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The secret sisters
When Sue Elliot met her birth mother in 1991, it was only the first reunion – for she hadn’t been the only baby given up for adoption. Interview by Patrick Barkham
he yellowing adoption papers, dated 1952 revealed for the first time the name of Sue Elliot’s mother: Marjorie Phyllis Heppelthwaite. A quick flick through the London telephone directory turned up an address for “Heppelthwaite, MP” but Sue had heard enough about fraught reunions and did not want to pick up the phone. Instead, she asked a friend to write a tentative letter of inquiry on her behalf.

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After an exchange of letters, in 1991, biological mother and daughter met for the first time in nearly 40 years. Sue recalls that Marjorie was “warm and spontaneous” – and looked nothing like her. The two women formed a bond; Sue helped her birth mother move into sheltered accommodation close to her home in London and, rather guiltily, found herself spending more time with Marjorie than with her adoptive parents. Then, as Sue and her partner, Bevan, were planning a housewarming party for Marjorie when Sue received a letter from Kent County Council’s depart-

ment of social services. As soon as she saw the headed notepaper she guessed what it would reveal: Marjorie had given another child up for adoption and hadn’t told her. “Hello, is that my big sister?” said Fiona, when Sue rang her. Fiona, who is five years younger and has a different biological father, had begun the search for her mother at the same time as Sue, but found her sister first. When the sisters met, before Fiona was reunited with Marjorie, they hit it off immediately. For Fiona, an only child, Sue was the big sister she had always longed for.

Fiona’s reunion with her biological mother was as joyful and uncomplicated as Sue’s had been. “I was stroking her hand and said, ‘I’m so glad I’ve found you, I can’t believe you’re my mum,’” she remembers. Perhaps both women found it easy to form a relationship with Marjorie because they came from loving adoptive families and neither had felt rejected by their biological mother. Included in both sisters’ adoption files were heartbreaking letters from Marjorie to the adoption agency, begging for news of her daughters. “She was such a Darling, and you can

Lost and found ... Sue Elliot with her sisters Fiona Boorman, left, and Hazel Staniforth Photograph by Linda Nylind for the Guardian well imagine how very difficult it has been to give her up,” wrote Marjorie of Sue in one letter. “There was no question at all – she didn’t want to give us away,” says Sue. The one puzzle was why Marjorie hadn’t told Sue that she had a sister. When Sue asked, all Marjorie would say was, “I thought you’d think the worse of me.” After all three women were

