Uncovering hidden family roots

‘I’m 52, damn it, even if I feel frustratingly closer to 82 on the bad days when my fingers are too weak to type or too stiff to do up buttons’

Diary
Caroline Wyatt

I tottered happily around a gloriously sunny Amsterdam with my visiting Australian cousins at the weekend, gratefully breathing in the clouds of dope that surrounded so many of our fellow tourists.

From my inadvertent experiment in secondary cannabis inhalation, I’d say the sheer amount of giggling with my cousin Alison and her family over the course of the weekend felt extremely therapeutic, even if it meant I remember rather less of the remarkable art in the Rijksmuseum than I might wish. Or maybe that’s just the brain fog that comes with middle age and multiple sclerosis.

I say tottered because walking normally has become much more of a challenge over the past few years as my MS progresses. Becoming more disabled is quite literally a difficult balancing act. I remain extremely independent, and know I’m very lucky indeed to be able to continue working at the BBC. But I am also aware that when I am out and about, even with the aid of a sparkle-topped walking stick, I am quite likely to trip over my own feet as I continue to lose control over them. 

Yet I am still reluctant to ask for help, even when I know that the offers from friends and family are well-meant. I’m 52, damn it, even if I feel frustratingly closer to 82 on the bad days when my fingers are too weak to type or too stiff to do up buttons.

***

I only met my Australian cousins in 1990, the year that I sought out my natural family there with encouragement from my inspirational tutor at City University, Linda Christmas, also an adoptee. I was adopted in Sydney as a six-week old baby, and was 23 by the time I returned in 1990 to look for my natural parents, Irena and Alan.

I discovered after months of searching that Irena had become pregnant at 17 by Alan, her first love. She was still at school, a good Catholic girl sternly advised by her Polish immigrant parents to avoid trouble with boys, without anyone in 1966 thinking to explain to her the mechanics of exactly how that trouble might arise.

Despite the 19-year old Alan offering to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Irena thought him far too feckless to take care of her and a baby. So, as an unwed mother-to-be, Irena left home by bus in 1967 to spare her family the scandal in their small country town in New South Wales, and gave her newborn to the nuns at St Anthony’s home for Unmarried Mothers in Sydney to find a good home.

***

Guided perhaps by St Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, I ultimately persuaded Alan and Irena that they really should at least speak to one another again after 23 years.

Alan, by then marginally less feckless at 42, travelled to Brisbane shortly before Christmas. After some stern, quizzical looks from Irena’s mother Anna at the “boy” who had caused so much trouble, we celebrated midnight Mass together at my grandmother’s local church.

On Boxing Day, Alan and Irena walked into the living room hand in hand. They had fallen in love all over again—and this time, older and wiser, they did get married, to the delight of both their families. 

Irena moved into Alan’s ramshackle but cosy wooden cottage, Rosewood, in rural New South Wales, and found a job as a librarian. Alan remained handsome, charming and permanently broke, while trying to single-handedly revive Australia’s eucalyptus oil industry, killed off by cheap Chinese competition.

Irena decided to ignore Alan’s financial ineptitude and the lethal brown snakes in the overgrown garden, and instead simply enjoy his bear-hugs, terrible puns and deep, musical voice, and what she called the “rural integrity” of a cottage with no proper hot running water and a dodgy septic tank.

Alan died of a heart attack at the age of 49, my mother Irena of cancer (and a broken heart) just 10 years after him. They’re buried together in a graveyard full of eucalyptus trees that whisper to one another on a hill overlooking Rosewood.

In the years following my natural mother Irena’s death, getting to know my Aussie relatives better has been a huge source of joy.

***

My cousin Alison and I spent much of our time in Amsterdam contemplating our grandparents’ lives, as we visited the Anne Frank museum and fell silent as we reflected on the long and awful reach of fascism, and later communism, annihilating or displacing so many families—including ours—across Europe during and after the Second World War.

On her last evening in London, we sat down together to look at black-and-white photos of our Polish grandparents, Jozef and Anna.

We wondered how he survived several years as a Polish political prisoner at Auschwitz, and how it was that even towards the end of her life, our smiling, diminutive grandmother bore no trace of resentment towards her fellow humans, despite being taken from her village at the age of 17 as a slave labourer on a German farm.

Anna and Jozef met in a refugee camp at the end of the war, where she bore him two children out of wedlock—my mother Irena, and Alison’s mother—before emigrating to Australia. 

As Alison left for her flight home, we parted with a profound sense of gratitude that sometimes lost things do return, and the wounds of the past can be healed. And maybe it was just the secondary cannabis smoke, but we both gave thanks to be living in a world that has changed vastly for the better in so many ways over the past 75 years—even if it doesn’t always feel like that.