Monday, November 02, 2009

The Cartography of Loss

The dedication in Breathe reads:

For Mum, Dad & Kylie

Thanks for giving me stories

And for Carolyn and Christopher

A story come true

My Dad was almost 50 when I was born. My mother was his second wife. His first wife was his childhood sweetheart from his home town, Redcar on the Yorkshire coast. They married when he returned from the war, in that giddy time when everyone was happy to be alive, and ready to meet the brave new world. Reading between the lines I'm pretty sure the marriage came about because of extenuating circumstances.

From earliest childhood I knew that somewhere in the world I had a half sister and a half brother. To me they were something out of a fairy story - a story I wanted to be told over and over again - from the magical time before time, when I was not born. They were ghosts of my father's past, made partly from what was real and mostly from my imagination. We had photos to fill out these details, sepia coloured, post war, a little boy in a suit with short pants, a teddy under his arm, Carolyn looking spookily like my sister Kylie at the same age, though they were born 23 years apart (Carolyn was born in 1949, Christopher in 1952 I think. Kylie was born in 1972, I was born in 1974. Just for interest's sake, my mother was born in 1943. These dates might be out of whack a bit, I am not after all the memory keeper, but the memory keeper's daughter.)

I must admit my fascination initially lay more with my half-brother Christopher. We were both the youngest (I lived in a family of first-borns, and as such felt misunderstood). There was something neat about this parallel, two youngests in the same family. I wanted a brother, a partner in mischief, a playmate. My sister was always a mini adult, and though we did play, particularly on family holidays, we weren’t especially compatible. Kylie liked make up and hair and pretty things and was a mother to her toys, I invested myself powerfully in my toys, and ‘pretended’ like it was an addictive drug and rolled my jeans up one roll too many. I knew my halfies would have already grown up, coming us they did from the dark, distant past, tied up in such anachronisms as ‘the war’ and ‘the mother country’, but to me Christopher and Carolyn were permanently children, like Peter Pan, like Alice in Wonderland (‘the everchild’, the child who never grows up, who lives outside of time, like Tin in Sonya Hartnett’s Thursday Child or the children in the cupboard in Coraline.) They were also a set, I could never imagine one without the other.

Dad’s first marriage had broken up under extremely unhappy circumstances. Dad tried to keep in touch with the children, but he was thwarted and eventually he took up the offer of a new life in Australia, as a ten pound tourist. Obviously this is the shorthand version, and says nothing of the emotional geography, or the cartography of loss, on all sides. I have grown up with Dad’s version, and it is compelling – I won’t share all the details here, and I acknowledge that there are are always at least two sides to every story. Some years after the marriage broke up he moved to Tasmania. Some years after that he met and married my mother. During this whole time Dad had no contact with Christopher or Carolyn, he had lost all trace of them. He was profoundly sad about it, but as time went on, he was sure that the rift was irreversible, and that Christopher and Carolyn would never forgive what he was sure they would see as his abandonment.

As a teenager my desire to find my half siblings never really wavered. I remember once half-heartedly looking up Russons in an English phone book in the State Library, which is probably when I realised how many people lived in England and how many phone books there were for the many different regions. I wrote to my Aunt Janet and asked if she had any leads. She wrote back to say no.

Then in 1993, when I was 18 and working full time in a child care centre, Janet was on the other side of the world, watching a trivia-style game show as the English are wont to do (no doubt she was also drinking a cup of tea and nibbling a nice bit of teacake.) And there he was: Christopher, still with his characteristically red hair. It was a miracle, nothing less, of the modern world (though these days we’d just jump on Facebook I suppose). My Aunt wrote him a letter through the station and he responded. All this was done through mail, way back in ’93 international calls were very expensive. Dad picked me up from work, I can’t remember whether I had an afternoon off or if I’d chucked a sickie. In the car was a letter from Janet, and for some reason we both knew it contained news about Chris. When Dad stopped the car and went in to the bottle shop to buy sherry (how English of him) I, dying of curiosity, opened the letter (which was probably addressed to Dad, my bad). She quoted from Chris’s letter to her: ‘And what about my dad?’ he had written: ‘Is he still alive?’ And he went on to say how much he had thought about him over the years, how much he would like to get back in touch. I read all this on that paper thin airmail paper, tears welling up in my eyes. Dad got back in the car. I read him the letter and together, in the carpark of the Globe Hotel Drive Through Bottle-O, we wept. A few days later, we all talked on the phone for the first time (my first conversation with Chris cost $60, before we hung up and he rang me back and talked for another half an hour). Carolyn was hesitant at first, as was Kylie. But we all reached out, eagerly in mine and Chris’s case, more tentatively for Carolyn and Kylie.

