CJ Vallis (University of Technology Sydney, Australia)
My mother calls to say I have a sister. I’m just out of the shower and dripping on the floorboards, shampoo in my hair, and water in my ears. I hold a wet towel around my body with one arm and the handset with the other. Any minute now, my flatmate Davo will stumble past to the kitchen looking for coffee.
“What do you mean I have a sister? Can I ring you back?”
“You’re not our first child. I had a baby girl before you were born. She’s exactly one year older than you.”
A long, lung-deep cough follows. I know to wait while mum catches her breath, as her cigarette burns into a thin curl of chemical smoke in an ashtray. It’s too early for me to inhale anything. Way too early to talk about a skeleton in the family closet.
“Sorry, I don’t get what you mean.”
“Your father didn’t want to keep her. Said he wasn’t ready. Later your father changed his mind and decided he really did love me. Typical of him. I fell pregnant again with you. Straight away, in fact.”
“Why are you telling me this all of a sudden?”
It’s sudden but also half-expected in some sense. As a child I had a hunch about adoption. For many years I fancied I belonged to another more caring family, more like the Brady Bunch, but unmarried and penniless and hence forced to relinquish me. My long-lost family would one day find me, I daydreamed.
“Well, now she’s found us. Your sister’s name is Joanne; she’s married and lives in Brisbane. Tuesday I met up with her at Sunnybank Plaza. She wants to write you a letter.”
Once again I’m glad I live a thousand kilometres away in Sydney. The distance will give me time to ingest the news; a long-lost sister a year older than me, almost a twin. We might have more in common than I do with my known family. A bit of me hopes it will be a very Brady reunion.
“I’ve given her your address. Be nice.” Mum hangs up before I can quiz her; what they talked about, whether dad knows. I tell myself I’ll ring in the evening after Uni. I really will.
Davo wolf-whistles me on his way to the bathroom and smirks. I hear the lid flip back and his gallons of piss pouring into the toilet bowl. Wish he’d close the door properly.
Instead of a letter, Joanne sends me an article from Australian Slimmers magazine, titled “A Beautifully Scaled-Down Model,” with a note saying:
If you want to know more about me, you can read this. June says you usually come up for Christmas. Look forward to meeting you then. All the best, Joanne.
My sister is the much smaller scale model represented in the article; a before-and-after object. The before photo: Joanne aged ten in a Girl Guides’ uniform, belt pulled high over a barrel belly. Mounds of fat on her chest might be the beginnings of breasts. She half-smiles, as if the photographer has insisted on it. After: she’s all grown up and grins with clenched teeth. Her hair is permed, her face made-up with eyeliner and red lipstick. She stands like a model in a clingy white outfit, matching jacket thrown casually over one shoulder. Size ten! Success!
I really can’t see myself in Joanne’s photos, before or after. No strong resemblance to dad either. Yet I do see June in Joanne’s forced smile. Definitely a likeness around the mouth and jaw, even though mum has worn dentures since she was thirteen, when her front teeth were smashed out by a cricket ball. I know I shouldn’t feel disappointed, as if that very Brady hope for a long-lost twin has also been smashed.
I read on. Oprah-style, she says she hopes her weight-loss story will inspire others. Joanne says she never learned to eat properly: “As an adopted baby I was fed formula in copious quantities so I was always fat.” Her skinny, adopted brother teased her mercilessly about her size. She was lonely. Resorted to evening snacking on a whole bag of chocolate-covered sultanas! As an obese teenager, she was excluded and unhappy at school. Left at fifteen.
It got worse. Working in a greasy take away food bar, she beefed up so much she got mistaken for a bloke. She married the first man to take an interest in her, in case he was the last. The marriage was “disastrous,” the stress only made her eat more, and they split.
After health problems and stern medical advice, Joanne joins Brisbane Slimmers Club. There she learns to count calories, diet sensibly until she reaches her goal weight. She can have fun shopping and pick a pretty dress to buy. She says, “For once I had a choice!”
I try to write Joanne a letter to introduce myself. No neat narrative presents itself. Unlike Joanne, I finished high school and a university degree. I chose obscure Humanities subjects that were interesting but guaranteed unemployment as a graduate. Couldn’t stand living in Brisbane. Unmarried and well-travelled. Most likely a grungy disappointment to my mother and father.
Still, I supposed my sister would have been given a better life. But her story reads as though being adopted made her unhappy and fat. Would she have been happier with her birth family, and with me? I’m not so sure. Was it that bad? I wonder but don’t ask.
An A4 size envelope from Joanne arrives. Aside from the odd Christmas card and family occasion, we don’t keep in touch that much so I’m a bit surprised. I’m slack. I also haven’t spoken to my mother in months. We don’t have much to tell each other. After the divorce, Mum went to work for the sausage factory at Colmslie. Joanne too has left her second husband and got a job as an ICT officer for Queensland Police. I’ve had a few boyfriends and break-ups and teach English to Koreans on a gap year.
