This is the story, taken almost verbatim from my diary, of a discovery made when I was almost 67 years of age, that changed my life. It is recorded here just as it happened.
Chance, or luck, plays a great part in our lives.
Of course when we look back at a sequence of decisions and their consequences we often feel that some greater intelligence must have planned it that way. But I believe it's luck. My story begins with such a sequence of chance happenings.
Someone in our Probus club, whose name I don’t remember, suggested that I ask a well known local historian to speak to the club on the Historical Records Society in Geelong. I added his name to my list of possible speakers. It was nearly a year before I acted on it but when I rang him with the invitation to speak, he said, 'No. I'm not into public speaking but the man you want is our president and a he's a good speaker,' So I rang the President and we fixed a date in February. During an interesting talk about the development of the historical society and the services it offered the speaker mentioned that 'the shipping records were now in Geelong so that you can check when immigrants entered Victoria from overseas'. I registered that comment and thought that I might look up the records to see if my parents had entered Australia through the port of Melbourne.
Some weeks passed and on the spur of the moment I decided to explore the shipping lists at the society's rooms. It was slow work. I selected the microfilm for a particular year and then went through the passenger lists for each ship. It was a tedious process. For a bit of light relief I began chatting to the lady at the next machine. I told her some of the difficulties I was having in tracking my family largely because of the paucity of information I possessed and I also mentioned that I had no birth certificate. Her immediate suggestion was that I might have been adopted. 'You can easily find out,’ she said, 'just ring the Department of Health and Community Services and ask them. They'll tell you.'
I couldn't see myself ringing some government department and asking such a personal question and anyway, I knew I wasn't adopted.
A few mornings later in my office I thought I might as well follow the advice given me if only to see what happened. I had nothing to lose. I was certainly making no progress in searching out my ancestors. Maybe I'd get something useful out of it.
I looked up the department's telephone number, rang it, explained to the receptionist what I wanted only to be told that I needed to call a different number. I rang the second number and repeated my request only to be given a third number. This number was duly called with exactly the same result but when I rang the fourth number the girl at the other end said, ‘Oh, you want Brendon. I'll get him for you'. Clearly the fourth number was indeed the one I wanted.
Brendon came on the line and I explained that I wanted to know whether I had been adopted. 'What year were you born?' I told him. 'Oh!’ he said, '1928 wasn't a good year to get adopted; 1929 would have been much better.’ He went on to tell me that it wasn't until 1929 that the government took control of adoptions and kept complete records. Before that it was pretty hit and miss. I must say I felt disappointed. It was just my luck to have been born in the wrong year. 'However,’ Brendon continued more hopefully, 'Over the years we've collected up a lot of ad hoc information and if you like to hang on a minute I'll just check what we've got - it'll only take a minute.' While I waited I doodled on the pad. It would be a 'no entry' for sure, besides, I knew with utter certainty that I wasn't adopted. A moment later Brendon was hack on the phone. 'Yes,’ he said, 'there is an entry,’ and he proceeded to read out the detai!s including the full names, occupation and address of the only parents I had ever known. I had, indeed, been adopted.
I was stunned. To think that such a secret had been kept for so long. I was embarrassed. To think that the most important fact about my birth, who my mother was, remained totally unknown to me for more than half a lifetime. I was disappointed. So much time had elapsed. If I had known thirty years ago when my adoptive mother had died my chances of finding my blood relatives would have been so much better. But I was also relieved; relieved that the highly unrewarding task of finding answers to questions about my parents, adoptive parents as I now knew them to be, could be put to one side. Surely it would be easier to find out about my biological family. I know that I didn't feel angry, neither then nor since, that I had been given up for adoption and never told the truth of the matter. I understood the problems of an unmarried girl with an unwanted pregnancy. But I was sad, sad for the years of not knowing.
It was in that sort of mood where you don't quite know what you think or feel and where one emotion replaces another like slides in a projector that I went inside to my wife. 'The mystery is solved,’ I said. 'I was adopted.’ She Iooked at me astounded. ‘You're kidding,' she said. 'How do you know? Is it quite certain?'
