What Makes Us Who We Are?
The ties of blood drew the six brothers and two sisters together for the first time in about forty years. They had never been in one place together. Separated by adoption and foster homes early in life, they were scattered across the globe. Six had already met four years earlier. At that time, the youngest sister could not be traced, and one of the brothers did not want to come. Now, May 2001, they flew to a cousin's wedding in Northern Ireland from three continents to meet each other and to find out more about their origins.
John had huge reservations in 1996 when he finally picked up the phone and dialed the Social Services in Northern Ireland. "I don't think it's a happy story waiting to unfold." At that time he had no idea he had other brothers and sisters apart from Charlie whom he had been adopted with. It only took a few more phone calls and a couple of hours to find out he had four more brothers and two sisters. "I don't think I want to find out anymore," he said as the sad details about his biological parents emerged. But the brothers and sisters were another matter.
Some unseen hand seems to have guided the fate of these eight, for they were always adopted or fostered in twos. The two oldest boys, Ken and Ronnie grew up together in one home near to where they were born in Northern Ireland. From there their lives took different turns. Ken, a deep person with spiritual leanings and a warm smile, lives in Australia with his wife and two almost grown-up children. A follower of an Indian guru, he seems to lead a charmed life, dividing his time between his job as a technical consultant and the beach house.
Ronnie has traveled and worked all over the world as a corporate training consultant. He has remained unmarried. He has his home in Dublin, Ireland, but has lived in Saudi Arabia and Morocco (among other places) and currently works in Budapest, Hungary. He is the life and soul of the party, but in quiet moments it's a different story. "Our foster parents only took us for money. The never bothered to adopt us, and kids laughed at us at school because we had a different surname from our supposed brothers and sisters." Deep hurts have left deep scars, although outwardly Ronnie is doing very well.
Observing these eight, you can't help wondering what makes us who we are. Modern psychology can pinpoint easily what went wrong in an upbringing to result in antisocial or deviant behavior, but more importantly, it has no explanations at all about why someone who had a horrendous childhood grows up to be okay.
The twins Desi and Brian, next in age, are examples of how you can turn out right despite a hard childhood. Quiet with a lot of Irish charm, it only takes a few drinks before both break down in tears, recounting the horrors of their childhood on the farm where they were fostered. "We had to work very hard and we got the belt at any excuse." The twins seem most comfortable next to each other, protective of each other. Yet there is an air of gentleness and quiet strength about these two. When you visit Desi's farm on an enchanting mountainside in County Leitrim, Ireland, the hospitality of his wife and four children is heart-warming. Brian had lived in London until recently, but now works with Desi. He misses his two little girls a lot, his broken marriage less.
Across the Irish Sea, Linda, next in age, has also had to deal with harsh beginnings, divorce, and heartache. She lives in Manchester, England. The two girls, Linda and Sandra, always knew their mother and father, although they spent their childhood in and out of foster and group homes. "Our mom could not take care of herself, even less of us," Linda remembers sadly, yet without bitterness. Her earliest memories are of how she could not drag her mother out from pubs. She has three lovely children and is planning to remarry soon. A tall attractive woman, she's very friendly and in many ways seems to have put the past behind her.
Brothers John and Charlie, who come next in age, are very different, despite having been adopted and raised together. They moved to America with their adoptive parents when they were eight and nine respectively. They don't look a lot alike anymore; they also have very different outlooks on life. John went to college and works as a professional engineer, while Charlie settled down as a policeman after many different jobs. John is very friendly, easy going, with a lot of charm. The same experiences that have made John appreciate family ties and made him eager to reconcile have left Charlie wary of family. He seems to battle in his mind about his origins, thinking, "Our biological mother had a problematic life and drank, so I must have a problem, too." Although married with two little girls, family relationships are difficult for him. Wanting to isolate himself from his family, he is very conscientious and helpful to strangers. John is much more introspective but often refuses to talk about his origins. Now married with a little four-year-old girl, the early abandonment has left him vulnerable.
Sandra, the youngest sibling, could not be traced in 1996 when everyone else was found and first reunited, apart from Charlie. When another wedding approached in Northern Ireland in 2001, John knew he had to find Sandra. After he hired an agent, she was traced within days to Cheltenham, England. She had quarreled with her sister Linda, and didn't want to be found. "I always wanted a brother," she said excitedly to John over the phone. Finding six brothers altogether was a bonus.
Finally everyone was together in May 2001 in Omagh. The brothers and sisters gathered in Aunt Nora's house. When I looked at these eight the night before the wedding, I saw many similarities. Sandra, the youngest and last to be found, has an air of fragility. She is a striking single woman, who lives alone in her own apartment. "I don't think I'll ever marry; what I saw when I grew up frightens me too much," describes Sandra's feelings about relationships and families. Sadly, although she always knew her biological mother and father, she seems to have suffered greatly as a result of her unfortunate childhood. As a qualified nurse, she has worked in Singapore and Saudi Arabia, but seems to be looking for something to fill a void left by the years of feeling uncared for. "In one of the homes I stayed, the woman always read a story to her own daughter at bedtime. When I asked her to read me a story, she refused," she recounted bitterly.
They've all come a long way. That common thread, their mother, is a strong uniting factor despite their different upbringings and characteristics. "Was it worth it, finding all these long lost siblings?" I asked John, my husband, back in New Jersey. We both think so. We have found a family that stretches across the world, and we feel part of a network of friendly relatives.
Anya Tikka McMonagle was born in Finland, and moved to London at age 19. After studying sociology, economics, and computer science at the London School of Economics, she worked in computer industry as a systems administrator, coder, and trainer. She is also qualified and worked as a psychotherapist and counselor. She has had articles published in a Finnish-American newspaper, in a company newsletter, as well as in 'College Hill,' a Sussex County Community College student newspaper.
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