Wednesday, 10 August 2011
Strange but true...so they say.
A Quest for a Father………….!
Because of the nature of my parent’s relationship, (what this nature was exactly I will probably never know), my father has always been to me, a nebulous two-dimensional creature. This dimensionality was due to the concept that I had of my father, which was for a long time based entirely on an incident that happened when I was about four. I found, somewhere or other, a photograph of my mother and an unknown man holding a little girl…(Me!)
“Who’s this?” I asked my mother as I peered at the small picture.
“It’s your father” my mother replied quickly as if to brush the matter aside.
I persisted with my questions…….”what’s his name?”
The photograph disappeared very quickly afterwards and was not mentioned ever again!
That appeared to be it, but I never forgot the faces looking out of that photo.
Even in my extreme youth; I felt that the subject of my father was not a one that could be pursued easily and this proved to be the case. Throughout the years I was to find out only limited, sketchy and strangely romantic snippets of information about this man whose name was, in fact, not John at all, but Andrè.
Several stages in the growth of this strange daughter/fantasy-father ‘relationship’ stick out in my mind.
I had been told that I had been born in Johannesburg and that my parents had met when my mother was a Doctor’s assistant in Alexandra Township, where my father was serving as a policeman. This work of my mother’s was quite unusual, as I am led to believe that at that time in the 1950’s, she was one of the very few white women to be allowed access to such a highly segregated black township.
My father was apparently skilled in many of the African languages, I suppose that this was why he was able to do his job which, in the main, would be to patrol the black immigrant workforce brought into South Africa to mine for Gold. He rode around on a large white horse and according to mother, looked very handsome. My mother was known to be ‘horse mad’ in her youth and so the combination of the dark good - looks of the uniformed policeman and his white horse obviously swept her off her feet.
They started out by living together in a small rondaavel in someone’s garden in a pleasant leafy suburb of Johannesburg. When I eventually visited this part of SA myself, I did a trip to see the places that appeared on my parent’s marriage certificates. I sat in the church where they were wed. My mother said that she cried, throughout her marriage service, (either in mortification, or in joy, who knows)? They married in April and I was born in the October of the same year. My maths has always been bad, but even I cannot get the intervening months to add up to nine!
Despite the year of my birth being 1958, my mother said (on one of the rare occasions that she spoke about him), that father took great care of me and bathed, changed and helped to feed me. I suspect that mother was grateful for this as by her account she had not been at all well during pregnancy, or my birth which happened during a fierce thunderstorm.
When I was seventeen and not particularly well myself, suffering from depression that would eventually lead to a secretly borne but never the less debilitating agoraphobia, my mother took me to see a homoeopathic Doctor. We sat in the consulting room and I answered the many questions that go into making a holistic homoeopathic profile; from which the Doctor makes subsequent diagnoses and prescription. The Doctor asked me if there was any illness in the family, a query that I answered to the best of my ability. After which my mother chipped in with a gem of a conversation stopper; “of course her father was a schizophrenic”
WHAT? I thought, completely flawed by the remark.
The Doctor looked at me and realized, bless her, that this piece of news was as new to me as it was to her and she gently brushed it aside and continued by saying to my mother, “was that a confirmed diagnosis and did he receive treatment for it?”……………..
I don’t remember the answer, or much else about that consultation at all; my mind was going at ten to the dozen.
I tried more of the cross questioning tactics when we got home…..
It did not have much effect other than my mother’s flat response of “I don’t remember”.
But eventually I did get a bit more out of her: “We went riding in the bush together, his parents ran an Algemene Handedaal (trading post) and had a pet baboon on a chain that I was afraid of………..He threatened me with a gun once, I found some uncut diamonds and flushed them down the toilet…………I always wanted a daughter called Angela, but when you were born, he registered you as Marianne Angela…….He painted and played the guitar, he wore white swimming trunks and looked so handsome when he dived into the pool….he was a good diver…….He sold my house and when I came to England, I only had you, a suitcase and fifty pounds.”
So the ‘romantic’ of the tale of my father continued to unfold!
The news about my father’s illness posed many internal questions and led me to read about schizophrenia. I was already struggling to live with a manic depressive and often suicidal mother, so I quickly concluded that as far as breeding stock went, I could be a walking time bomb. Not only this, but I asked the inevitable question; would I too succumb to mental illness myself as I got older?
There were so many unanswered questions.
When I was eighteen, mother reluctantly conceded that there were documents at the solicitors that would enable me to obtain a passport. I sent off for them and became the proud possessor of a birth certificate, stating my race to be white - in true apartheid style; plus my parents’ marriage certificate and a change of name document. As well as these I had a naturalization certificate, which proved that I was now a British citizen.