I had a head co!d. My eyes were sore and my nose runny. ‘ Yes, it's quite certain. Do you want to know the names of your real in-laws? Gerald Roy Victor Lynas and May Isobel Lynas.
'How do you feel about it? Are you upset?' my wife asked. 'Of course not. It's ancient history’ But my eyes were a bit moist. It may have been the cold.
One by one I rang my three children. My eldest daughter wanted to know if I was kidding and when assured that I wasn't, was absolutely fascinated. ‘That’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to this family in the last twenty years.’ My youngest daughter thought I must be kidding but when assured that I wasn't was intrigued by the ramifications of such a discovery and quickly came up with a list of things I should do. My son was his usual phlegmatic self. After hearing what I had to say there was a moment's silence. 'That's interesting.,’ he said, 'By the way what are you having for dinner tonight'. Fairly predictable responses, given their personalities.
'Any regrets?' one of my children asked.
Yes, there were regrets. Wishing l'd known earlier for even now my biological parents could be alive had they been young at the time of my birth. Perhaps I had brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, a whole family that I had never known. What kinds of people were they, are they?
Vividly I recalled how nuclear my adoptive family was, a mother, father and one child. You can't get much more nuclear than that. Not a single relative that I knew of. No grandparents. No uncles and aunts. No nieces and nephews. No cousins, first, second or any other degree. I was the only kid I knew who did not have a single relative to visit, speak about, or write to. Of course there were relatives somewhere but I didn't know them.
Both my adoptive parents came from large families. In fact, on a visit to England I had met a cousin, a niece to whom my adoptive mother was also godmother. She was unwilling to tell me anything about my mother or her family or even to put me in touch with them. She felt it her duty to be secretive. I wonder if she knew that I was adopted. She died some years ago. I wrote to her husband in case she had left any documents of interest to me. There were none.
Why did the adoption take place? These days many a baby is born out of wedlock, not only by accident but often by choice and few are surrendered for adoption. But that was not the case in 1928. Were my parents down on their luck, no money, out of work, no home of their own? Was marriage and keeping me not a possibility? Was I the cause or the reminder of some great unhappiness and therefore surrendered so that they might make a fresh start? Whatever the reasons, at least they did the best possible thing for me by giving me to a mother who wanted me and loved me dearly until the day she died.
Was my adoptive mother ever tempted to tell me the truth? I firmly believe that had I asked her the direct question 'Am I adopted?' she would have told me. But I think she was well satisfied that the question was never asked and she never had to tell me the truth. When she was seventy seven she had a stroke. She was in Perth and I in Canberra. My stepfather rang me, said that she was in hospital but was expected to recover well. Despite that reassurance I decided to fly over. We spent most of the day together chatting about family and past events. I cherish the memory of that day. Neither of us knew when we parted that we had shared our last conversation. During the night she had a massive cerebral haemorrhage and as I approached her bedside the next morning, she slipped into a coma and died three days later. Mine was the last face she saw; mine the last voice she heard. She died the more peacefully I think, content that she had filled the role of ‘mother’ so completely that the validity of her motherhood had never been doubted.
So how do I feel about the discovery of my adoption? Pretty ordinary really. It's no great trauma, just surprise, regret, embarrassment, relief and the sense of a new beginning. It is now Saturday 18th March 1995. I know I was adopted but little else. What do I do now?
To begin with I have started keeping a diary. I know how easy it is to remember things imperfectly. When I come to write this story I want it to be accurate. So I sit at the word processor and I write what I do, who I contact, what I find out. It's two days since my discovery; the wonder has not abated. Initially there is the compulsion to do something, anything.
The afternoon of the 16th I had gone into Historical Records and begun to examine some of the Marriage Records but without any great success. I wasn't really sure what I was looking for. What else might I do? The advice was, nothing, until I had my Birth Certificate.
Brendon had told me that I should apply to Births, Deaths and Marriages (BDM) for a copy of my Birth Certificate. 'I think they'll give it to you,’ he said, 'but if they won't you'll have to register with us and then you can get it. It costs seventy dollars to register so try them first.' I decided that I would do this when I went up to Melbourne on the following Tuesday but by Friday I was wishing I had gone up immediately.