Over the past 16 years we have become a family, Christopher & Carolyn and their kids and spouses. We do not make a perfect family. It is a messy one: we have laughed together and holidayed together, drunk together. In the last 16 years there has been marriage and divorce and kids and sometimes we have disappointed each other. In this way, at least, we are normal.

But the thing is, with family, the default is love. However vulnerable we felt about it, we all started off with our hearts open, ready to meet each other, recognise ourselves in each other’s face (there was a lot of poring over photos in the early days, gasps of recognition, puzzling out who had whose eyes). From the outset we came together to share our lives, to complicate ourselves, to invest ourselves in each other, to love.

Last week, suddenly and unexpectedly, my half-sister died. She had just celebrated her 60th birthday.

When people ask if we were close I don’t know what to say. She lived on the other side of the world. I didn’t meet her until I was in my mid-twenties. I spent time with her twice, once in 2001, and then again last year Fred and I saw her for a few days for my sister’s wedding in England. She knitted two jumpers for Fred when she was born and, despite my best intentions, I never sent a thank you card and have always felt guilty about this, though I adored them both, and Una wore them too and I still have them folded and put away for Fred’s children. Were we close? Perhaps not as sisters who have shared a childhood go. But we shared the experience of navigating this strange adult love for each other, and, on an elemental level, though 26 years apart, one of the first pairs of eyes each of us looked into were the gentle brown eyes of the same father, his hands held me and they held her. At least I had a childhood phantom to structure my love around, I on the other hand appeared from nowhere. Under the circumstances, yes, we were close. We were intimate, perhaps involuntarily. We belonged, in part, to each other. We were each other’s people.

And I am thinking of the rest of her people. Her wonderful daughter who reads my blog. Her quiet, gentle husband who shouldn’t have to learn to live without her – they were to celebrate their ruby wedding anniversary next year. Her son who has a baby turning one at the end of the month. My brother, part of a set, now incomplete. And I am thinking of my Dad, who has lost her twice.

We found her. And the finding was a wonderful thing. We built a relationship from different sides of the planet, and as technology progressed and calls got cheaper, and our flight paths criss-crossed the world, and the world seemed to grow ever-smaller. But now we have to say goodbye, and the distances once again seem insurmountably vast.


  1. *hugs*

    Beautifully put, Penni. There are so many kinds of closeness.

  2. I'm so sorry Penni. What a beautiful post. Hugs to you and your family, especially your dad. xx

  3. Frangipani8:19 AM

    Penni this is wonderfully written and a beautiful summary of many years. Wow! Your dates were spot on. Bob and I are so sad. We had hoped being 60 would be a new starting point for Carolyn who has supported John through three years battle with cancer. The time we shared together in UK was wonderful and will live in my memory. You are so right about that indefinable thing called "family love"

  4. this is really beautiful to read.
    when my parents were 18 they had a child that they put up for adoption. they then later got married and had me and my sister.
    I met my other sister when I was 11 and about 5 years ago her and her husband moved to Australia from England and now live down the street from my parents.
    There are definitely ups and down associated it, especially due to the adoption factor. But I now have another sister, a brother in law and four incredible nieces. It's strange to think that I didn't grow up with my sister, and that she didn't ever share the same surname, but there is definitely something special about family however long you have spent together.

  5. I'm so sorry Penni.

    This is a really beautiful and sad post. I love this - "From the outset we came together to share our lives, to complicate ourselves, to invest ourselves in each other, to love."

  6. I have such a lump in my throat.


  7. Kylie8:49 AM

    I loved that dedication in Breathe. Finding our lost brother and sister was a dream come true.

    Life is just so complicated and heartbreaking. I was so looking forward to introducing Joseph to Carolyn before Christmas.

    She never even saw a picture. I had photos ready to send and never did.

  8. Oh Penni, I am so sorry for your loss.

    Beautiful post.

  9. I'm also very sorry. It's been a hard year, hasn't it? xx

  10. Alice Cramp8:07 PM

    Penni, that was a beautiful post, made me a little teary!

    I am so sorry for your loss

    Love Alice

  11. I don't really have words, just thoughts, but feel some sense of there being less loss because you were both found ... sorry, poorly put, but I hope the meaning is embedded somewhere there.

  12. So sorry for your loss Penni.

  13. I am so sorry for your family's loss, for all of you.