All these and more had to go off to the passport office, it took ages and waiting was a nightmare, but the precious blue booklet eventually came.
Not that I would have been able to go anywhere at that point you understand. My boundaries set by the agoraphobia were confined strictly within my village patch, with the very occasional foray to the nearest town. These self-imposed limits were to dog me for many years. I was (outwardly) fine if I had someone with me, but could only go so far on my own. I became excellent at excuses and for years, no one actually realized.
Nevertheless I had at last got hold of information that gave me the feeling of having some kind of identity the crumpled pieces of paper that the solicitor had been harboring for so long gave me roots.
I wrote a letter at this point to my South African Guardian asking if he had any memories of my father, but for whatever reason, access to any information or mutual friends was denied. Someone else ‘couldn’t remember’!
Then, I found another photo!
It was stuck between the pages of a book called ‘Jenny’ (mother’s name).
I kept it very firmly for myself this time!
It was bigger than I remembered the first one to have been and seemed to be a blown up version of the original, as it appeared grainy. As I looked at it, I realized with the help of my older eyes, that we were all sitting in my Grandmothers garden in Bournemouth! Gran’s stool, Gran’s hedge. What was this about, where was Africa?
More cross-questioning ensued.
“I don’t really remember”. Was my mother’s first, predictable and most unsatisfactory reply. “But…” mother went on…..” he did stay in Bournemouth. He came over on the next flight…. he had sold my house and all my possessions….he tried to climb out of the kitchen window and Mr. Timms (next door) saw him, thought it was a burglar and called the police.”
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He was supposed to have a job at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London with his languages, but I don’t know if he ever really went there….he just disappeared.”
And that was all I was going to get. Except of course for mothers immortal advice about ‘men’, which I am sure, must have been drawn from very personal experience!
1. Men always have to go to the loo as soon as you dish out food.
2. Men always want to put ‘it’ in from behind when you are trying to sleep.
3. Once they get excited there is no going back.
Mother died when I was thirty-two, so I felt free to ask my Granny a few things.
This tack proved to be somewhat more rewarding.
I started the cross-questioning……………with the photographic evidence.
“Oh yes” she replied, “your father lived here with us for about a year, he was very polite, but I had to pay off a lot of his debts. He sold your mothers house you know, and all the things we had sent out for her. It took us ages to pack everything up and ship it to her. Even Joy sent some of her paintings…It all went………He was supposed to be going up to London, but he just disappeared in the end. Even the South African Police came looking for him. I had to send them away. It was all very trying”.
Then she went on…..”After he went away, I received a letter from his father begging us not to give up on him. He seemed a nice sort, an agricultural type. I think your father had a brother or something, I don’t quite remember any more. It really was a trying time; it upset all of us very much, especially your mother”
So when Gran died at the age of 104 having been preceded into heaven by her siblings as well as both daughters and her husband, I ended up sorting out her personal possessions. To be honest, it was more like sorting out for all of them. I had the remnants of eight lives to contend with and understandably the experience really got to me.
One of the main things to affect me was that I found a five-year diary that had been written in the 1950’s by my aunt Joy. This covered my mother’s move to Africa, my parents meeting and their engagement - to the disapproval of his parents – who were an American father and French mother - and the eventual marriage. The families mounting excitement at the lead up to my birth… and mothers visit, with me, to England when I was fourteen months old. Principally because she wanted to see my Grandpa who was very ill with yet another nervous breakdown!
Suddenly my two dimensional father became more of a reality. Suddenly, I found out, from the pages of Joy’s diary, that he had simply ‘followed’ my mother, traveling apparently on the same plane and arriving at my Gran’s house three days later…………. Why?
Joy writes of “enjoying ironing his shirts….the fun of a larger family”, of him being” jolly and easy to speak to”…of my mother “being withdrawn and secretive”.
Nothing really explained what was actually going on. Or what happened when the whole event went pear-shaped.
A family friend (who I remember mostly for sending beautiful Easter eggs to me in Yorkshire, the boxes of which I kept my cars and Lego bricks in for years and years) later let me into another startling revelation:
“Of course you know that you were hidden up there (Yorkshire) and only two people outside the immediate family knew where you were…don’t you!”
NO I didn’t! Was there actually abuse? Did he try to kidnap me?
Well, that did it! I decided that I would try to look for his family…………..the Salvation Army had a go too. No chance, there was just not enough information!
Does my father still exist I wonder, even in anyone else’s memory?
Do I have any other relatives bearing his name in Africa, America or anywhere?
Or will my Father simply remain a two-dimensional face that peers out of that photo – mirrored by my own as I grow to look more and more like him.
Wherever he is and whoever he was; he left his mark, on me – a memory of him through my cells - albeit rather enigmatic, I am, never the less, in part, his genetic monument!