At home I Iooked up the Melbourne Telephone Directory. It was the '93 edition. There were thirteen entries under the surname Lynas. Not many. By contrast there were a hundred and eighty Coughs and even one Quarmby (my adoptive mother's maiden name). Thirteen was a manageable number. Perhaps I could write to them and see if they were related to my Lynases. But what kind of letter could one write? I decided to sleep on it but slept badly that night.
I wrote the letter. It wasn't easy to write a sensible letter to people I didn't know, asking them to provide what they might consider private family information to someone they had never heard of and who obviously knew little about the family concerned. I read the draft to my daughter, modified it in the light of her comments, copied it and mailed it to the thirteen addresses. A long shot, but better than doing nothing.
I slept better having done that but dreamed, not frightening dreams, more like adventures in paradise in which there seemed an element of danger.
The letters have been mailed. Now I worry about how they will be received. Will any of the recipients be related to my biological parents? Will they know anything about me, the skeleton in the family closet? Will they think the letter has been written by a crank or, worse still, by a confidence trickster? Or will they simply ignore it, having no interest in their own past and no desire to help one who has? Only time will tell.
I wonder what kind of life I would have had if had remained with my biological parents. Would my history have been very different? I know the past cannot be changed even though it may be re-written not only by historians but by participants. It would be ironic if financial necessity were the reason for giving me up for adoption for although my adoptive parents were comfortably off in 1928, the depression wiped them out the following year. From then on we were poor although, mind you, our straitened circumstances were never permitted to let us look poor. My adoptive mother was a great manager even when she had little to manage.
Always as a child, I had felt keenly the absence of relatives; no brothers or sisters, no grandparents, no uncles or aunts, not even a solitary cousin. Not one. I was the only kid I knew who had absolutely no relatives. I'm repeating myself I know, but doing so helps to underline how strongly I felt my isolation. Maybe in the family i never knew, there were all these relatives, perhaps even a surfeit of them, maybe even some I wouldn't like. But it would have been nice....
I wouldn't have minded having a different name. Somehow I had never felt any great affinity with the name Gough, distinguished though it might be. I wouldn't have minded being a Quarmby, my adoptive mother's maiden name, even though no one could spell it. When I married I would have liked to link my wife's surname to mine, Seaby-Gough. On my adoptive mother's second marriage I would have taken my step-father's name, Tanner, but that choice was not offered me. I wouldn't have minded growing up as a Lynas, my biological mother's name. But I suppose such feelings are pretty incomprehensible to most people.
So there is a weekend ahead of me with nothing to be done except wait.
When Monday came I knew I couldn't wait another day and so went to Melbourne to get my Birth Certificate. My son accompanied me clearly at the instigation of my daughters just so someone would be with me in case I was confronted by anything emotionally disturbing. That's the great thing about families; they look after one another.
At BDM having filled in the appropriate form I was pleasantly surprised when they informed me that it would be ready in an hour and even more pleased when I collected it and did not have to pay the hefty surcharge for 'same day' delivery.
The Certificate was deeply disappointing. It showed my mother's name, Isabel May Lynas but the space for my father's name was blank. Over the phone I had assumed that the name Gerald Roy Victor Lynas was the name of my father. It wasn't, it was my name, the name under which my birth had been registered.
Perhaps I had envisaged my birth resulting from a romance between two young people, in love, but unable to marry. Or a financially distressed family that couldn't afford to keep me. But it wasn't so. She was nineteen; an unmarried mum. My heart bled for her. A country girl from Kyabram (according to the birth certificate), nineteen, pregnant and probably alone at the hospital to give birth to an unwanted baby. I can imagine her family giving her a bad time, their disappointment at her moral lapse fuelling anger and perhaps even rejection. Her friends may not have been able to help much. My father was obviously not around. She must have felt pretty much abandoned, alone and isolated. Childbirth at the best of times isn't without pain and trauma, even with the full support of husband, family and friends and undergirded by the passionate desire to have a child.
For my mum it might just have been the end of the unhappiest few months of her life. 1928 wasn't exactly the most enlightened age as far as unwanted pregnancies were concerned. I feel deeply, painfully for her.
