case of projection on the part of my mother if ever I saw one! 

Anyhow, Dad sat us all down the day after Mum's funeral and said he had something to tell us. Dave and I looked at each other and one if us said "We know!" Stole his thunder we did. Dave had "found" the marriage lines and on it it said that Dad was divorced. WOW. We had so many ideas about why, perhaps the wife was mad? or bad? Anyway, little brother Pete wasn't told, because he was so young, we thought. So responsible. So he was the one with the big question mark all over his face, as we fell about laughing.

At least, this is my version of the family story. Flawed memories no doubt. I got the story of Nana's many children out of her sister Betty one day. She let slip something and I cornered her! People die without sharing these things, I said. Mum died and never told, Nana is never going to tell, you HAVE to tell me - before you die and I never get the story! I believe I literally cornered her in her own home, probably in that war-pathy way... Betty got out the photo albums and told the story, she was relieved to be able to talk about her nieces who were put into the care of nuns and probably not mentioned again.... I discovered there had been contact between Mum and one of her half sisters right up till Mum marrying Dad. At which point it was broken off. Unbelievable. 

I feel so grateful to live in more enlightened times, where being born out of wedlock is in fact the norm in the UK these days. I'm sure there are many families with secrets, and I'm sure there are people who suffer the sort of traumas in my family. But at least there is more openness, more help, more understanding. I have been determined to be as honest as I can be, from my mother's death. There is no time to waste in keeping secrets and pretending. Life is finite and lies get in the way of living - I have felt an urgency to live every day fully since I was 21 and lost my Mum. Life can stop at any moment, so I aim to make the very most of it all.

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