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reunited, the daughters jokingly asked Marjorie how many more of them there were. “Oh, eight,” replied Marjorie, and they all laughed. Throughout most of the 1990s, Sue and Fiona enjoyed spending time with Marjorie, treating her to her first ever plane flight – to Jersey – and also becoming increasingly close to each other. Marjorie died in 2000 and the sisters mourned together and scattered her ashes. Nearly two years after Marjorie’s death, a recorded delivery letter arrived at Sue’s door. When she saw “East Midlands social services” on the envelope, she burst out laughing. “It might have been a mild hysterical reaction,” she writes in her memoir, Love Child. Marjorie, it turned out, had a third illegitimate daughter in her 40th year, with a third man who also appeared to want nothing to do with the child, also given up for adoption. This baby, Hazel, was now in her 40s and searching for her mother. She was too late, but found two sisters instead. Nearly 10 years after that revelation, the three women, who have gathered at Sue’s house to talk about their birth mother and the adoptions, seem as close as any sisters. When they met, there were no lightning bolts of recognition but Sue describes discovering each other’s existence as a blessing. They wonder what it would have been like to grow up together – “Sue would have been the mother figure,” says Fiona. “She would have been on our cases,” says Hazel, laughing – but they don’t feel cheated of a shared childhood. “We haven’t had to go through the jealousy or rivalry or bitching,” says Fiona. And as Sue puts it, “We came to this relationship with no baggage.” Suddenly having sisters has not been without its challenges, however. Fiona admits she was unsettled when Hazel traced them because she went from being an only child who had found a longed for big sister – her “happy ending” – to the threatened middle child with a potential rival for Sue’s affections. She fretted that “Sue wouldn’t love me as much” until she realised that Hazel was “totally open and honest. Out of all of us Hazel is most like Marge temperamentally,” thinks Fiona. “She’s very even – she’s lovely to be with.” Hazel feels “a sadness” that she did not find Marjorie before her death. “I would have loved even an hour with her. I would love to have seen her,” she says, but insists she cannot regret not beginning her search sooner. As all three women guessed before they began their search, there would be profound implications for their adoptive families. Unlike Sue and Hazel, who knew they were adopted from an early age, Fiona was not told until she was 11. “I have this memory of my mum saying, ‘You do know you’re adopted don’t you?’ At the time I didn’t understand what adopted was but, ever eager to please, I said, ‘Oh yes, I do,’ and she said, ‘We went to a place where we picked you because you were very special.’” All three were given the “special” story; it was what adoptive parents were advised to do in the 1950s and 60s. While Sue and Hazel wrestled with feelings of guilt towards their parents over their search for their birth mother, they were soon reassured. Hazel’s dad’s first words were, “I don’t know why you didn’t do it a lot earlier”; her mum was also “totally behind it”. Fiona experienced a more definite conflict of loyalty when she told her parents about Marjorie. “It was very sad. My mum said, ‘How could you do this? I feel betrayed.’ I said, ‘I did it because I was curious, I just wanted to know.’ “I remember her words: ‘Curiosity has killed this cat’.” Sue and Hazel’s parents both handed down the expensive baby clothes that Marjorie had dressed them in on the day she gave them up, but Fiona does not know if she was given a special outfit; her mother refused to discuss it. She says her relationship with her now frail mum is “OK” but she feels “saddened because I would have loved her support”. iona understands, however, that adoption was very different back then. Adoptive parents were told that the birth mother would never know – “it was a shut door” – and then the law changed in 1975, when adults were given the right to trace their biological parents. Her adoptive parents, says Fiona, “felt betrayed by the system as well as by me”. The three sisters agree that they did not feel betrayed by Marjorie giving them up, but why did it happen three times? “To give up one baby is hard enough but to give up three …” says Fiona. As Sue explains, Marjorie was not “a silly young girl”: she was 30 when she had Sue, 35 when she gave birth to Fiona, and was so ashamed of being a single mother again at 40 that she lied about her age when gave up Hazel at 12 weeks. Sue wonders if Marjorie suffered from depression – she was a compulsive hoarder – and yet she found her to be a cheerful, loving person. Although Marjorie was “flirty,” laughs Sue, and “liked men” she believes that Marjorie spent her life fatally attracted to father figures, repeatedly choosing married or unavailable men. An only child, Marjorie was devastated by the early death of her mother and dutifully lived with her father until his death, despite a “disastrous” relationship with him. When she was pregnant with Sue, her father told Marjorie that she had made her bed and must lie in it. Why repeat that mistake – and why not fight to keep her children? Social workers told Sue that serial producers of illegitimate children are sometimes subconsciously trying to replace the baby they have lost. “Marjorie was desperate to start a family – but didn’t have luck. They say you make your own luck but she was dealt a poor hand and made some bad choices”. Her daughters agree that Marjorie was unassertive but few women were in those days. “We tend to forget how pressing the moral imperative was in that era,” says Sue. In the 1950s, abortion was illegal, the pill didn’t exist, and the social stigma that sometimes still clings to single mothers today was off the scale – single mothers were “fallen” and babies born out of wedlock were “bastards”. The few mothers who brought up babies without fathers rarely did so without the support of their family; Marjorie had no support. With today’s emphasis on children’s rights making it so easy for adopted people to find their biological parents, are the sisters sad they did not grow up in another time? “Was it the wrong time for us?” says Hazel. “It was the wrong time for Marjorie.” Given that Sue and Fiona formed such a positive relationship with Marjorie it seems another small tragedy that she still did not mention Hazel. Was she so fearful or pessimistic that she couldn’t imagine a happy outcome? “A lot had gone wrong in her life but she wasn’t a naturally pessimistic person at all,” says Sue. “She just didn’t want to bring it to the surface. It was so totally suppressed for her own self-preservation.” When they first met, Fiona asked Marjorie if she ever thought about her. “She said, ‘Oh lovey, no, I couldn’t. I had to shut you away. It would have been too painful. The only time I thought about you was on your birthday.’” There was, Fiona and Sue agree, a resilience to Marjorie. “I so regret not pinning her to the wall and saying, ‘Now Marjorie, tell me everything you know,’” says Sue. “But there was part of Marjorie that was always secretive, that she didn’t share with me, and I felt I had to respect that.” For years Sue felt critical of the shadowy “Peter White” who was listed as her biological father but apparently showed no desire to help Marjorie or his child. In recent years she and her sisters have become more curious about what they may have inherited from their different biological fathers. “It’s interesting that we all took the decision to search for our birth mothers not our birth fathers,” says Fiona. “That’s reflective of the mother-daughter bond.” All three have now searched but only Fiona has discovered any information: before her father died he was a professional musician, and he appeared to lie to Marjorie, who declared he was married on Fiona’s adoption form, when there is no record of a marriage. “He was playing on the cruise ships and didn’t want to be tied down. It was almost like he had a girl in every port,” suspects Fiona, who as a dance teacher believes she inherited her musicality from him. Fiona thinks she got her love of clothes from Marjorie, while Hazel believes her “positiveness and mental capacity to cope with things” is similar to Marjorie; Sue shares Marjorie’s dry sense of humour. “We’ve all got good bits of Marjorie,” says Hazel. For all the profound effect of their belated discovery of their biological mother, the sisters are clear that she never became their mum. Fiona likens her to an aunt; Sue calls her “slightly more than a dear friend”. “Our adoptive mums and dads are our mums and dads,” says Hazel, “and Marjorie was Marjorie.” Parts of her life, they accept, will always remain a mystery. “You have to learn to live with a number of unknowns, otherwise it eats away at you,” says Sue. “And it shouldn’t because there are more important things to worry about.” Love Child by Sue Elliot is published by Vermilion, £6.99. To order a copy for £5.59, including free UK p&P, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846