My greatest sense of loss however was the absence of a father. My adoptive father had never been the father I needed and anyway, he disappeared from my life at a time when I needed him most. My step-father wasn't much help because he was younger than my adoptive mother and not ready to deal with a 'ready made' teenage son. Besides his interests were totally different from mine. Perhaps, in being adopted, I had lost my one opportunity to have a father who would have met my needs for companion, mentor, friend and hero. It doesn't make much sense but those were the thoughts and feelings I experienced- I will probably never know who he was. Families hushed up scandals like this. My birth mum would be eighty six now and could still be alive. Would she remember? Would she want to talk to me? Would there be anyone else in the family with whom I could form some connection?
I felt a great sadness. Had my adoptive mother told me before she died some thirty years ago I would have been asking these questions at a time when people were around who could answer them. As a child I Iived for a time at Shepparton. Nearby would have been grandparents and other relatives but we never knew.
Its likely they may not have wanted any contact. It's even more likely that my adoptive mum would not have wanted contact because mine was an informal fostering and she would have feared me being taken from her. Sadness for my nineteen year old mum and for myself and for all that might have been.
The next step is to apply for the Certificates of Isabel May's birth and her parents’ Marriage. I have done this. Now I will take some time and look for the marriage of Isabel May that is likely to have occurred some time after 1928. It was easily found; she had married David Williams in 1930. I wonder whether he knew about me? I have also applied for that certificate.
Tuesday 21st March brought a telephone response to one of my letters from a David Lynas in Frankston. He was most interested but that conversation and others that followed showed that any relationship between his family and mine could only be in the very distant past.
Friday 24th March brought the first of the Certificates in the mail. They enabled me to construct the rudiments of a family tree. The Lynas family was beginning to take shape. There was also another response to my 'shotgun' letter but from someone not related. Still, I appreciated her taking the time to write.
The great excitement was yet to come!
After lunch I decided to visit Historical Records again. I was looking for the deaths of my maternal grandparents. They didn't reach a great age. Grandfather Lynas seventy three but Grandmother Lynas only forty nine. She died in 1931, the year after Isabel May, her eldest daughter, married David Williams. After searching records for some time I was about to leave, but as an afterthought went back to thank the lady whose suggestion had first opened up this new vista for me. She asked if I had discovered Isabel May's Death Certificate and suggested that, as the 1994 Electoral Roll was there on microfiche, I should check that to see if she were still alive.
And there it was! In the Electoral Roll for 1994, the name of Isabel May Williams shown as a resident of Fairview Homes in Warragul. So she was alive when the information for that volume was collected. I came home and told the family that, with a bit of luck, we had a grandma and a great grandma alive and hopefully well in a retirement home in Warragul.
But was she still alive? I just had to know.
Telecom gave me the number for Fairview Homes. I called. The Iady at the other end said Isabel May was not resident in the hostel but she would go back to the office and check whether she was in the independent flats. A moment later she was back; Isabel May was Indeed residing in a flat alive and well, looking after herself and not much more than two hours drive away. The mum that had given birth to me was alive! I cannot recall any discovery in recent times that has filled me with such excitement.
Now it was a matter of approaching her or someone in her family. I would not want to embarrass her or cause her any difficulties at all. I know it's too late to seek any sort of relationship with her. She has her family; I have mine. But I would like to talk with her, to swap information about our lives and what has happened to us. I would like her to know that things worked out all right for the baby she had to relinquish; that I feel for her in the situation she was in and that I am neither hurt nor angry that she had to give me up. I'd like her to know that she did her best for me in giving me to a mother who could not have loved me more had I been flesh of her flesh. I want her to know that not only does she have a son and daughter-in-law but three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren of whom she can be proud. Most of all I want her to have pleasure in knowing these things, content that there need be no regrets, no sadness, no blame.
And I would like to know something of her life. How was it for her, growing up in Kyabram. What was her father like and what did he do? And who was my father? Where did they move to and how did she come to be in Warragul? What sort of a marriage did she have and what about her children? Where are they and what do they do? After all, they are my half brothers and sisters, even though I can't expect to develop that relationship with them. They will have their extended families and their circles of friends just as I have mine. We're not likely to meet much, maybe not at all and we may have little in common but it would be nice to know something about each other - at least, l'd like to know about them.
