‘It took a few days for it to sink in that my mother had ac­tu­ally left us ... the world as I had known it was now changed for­ever’

Forty years ago, pub­lic re­la­tions con­sul­tant and po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Tom Kelly’s mum walked out of the fam­ily home never to re­turn. Here, he de­scribes the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect her ac­tions had, his heart­break­ing at­tempt to rec­on­cile and how he felt af­ter l

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - REAL-LIFE -

As you read this ar­ti­cle it’s most likely that I will be sit­ting in a church in Newry. It’s not part of my nor­mal Satur­day rou­tine, which usu­ally in­volves a cap­puc­cino from my favourite cof­fee brew bar, Fin­negan & Son, tempted some­times to sam­ple his wife’s calorific home-made donuts and then a quick dash to the bak­ery for the savoury and sweet treats I bring to my dad each Satur­day — stop­ping off to pick up the most brightly coloured plants I can find for my aunt and then a gos­sipy catchup with my sis­ter who is al­ways cal­cu­lat­ing her re­ward points be­fore de­cid­ing whether to tuck into a slice of Bat­ten­berg cake.

It’s a rou­tine I have cul­ti­vated un­less travel, wed­dings or fu­ner­als dis­rupt nor­mal ser­vice. To­day it’s not quite a fu­neral. More of a farewell. No, it’s ac­tu­ally more like clos­ing the fi­nal pages of a book. Be­cause to­day I am at­tend­ing mass at St Cather­ine’s Church, bet­ter known to the lo­cals as ‘the Do­mini­can’, to sim­ply re­flect on the pass­ing of my mother.

It’s not a re­quiem mass, nor is it a memo­rial ser­vice. No ser­mon will be given and there will be no fu­neral ora­tion for the de­ceased. The church won’t be filled with mourn­ers. In fact, most peo­ple there will be strangers but min­gled amongst them and the empty pews will be me, my wife, my sib­lings, their chil­dren and my aunt. There will also be my mother’s sib­lings, some of her neph­ews and nieces, and a sprin­kling of friends whose mem­o­ries of a woman they once knew are fad­ing.

We didn’t get to say good­bye to our mother. We had been es­tranged since she walked out of our lives some 40 years ago. We didn’t get a chance to say good­bye back in 1977 ei­ther, so in her fi­nal leav­ing she was at least con­sis­tent.

The day she left wasn’t that re­mark­able for any­thing, ex­cept the weather as it was un­sea­son­ably hot. My mother, known as Irene Hanna — back then, even if mar­ried, women were com­monly re­ferred to by their maiden names. To my child­hood friends she was Mrs Kelly.

Hav­ing pack­aged us off for the day, my mother bagged her be­long­ings and left with­out as much as a back­wards glance.

Of what she left was a charm bracelet, which she ob­vi­ously for­got be­cause she wore it ev­ery­where, a bro­ken, cheap, gold-plated ex­pand­able bracelet watch and a pair of glass coloured rosary beads from Fa­tima bought by my pil­grim­age-ad­dicted grand­mother.

It took a few days for it to sink in that my mother had ac­tu­ally left. She had left a few months be­fore but then came back. The enor­mity of what had hap­pened was not lost on me.

The sense of aban­don­ment was acute. The world as I had known it was now changed for­ever. First, there was the phys­i­cal change. The per­son who en­sured you got dressed, made the din­ner and who washed and ironed the clothes was not there any­more.

I don’t re­mem­ber my mother as any kind of culi­nary ge­nius. In fact, the real mem­o­rable din­ners from my child­hood were those made at my granny Kelly’s which were mostly made by my Aunt Rose. Still, be­ing able to un­wind the coil from the tinned chopped ham with­out bash­ing the con­tents to mush and turn­ing on the grill were be­yond me. We had a gas fire and oven, both of which hissed and spat flames at you when they were switched on. A sec­ond phys­i­cal change was mov­ing house. They say that sep­a­ra­tion, mov­ing house and death are amongst the most trau­matic things one will ever ex­pe­ri­ence and yet at the age of four, two-and-a-half and 13 years, my sib­lings and I had ex­pe­ri­enced two of th­ese.

Our move was less trau­matic than it could have been, as ini­tially we moved in with my Aunt Rose and then to a sep­a­rate house down the street. That house was also neatly po­si­tioned near my dad’s other sis­ter, aunt Mar­garet, so we had in­stant play­mates in the form of our five cousins. We also had a seem­ingly end­less se­ries of birth­day par­ties, all which took part in Rose’s house when two large ta­bles were put end to end and chil­dren and adults sat in or­der of age. Fam­ily en­gulfed us but, to me, Aunt Rose’s was al­ways home as it is to­day.

