A stab of jealousy penetrated my heart as I noticed how securely my dad held their hands; Mary’s right, John’s left. How complete a family they were, a lonely sick feeling boiled in my stomach. That was 30 years ago.
This morning, as I looked at that photo, my feelings of disconnect returned with as much strength as they did the first time I saw it. Excitedly, I had torn open the envelope with my Dad’s familiar scrawl hoping to find a plane ticket, so I could join him in Britain, but instead found that picture.
I stared expectantly at their faces. I didn’t understand why. Now, I know why. Pictures always meant a lot to me, I believed if you have your picture taken to send to a love one, the depth of that love will bounce off the photo. I know now that was the reason why my eyes shifted frantically from face to face as I held that photo in my hands, 30 years ago. I was searching for the key which would unlock an intimacy between us, though we were miles apart, separated by an ocean.
My heart yearned to feel a connection which I believed would radiate from their body language. I longed to capture a spark of the closeness, which my school friends’ stories led me to think existed between siblings. But that did not bounce off the photo.
What I read from my sister and brother’s expression was childhood boredom and the fight to stay still as they posed with our dad. Perhaps my stepmother was trying in vain to get them to say ‘cheese’, but why did she not ask someone to use the camera so she could be included? Was it because she did not see me as a factor in her life? If she wanted to remain so faceless, so absent from the photo, it meant she did not want me present in their family.
I felt left out and my 13-year-old brain told me if only I could join them in England, then I would prove to be a true sister. But my grandmother said that was impossible; that I would never be thought of as a real sister in England; that people like me who shared only one parent with another person is called a half. Half-brother or half-sister!
“It isn’t like Barbados,” she said, “when everyone is whole; blood is blood. We don’t measure blood but people in big countries, do. Mary and John will call you half-sister.”
That night, I sobbed uncontrollably. I knew I would never be whole.
Like many other young adults of the 1960s, my parents had left Barbados seeking a better life in England. My mum went away when I was two; that was the year after my father left to join the London Transport. She hoped to rekindle their relationship and promised to send for me so we could be a real family. That did not happen and eleven years later I was still living in the Caribbean with my grandmother and had discovered that I would always be a half-sister.
Half in Surrey, where my mum had a new daughter and husband; half in Birmingham, where my dad had two new children and wife. That night, I sobbed uncontrollably, repeating: “Half in Surrey, half in Birmingham; half in Surrey, half in Birmingham.”
I vowed then never to look at other picture of my half-families or to be the first to open a letter with an English stamp especially if it carried my father’s tell-tale scrawl or my mother’s cursive writing. From that day, my grandmother opened my letters, removed and kept all the photographs and gave me the dry notes to read. I didn’t know she had stored them in my granddad’s old trunk which she kept next to her bed and which was never opened after she passed away about ten years ago.
Today, I was forced to open the trunk. Wood ants had attacked it viciously and I was salvaging mementoes from its contents when I came across an album filled with pictures chronicling the lives of my two half-families. I thought about burning it, erasing them forever. We were no longer in touch since my grandmother’s death their letters had remained unopened and unanswered, eventually the letters no longer came.
Perhaps, I had a hidden desire for a cathartic experience, so I compelled myself to look at the photographs. Immediately I was transported back to that 13 year-old who had bragged to her school friends that her dad or mum would send for her in England only to realise she was a half no matter which family took her. The pain of that discovery was too much to bear, even for a 43-year-old.
I closed the album but as I about to drop it into the bin, the picture of Dad, John and Mary fell out. Again, I stared at their faces, my sister and brother looked afraid of the sun and of my dad, a stiff military-looking character. I saw no active love between them. If it was hidden in their bosoms, it was not reflecting like the love my grandmother and I shared and was so unafraid and unashamed to show the world. If we were the subject of that photo, we would have been hugging, I thought. She would have bent down so her face could be close to mine or she would have sat on the wall with me on her lap.
Suddenly I didn’t envy them and for the first time, I dared to look beyond their faces. I saw the ‘brown-ness’ of their surroundings. Outside looked drab and uninviting, I could not imagine a childhood here. It would mean saying ‘goodbye’ to my neighbourhood with its brightly coloured chattel houses, trees, and nearby seaside. I would miss the adults whom we all called ‘aunty, grand, mum dad, pap, brother…’ for we lived as one family; blood or no blood. I was lucky that I didn’t have to trade the warmth of Barbados for the cold of England.
Why did I envy John and Mary when my life was filled with brightness, adventure and love? Why did I not see that I was whole, mended by my grandmother’s sure and lasting love and an embracing neighbourhood?
I put that picture to rest and started to write letters, one each to my two families.