So I'll have to think carefully about the next step. Pity next week is so busy, days and evenings both. My eldest daughter, Lianne suggests that I contact Community Services who have social workers experienced in putting adoptees in touch with relinquishing parents. Anthea, my youngest daughter, said that she will get precise details from Community Services as to exactly who I should contact and how. My wife, Lorna, says we should cancel our Monday program and use the time to sort out what to do. (At least I get plenty of advice). No doubt the weekend will provide some time for reflection despite it being filled with engagements.
Contacting Isabel May has two dimensions.
First, I don't want to shock or distress her. If her family is unaware that she had me before she married David I don't want to betray her confidence. If she doesn't want a continuing relationship I would be disappointed but I would accept that. I will fit in with her wishes, after all she is eighty six and may not want to be bothered with all of this.
Secondly, what I want is information; about my biological father, about her life and about her family. I would like my family to meet her but would entirely respect her wishes. It’s mainly a matter of meeting Isabel May with the hope that we may become good friends. More might be too much to hope for.
Given those considerations, how do I make contact?
'There's someone in Geelong who specialises in helping adoptees meet their natural parents,’ a friend told my wife, 'Why don't you contact her?'
We tracked down a telephone number for Sandra, a voluntary counsellor with the Geelong Adoption Program (GAP). Sandra answered my call and spent a great deal of time preparing me for the possible outcomes of any attempt to make contact. Then she indicated a way to initiate contact that generally had the best chance of success. It made sense. In my case Isabel May, my mother, was eighty six years old. The birth I was asking her to recall occurred sixty seven years ago. She had probably never discussed that event in all those years. No one else might even know of it. A painful memory to be suppressed and repressed until it faded from mind. 'After such a length of time,’ Sandra said, 'some women will have little recollection of the birth and some may never believe or acknowledge that it occurred.' After reflecting on the advice I wrote the following letter.
Dear Mrs Williams,
I hope you can give me some help.
Recently I have begun to do some family research. Like many people these days I’m interested in tracing my family and where they came from. I also find that my children and grandchildren are much more interested in these questions than I was at their age. The name I am now interested in Is that of Isabel May Lynas who was bom in Kyabram in 19O8 and who married David Williams of Drouin in 193O.
Let me tell you a little about myself. My full name is John Eric Cough. I was bom at 5lO Swanston St, opposite Melbourne University, on 5th April 1928 and moved interstate shortly afterwards. I am now 67 (in two days time, in fact), retired, will celebrate my 43rd wedding anniversary this year, have three children and four grandchildren and have lived in Ceelong for twenty odd years with the family nearby.
I can assure you that any information you can give me will be treated in the strictest confidence.
Could you reply to this letter as soon as possible? I have enclosed a stamped addressed envelope to make it easier if you wish to write or you could telephone me on O52436244 almost any evening.
If you felt you needed a little mote background to this request you could get this by calling Sandra on the number enclosed.
I would deeply appreciate any help you can give me.
Again I spent a further day or two reflecting on the letter, checking it with the family and with Sandra before mailing it. No one could accuse me of acting precipitously and without caring for the feelings of the recipient.
Then it was matter of waiting to see if there would be a reply.
I speculated about her reaction. She would receive the letter on Wednesday. No doubt she would puzzle over it. Perhaps if she understands that it refers to a baby she had out of wedlock all those years ago she might destroy the letter immediately. She might not want to face the emotional trauma of dealing with the writer and simply discard it. Maybe she would give it to one of her children to deal with and then who knows what might occur. If she replies she might deny the link between us. Even if she accepts the link she may declare that she wants no further involvement. The possibilities are endless. All this and more passes through my mind while I wait for a reply.
The reality was quite different!
At least a week will have to be allowed before a reply could be received. That will bring us very close to Easter and any subsequent step may have to wait until after that holiday period. I continue to hope that the letter has caused her no distress.