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Together ... Marjorie with Sue, right, and Fiona in the mid-90s. Below, clockwise, Marjorie in the 1940s; Sue, Fiona and Hazel as children

‘With an apology, the healing could begin’
A group called the Movement for an Adoption Apology (MAA) is lobbying for a full parliamentary apology for the unsound adoption practices of the past. The MAA argues that if the West Australian parliament can make an apology, as it did in 2010, then an apology is also due to birth mothers in Britain. From the 1940s until the 1970s, single mothers were often persuaded by social workers, and church and private adoption agencies, that there was little option but to relinquish their babies to married couples who wanted to adopt. Mothers were rarely allowed news of their children’s welfare which very often had a detrimental effect on the rest of their lives – and on the children’s lives too. The experience so traumatised many women that they suffered years of mental and, in some cases physical, ill health. Some were unable to have more children. One of the founders of the MAA, Jean Robertson-Molloy, gave up her daughter for adoption in 1963, when she was six days old. “It seemed like the only thing to do at the time,” she says. “I thought keeping the baby would devastate my parents and everyone assured me it would be best for the child. I’ve regretted it ever since.” She says an apology would make a great difference to others like her. “It could start to make the unspeakable speakable and healing could begin.” Sarah Cope movementforanadoptionapology.org

Family Saturday Guardian 01.09.12

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Frank Sinatra split from his first wife when his son, Frank Jr, was six. It was 40 years before father and son developed a true relationship. He talks to Nick Duerden about being kidnapped, forging his own music career – and being the son of a legend

