I could have applied to be on Long Lost Family with Nicky Campbell and Davina McCall. Instead, after my own extensive search proved fruitless, I turned to the Salvation Army.
The organisation runs a Family Tracing Service and will undertake, what are expensive searches, for a modest fee. From memory, I think I paid £25. I was looking for any surviving siblings of my father. To be frank, I’d have been happy to make contact with ANY relative on my father’s side, as I’d had no contact or knowledge of the paternal side of my family, since my father’s death when I was a child.
My surviving parent forbade me from going to his funeral and told me that from now on his family wanted nothing more to do with me. I was too young to really take it in, but I was devastated all the same. I thought I was at fault.
It was many years before I came to realise that I may have been lied to, as I had been about so very much else. Likewise, after my abuse was finally uncovered, I came to realise that I owed my surviving parent no loyalty.
I was nervous about finding my long lost family. I did fear rejection. I had no idea what they might make of contact from me, after more than three decades. I knew that one sibling had died for certain – the one with whom I had had the most contact. The Salvation Army were able to locate my father’s eldest sibling, who furthermore was happy for me to make contact. So I did, and I found my relative living in an area I’d known well as a young adult. We don’t have much in company, save for our ancestry, but I was able to learn some family history – I knew next to nothing – and I was loaned a HUGE box of family photographs and documents. Eventually, this relative put me onto my father’s other surviving sibling – an uncle – living on the other side of the world. I had been unable to find any record of him myself because I had incorrectly remembered his name, confusing it with that of my Godfather. Finding his contact details was not easy, but eventually by means of a daughter-in-law’s entry on the LinkedIn web site I was able to obtain an email address and I wrote to him. I received a warm and welcoming reply!
For the first time I felt a family connection. This sibling was closest in age to my father and they look similar. They also seemed to share a sense of humour. Looking at photographs gave me an idea of what my father might have looked like had he lived beyond early middle age. From my uncle I learned more about my father’s interests – most of which I happen to share – and he came alive again for me. I warmed to my uncle and liked him very much in his own right. I learned about his emigration journey, his new life and his second wife, my auntie. I so enjoyed our correspondence. This felt like relationship to cherish.
He rang me one Sunday and I chatted both to him and to my aunt for some time, sharing news and history and finding common interests. My aunt loves arts and crafts, as I do, and my uncle was learning to play the ukelele, as I was trying to learn to play the guitar. My aunt told me how delighted her husband had been when I had made contact. There were no recriminations, no hint of rejection, there was just joy.
They came to say that they loved me. I felt uncomfortable, finding myself thinking but you don’t know me and pondering whether this was heartfelt or just something that was said. The reason for this is that I don’t know what it is to be loved by family. I haven’t had that experience. My father may have loved me but our relationship had many complicating factors. My surviving parent was incapable of loving me, perhaps of loving anyone.
It’s not that I don’t welcome being loved by my long lost family. Family love is supposed to be unconditional and a founding fundamental that can be counted on as we grow. I didn’t have that experience and so this is all new to me. I am learning how to be with it.
The trauma and abuse that I experienced, and my continuing recovery from it, has impacted on our developing relationship. The email I had to write describing my father’s violence and the horrors I witnessed as a child was the most difficult. Nor was it easy either trying to explain how his suicide affected me, or how my surviving parent and a sibling had abused me, why it gone on for so long, and the resulting devastation to my life.
Describing my resulting experiences of mental illness, was hard. As I’ve previously written here, I fear being seen as weak. I fear people won’t see the real me. The last three years have been especially difficult, following the breakdown of my marriage, bereavements and further illness. I have not been in touch with my relatives nearly as much as I would’ve liked to have been, either because I haven’t had the capacity or because I haven’t known how to explain. Terminal illness, food banks, the threat of homelessness, bereavement, flashbacks and suicidal ideation have all touched my life in that time. These are not the easiest of topics of discussion.
Despite my nerves, I was determined to complete my search. My often ‘gung ho’ approach served me well here, as I forged ahead. Even if I had been rejected, I knew for certain that I would rather have tried. I didn’t want to be left wondering what if ..?
I am genuinely thrilled to have found my uncle and aunt. Through them I also have contact details for some cousins in the UK. I had nothing before that in terms of family, everything I have now is huge bonus and I am so grateful for it. I didn’t know if any of my father’s siblings would still be alive. My uncle is, shall we say, a gentleman of advancing years. I’ve felt that time isn’t on our side and I’ve felt guilty about not doing more.
I wrote to my uncle for the first time in a few months just the other day. My aunt swiftly sent a lovely reply, but letting me know that my uncle was in hospital having had to be rushed in for heart surgery. I sensed her obvious worry and wanted him to be at home and well again for her. I felt worried for him and wanted him to be feeling much better soon and be back at home living life with his loved ones.
Inevitably, I also found myself worrying for us.
I don’t pray, I’m a Humanist, but I found myself wishing for more time. Please let us have at least a couple more years, I said aloud, please let us have that. Please let us have more time. It feels like we are just beginning. I am only just finding myself again and still have significant obstacles to overcome on this journey to recovery.
My uncle and I have met just once. I was just a few months old. He sent me a picture of himself holding me in his arms. Our conversation wasn’t up to much that day 😀 . I would love to visit them. I’ve even wildly thought of crowd-funding my airfare. Realistically, health-wise, it would be better for me to wait another year before attempting long haul travel. This all feels a bit ‘pie in the sky’, but who knows what’s around the corner.
My focus is of course on the positives but nonetheless, it is difficult and painful to know that someone wilfully robbed me of this relationship and left me without family for three decades. I had already lost my father in devastating circumstances and they ensured that I lost even more. Sometimes, I feel angry. I know that I have yet to fully heal from this because it’s only now in knowing some of my paternal relatives that I can fully begin to appreciate what I have missed out on. Now as well as celebrating and embracing these new relationships, I also need to grieve.
I’ve never had a happy family dinner or celebration. I’ve never been warmly embraced by a family member. I’ve never known what it was to have a family member feel proud of me or be there for me when I needed somewhere to turn.
I hope, as Operation Thrive continues a pace, that these family relationships can thrive too. Some much time has been lost. We can’t get that back. We can only try to make the most of what we’ve got.
Thank you for reading.
P.s. How exciting that I’ve just been able to add the category ‘Family’ to my blog, for this post 🙂 .