She’s sixteen, and the baby she is holding is a newborn. Her teenaged face is a little fuller, less mature than the face I knew. She has a gap between her front teeth, something I only just discovered. Her smile is real. She didn’t smile a lot, but when she did, you knew it was genuine. You could see it in her eyes.
She is standing on the porch of a home where they sent young girls who should be ashamed of themselves, hidden away from judging eyes and condescending righteousness. That’s my mom and my half-sister, Bonnie. My half-sister whom I’ve never met.
The name Bonnie brings a smile to my face, as I hear someone with a thick Scottish accent maybe saying: “She’s a bonny wee lass, isn’t she?” I imagine a kind, matronly, loving nurse helping my mother give birth – her young, teenaged body unprepared for the pain. Perhaps it was the nurse’s kind words that prompted mom to name her baby Bonnie.
Of course, this nurse is a figment of my imagination, made up because I need to believe that mom was loved and cared for when she went through an experience that must have scarred her soul for the rest of her life. A life that included four more children, who all adored her. A life that included an almost ever-lasting lie, answering “I have four” every time she was asked how many children she had. A life that must have included thoughts of Bonnie, every single day. Because how could it not? How could she go on? How strong do you have to be to have a child taken from you, given to others to raise? How strong do you have to be to keep this child a secret, made to feel ashamed, all the while grieving for a lost child? As strong as a nuclear bomb shelter.
A few years later, when mom was 19, she married dad. They had my sister when mom was 20, then me, my brother, and our youngest sister.
I was told about my half-sister when I was in my early thirties. Mom had been shamed by her self-righteous family, but had finally got past that and their small-minded attitudes. She bravely gave herself permission to tell us.
In her typical, no-nonsense way, the one-sided conversation went like this: “I have something to tell you. I had a child when I was sixteen. I put her up for adoption. I’m now registered with the Ontario Government to be available if this child is looking for me.” This child. I didn’t ask any questions because she wasn’t inviting them. She gave me the bare facts. Nothing more. Several decades later, when she was dying, she asked me to put my name on the Government Registry, to be available if the child was looking for family.
The night before she died, in a morphine-induced state, she shared a few more details with my sister. How she had followed the father of the child out west, and worked for a time at The Hudson’s Bay department store. I wonder if that story was fueled by the painkillers, and not real at all. She died and none of us know who the father of the child was. Not that it matters. But if I write her story, I will have to conjure a man to make the story complete. He will be a good man, who loved her, who treated her decently, who wasn’t taking advantage of a girl who was a foster child, a girl who was a ward of the Province of Ontario.
My mother loved babies. It’s evident in her face in the picture. I witnessed it first-hand when my younger brother and sister came along. Mom adored those babies and I was privileged to learn from her. I watched and listened as she cradled my brother – her wee man, and lightly touched his forehead, his eyes, nose, mouth and chin and incanted an inane ditty:
This is where the cat sat
This is where he fell
Mouth eater, and
She gave all of us, and her grandchildren, a little bit extra mom-love – the love she wasn’t able to shower on Bonnie.
“The child” Bonnie has never tried to contact us. My name remains on file with the Ontario Government.