Son of Sinatra

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hen he was 19, Frank Sinatra Jr was kidnapped and held to ransom for four days. This would be a terrible thing to befall any son of rich and famous parents, but all the more so somehow for someone who had spent his adolescence trying to remain invisible. “I never felt that it was in anyone’s best interest to be looked at differently by other people because of a name,” he says. “I kept to myself a lot.” But when the father he rarely saw paid the ransom – reported to be close to $240,000 (£1.3m in today’s money) – Frank Jr became headline news around the world. The timing was bad. He had just recently launched himself as a singer and musician, which he hoped would establish him in his own right. Now such hopes were scotched. The real damage, he suggests, was not the kidnapping but what happened afterwards. “The criminals invented a story that the whole thing was phoney.” It wasn’t, and they duly went to prison, but the rumour that it had been a publicity stunt staged by his father to help his son’s fledgling career stuck. “That was the stigma put on me,” he says. In a way, he has lived with it ever since. Nancy Sinatra’s younger brother, Frank Jr was born in 1944. By the time Frank Jr was six, his father had split from their mother and it would be another four decades before they had anything like a proper relationship. “He was a good father as much as it was within his power,” is how he puts it, diplomatically. Frank Sr, he explains, was making two films and four albums a year in the 50s and 60s, and touring incessantly. Frank Jr saw more of him on the big screen than he did in the flesh, and considered being the man’s namesake a heavy burden. Frank Jr likes to say that in an ideal world he would have excelled at school and gone on to run General Motors. But he didn’t, and so he couldn’t. He was a gifted piano player, though, and by the age of 18 realised he could sing too. Not only was there a disarming family resemblance, but he had the same dark, chocolatey voice. Comparisons were inevitable, exacerbated by his decision to make much the same sort of music and play the same casino circuit. “At first I felt like I was living in his shadow,” he agrees, “but I did develop my own following eventually, so I must have been doing something right.” There were intermittent television appearances over the years – often as a guest on the shows of his father’s Rat Pack cohorts, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr – but only the occasional album. Instead, touring was his thing, and he played in 81 countries across the world. That he never strove to compete with his father suggests he found it impossible, and so didn’t bother to try. But presumably his long career has been a fulfilling one? “Yes, but does it really constitute actual success?” he muses. “Over all these years, I have never had a hit movie, never had a hit television programme and never had a hit record. To my way of thinking, that means success has not been achieved. I have made no mark of my own creation. This,” he concludes, “is something to be considered.” Interviewing a 68-year-old Frank Sinatra Jr is, you cannot help but feel, a markedly different experience to what it must have been like when he was 28 or 38. He has found the kind of peace that likely eluded him for much of his professional life. On this summer afternoon, he is charming and erudite company, full of candour and unerringly calm. “My lack of success does not trouble me at this stage in my life, no,” he says.

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‘I was grateful that he hadn’t died with us as strangers – that I got to know him’

“ “When I was younger, sure, I wanted t to have some degree of, shall we say, i identity. But it never came.” Even after Frank Jr’s kidnapping o ordeal, his father failed to become m much of a tangible presence in his l life. Frank Sr, it seems, was too busy. T There were more films, more albums, m more women to marry. They would, F Frank Jr says, meet on occasion and t talk on the phone, but rarely more than t that. It wasn’t until he was 44 that his f father finally invited him into the inner c circle. “It was 1988 and I was in Atlantic C City getting ready to do one of my s shows,” he begins, “when Sinatra came o on the line and told me he wanted me t to conduct his band for him.” He pauses with all the timing of a l light entertainer. “Well, after my friends had revived me with the smelling salts, I said to him, ‘You can’t be serious?’” Sinatra was. Frank Jr took the job, and spent the last seven years of his father’s career touring with him. The US public were fascinated (and nosy), which meant Frank Jr became adept at avoiding giving answers to questions that probed too deeply into the private life of one of their biggest stars. He pleaded mitigating circumstances: when at last father and son

did bond, his father was an old man, a shadow of his former self. “When I came on board, Sinatra was already 72. He was slowing down.” In private moments, he says, he often found him withdrawn. “I would see him very up, then very down, and sometimes very sad. It often came to it that I simply held him, just held on to him and told him I was here for him. I owed him that. “And in that church on that afternoon in 1998, when I was looking down at his casket covered in flowers, I was grateful that at least he hadn’t died with us as strangers, that I had been able to get to know him, and he had been able to get to know his son.”

We did it our way … Frank Sinatra and Frank Jr performing in the late 60s. Below, Frank Sinatra Jr today About Michael he is happy to talk. “He is 25 now, almost 26. He lives in Japan, a college professor. He gets back to the United States probably once a year and I make damn well sure that we stay in contact. Whenever he does visit, we go to dinner, just the two of us. I want him to have what I didn’t.” Frank Jr, who is no longer married, arrives in London this month with his band. His show is called, perhaps inevitably, Sinatra Sings Sinatra. “Well, that’s what some people want to call it, but I’ve never felt particularly comfortable with that,” he says. “The way I see it, before I can sell an audience Frank Sr, I have to sell them Frank Jr first. Sinatra is a very established commodity over here, whereas I …” He smiles again and trails off, the fires that doubtless once raged in his youth now merely smouldering embers. “If the audience comes, and likes what I do, then that’s enough for me,” he says. “I’ll settle for that.” Frank Sinatra Jr plays Ronnie Scott’s, London W1, 13-15 September

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ccording to various online sources, Frank Jr has two sons himself, Frank Sinatra III, born in 1978, and Michael, a decade later. The former made the news two years ago after a reported suicide attempt. When I ask about that, he says, “No, I have one son, and his name is Michael.” And of the reports to the contrary? “There are certain people who make all sorts of claims,” is all he says.

