Sister from the other Mister

Ann & me & mum

“It’s her isn’t it?” I queried to my older sister on the telephone, the day my mother died. The daughter (our half sister) my mother had given up for adoption 63 years ago had made contact by letter. Dad mentioned it at the hospital upon mums deathbed, that she had received a letter from a woman in England who believed she was related to her. She had read the letter every day for a month, but such was the state of her dementia she probably thought it was a new letter every day! She never told anyone, but then she never told us about the baby she was forced to give up either.

This was her secret and she managed to hide it from us all (4), swept under the carpet, as you did in those days.
We found out 25 years later when she had a nervous breakdown over it. She had forgotten she had 4 children, and simply wanted her baby back. All was revealed during those tumultuous months of incubation, and of course which she eventually recovered from.

The letter from her daughter was polite and considerate of my mothers position in life. She did not want to upset any one, she was mindful of the fact mum may not have mentioned the fact that she had adopted out her first born to anyone, to the point that she did not even state she was her daughter. But mum knew who she was, and continued to hide the letter, as she did her past and her pain.

It came too late, as my mother had suffered a massive stroke and we (the children) had made the decision to not prolong her life owing to the quality (lack of). So we let her slip peacefully into oblivion, with a good dose of morphine to aid the journey. We knew that she wanted that. We also knew that she was over it, and had wanted out some 8 years prior. There is no dignity in being kept alive as a vegetable and believe that we are kinder to animals when it comes to voluntary euthanasia in society today.

Let’s reverse in time to October 2009, when I visited my mother in NZ. I knew that her time was close, and was not wrong for she passed away some 4 months later. Whilst there I said to my sisters “lets try and find her”, surely with internet access these days making the world a village it would be easy to find her. But mum didn’t want a bar of it. Apart from her memory being quite vague, she was also of the opinion that there was too much water under the bridge, or as the case had been of that generation, “lets just sweep it back under the carpet”. When queried about dates, hospitals, she did not want to comply, or could simply not remember.

Little did we know however that what was happening in the northern hemisphere at exactly that time was the initiation of a search by her, our half sister. Months of research, trowling relatives in Scotland that bore her name revealed nothing, until a 2nd search of the boats which had left the UK on a regular basis with immigrants to populate Australia & NZ revealed my mothers name. My half sister had not necessarily needed to find her birth mother, being perfectly happy with her adoptive parents and respectful of their position in this regard. However my mothers name was on her birth certificate, and I guess curiosity gets the better of all of us at some stage. In this case curiosity was all it probably amounted to, as my half sister did not need to know the details of “why”. Considering the era, it was pretty normal for young mothers who were unmarried to give their babies up for adoption.

Once her destination was discovered a private detective n NZ was employed to trace her whereabouts. owing simply to the barriers of geography.

Lets reverse back in time to 1947: World War 2 had ended 2 years prior, a time which had engaged my mother as an entertainer in a dance troop consisting of herself (Elsie) her sister Bessie and Lydia. Think Andrews Sisters and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. Many a tale was told to me as a young child by my mum, of the war: London’s bombings, the sirens, entertaining in the underground, emerging to the rubble of the bombings, the soldiers………and the luxuries they brought the young ladies, chocolates, perfume, silk stockings! I remember my mother telling me how handsome and generous the men in uniform were.

She went on to have quite a few careers, but the one directly after the war was a bus conductress in London on the double deckers. I am sure that she punched many a mans ticket (because she was so very cute), but a ‘ticket to ride’, was not meant for Elsie, and when she discovered she was in the family way, was promptly hidden from view. On September 17th 1947 my mother gave birth to a daughter and called her Margaret (more than likely in the hope that her mother would take her and the child in as my grandmothers name was Maggie). She had the child in an institution called Brocket Hall, an estate which was turned over to the war office and used as a maternity hospital. Over 8000 babies were born there (exact figure shows 8338). These babies are now called the Brocket Babies and have a website dedicated to them.

Upon my recent meeting with my half sister this month, we delved through the adoption documentation of discovery she had in her possession, and one of the most poignant facts revealed was that her own sister Bessie (also from the dance troop) gave birth just one day after Elsie, to a son, in her mothers home. The difference between Bessie and Elsie of course was her status. Bessie was married! How unbelievably hard that must have been for my mother, knowing that their kids, the cousins, could have had a relationship, and their dance days would have been cemented even further through the children they had born within hours of each other. I did not know this until 2 weeks ago. My heart bled for my mother when I knew she had given up a child after 3 months of cuddling and knowing her. But I finally understood her pain of being exiled, when she had so much to gain from the circumstances of the family connections surrounding her at that time.

Whilst we don’t know who the father was, we suspect that he was tall, because my half sisters sons are tall, and there is a theory that he may have been a Buckingham Palace guard (she did always like a man in uniform – bless her). His name is not recorded on the birth certificate, so lets just list him as “missing in action”.

9 months after the birth of her daughter my mother caught a boat to NZ, to start a new life. She was 27 years old.

The only advise my mother gave me, and which I adhered to in every respect, was this, “when you grow up get as far away as possible from your family, and make your own life”! Not the normal advise a mother would give, but I have only just understood why and I have never regretted her sound words.

