I'm not just a donkey - I'm a terrorist one

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Sketches of the Son I gave away

Forty-four years is a long time to wait to get to know your own child, but that is how long Mary Husted was left with just a few pictures, memories and imaginings of her son. Mary was 17 and at art school when she got pregnant by her first love ? a handsome foreign student. It was the early 60s when "nice girls didn't" and illegitimacy could still blight the life of a middle-class child. Mary was whisked away, hidden from sight, until her baby was born. She was allowed to keep her son ? whom she named Luke ? for just 10 days, before wrapping him in a shawl and, amid a winter snowstorm, handing him over for adoption.

Now a youthful 66, Mary is a bright, elegant presence in her airy artist's studio. She tells me the roots of the works on the walls, many of them thin Perspex boxes incorporating layers of images, textures, words and reflections. All have themes of family, loss and identity and of things wrapped, veiled, hidden and revealed.

When her pregnancy started to show, Mary was sent to a family friend in Reading. Her parents told everyone she was in Germany for a year. "They even got me to sign Christmas cards to all my friends and then sent them to Germany to be posted," she remembers. Her father visited her, but her twin sister was not allowed. Her mother made clothes for the baby and the shawl in which he was given away: "She said she wanted the adoptive family to know that we cared," says Mary ? but her mother didn't visit. Mary thinks she was kept away for fear that she might weaken and allow her to keep the baby.

"When Luke was born, they said I'd better not see him because I'd find it harder to say goodbye. I said, 'I know, but I will have him.'"

She had no camera so she made a series of pencil sketches of her child: "I knew they were all I was going to have.

"Everyone told me to forget all about the baby and go and get on with my life," she says, and superficially that is what she did. She got a job in London where she "met a very nice man and married him". Little more than two years after Luke's birth, she became a mother again. Postnatal depression followed: "I was convinced my daughter would die, that I didn't deserve her because I had given up my [first] child." Mary recovered, however, and had two more children in quick succession. Did she rush into marriage and children? "Oh yes, I had this desperate ache to fill the huge gap left by my baby."

The marriage didn't last. "I walked out of it with three children under five," she says. "I was headstrong." She soon married again and had a fourth child. It has been no picnic for her or her husband, she confesses, but they are still married and the kids are all "lovely adults and useful members of society of whom I am very proud". The gap left by Luke, however, remained.

When her children began to leave home, Mary returned to her art. She took out the little sketches she had made of her firstborn and memories flooded back. She started making artworks about her own childhood and, subtly, about the loss of his. One picture in particular, Dreams, Oracles, Icons [http://www-art.newhall.cam.ac.uk/gallery/works/Husted/" title="New Hall Art Collection: Dreams, Oracles, Icons] (1991), was about giving her baby away. It shows her standing with a bird in her hand ? an image from a photo her father took of her as a teenager holding a dying greenfinch ? and a baby, alone, falling away from her.

When New Hall, Cambridge, decided to start a collection of women's art, they asked Mary if she would donate this picture. "I felt a bit funny about letting it go," she says, "but I decided it would be like a flag ? out there for him if he was ever looking for me. Fantasy land, of course."

What Mary didn't know was that while she was making this picture, Luke was requesting his birth certificate. He intended to trace his natural parents, but his sister ? also adopted ? found her birth parents first and it was a dreadful experience. He decided to let sleeping dogs lie.

Mary had made various attempts to trace Luke, "but I had been misinformed about the adoption agency ? probably on purpose". With a change in the law in 2007, she was able to renew her attempts. In early autumn that year, she heard that Luke was alive and in the UK. A week later, idly viewing her junk-mail inbox, she saw an email entitled "Family Tree". She almost deleted it. It read: "I am putting together a family tree and related family information with a friend of mine and we are looking for a Mary Vivienne Husted who may have lived in the Reading area of England in the 1960s."

"I knew," she says, "with absolute certainty it was him."

Luke ? who grew up with another name, but who we shall continue to call Luke for reasons that will become clear ? had decided, aged 44, and married with two sons, that he must seek out his birth mother before it was too late. He Googled her name. Up popped the website of the New Hall Art Collection [http://www-art.newhall.cam.ac.uk/" title="New Hall Art Collection website],with Mary's name attached to a photograph of Dreams, Oracles, Icons. He sat staring at it. "The more I looked," he says, "the more I realised this picture was probably about me. It was like a shiver down my spine."

