A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Joyce Maguire Pavao in London.
When I traveled the United States in Spring 2012 on a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship, making contact with Joyce was central to my project being a success. She opened up professional networks to me that I would have otherwise had no contact with.
For me, Joyce became a mentor. Her enthusiasm and support meant a great deal. More than that, I’m very glad to have made a good friend in Joyce.
It was Joyce who said to me “You need to ask the grandmothers who kept their grand-children why they made that decision, but you also need to ask the other grandmothers why they chose to give their grandchildren to strangers.”
I’m paraphrasing, but it is the gist of the question she posed. In many cases, grandparents will be central to the decision being made as to whether to place a child for adoption.
I can’t imagine the impact it must have had when my grandmother Sheila found out her 14-year old daughter Sandra was six months pregnant. This was in 1969, in a village in rural Staffordshire, the north midlands of England. It must have been shocking news in such a small community, the subject of much talk and gossip. But to credit my birth mother Sandra, and my Mum and Dad Sheila and Neil, if they ever did feel the pressure of local rumors, they never passed it on to me.
And through all of that, I was kept in the family.
Only once did I ever see someone be cruel to my Mum about this. It was a couple of years before she passed away, and I was at an antiques fair with my Mum. Dad had died a couple of years before and we were having a day out in Buxton, a beautiful historic spa town close to where Mum lived.
This woman came up to Mum and me– I’d never met this woman before. I’m glad I don’t remember this woman’s name. She was with her grandson. She asked my Mum Sheila how she was and Mum introduced me as her son. This woman kept saying, “But isn’t this your GRANDson, Sheila? Isn’t that right?”
Poor Mum was squirming. I have no idea what this woman was actually trying to achieve by saying this. I was horrified that this woman kept pushing the point. Did she not realize? How could she not see how uncomfortable this was making Sheila?
A couple of years later Mum passed away, and I organized her funeral. Writing the notice for the local newspaper about Mum’s passing, I happened to refer to Mark as my brother. Over the weeks with the funeral arrangements I’d referred to Mark as my nephew – as weird as that might sound, by adoption, that’s what he was.
“Oh.. Mr Sigley,” I said, addressing the local undertaker, “Perhaps I need to explain…” I wanted to clarify the confusion.
Mr. Sigley was a very kind and lovely man. “Leon .. there’s no need to explain. We live within a small community. I know your situation.”
At 39 years old I was being told in that one exchange with an undertaker I’d never met before that he knew all about my back story– how I came to be, and who I was. He did it kindly, and he did it with grace.
As for that woman at the antiques fair– she needs to learn that people ought to be judged on what they do for others and how they behave through life, not where they came from. My Mum is my Mum, and I’m no less her son because she adopted me.
Why didn’t my grandmother give me away? I’ll never know the answer to that now but I’m thankful she wasn’t a grandmother who gave her grandchild away.