I gave it all up, for ART!

What do you mean “you’ve retired”! “You should still be in business you know”!

Yes I do know. It is the business of knowing oneself, and I am loving it. From a deep dark secret place, I know that I am back in business, but it is all happening at a subconscious level deep within me. It is from this place that I was able to initiate the first steps towards a new life. The life I knew I needed to lead. It’s called ART, and it is my life. Everything I do is creative/created, which is how I chose to step off the path I was on to create a new life. I didn’t know and still don’t know how I am going to survive financially, but it does not matter. I know I will survive because I live in Australia for godsake & not Ethiopia (vast difference)! Because of my beliefs I know that the Universe will provide….it always does. There has been no financial planning for my future, no goal plan of X, which allows me to play  golf or tennis every day, and travel to far away destinations on an annual basis. There is just this driven force which directs me where I need to go and what I need to do. Be true to myself and all else will follow, as night follows day, …trust!  This is paramount to our existence. And now my life is archived through my art, a vehicle for feeling – how good is that? To express your feelings in pictures – awesome!

I am a fortunate human being having an exceptional experience through this thing called ‘life’. Yet I currently have 5 people close to me who are exposed to a life/death experience (yes Cancer, and therefore very dependant upon their own will to survive at a calibre of life with which they feel comfortable) I honestly don’t think I really know what that is like – to look death in the eye, because I simply love life too much; but if I were delivered that sentence then I would “cherise the day, and every day that comes after…” Isn’t this how we should all live our lives, and decide upon our futures?

As the author of this work I (Barbara Harkness) acknowledge the moral rights to the above have been asserted with the copyright, designs and patents act 1988. If you wish to use any of my material you may contact me for permission.

Nude – Using Brushes App

Life drawing composition finished on ipad with Brushes App
Life drawing composition finished on ipad with Brushes App

Drawing was imported into Brushes App, and coloured using the many varied brush techniques available on the App. All done with just my finger! Not sure if I could have achieved the figure drawing this way, but I like the experimental free flowing effect achieved through the Brushes App programme.

A Change of Heart

heirloom quilt

Why do we sometimes experience a change of heart and what exactly is it? Have we simply changed our mind on something, or has our heart had a ‘heart to heart’ with us? 

Well my heart spoke to me some time back, which is how I found myself going to Art School this year. So when I was given a brief in my sculpture class to create a ‘cocoon’, [definition: surrounds, protects, carefully crafted, tailored to the creature, transportable, transformative, a personal space which is poetic rather than functional]…..I got excited! I knew exactly what I would make before the brief was finished being read to us. A quilt!

The very next day I was at Spotlight seeking fabric. I wanted red satin, for this is my colour for rebirth & passion, and I’d have to say my favourite colour overall. The black & white squares on the main side reflect the colour palette of my new home. The letters were made from off-cuts of frocks I’d sewn in the past, as these had to represent the personal nature of my piece.

You see I’d just left home (again) to create a new one. But this familiar feeling of leaving and starting again was much larger than any other time I had left home. This was not just about changing houses, it encompassed a personal relationship, a career ‘alteration’, and selling my beautiful home of twelve years. This home had been the longest I had resided anywhere in my whole life. It had been my cocoon, a place I had created, felt safe, secure and loved in.

The saying on the quilt is from a BACI chocolate wrapper, “the heart knows no reason, that reason does not know”. I could not understand what it meant when I first read it, and I still don’t know. Its a paradox, like life itself. I don’t know why I left my home in many respects, apart from my heart talking to me. There was no logical reason, just instinct, and my heart telling me to go.

Now the ironic thing about satin, and using different fabrics, is that they don’t always go together that well. Something like a relationship in many aspects. They all reacted differently as I sewed them on. Even the carefully measured and cut squares would somehow slip so much that they would end up with a 10mm disparity in places. The red satin back kept getting caught up and sewn up double, causing me to unpick and re-do it many times over.

The result was a far more hand crafted look, which I liked. But more interestingly I was reminded during the sewing process of how life does not always turn out the way you plan, and how often we repeat the same mistake over and over, until we get it right. That karmic boomerang will just keep coming back to hit you on the head to say “hey wake up, you’ve been here before”! So as I unpicked letters, and re did lines, I thought about how life is like that, imperfect in many ways, but you get by,…until you know how to get it right. And sometimes we just get by with all our fumbling mistakes, but thats also our choice.

On the day of presentation I arose at 5am to finish it. I wanted to be fresh for the final part of the quilt making, which was to sew the heart on and match up with a heart on the reverse side. I had envisioned myself repeatedly unpicking it and redoing it for hours owing to the complexity of this task. But you wont believe it, an almost impossible task (I thought) worked 1st time, in marrying up on either side. I was astonished to see when I flipped it over onto the red satin side to see a perfectly sewn heart on the back! No movement, no scrunching, no wading poking out………so maybe, just maybe I am getting this thing called life right after all, and things will be rosy, and right and bright on the other side.

As the author of this work I (Barbara Harkness) acknowledge the moral rights to the above have been asserted with the copyright, designs and patents act 1988. If you wish to use any of my material you may contact me for permission.