My parents are dead and I have had no relationship with my siblings for many years. I’m a midlife orphan. Can one be an orphan and be grown up? In a sense, I was always orphaned. My mother divorced my father when I was five and that was the end of that, supposedly. We were taken on holiday and told that we were to live in Rhodesia and not Spain now. Daddy, like the rain on the plain, was mainly to live in Spain. He was not coming back. But like a spectre, I summoned him over and over again, through questions, through the way I looked, and for being ‘difficult’ or ‘looking just like my father’ or for ‘being mad’ as we were told he was.
As far as my mother was concerned it was over but really it was just the beginning of a quest for me. I craved my father like a person on rations craves butter. I recalled every last sight and smell of him; I clung to the letters when they arrived from Portugal. Apparently an uncle offered to adopt one of us. Which uncle? Which one – of us? Bereft, I longed to be adopted back into my Portuguese father’s family, but my mother cut all ties and tried to strangle me with the sinewy umbilical cord that just would not die. It was and is, attached to me, though now, it is silvery, diaphanous: it divides the living from the dead.
My mother remarried and had us adopted into a family I had no truck with. The older, singing, dancing, performing for applause sibling was delighted with the substitute. The younger sibling floated above it all and bobbed along with it, though he ‘ran away’ in various ways, teddy, then whisky and Mary-Jane in tow. My running away was more literal. When they changed my name, I raged and chanted my Portuguese name under the covers like a mantra. Submission never came; silently, deliberately I maintained my difference. Even my blood was negative: literally, as well as it being partly his (they are all O’s, as in okay, let’s just go along with this new story). They tried everything. Berating me, beating me, ignoring me, excluding me and finally banishing me to the wilderness – boarding school at fourteen from which I never really returned. It severed any further kinship with them and brought new attachments: friends that became family; wild boyfriends who had more than a whiff of my father about them.
I found him when I was twenty-one, with the help of a fellow gypsy traveller. I turned up in our family village clutching a black and white photograph, our common language having been ruptured. We wept for three days and then I left. Numb with the shock of it all, I did nothing for eight years. Then I returned with another fellow gypsy and a son who carried my father’s charisma and dark good looks. I returned a third time and then a fourth with my own husband and son, on the fifth time I returned in response to a call from his brother. It was the first time and the last time I was to be summoned by my blood family. He was dead and I and two other children were required to pay for his funeral. There was macabre laughter at the funeral but tragedy resonated from the northern Portuguese mountains where he was lowered into the family plot and it resonated all the way back to Zimbabwe, to South Africa and then back to Europe via the UK.
Orphanhood means many things for me. Above all, it means freedom and a new life; a spiritual burying of the past. It means keeping the narratives that are positive and trying to discard the painful ones: a delicate process. There has been much pain and betrayal; abuse even. But much has been learned. There are dark secrets on both sides of my former families, but richness too. It is true that the ones that love you most have the power to hurt you most. From my perspective, the choices my parents made impacted in a vicious way, but also made me strong, even though I was the sensitive one. It is my choice to cut any other blood supply that has browned and to keep the rich dark blood that travels back further through the pathways of my genes to the ones who came before and who enriched me and the ones who gather round me in this house: the ones that I have fed with my blood: the ones that I will cleave to, and the many who do not share a common blood.