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A bitter sweet heritage
When Andrea Stuart traced her family history, she uncovered a 400-year-old tale of slavery and oppression. How will she explain this to her children, one white and one mixed race?

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y fascination with my family history was ignited by my Barbadian uncle, Trevor Ashby, a brown-skinned man with a perfectly topiaried afro, who was an executive with Coca-Cola on the island of Barbados. In my early teens, he began telling me stories of his and my mother’s plantation childhood. Fascinated by his anecdotes, I started searching archives all over the world for details of my ancestors’ births, deaths and marriages. My parents were interested but knew little. Undeterred, I badgered relatives I barely knew for information. The story that emerged was almost four centuries old and replete with drama, tragedy and grief: the story of Atlantic slavery in microcosm. In the late 1630s, my oldest identifiable ancestor, a young blacksmith called George Ashby, set sail from England to Barbados in search of a better life. The journey was difficult and dangerous; arrival no less so. Barbados was a wild land populated by a handful of unfettered young men with little to lose. Travelling across this small island meant hacking pathways through dense foliage in scorche ing heat, assailed by unfamiliar wildlife and bereft of familiar comforts. Life as a planter was exhausting and the crops he had hoped would make him rich – indigo, tobacco, cotton – barely allowed him to scrape a living. But then he and his contemporaries turned to sugar, and their life was transformed. A few centuries before, sugar had erupted in popularity, becoming known as “white gold”. To meet demand, planters like George Ashby sought more cost-effective means of production, and replaced

their indentured white servants with a more oppressed workforce: African slaves. The horrors these captives endured on their journey to the Americas – my African ancestors included – and the collateral damage of the trade, which cost millions of lives, has been numbered as one of history’s worst atrocities. These “forced migrants” soon became more numerous than the white settlers who had initially colonised the island, a subjugated majority with every reason to hate their “masters”: in response, a paranoid and oppressive society evolved. White and black lived cheek by jowl on the plantations, and t in this state of intimate terror, bloodlin lines inevitably intermingled. Over gen generations, Ashby’s family mutated fro from a traditionally English one, to a mu multi-hued one with white, brown and bla black faces. (His descendant, my greatgre great-great-great grandfather, had at lea least 15 slave children, all of whom live lived and worked on his plantation.) Ma Many of their descendants would, in the their turn, migrate. Some, like my own fam family, ended up back in Ashby’s ori original homeland. I realised that being able to trace my anc ancestors back to the 17th century was g a gift that would allow me to show how on one family was shaped by centuries of sla slavery and settlement. But it put me in a quandary. How would I make sense t of this disturbing story for my children, for whom Barbados is an occasional holiday destination, a place of relaxation and family fun? My elder daughter, a blue-eyed, porcelain-skinned six-year-old, is at an age where she is asking questions, trying to make sense of her world and her family. She has great curiosity, but also a strong need to see the world as a safe and fair place. My younger child is a brown-skinned three-year-old who is just beginning to question why people have different colour skins, why