I filled in my time by researching the family through the public record, finding out about Isabel May's husband, children, parents and grandparents. By getting the appropriate Birth, Death and Marriage Certificates I acquired much information. Then on the Tuesday before Easter the reply came. It was written in the spidery hand of one no longer accustomed to writing but it was clear, concise and to the point. This is what it said;
Just received your letter so will answer it straight away. Believe you are the baby I adopted out all those years ago. I have to have an operation as soon as there is a bed in the Warragul Hospital, if you want to get in touch with me my phone number is O56 232 788. I'm home most evenings except Tuesday.
I hope this is the information that you want Yours sincerely...
Was it ever the information I wanted! My old mum remembers her baby son and welcomes him contacting her. The most difficult part is over!
Wednesday found us finishing our packing to go away for Easter. I almost wished we were not going but felt that the forced interlude between our writing and our meeting would be best in the long run. It would give both her and us time to prepare ourselves for meeting face to face.
After receiving her reply I had written to her that night indicating that by the time she received the letter we would have spoken on the phone and fixed a date when we would visit her in Warragul. I called her on Wednesday morning. Her voice betrayed some anxiety and uncertainty but strengthened as we talked. She told me a little of her family and I told her something of mine. We confirmed the date and time of our visit. I didn't know it then, but that date was one of the most significant anniversaries of my life, a fitting occasion on which to meet my biological mother.
I called Sandra, brought her up-to-date, and off we went to Maldon for Easter.
As an aside I have to tell you that, right from the first discovery, we told all our family and friends the story as it unfolded. This meant that we were able to enjoy the experience to the full with no thought of having to suppress anything we learned. It was the greatest help I could have had in adjusting to learning of my adoption and preparing for the next steps - just being able to talk freely about it.
The next exciting event would be meeting my mother after sixty seven years.
Wednesday, 19th April. A beautiful day and a pleasant if somewhat quiet drive to Warragul. We had flowers, photos (particularly of me as a baby and little boy) and many anxieties as to how the meeting would go.
Fairview Homes was easy to find and following Isabel May's instructions over the phone, her flat was easily Iocated. Her front door was open, the room shielded only by the fly wire door. Lorna and I walked down the path and knocked. A voice from within said, 'I thought it might have been you. Come in.’ We opened the door and went in.
Isabel May, supported by a walking frame, was standing in front of an armchair. 'My legs are not too good,’ she said. We said hello and kissed. It was all very low key but warm, friendly and welcoming. Each of us was pleased to be meeting the other and I think we conveyed that pleasure clearly. The flat was small. A living room, bedroom, small kitchen and a kind of vestibule that housed laundry and toilet. Seventeen years, she told us, she had been living there, going on to tell us how it all came about and what she had been doing all these years. After much talking and showing of photos we suggested taking her out to lunch. Her reply was what we came to recognize as vintage Isabel May. ‘I’d rather we get fish and chips and bring them back here to eat.’ No pretensions about my mum.
I mentioned earlier that the 19th April was a significant anniversary for me. I was born on April 5th and on April 19th, 1928, when I was just fourteen days old, Isabel May placed me in the arms of my adoptive mother.
She still remembered the scene clearly – an English couple, the wife wearing black with a single strand of pearls and the husband standing behind her saying nothing. Our reunion in Warragul was exactly 67 years to the day after she had surrendered me into the arms of my adoptive mother. Such are the mysteries of life.
Before we completed our visit Lorna nudged me and said, ‘Ask her who knows about you.’ I did as I was told. ‘No one,’ Isabel May replied, ‘But they will. My brother and his wife come tomorrow and I’ll tell them then. And when I speak to the girls (my half sisters) on the phone I’ll tell them.’ And she did. In fact, she presided over my entry into the family with calm assurance.
We had five good years with Isabel May, visiting her every two to three weeks in Warragul although we saw her in her flat only the once. She had her operation within a week or two of our meeting and was moved from the hospital to Cooinda as she could no longer walk.
She died at the age of 9l on Valentines Day , 2000.
There is much more I could tell you but I must finish by reminding you how my story started. If I hadn’t joined that particular Probus Club and arranged that particular speaker and if he hadn’t mentioned shipping records…. So my story did indeed come about ‘ just by chance’ and in so doing enriched my life beyond measure.
J. Eric Lynas Gough
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