By Bridget Frew
He was blond and beautiful and 19 years old. I was “the older woman” at 21 and here we were eating breakfast together in a local café. I’d met him the evening before at a party hosted by my soon to be ex boyfriend! His name was Adam but I secretly called him Angel Adam. Our eyes met across the crowded sitting room in a small townhouse in Ham, Richmond. My heart told me to spend the whole day with Adam – if only I had. This was early September 1973 and in the absence of mobile phones, we’d arranged to meet by the old fashioned method, verbal communication, and I didn’t have his home telephone number. That might have been difficult anyway as he was a student in digs and I was still living with “the grumpy soon to be ex”.
My heart had spoken but sadly it was my head that won the day. I had to cut our breakfast rendezvous short as I was catching a train to honour a family commitment. My dad’s younger sister had invited me over for the day. Her only granddaughter had just started school and she thought it would be fun to go and collect her with Aunty and my cousin and go back for tea but she wanted me to arrive in time for a stroll before the school run. I didn’t realize at the time that there was a hidden agenda to her invitation.
There had always been a bit of a tricky relationship between my dad and his sister’s family, mainly because he neither liked nor approved of her choice of husband. My uncle was belligerent and overbearing at the best of times. He had fought in the army in the war and behaved like an old fashioned Sergeant Major after demob. I could never be sure if my aunt was happy with him but she had a troubled early life and I believe settled for what she felt was secure and safe if bland domesticity. She was first married at 18 to, (in her words), a “bit of a cad”. Five years later with a toddler and baby, he grew tired of fatherhood and left her for an older, wealthier woman.
This was 1937 and a single mother with no visible means of support would be destitute so she agreed reluctantly to sign a document giving permission for the children to be put up for adoption. I believe it was a private arrangement as I’ve had no success in tracing these first cousins through the official channels. Sometime later her ex-husband’s brother became a shoulder to cry on and he too left her with a daughter, (sadly some people just don’t take heed of their past). The 2nd WW had begun and Aunty sent her little girl to be evacuated in Cornwall. She then set about working full time in London to save as much as she could to enable her to make a life for herself and her daughter at the end of the war.
However, fate was to step in once again. Descending the steps of the divorce court she literally bumped into a man she recognized from school and they started dating. He proposed and she broached the subject of her daughter. Knowing the family well he gave her an ultimatum. He would not entertain having a child of one of those brothers in his home so she must choose – marriage or single parenthood once again. She couldn’t bare the thought of bringing up another child in poverty and knowing that the couple who took her girl in was keen to adopt her, she gave in and married my Uncle. She was 30 by now and although that’s not old by today’s standards, in 1945 it was, and she felt this could be her last chance of a home, husband and children.
She went on to have just one more child, another daughter, and moving forward 26 years to 1973 it was this daughter’s child we were about to collect from school. Before we left the house though my cousin started talking about the dreadful post natal depression she suffered five years earlier. She had been so ill that her parents had looked after their granddaughter virtually fulltime to enable my cousin to have some respite and take a part-time job which was a form of therapy.
Although much better she still attended outpatients’ appointments with a psychiatrist who had asked her to raise the subject of mental health problems within the wider family. She appeared to be expecting me to comment but I had no information which could help. I did however feel uncomfortably put on the spot and said I wasn’t sure to what she was alluding but felt I was being blamed for something I had no knowledge of. The afternoon wore on and after collecting my cousin’s daughter from school and tea, my uncle, unaware of the previous tension amongst us offered me a lift to the station and that was the end of that, or so I thought. The day had obviously unsettled me enough to put Angel Adam temporarily out of my mind.
I returned to work at Bentalls, a large department store in Kingston, Surrey. I bought some clothes for my cousin’s little girl and sent them as a peace offering for Christmas. On my birthday, December 20th, I received an envelope and recognized my aunt’s distinctive handwriting. Expecting at best a birthday card, or at least Christmas greetings, I was shocked to read the contents of a very unfriendly letter. In it she wrote that after my cool response to my cousin’s request for some simple information, she and my uncle felt it was best if they cut all ties with me and my family. I was gobsmacked and obviously hurt by her response but not really surprised as she and my dad were constantly falling out during my childhood.
I didn’t see my aunt or her family again and just over a year later my father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. My aunt didn’t attend the funeral as she said my uncle wouldn’t let her go and still wouldn’t entertain any further contact with us which was naturally very hurtful for my mother and I. Later when my mum and I were going through dad’s papers we discovered that he had spent some time in a mental institution and although this was well before he and my mother met, I believe she knew about this.
She insisted that I burn the papers without reading them so as not to cause distress and as we were both grieving I did as I was asked and it was never discussed again. I’ve never regretted anything more than blindly obeying my mum’s wishes as I later realized that my dad had left this journal in order that I could learn about a very traumatic incident in his early life.
The years passed by, I married and upon discovering that we were unable to conceive our own children we adopted two, a son and daughter who have given the whole family so much joy. I felt I needed to put things straight with my aunt so I wrote to her explaining that I was sorry if I had been unsympathetic to my cousin’s plight when we had last met and that if she was agreeable could we meet sometime.
Luckily she wrote a very sweet letter explaining that she felt awful for not going to dad’s funeral and she and my cousin had visited his grave and left flowers a couple of times since. My uncle had died and she was no longer bound by his draconian influence. I had been very young and they had put me on the spot which she realized was unfair. I was touched by this and we resumed our friendship which continued until her death seven years later.
Eventually I plucked up the courage to ask aunty to tell me my father’s story. I suppose that somewhere in the back of my mind I had been worried that whatever mental problems affected my family could be passed on to my offspring, but safe in the knowledge that that was no longer possible I could face the truth. Her first comment was “don’t worry, your father wasn’t mad!” Comforting but puzzling nevertheless. He had certainly spent quite some time in an asylum as they were named in the 1930’s. He had also undergone electro convulsive therapy which could, she explained, be the cause of his lapses in memory and general vagueness as he aged.
The story began with their father, who drank heavily and was often violent to his wife and possibly some of the children though as she was the youngest she couldn’t remember if her siblings were also victims. The whole family feared their patriarch and my father eventually wrote a letter to his father declaring that if he laid one more finger on his mother again he couldn’t guarantee he would be responsible for his actions. My grandfather took this as a letter with murderous intent and had my father arrested. I believe he suffered a nervous breakdown at this point and was sectioned instead as it was obvious that he didn’t really pose a threat to the wider community.
I very much doubt that my father’s nervous breakdown and my cousin’s severe post natal depression were in any way linked, but I’m really glad that I made peace with my aunt and received an explanation for the memoir I never got to read. I also appreciate that my mother was trying to protect me from a truth which may have troubled my mind if I’d gone on to have my own biological children.
The study and treatment of mental health has progressed considerably in the last 80 years and a more open attitude to inherited and environmental factors which both have a bearing on mental health, must surely be a good thing. I often wonder what “Angel Adam” is doing now. I tried to trace him a few months after our brief date but he had vanished. Maybe he really was an angel sent as a warning of the family storm brewing.