Inside the envelope is a flowery card with the UNICEF logo and slogan; “Promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do.” She writes:
I did a Freedom of Information Request about my adoption and thought you might be interested, so have enclosed some pages. Hope your family are all well. Love Joanne.
Also included are photocopied documents:
North Brisbane Hospitals Referral
Consent to Adoption Order
Application to adopt a child
It takes ages to figure out the Doctor’s scrawl on mum’s referral letter, dated 24th August, 1964. He got mum’s name wrong.
Dear Mr Clark,
I suggest Mrs Jean Wells should seek an interview with your department and discuss the possible adoption of her baby due at the end of October. Mrs Wells was deserted by her husband a couple of years ago. The father of her new baby is supporting her during her pregnancy.
Maybe the Doctor refused to believe that her name was June May because she was born in December. I try to imagine what it must have been like at that appointment. Mum would have been about seven months pregnant and showing. Did she have to explain her shotgun wedding at sixteen to a no-good drinker and gambler? Was my father by her side? Probably not is my guess. He is nowhere named on the paperwork.
The other documents are typed forms with no mistakes. Sheets of paper fed into a typewriter and rolled to the exact line needed. XXXXXXX is typed over words not to be read, not to be said. Four days after giving birth, my mother JUNE MAY WELLS, formerly CHAPLIN, signed on the dotted line of a consent form. It’s no mistake. It’s her curly handiwork; her careful loop on J for June. She signs cheques with the same slow and deliberate handwriting, as if to mask her missing years of high school.
The adoption order states the “said infant, shall henceforth be named JOANNE SOPHIE COWDELL.”
That’s it. Nine sheets of paper. Birth’s blood and guts has been mopped up by bureaucratic process. Susan May is unsaid and relinquished. Three weeks later, she’s Joanne and she’s a closed records adoptee.
For a long while we are wordless. I sit in the visitor’s armchair, Joanne on a spare chair from the common room. It’s an uncomfortable silence apart from mum’s favourite easy-listening tracks on shuffle, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” “Hello Dolly!”, Sinatra and Johnny Mathis, among other warblers. The air-conditioning is cold on my feet in thongs. I stare at the medical machinery around her bed, the apricot walls and framed Van Gogh poster of sunflowers, and wait and wait.
I whisper to Joanne, “The nurses say she hasn’t got long.”
Even so, time and her life seem to slow to a drip, drip at Ipswich Hospice. June’s body is bloated under the white hospital sheet. Her mouth shrunk to prune-size without dentures. Every now and then, she hums a bar or two to the music and rolls her eyes to me, but otherwise she floats in and out of consciousness on a tide of morphine.
We make ourselves a polystyrene cup of coffee each, and take them outside to a bench under palm trees. It’s September and warm in the sun, not yet the wet blanket heat of summer and thunderstorms. I point out the hospice garden to Joanne. After mum dies, a rose bush will be planted with a plaque in loving memory of June May Vallis, I tell her.
“I had to work up my courage to visit today.”
I sigh. “I know, it’s awful.”
“It’s not that. I mean I want to ask why she adopted me out. I want to understand.”
“Is that such a good idea? When she’s in so much pain?”
“I want to know. Was June forced to adopt me out, do you think?”
“Well, she signed the Consent to Adoption Order.”
We have both read the black and white truth: “I understand that the effect of the order will be to deprive me of my parental rights.” So Joanne’s question shouldn’t seem insensitive. Akin to asking a woman if she was forced, instead of raped, because you fear her answer and its unsaid violence. Yet there are forced landings; events forced by emergency circumstances. And forced smiles, things that don’t happen naturally. Joanne’s adoption might be any or all of these shades of forced. Forced adoption hasn’t (as yet?) become a compound noun that everyone understands; like newborn, half-sister or full blood.
“Jigsaw Queensland reckons you can bet most adoptions were forced back then.”
And not wanting to offend, I nod, though I probably look unconvinced because Joanne stands stiffly. She startles a nearby sparrow that flutters away into blue sky.
“Should I wait for a good moment to talk to June alone?”
“Honestly I don’t think you’ll get your answers.” Mum’s lungs fill with fluid. She concentrates on swallowing any spoonful of nourishment that is put to her cracked lips, rather than death-bed confessions. Mostly she wants a cigarette. “Sorry,” I say. “You should’ve said something earlier.”
“It’s alright,” she says but we both know it’s not.
Maybe I should tell her about mum’s trip to Sydney to see the ballet. I must have been eight or nine. It was out of character for mum, and I had an inkling that adults could fob me off with fibs, so I asked what she would see. Cinderella, she said, and that quieted me. Only much later did I discover she went to St Anne’s Hospital, then the closest and safest place for Queensland women to get an abortion.