It sounds as if we had this seam­less tran­si­tion but it wasn’t quite like that. The rule of thumb in 1977 was that a man couldn’t re­ally care for chil­dren and we were vis­ited by a pha­lanx of so­cial work­ers, mon­i­tor­ing the very beds we slept in. Even my Aunt Rose felt the pres­sure of their in­tense scru­tiny. It was a very stress­ful time.

My own be­hav­iour didn’t help, hurt­ing from my mother’s de­par­ture, burst­ing with teenager hor­mones, ladened with ado­les­cent in­se­cu­ri­ties and con­fused feel­ings that I couldn’t ex­plain, I de­vel­oped that sul­try moody de­meanour so per­fected by James Dean — only with acne. I cer­tainly tested the pa­tience of my fa­ther but thank­fully he per­se­vered. And so did my school with some tough love.

Only re­cently has my aunt men­tioned about her stand­ing in the door­way of shops out­side of my sis­ter’s school to shield my baby brother from the small town gos­sips who would point him out as that “wee mite aban­doned by Irene Hanna”. I guess he must have heard some of it as, for a long time, un­til he had his own chil­dren, I of­ten felt he had a sad­ness in his eyes.

It was a strug­gle for my dad and Aunt Rose. Both made huge sac­ri­fices. Rose her job. Even dad had to give up his smok­ing — not for health grounds — but be­cause he sim­ply couldn’t af­ford it. That said, we never went with­out and we weren’t poor in love. Three meals a day, a warm house and a sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment.

Mean­while, my mother never made con­tact. Her next con­tact was to ask my fa­ther for a di­vorce, a full two years af­ter she left and two years with­out ever en­quir­ing about us. It wasn’t un­til nearly 20 years later that I would dis­cover that her di­vorce re­quest was based on an un­speak­able bar­gain.

She of­fered my fa­ther two choices: a quick di­vorce and she wouldn’t con­test the cus­tody of her chil­dren or, if he made her wait five years, she would con­test the cus­tody of the chil­dren, point­ing out that whilst she couldn’t ac­com­mo­date us then, she would in­sist we are put into care, res­i­den­tial or a foster home, un­til she could.

She said she knew he would never want that for his chil­dren. It wasn’t Hob­son’s choice for my fa­ther as he al­ways put his chil­dren first. I was shell-shocked that she ac­tu­ally put all of this in writ­ing. To her dy­ing day, I be­lieve that Faus­tian bar­gain haunted my mother. It was ir­re­versible.

To his credit my fa­ther vis­ited my ma­ter­nal grand­mother each week­end for five years af­ter my mother left, bring­ing my younger brother and sis­ter to visit her. She was a won­der­ful woman who didn’t un­der­stand my mother but who lav­ished as much at­ten­tion on us as she could un­til she died. My mother didn’t re­turn for her fu­neral.

Weeks passed, then months, then years — even decades. Fi­nally, I de­cided to track down my mother. It wasn’t an easy de­ci­sion. First of all I wanted to be hon­est with both my fa­ther and my aunt — af­ter all, I owed

Her next con­tact was to ask my fa­ther for a di­vorce, a full two years af­ter she left

ev­ery­thing to them, in­clud­ing be­ing the first Kelly to at­tend uni­ver­sity.

But I also wanted an­swers. Un­for­tu­nately, whilst my de­tec­tive skills were suc­cess­ful, my over­tures were spurned.

A sec­ond at­tempt with the same re­sult left me cold and re­jected. I had, how­ever, dis­cov­ered that she was mar­ried and had no chil­dren. Then, out of the blue 10 years ago and 30 years af­ter she left, my mother re­sponded to pres­sure from a rel­a­tive and vis­ited Ire­land to meet us.

It’s not an ex­pe­ri­ence I would re­peat. For both par­ties it felt like a shot­gun ar­range­ment. What was well in­ten­tioned turned into a calami­tous and re­gret­table meet­ing. My mother ar­rived with­out any real an­swers to the ques­tions that mat­tered most to us. We were not wor­ried about why her mar­riage broke down.

Our main ques­tion was why there was no con­tact with us. No Christ­mas cards, no presents, no birth­day wishes. She sim­ply said we were bet­ter off with our fa­ther. She had missed my brother’s first day at school, my sis­ter’s holy com­mu­nion, my grad­u­a­tion, her mother’s fu­neral, our wed­dings and her grand­chil­dren’s chris­ten­ings. It was an un­bridge­able gap with­out an­swers.

