This powerful and unusual story contrasts The Bicknells, a wealthy and influential family in Rosedale, Toronto, Ontario, into which I was born out of wedlock, with a farm couple from near Brockville, Ontario who adopted me in 1935. At the age of sixteen I began to feel unsettled and lost. Eighteen years later I finally acted on that feeling and began the search for my lost parents. Using documents I found in a box in the closet of my adoptive mother after her death, I have retrieved the moment when a sleek limousine emerged from the dust of a gravel road delivering me to my new parents. The book follows that limousine back as I searched for my birth mother, taking me into mystery, intrigue and cover-up by the legal system but bringing me finally to a supper dance in the Crystal Ballroom of the historic King Edward Hotel in Toronto, where by chance, my birth parents were reunited. The memoir is a story of loss and recovery but it is also a story of love, strength and redemption
THE BOX IN THE CLOSET Taken from: THE PREFACE Now, hidden behind the sofa in the front parlour, the feeling was coming again, a sort of déjà vu, as though she was suspended in a vacuum without sound, attached to thick elastic and would suddenly be snapped back to where she really belonged. But it was never clear where she had gone. She didn’t fit. She didn’t fit here on this farm in this family; she certainly didn’t look or act like anyone else and although she loved family picnics, walks in the woods, skating on the flats and sliding down hill in winter she wanted more. But she was adopted, born to a wealthy family from Toronto whose name and address even her mother, the one cooking potatoes for supper, didn’t know. The need to know had been growing in her like a storm these past few months and now her normally good grades at school had slipped. She longed to go to the city, Toronto especially and she had been there a few times. At school she was the class clown to cover up her failing grades because she couldn’t concentrate she was so absorbed in her inner thoughts, “daydreams” it said on her Report Card. She always felt alone. The Young People’s Union in her church had lots of events and she would have liked to be president but that never happened. She was always passed over for the popular boy or girl in the group. Two women whom she loved to be with were Thelma and Elsa and it was always special to be invited to their home for tea. She listened enthralled by their stories of traveling to England to photograph and write stories for newspapers and magazines about the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, the funeral of King George V1 and later the Coronation of Princess Elizabeth when she became Queen. She would choose an afternoon with Thelma & Elsa any day, over going to Diana Sweets Café in Brockville with the YPU. Earlier, when doing her chores she had felt distraught as she climbed back up the side of the silo on the inside ladder, crawled through the opening and slid the square wooden door back into place and carefully climbed down the outside ladder. She was tired now and hungry too, but she still had to gather the eggs and fill the wood box before supper. In the gathering dusk, she walked through the barn in front of the cows, toward the ladder to the hay loft to gather the eggs. She had sprinkled oil cake on their hay and the cows licked it up the with their rough tongues and now relished their ensilage and stirred in their bails when she touched their heads and stroked their wet noses as she walked toward the ladder. The black and white Holstein cows stood in a long row in their bails. At the end of the row one tan coloured Jersey cow stood out as being different, just like her. The other cows would lower their heads and push her out of the way as they were processing into the barn. The Jersey was always the last getting into the barn. She liked the gentle Jersey cow that provided the family with rich cream and sometimes when there was a new baby born in the community her dad would take the rich milk to the mother. The hen house would be dark now and she dreaded going in. It wasn’t the hens she feared so much, although some of them were not above pecking her hand as she slid it under them to get their eggs. It was the darkness and the unknown creature or person that might be there that caused her anxiety. Sometimes her brother would hide and jump out to scare her. Tonight she knew he was cleaning the stable and would not be a threat. She reached the top of the ladder and stepped on to the upper floor of the barn. The sweet smell of the hay in the loft was comforting. While she was climbing the ladder to the loft, her dog, Rover had run around the barn and up the ramp, squeezed his body under the door to join her and sat wagging his tail, waiting. It felt safer with Rover there. She entered the hen house and spoke quietly to each hen as she slid her hand slowly under the warm black and white feathers and carefully removed the eggs. They cooed and crackled softly in a hen whisper, their