I want to tell Joanne: We’re lucky we were born before the eighties. We’re accidents. Eggs fertilised when our mother had no choice, problems that birth control would prevent. Maybe your birth, my birth; both were forced.
Instead we fortunate daughters return to our mother’s side and duty.
We let sleeping dogs lie for almost twenty years.
I skype my sister. Joanne is slouched into one of those beige discount lounge suites; a low table, coffee mug and remote control close to hand. She looks washed out and wrinkled. I also notice she has piled on a few kilos, unless it’s the unflattering camera angle. When I ask how things are, she says, “I’m buggered from work. Other than that I’m fine.”
Yeah, she’s alright, I think. Trouble is, you can’t wind back the decades, and see how life might have turned out otherwise.
Joanne leans forward. “So what’s up? Is everything alright?”
I laugh a bit nervously. “Nobody died. I just wondered. I’m writing an article on adoption.”
As we age, we resemble each other more. Thousands of miles and gigabytes apart in our respective cities, our faces sag in a familiar way.
“Yep. That national apology for forced adoptions got me thinking. You know how Julia Gillard apologised in parliament in 2013?”
She frowns. “You mean that apology to the Stolen Generations?”
“Actually it’s for all victims of forced adoption in Australia from the late fifties to seventies. It’s on YouTube.”
Watch Julia say sorry for the mistakes of the past, which struck at the primal and sacred bond between mother and baby. How to explain to Joanne? The bond between June and I was brittle rather than sacred, and easily broken. Nor would I call our relationship primal.
I take a big swig from my wine glass. “Do you mind talking about your childhood?”
“It’s the first time you’ve asked. Don’t mind at all.”
I smile to the camera. Lurch on to my question; “Your adopted family gave you a strict, religious upbringing, from what I remember?”
“Yes, totally different to yours. It was always the elephant in the room.”
“Never thought about it that way before.”
“Don’t worry, my adopted family never wanted to meet you or June either. You were living in sin and not respectable as far as they were concerned.”
“When did you find out you were adopted?”
“I always knew. For a start, we never looked alike. My adopted brother Greg was tall and skinny as a rake. My adopted mother Gloria is tiny, weighs barely 50 kilos. Everyone knew. Kids at school said: You’re the milkman’s.”
“I re-read your article from Australian Slimmers.”
Joanne laughs: “Oh, yeah?”
My eyes slide sideways from iPad to laptop as I talk and type. Gently, I ask; “Being adopted was connected to your weight problems then?”
“Gloria thinks everyone has her metabolism. She eats masses and never gains a kilo, and made me eat too. I couldn’t leave the dinner table until my plate was clean. Didn’t matter that I got so heavy she had to get a dressmaker to sew my school uniforms. The kids at school called me Fatty to my face.”
I stop typing and stare at the iPad.
“You know, I didn’t speak until I was almost six. I got dragged to speech therapy for three years at a Petrie Terrace clinic. I realised I’d have to speak eventually. Gloria always threatened to send me to special school. She used to give me Phenergan because I had bad bronchitis and would cough all night. I was often groggy in class. Made it hard to concentrate and learn. Kids thought I was a moron.”
I should be recording her words. Can’t look away, can’t type. “Sounds like Gloria didn’t know how to be a mother.”
“Adopting me was just for show. I gave her social currency with the church ladies. And sometimes she hinted she wanted to return me to sender. I knew where the orphanage was in Nudgee.”
Her voice cracks on the word orphanage, dies away at Nudgee. I’m angry. Gloria swore in an affidavit; “we desire the adoption of the said infant for company of ourselves, our adopted child, and for the future benefit and welfare of the child concerned.”
Fifty years on, and I can only shake my head. It’s too late.
Jo emails with photos and a bio she wrote for BPW, Business and Professional Women’s newsletter. It’s a riposte to Australian Slimmers and the Joanne it represented. Decades later, she writes:
Since I was teenager I have been interested in planning garden spaces. It started with my Mum’s front garden to give a plain house an attractive street presentation, and it continues with my cottage garden in Narangba which, after three years, has developed all year-round character, colour and interest.
My work will begin on a part time basis with my new business. My Garden Rescue, or MGR, will offer garden design, maintenance and mowing. Developing garden designs and plant selection gives both the client and myself joy as the design takes on a life of its own. The design has a fourth dimension, that of time, as the plants develop and need as much attention as the shapes and hard materials.
My Garden Rescue is now a registered business and I plan a soft launch of MGR in November.
CJ Vallis loves crafting short and long stories that could almost be true. She has been an emerging writer for what seems like a very long time. CJ is studying a Master of Arts in Writing at University of Technology Sydney.