From Grandad's brass band to the Creme Eggs Mum left by my pillow, my family made me who I am. Yet not one of them is my flesh and blood
08:53 GMT, 13 March 2012
One of the first things you’ll see walking through my front door is my family gallery. Both sides of the hallway are hung with photographs, some dating back more than 100 years.
Pride of place goes to a large picture of Blackrod Brass Band in 1923, in which my grandad, then aged 18, stands next to my great-grandfather, who in turn stands next to my great-great-grandfather — a fierce old codger in a bowler hat.
Everyone’s in braided uniform and their gleaming tubas decorate the front row.
Close bond: Kate Bond with her adoptive mother Margaret. She has taken care of Kate since she was just six weeks old
Next to this photograph hangs one of my great uncle Leonard, who served with the Loyal North Lancashire regiment and died at the Somme in 1916.
He strikes a defiant pose in his battle shorts and puttees, but his eyes look haunted. He was only 24.
Further along is my mother, Margaret, grinning for the Chorley Grammar School photographer in her gymslip. Then we have my father John — aged nine or ten — small and solid in his grey suit, hair side-parted, ears exposed. I’m not able to claim any of these amazing people as a blood relative, but, nevertheless, this is the tribe I count as my own.
I’ve always known I was adopted. One of my very first memories is of my mum telling me: ‘We chose you, you know’.
No one ever made a secret of it, inside or outside the family. It was almost celebrated. Even as a tiny girl I grasped that some effort had been involved bringing me into the household.
Back then, of course, the premise behind adoption was that it was final. A few weeks after the papers were signed, Mum sent a photo to be passed to my birth mother — the only contact they ever had.
A very happy-looking Kate, on the move aged one-year-old
There were no updates. Women in the Sixties who gave up their babies were told the door was closed for ever.
However, in 1976 a new Adoption Act was passed enabling adoptees to see their birth certificates. It was the beginning of an ‘opening up’, where a reunion might be engineered, usually via social services.
Today there is legal access to much more information. But increasing numbers of people, many of them children, are using social networking sites such as Friends Reunited and Facebook to trace birth families — often with damaging results.
When I was writing my latest novel, Before She Was Mine, about a woman who finds herself torn between her adoptive mother and her birth mother, I discussed with a social worker how my heroine might have gone about tracing her roots. She told me that biological family contacts can often be re-established in a few clicks — but there are significant risks.
Kate Long's adoptive parents, John and Margaret on their wedding day
These days adopted children are given more information about where they came from — say, the name of their birth mother and the area where she lives. They can use this to track down blood relatives online, without any social services’ involvement.
The social worker was particularly concerned about under-18s attempting the process, which is against the law because it can be so damaging.
Even for the most well-adjusted adult there are huge emotional investments at stake. Family members on both sides could be wholly unprepared for such an approach.
She stressed how much safer it was to enlist the support of social services. The technology of reunion may have become easier, but the human aspect remains as much of a minefield as ever.
Mother and daughter: Kate is aged just seven weeks old in this picture, just one week after her adoptive parents first met her
So I suppose that’s why I have never tried to make contact myself. Who knows how many lives you might intrude upon
It’s 47 years since my birth mother let me go. How many people did she confide in Who around her knows her past I would hate to damage someone who only ever intended the best for me.
Perhaps the root of it is I’m a coward. I do believe passionately it’s the right of every adoptee to seek a reunion. It is, however, a right many of us choose not to exercise.
So what do I know about my own birth mother That she was a schoolgirl from Pinner, North London, who got pregnant when she was 15 and wouldn’t have been able to bring me up. This was the mid-Sixties, when unmarried mothers were treated almost like criminals.
Kate at her grandmothers home, aged five-years-old
Mum and Dad were able to collect me from Beacon Lodge Mother and Baby Home, Finchley, when I was only six weeks old.
I’m told they brought me home on the day Winston Churchill’s funeral barge sailed down the Thames, and, as they drove out of London, they watched the dockyard cranes dip, one by one, as a mark of respect.
So instead of being a southern girl, I grew up as a little Lancastrian. The first nursery rhyme I learned at my grandmother’s knee wasn’t Jack and Jill. It was: ‘I’ll tell thee a tale about a snail, jumped i’ t’ fire and burnt its tail. I’ll tell thee another about its brother: did t’ same, silly owd b****r.’
My vocabulary soon included Wigan dialect like ‘jiggered’ (exhausted), ‘nowty’ (bad tempered) and ‘skrike’ (cry).
Kate, aged seven, grew up in Lancashire, despite being born in London
I never thought much about being adopted, except when occasionally I came across someone else who was.
Then I might be prompted to ask a few questions — had Mum seen a photo of my birth mother What was the place they collected me from like — and she’d say: ‘Yes, your mother had long brown hair’ and ‘It was a Church of England Children’s Society home.’
