Gazette columnist is helping a woman to write a book about her remarkable true story, and how she found the mother who gave her up for adoption
WE couldn’t have had a more different start t in life – our mothers were polar opposites.
But when I first met Phyllis I felt a special connection. We were both born in Birmingham but it was several decades before our paths crossed in 2004. Blonde and bubbly, you would never guess how Phyllis’s life had begun.
Her mother handed her over to an orphanage when she was only eight months old and she was adopted as a five year old into a ‘good Catholic family’ to be a sibling to their daughter and two boys.
Told that her parents both died of TB, she was told to never mention that she was adopted.
In 1974 Phyllis started her training as a nurse having always been convinced that her mother was alive, in spite of what she had been told.
I had by then left Birmingham and was (still am) married, living in west London and at home with a baby daughter, having a break from teaching.
A new career as a journalist eventually led me to Phyllis whose story was so fascinating I did a two page feature on her in a women’s magazine. But that was after she met my mother.
My early childhood was very different to Phyllis’s. I lived with my parents in a self-contained rented flat – half an old house. My dad was an office manager, my mum worked part-time in Boots the Chemist, but they weren’t well off and a mortgage was out of the question.
In 1956, the year Phyllis was born, the first high rise flats went up in the outskirts of Birmingham.
‘Selected tenants’ were moved into them and my parents were thrilled with the fourth floor threebedroom flat with a view of the Clent Hills that we were offered.
West Heath in the south of Birmingham was a contrast to where we had been living in Balsall Heath.
Only a mile from the city centre, my early memories are only of being surrounded by neighbourly, supportive families but Balsall Heath was changing and several years after my family moved away, it had become a very down-atheel red light district.
Phyllis’s birth mother, who was in fact very much alive, moved into the area we had abandoned a decade earlier. Bridget – Tipperary Mary – was a chronic alcoholic, in a bad physical state, mentally unstable, abusive and well known as a troublemaker in the area.
Definitely not the fairy-tale mother Phyllis might have hoped to find.
It was after a long hunt, when Phyllis was working as a district nurse, that she finally tracked her mother down and made an astonishing decision. Unofficially, and without consulting anyone in authority, she included her mother in her nursing rounds.
She bathed her, took her clean clothes, and tended to the wounds she regularly received from her dysfunctional life. Behind the safety of her uniform she got Bridget to talk about the five children she had had to give up – including Phyllis herself.
This she did for nine years without revealing she was her daughter.
My mother was widowed in 1990. She developed Alzheimer’s but visits from three carers a day meant my mother was safe and still leading an independent life. She visited friends, enjoyed walking, the theatre ... and every weekend I would stock up her freezer and take her out to lunch and the cinema.
Sadly by 2004 she had deteriorated to the point where social workers insisted she needed 24-hour care in a nursing home. I was still working in Uxbridge, travelling weekly to Birmingham, checking on her house, visiting her at hospital – and then looking at homes – to the point of exhaustion.
So disappointed, sometimes horrified, at the places I saw; pressure was being brought to bear (mum was ‘bed blocking’), but I could find nowhere suitable and refused to move her until I did.
A new social worker suggested a home I hadn’t heard of so I decided to take a look and there I met Phyllis for the first time.
She was then manager of the perfect place for dementia patients and