With his wife's help, he composed the email, making it deliberately impersonal so as not to blow Mary's cover if nobody knew about her first child. Mary appreciated this sensitivity, although she had in fact told both her husbands and each of her children as they reached 16 or 17 about her lost son. Her oldest daughter had even called her own son Luca after her missing half-brother.

"That was very nice," says Luke, who grew up knowing, though not using, his birth name. "It said a little something about how they felt about me and what had happened." And he had similar news for Mary. He had called his first son Luke. "I was so touched," says Mary. "It meant I was accepted, that he didn't think I hadn't cared."

Emails, memories and photos flew back and forth between Mary and her son for two weeks before they met on a sunny day in Kew Gardens. "I had imagined, fantasised, this meeting all my adult life," says Mary. "It was nothing like it. It was more intense than I could ever have imagined. I didn't cry ? I'd always imagined crying ? but the adrenaline ... I had this wall I had built around myself, and then we met and the wall came crashing down and the ground was gone from under my feet. It opened Pandora's box ? all those buried emotions."

Luke was equally taken aback. He was not there to fill a gap in his life: "I didn't feel I was missing anything. I had a family. I had been brought up with love and care. I was doing this out of curiosity. I thought it was an information-gathering exercise ? but it turned out to be so much more."

Both felt an instant connection. They know they are lucky, that it doesn't always work out like that. "We talked all day," says Luke. "When it started to get dark, I took her to a restaurant so we could go on talking. I was hungry but I couldn't eat. Then I drove her to where she was staying, just to have another hour with her. It was a bit like when you have a child and you're there at the delivery, it's so magical it's surreal. I felt euphoric."

Besides talking, they both say, they kept looking at each other ? seeking out the likenesses. "One of the first things he said to me," remembers Mary, "was, 'I've got your chin.'"

"I didn't used to think genetics mattered," Luke adds, "but my sister warned me that the birth of my first child would be extra special because I had never known anyone to whom I was genetically connected ? and she was right." His son's birth also helped him to understand Mary: "The thought of being pressured into giving up one of my children is just unimaginable."

Luke is remarkably down-to-earth. "I am normally quite logical, scientific," he says. But under Mary's influence, and with so much emotion flying around, he has joined in her creative outpouring, without which she says she would never have coped. They send each other thoughts, stories, poems and have now worked together on an exhibition of her artwork, opening tomorrow, that tells their story.

What do her other children think of all this? "I have been obsessive," admits Mary, "and I have had to have some long, difficult conversations with them. They have been really good about it, but I suspect that deep down there has been a little bruising." If so, they have shown none of it to Luke. "They have all been very welcoming," he says, and he has begun to see them ? and his children to mix with theirs ? independently of Mary. Luke thinks that finding his siblings as established adults has been an advantage. "If I had turned up in their teens, they might have felt differently."

And what of his family? His wife and sister have been invaluable support, he says, and his sons have gained an extra grandmother, aunts, uncle and cousins. His adoptive father is dead, but his elderly mother is not, at present, aware of his discovering Mary. He was about to tell her all when his sister suggested a pause for thought. Was there any point in risking upsetting her? The appearance of your son's "other mother" is bound to create, at very least, mixed feelings.

Mary admits to her own ambivalence about Luke's adoptive mother. On the one hand, she is hugely grateful ? "if that isn't the wrong word" ? to her for giving him a happy home and bringing him up to be "this lovely, sane man" and especially for telling him that his birth mother was reluctant to give him away. She is also jealous of this woman who had his childhood. "The lost child stays lost," she says, "but it is wonderful to have found the adult."

Nearly three years since they first met, Mary and Luke are still in almost daily contact and both expect to remain particularly close "until one of us dies". It isn't that they love the rest of their relatives any less, it is just that they have 44 years of catching up to do.

Original story appeared on The Guardian on 28/08/10

The exhibition Hush Don't Tell is open tomorrow 3pm-6pm, then 10am-6pm daily until 25 September at Murray Edwards College (formerly New Hall), Huntingdon Road, Cambridge,  [http://www.art.newhall.cam.ac.uk/" title="New Hall Art Collection website]art.newhall.cam.ac.uk, 01223 762100. The exhibition is part of Open Cambridge,  [http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/opencambridge/" title="Open Cambridge website]admin.cam.ac.uk/opencambridge. Dreams, Oracles, Icons is part of the college's permanent collection.

Adults affected by adoption can contact AAA Norcap,  [http://www.norcap.org.uk/" title="AAA Norcap website]norcap.org.uk, 01865 875000.

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