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Andrea Stuart, centre, with her partner Tara and their daughters. Left, from top: Andrea’s mother, her father and one of her ancestors, Robert Cooper Ashby, a sugar planter and slave owner Photograph by Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian she looks so different from her sister, and why it seems to matter to those around her. How do I explain that one branch of our family was enslaved by the other? How do I educate them about contemporary racism without distressing and dividing them? These are questions for every family of Caribbean descent, but equally pertinent for white British families, whose heritage is inextricably tied to the same history. At the moment, I have to confess, I have told them little, not least because I can still remember my own reaction when my parents explained what “racial prejudice” meant, and how shocked and frightened it made me feel. (That I was 11 at the time is a testament to how sheltered I was in my Caribbean milieu.) When I finally got around to explaining the idea that some people disliked others simply because of the colour of their skin, my outraged elder child sensibly declared: “But Mama, it would be really boring if we all looked the same.” Ultimately I want my daughters to understand both how history has made them, and how it is possible to step beyond the confines of historical legacy. I want them to comprehend the atrocities of the slave system and to recognise how the oppressors were even more debased by the process than their victims; hence their exploitation of their own kin. I want them to appreciate how the intertwined forces of sugar and slavery created the world we live in today, enriching Britain but also leading to the bigotry that means descendants of Africans remain disadvantaged in comparison to those who promoted the trade against them. I want to explain that these prejudices, still wielded today, have nothing do with the reality of black people’s abilities or worth, but were developed to justify slavery. Slavery wasn’t just about some people being vile to others, but was part of a global industry that had its

own terrible logic and justification; a monument to the dangers of greed and venality. In part, too, I simply want my children to bear witness: to remember how slavery relentlessly dehumanised its victims, the systematic torture and violence, generating self-hatred and “abolishing families”. Planters did not recognise or respect the family bonds slaves brought with them or chose to create. They abused the women they owned and treated the men as studs to create new workers. They separated black mothers from their children, sometimes to nurse white children. Black African culture and family life were smashed on the rocks of the Caribbean shores, and the impact of that is still felt 300 years later. I also want them to know that slaves were not just victims but survivors. I want to remind them that it was not the abolitionists alone who brought about emancipation, but the enslaved themselves. By the end of the 18th century, slave revolts exploded like fireworks across the English Americas; each disruption making slavery more untenable. I want them to salute the courage of these hundreds of thousands of forgotten rebels, such as the Jamaican slave-woman who declared, as she went into the fray: “I know I will die but my children will be free!” So why can’t I just tell them in the words I have used here? Finding the way to have these conversations has another layer of complexity in my case as I have a very modern family. Neither of my children is biologically or genetically connected to me. One is my partner’s birth child, the other ours by adoption. One is white while the other is of white and black Caribbean heritage. So there is no way of telling how they will relate to my family story. Will they see it as theirs by right or only borrowed? Will my black child feel she is able to

claim it – because her own birth family heritage is likely to look similar – but my white child feel alienated by it, that she is tainted by association with the baddies? Does sharing this story of slavery risk introducing a fissure into our family unity, a feeling that the two white members are entwined with the oppressors while the two black members are associated with the victims? My daughters may wonder if they should absorb this family history at all. As the adopted one, the outsider gathered in, my younger child might feel my story isn’t hers; my white daughter may reject exploring it out of shame. And how do I give them a healthy, critical loyalty to both my country of birth, where families like ours are not fully understood, and to their country of birth, where racism continues to run through the culture like a dark seam of coal?

and as a writer whose passion is creating narratives – I hope this will feel as important for my daughters as it feels for me. I want them to understand that love is more important than blood. For many people, inheritance is something we carry in our bodies – so that Great Uncle Claude’s experiences are, in a very real sense, built into us. But there is another way of understanding how our heritage makes us who we are. It is as heirloom, a gift, a chronicle handed down between the generations, one that can easily be lost, discarded or reclaimed.

Just as I see my non-biological children displaying my own traits – pulling faces as I do, or laughing at the same things, or dancing in the exact same style – so they can inherit my history. It is just another gift from me, alongside my love and devotion, should they choose to accept it. Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart is published by Portobello Books, £18.99. To order a copy for £14.24, including free UK p&P, go to guardian.co.uk/ bookshop or call 0330 333 6846

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How do I explain that one branch of our family was enslaved by the other?

f course, I am not in control of how my daughters will understand their heritage. What I say is only the start – they will receive messages from friends, school and the wider society about who they are and where they belong. They will have their own experiences of racism and will form their own identifications and allegiances. But right now, what their mum tells them is like the word of God, and I will be telling them that this story is theirs as well as mine; and that they are both part of this historical epic. Black as well as white people helped to found the country they live in; and we have worked and suffered and died for our place here. I want them to realise that who they are is the result of these earlier events and that they are the outcome of these people and what they did. So the threeand-a-half centuries of Atlantic slavery are just the early chapters of the story in which they now appear. I want them to appreciate that genetics is only one of the connections that link a family. Our families are connected in other ways: allegiances, traditions, preferences and a myriad other idiosyncrasies. That one of the things that binds us is our storytelling –

