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My mother, the stranger

Through relatives I barely knew, I’m beginning to get to know my mother and her secrets.

Gracia Lam

I never knew my mother — really knew her. All I could tell you about her was that she was English, had seven siblings, met my American father during World War II, and came back here to marry him. She didn’t talk much, and never about herself. She liked fine designer clothes and going to expensive restaurants.

My father died when they were both 90, and I, the dutiful daughter, became the designated dinner companion. Those meals, like our relationship, were strained and full of silences. I was the one trying (too hard): “Any aches and pains?” In her mid-90s, I figured there must be one or two.


“No.” End of conversation.

“What was the name of the town where you grew up?” I knew that wouldn’t go anywhere. No questions about England ever did, even though she had always kept up correspondence with her family and, later, monthly phone calls with my cousin Jean.

On New Year’s Eve 2011, my mother died at 99. I shed no tears, but as I looked at the frail body laid out in the Missoni dress, I vowed to visit the shadowy group known as The English Relatives. Through Jean, I was able to contact the rest of the family and plan my first trip as an adult.

Nine months after my mother’s funeral, I was on a green hillside in Wales hiking with my cousins between ruined Roman walls. Another day, we visited the village where my mother grew up. The house was still there, as were the Norman-era church and our grandparents’ graves.

On a walk along a country lane, I told one cousin how much I had enjoyed meeting everyone and catching up on family stories. He laid a big paw of a hand on my shoulder and said, “Look at it this way, you haven’t lost a cousin. You’ve gained a sister.”


I looked at him as though he had suddenly slipped into Swahili. “Jean,” he said. “She’s not your cousin. She’s your sister. They didn’t tell you?”

I finally met Jean at the end of the trip. I didn’t think we looked alike at first. She was 22 years older and small like me. Her profile was the image of my mother’s.

Jean fussed with pouring tea, the great English interstice, took a deep breath, then told the story. My mother (our mother) was living with a man in London, waiting for him to get a divorce. The divorce didn’t happen, but baby Jean did. In 1935, when Jean was 4, our mother left the man and arranged for her married, childless sister to adopt Jean. Still, Jean said, she always remembered a basement apartment with a beautiful “teenage mum and much older alcohol-fueled dad.” Even Jean didn’t know the real story until decades later.

Did she ever talk to you about it, I asked.

“I did try once,” Jean said. “On one of the phone calls I asked, ‘Do you want to talk about the past?’

“But she said no.” End of conversation.

Besides hiking, Jean told me, she enjoyed tai chi. Something I’d always meant to learn. In a new spirit of not putting things off, as soon as we got home, I signed up for a tai chi class. There was so much I wanted to share with Jean.


But I didn’t get the chance. Three weeks after we met, my only sister died.

Through reading and research, I am getting to know my mother — and the secret that encased her. Through visits, I’m getting to know my English family. One trip coincided with World Tai Chi Day, and fliers around the village where I was staying announced morning practice beside the ruins of a 13th-century castle. About 30 of us showed up in the warm fog and drizzle. I almost thought I saw Jean there, at the edge of the group. I was the one with misty rain in my hair and tears on my face.

Janice Brand is a writer on the North Shore. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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