She’d always finish up with: ‘You see, we wanted a baby so much we went and got you specially,’ which is nice for a child to hear and left me perfectly content.
Not that it was all roses round the door. I was an intense child, plain and fat. I found it difficult to make friends. You wouldn’t have found me running around with a noisy, happy gang. More likely, I’d be stuck in my bedroom with my nose inside a book.
Kate aged 17, with her adoptive parents attending a family wedding
But I was never lonely or bored. I’d just retreat into my own head. Our pet beagle, my favourite toys, characters from films and novels — I could spin a story about anything.
The girls in my class might have thought I was odd but that had nothing to do with my being adopted.
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Kate aged 22 on her graduation day at Bristol University where she studied English
My diaries from then are full of rants about how I wanted to get away from our pit village. I remember Mum regularly leaving bunches of anemones in my room, or a Creme Egg, or a paperback of poems. What else can you do when your daughter’s permanently furious
I wonder now whether my parents ever looked at me and thought: whatever have we brought into the house They never gave a hint of it.
And I never pinned any lack of connection during my adolescence on the fact I wasn’t technically their child.
Besides, I knew I wasn’t the only teen having problems. Families argued, offspring reaching adulthood liked to kick back, parents didn’t always know what best to do. It didn’t matter whether there were genetic ties or not.
Kate during her University years, on holiday, aged 21
What held us together through these tricky years was, of course, love. The nature walks we’d shared, beach holidays hunting for fossils, baking cakes and bedtime stories.
Even at my gloomiest, I could still raise a giggle thinking of the day my mum and I cooked gingerbread men for the church fete and the cutter wasn’t working properly and they came out of the oven with willies.
And for all my feelings of alienation, I still felt able at 18 to talk to her about going on the Pill, rather than sneaking behind her back — the option taken by some of my peers.
What I’m saying is that, for us, adoption worked. Any problems came out of ordinary clashes of personality. And once the hormones had cleared and I’d left home and savvied up a bit, we drew closer again.
Aged 21, Kate had lost the weight that had made her unhappy in her teens
My passion for books took me to Bristol University where I read English, then to Guildford, Surrey, where I became a teacher and met my husband.
We married when I was 27 and settled in Shropshire for his work as an arboriculturist.
After a few years and some medical intervention, we had our children, two healthy boys, now 11 and 14. Mum and Dad made doting grandparents who still raise cheers from my sons when I say they’re coming to visit.
But holding my first born and almost drowning under that sudden weight of protectiveness, I did wonder how my birth mother had survived such a cruel separation.
I know girls in her position were persuaded they were doing their best for their baby, and that to keep the child would have been ‘selfish’ and ‘irresponsible’. But even with this consolation, the experience must have been dreadful.
Kate Long on her wedding day to husband Simon in 1992. They first lived in Guildford, in Surrey and now live in Shropshire
I hope she got the support she needed and that she knows she did an unbelievably brave and kind thing. If I ever did choose to meet her, it would be to say thank you for the life she allowed me to have.
This is the way I feel, but I would never presume to speak on behalf of other adoptees.
Adoption is a raw and intensely emotional process for all concerned. I know that a third of all modern adoptions of school age children break down, and that another third survive only with professional support and intervention. Despite that, for many of us, being adopted is our making.
I was lucky enough to be taken in by fine, kind and stoical people and I flourished in their care.
My parents will always be my parents because they’re the ones who came running if I cried in the night, or if I fell over, or if I got lost in Woolworths.
They earned the title because they put the hours in.
Kate is now a wife and mother, with her husband Simon, and sons Ben (14) and Toby (11)
Nowadays I tot up everything they gave me — access to a good education, the template for a stable marriage, a love of wildlife and books — and I’m grateful beyond words.
Not just to them either, but to my birth mother who was generous enough to let me go.
‘Don’t you want to know where you come from’ non-adopted friends sometimes ask. But I already know. Every morning I slice my loaf on the board my grandad carved, I take fresh towels out of cousin Nancy’s corner cupboard, I check the hour on great uncle Melbourne’s mantel clock.
Each night my husband and I sleep in my grandparents’ old bed, chosen from the 1929 Ideal Home catalogue.
Perhaps the treasuring of these objects is evidence I’m trying to create my own personal history; perhaps it’s just that we went round a lot of stately homes when I was a child and I can appreciate a nice patina.
Or maybe it’s broader, more cultural. I’m proud of my regional accent, of understanding Lancashire dialect, of knowing the work of local poets like Edwin Waugh and Samuel Laycock.
Because however you slice it, this is my heritage. It’s northern, it begins at the foot of our stairs with bowler hats and tubas, and it’s what I’ll be proud to pass on to my own sons, when the time comes.
■ Before She Was Mine by Kate Long, published by Simon & Schuster at 6.99, is available now.