Larry Hagman on 58 years of wedded happiness Next week

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FamilyLife
Snapshot ... Umber Khairi’s mother and father, right, meeting Joan Crawford and her husband in Beirut, 1958 visible in the picture. Now, ironically, it is the world that is no longer visible to him. He lost the sight in one eye in his 40s and went completely blind in his 70s. With that, he also lost the wellloved pursuits of his independent life: the long hours of bridge, his reading, research and writing. He lives in darkness now, frail and linked up to dialysis machines three times a week – yet despite all his physical setbacks, he has written two books and retains a fierce interest in history and food. My mother attained a degree of celebrity late in life through her acting work in television drama in Pakistan. People now ask her for an autograph and want to have their pictures taken with her. For me, she was always more of a star than Joan Crawford. My parents were definitely the main leads in the film of my childhood. Umber Khairi

Playlist Dad’s crazy Spanish disco style
When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman by Dr Hook “When you’re in love with a beautiful woman, it’s hard …” Later on in life I became aware of boys sniggering at the innuendo of this line, but the first time I heard the song, in 1979, I was an innocent nine-year-old on holiday in rural Spain. The fact that I hadn’t heard it before might have been because our household didn’t have an extensive modern music collection. My parents had Beatles records and I remember dancing to Abba at a friend’s house, but I wasn’t au fait with pop. We were on holiday with a family friend, who was between marriages and had what might be termed a wild

Snapshot My parents meeting Joan Crawford
When I was young I never understood why my parents seemed so pleased about this photograph – known in the family as “the one with Joan Crawford”. They told me she was a famous movie star, but I had not seen her movies and,

from the photograph, I thought her less beautiful and glamorous than my mother, so I wasn’t much impressed. Now, many years later, I look at this picture and I am filled with admiration for what it tells me of my parents’ story. It was taken in Beirut around 1958. My father was posted to the Pakistani embassy there and Joan Crawford’s husband Alfred Steele (on

the left) was visiting in his role as head of Pepsi-Cola. My parents had spent the day on the beach before going on to enjoy their usual evening’s socialising. During their decades as a diplomatic couple they travelled around the world. They enjoyed and explored every foreign capital they lived in – Nairobi, Beirut, Cairo, Algiers, Khartoum, Buenos

Aires. They took a great interest in all the countries they went to and made lots of friends locally, with many of whom they are still in touch. Although my parents tried to give their three children opportunities to expand our horizons in any way possible, none of us quite inherited their zest for life or their adventurous spirit. My father’s face is only partially

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streak. Tales of her adventurous rambles were legion. She would announce that we must attend some fiesta that was supposed to be marvellous. It would always turn out to be several hours drive away, with a mournful troupe of guitarists playing interminable Spanish love songs until 3am, by which time I’d have fallen asleep on my mother’s knee. On one of our nights out we came across an open-air disco. We joined in in a desultory fashion in the corner, Europop hardly being the best thing to shake your tail feathers to. Suddenly Dr Hook came on and my father seemed galvanised by the novelty of a song, albeit cheesy, with a recognisable tune and sung in English. He began to dance, a dance like no other. The song is reasonably fast anyway, but my father moved at double speed, with a strange little flourish of the hands and a look to the heavens at the end of each flourish that made it seem like an eccentric foxtrot. It certainly intrigued the DJ, who played Dr Hook at least twice more so everyone could see the strange Engleeesh dancing. Maggie Brierley