heads drooping as they fell asleep. One by one she placed the brown eggs in the berry basket hung over her arm. Strange, how the hens sat guardedly and were possessive of their individual nests, sort of like each having its own apartment. Strange too how they accepted her hand sliding into their nests to take the eggs. Every day, twice a day normally she did this. Most days it was something that steadied her; the dim light, the hay smell, the soft small talk of the hens. But today, she felt tears rising in her eyes, a raging torment rising in her chest. Rover sat panting quietly by the door of the hen house waiting for her and when the last egg was placed gently into the basket, she opened the large barn door and they left the loft. Rover fell into step with her as they walked down the barn ramp into the darkening day towards the house. She felt sadness, a longing for a different life but couldn’t bring it into focus. Yet still the wood box beside the kitchen door was waiting for her, its’ gaping cavern mocking her hunger, her weary body and unhappiness. Tears had been brimming since she was in the silo and were now about to explode in an avalanche of distraught emotion. She concentrated on the mindless repetitive task, thinking of the homework still to be done and the poetry book she was so looking forward to reading. She trudged back and forth with heavy arm loads of sticks, from the woodshed, up four steps to the summer kitchen and dumped them into the wood box. Angry and frustrated she tried to control the heavy arm load of maple chunks until she could fling them into the box. Her arms were scratched and a dramatic track of blood oozed on her upper arm. The unruly sticks protruded in all directions and one knobby, rough chunk fell from her arms with a thud, hit her big toe and made her cry out in pain. It flashed through her mind that her life was sort of like this pile of knobby sticks that were out of control. The incongruity of her life was overwhelming but she couldn’t explain or understand where these feelings came from. She had been delivered here to her adoptive parents in a chauffeur driven limousine from Toronto when she was seven months old. That’s what kept coming back to her, the way her mom told her the story and she always asked for more details. How much did her mother and father know? What were they keeping from her? She tried to picture her grandmother and perhaps her mother too, carefully choosing all of the baby things they brought with them for her. The little dress and hand knitted sweater she was wearing that day were carefully folded away in the cedar chest. There had been other things too, but all of the wonderful gifts of clothing and toys had been rejected by her new parents. Why couldn’t they have at least kept them for her? Of course they wanted to give the message to the birth family that they could take care of their new daughter but it must have added to her grandmother’s pain. Anyway, who had the right to decide that she was better off on a farm feeding cows and filling a stupid wood box than living in the city surrounded by all of the glamour which she imagined was associated with that life. She longed for her birth mother and gave her imagination full permission to create the perfect person. She loved her adoptive mother who did many special things for her. Many nights her mother cranked up her long, unruly straight hair in paper or rags to give it some curl. And her mother had a dressmaker sew up a beautiful skirt each fall for school. There were music lessons, books and sheet music. And there were other things, too. Her mother and father were always supportive and in the front row anytime she was in a musical, public speaking or singing at a church service. But her mother always wanted her to get better marks in class than she did. How could she when she was so preo
Educator, family historian, photographer and mother, Margaret Singleton has written several books including The History and Genealogy of the Bicknell Family in Canada. She also wrote a monthly feature article on antique dolls for the CanadiAntiquer. Her other interests include gardening, skiing, hiking and music. Margaret Singleton lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
This book really touched me to the point that I had to stop to grab a tissue while reading it in on the morning commute.
It is well written in that you can feel the emotions of Betty, Beatrice, Florence, Stewart and of course, Margaret.
It reinforced the fact that for a long time, illegitimate pregnancies and being adopted were looked down upon and with them one carried a stigma due to an insensitive, judgmental society.
I admire the author's courage and determination in her research to find her birth mother although hindered many times by an unkind, incompetent and secretive system.
I was very happy to learn that she was reunited with members of her birth family and especially, her other siblings while not forgetting the love and kindness of the family who adopted her and raised her as one of their own.