The meet­ing fell apart when she couldn’t even re­mem­ber the date of my brother’s birth­day.

When we left that meet­ing in the soul­less bar of the Mourne Coun­try Ho­tel, we were hol­low. Our re­jec­tion was com­plete. We cried. But we re­alised that we had each other. So in one as­pect, by de­fault, she brought us closer. As for my mother, she wasn’t as I had imag­ined or re­mem­bered. She was still glam­orous though, an­gli­cised with sil­very white hair per­fectly coif­fured — but re­mote. Maybe she was al­ways re­mote.

I hon­estly can’t re­mem­ber as time has dimmed my me­mory. The meet­ing should never have taken place with­out some de­gree of prepa­ra­tion.

Twenty-four hours no­tice to de­cide to meet or not meet framed a dis­as­trous and doomed en­counter. It can’t have been easy for her, ei­ther. How do you look your chil­dren in the face and tell them that you still loved them af­ter ig­nor­ing their lives?

That was 10 years ago. My mother made no ef­fort to meet us again. She had again moved on. The most il­lu­mi­nat­ing as­pect of meet­ing her was to dis­cover that she had in her mind been hap­pily mar­ried for 29 years but never got around to telling her hus­band that she had three chil­dren. It’s re­mark­able that she lived with a risk that any of us could have shown up on her doorstep at any time and shattered her al­ter­na­tive life. There’s no ex­pla­na­tion for her ac­tions.

She did keep a form of ad hoc con­tact with me by email and text but the con­tents were at times bizarre in­clud­ing once when she con­tacted me to say she was hol­i­day­ing in Malta for the win­ter and, as I was the Con­sul for Malta, she wanted to check I wouldn’t be there! Stranger still was when she asked me last au­tumn to fa­cil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ca­tions with her sib­lings but wanted no con­tact with her own chil­dren. She even vis­ited North­ern Ire­land last year but again never coun­te­nanced meet­ing her chil­dren or grand­chil­dren.

So when the call came through that she had died, I ini­tially felt anger. And when I dis­cov­ered that she knew for months that she was dy­ing from in­op­er­a­ble brain tu­mours and yet never felt any need to meet or even to leave a let­ter, I felt re­jected again. It was as if we never ex­isted.

But there was sad­ness, too. Sad­ness for what she missed in our lives. Sad­ness that she never ac­knowl­edged, even at the end, her chil­dren. Sad­ness that she saw no cel­e­bra­tion in par­ent­hood. Sad­ness that she lived a par­al­lel life based on a lie even to those she loved, such as her sec­ond hus­band. He died never know­ing she had chil­dren. Most of her friends in Eng­land never knew ei­ther.

Some­times I won­der how my mother ac­tu­ally coped liv­ing two com­pletely sep­a­rate lives. How she could cut off all con­tact with her chil­dren. Did she suf­fer un­di­ag­nosed post­na­tal de­pres­sion or was she bi-po­lar? We will never re­ally know the truth. She took that to her grave.

So to­day, in a church which played a big part in our lives as chil­dren, in a church where my mother once at­tended ser­vices, we are re­ally let­ting go. Let­ting go of years of hurt, years of un­re­alised po­ten­tial and un­re­solved ques­tions.

It’s not the way we would have wished. It’s some­what ironic that as chil­dren we of­ten wanted to hide from in­quis­i­tive ques­tion­ing but to­day we are stand­ing in the light. Gemma Bell, aka Irene Kelly, nee Hanna, was born, lived and died. She was my birth mother. A woman whom I for­gave many years ago. She was a sis­ter and aunt, too. To­day we all hope she has found the peace that eluded her in life. Ours is not to judge.

To­day is about cel­e­brat­ing our lives as much as hers. We have much to be grate­ful for — not least a won­der­ful fa­ther and a beloved aunt who never walked away no mat­ter how tough the go­ing got. Some­times peo­ple say that dad and my Aunt Rose are ex­tra­or­di­nary peo­ple but that’s not true.

They are very or­di­nary peo­ple who have had to do the or­di­nary things that par­ents, step-par­ents, guardians do ev­ery day — the only dif­fer­ence is that they were ex­traor­di­nar­ily good at do­ing them!

Next Satur­day, nor­mal ser­vice will re­sume.

FAM­ILY TIMES: Tom with his fa­ther, sib­lings Neil and Cather­ine and his Nanny Hanna, and (be­low) with sis­ter Cather­ine

POIGNANT: Tom Kelly’s mother Irene (also right) at home shortly be­fore she left

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