Doing it for Dad
Rebecca Ley Taking charge of my father’s life
few days after she arrived in the country and he introduced her to waterskiing. Once Dad made sure Dave was out of the way, things were pretty whirlwind and within a couple of years they had married and had a child. Throughout this period, they spent a great deal of time in restaurants, often with me in tow, drinking G&Ts and eating chilli crab or prawns with black beans. We moved to Indonesia when I was about 18 months old, where further culinary delights awaited. My little brother arrived and everything seemed to be going well until a change in political attitudes in Singapore meant our family had to move back to the UK, ostensibly temporarily, in 1983. My parents instilled a love of food in me, my brother and my sister, who was born in Scotland in 1986. Chicken rice was a weekday staple and the fragrant smell of ginger often filled the house. I spent the rest of my childhood in Aberdeenshire but left at the first opportunity, taking the recipe with me. My mum loosely based her chicken rice on one of Ken Hom’s recipes and I copied it into a notebook. Since I have been “a grownup”, I cook chicken rice whenever I want to eat something comforting and delicious, particularly if I am getting over a cold. It is a bit like an Asian version of Jewish chicken soup. I also make it when I want to look like a culinary genius, with very little effort. Let’s be honest, it is an extremely tasty boiled chicken. I’ve adapted the recipe I wrote down 15 years ago, but still have it. I keep the original notepaper in my jar of star anise, which I buy in bulk from a Chinese supermarket. That greasy, soy-saucestained, aniseed-scented piece of paper is one of my prized possessions. It links me to my parents, a life I can’t remember and my childhood home. It makes me happy, even though I don’t need it any more. Helen y sister rings. “I thought you might like to talk to him,” she says. “I came over after work and …” She trails off. There’s a rustling in the background, a cushioned thud. “Dad!” I hear her calling. “Dad come here. Not over there. Here. It’s Bec on the phone.” I wait, picturing him crashing around the bedroom of his care home. I thought he was too poorly for this. “Hi, sorry …” My sister is back. “He just tried to walk off but he’s here now.” “Put him on,” I say. It’s been ages since I spoke to Dad on the phone. Before he got ill, he would ring all the time to relay snippets of his life. The progress of his tomatoes. How many boats he could see through his binoculars. His latest vendetta with a neighbour. Even after he was diagnosed, when he was still living at home, we used to speak regularly. He couldn’t dial by then, but his carer would call and pass him over. I’d ask whether he’d had a pasty for lunch, how the weather was, what he’d done that day. As he got iller, his responses became fuzzier. “Oh you know, that thing …” he’d say. “That thing. Whatchamacallit.” But since he moved into residential care, even these fragmentary conversations have dried up. When I tried to call

M

We love to eat Our Asian chicken rice
Ingredients 1 chicken, preferably free-range, about 1.75kg 375ml soy sauce 375ml cold water 5-10 sections (whole stars) of star anise 2.5cm ginger root, peeled and sliced 5-10 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed 1 tbsp sugar 4 tbsp Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry) Sesame oil to taste Remove any loose fat from the interior of the chicken. Place it breast down in a pan just big enough so that as much of the bird as possible will be covered by the cooking liquid. Put the rest of the ingredients, except the oil, into the pan and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat to a brisk simmer, cover and cook for about 30 minutes. Turn the chicken over and cook for another 30 minutes, basting occasionally. Remove the chicken and check the juices are running clear (if not, return to the pan until fully cooked). Allow to cool on a plate, then shred the flesh and drizzle with sesame oil. Serve with steamed rice, the hot cooking liquor, shredded cucumber and spring onions or salad and chilli sauce. My parents met in Singapore in 1978. It was a classic boy-meets-girl story, except she was a divorced, middle-class woman in her late 20s who fancied my dad’s mate Dave; and he was an oil worker, from Gateshead, who had been living in the far east for a while and was fed up with attempting to have meaningful relationships with Asian women who didn’t get his accent, British attitude to alcohol or his jokes. They met a

the home, the staff kindly made it clear he was unable to talk. “Hi? Dad?” I say. He doesn’t respond. But I can hear him breathing heavily, then clearing his throat in that familiar way. I imagine him staring at my sister for guidance. Trusting. Belligerent. “Say hello,” says my sister, patiently. “Hello,” sing-songs Dad. “Hello?” He sounds as if he’s using the word for the first time. “Hi, Dad,” I say. “How are you?” I’m hoping for what was once his stock response: “Not dead yet.” But it doesn’t come. Nothing comes. “Sorry,” says my sister, taking control again. “I just thought because he was asking after you maybe it might work.” She sounds upset. Then I hear it in the background. “Wekker-weks. Wekker-weks.” Dad is calling out his childhood nickname for me as if I might be hidden under the bed or in the wardrobe. “Put him on again,” I say. My stomach twists. He’s asking after me. I didn’t realise he still did that. My sister obeys. “Dad!” I try to inject my voice with enthusiasm. “It’s me!

Wekker-weks.” I hope that repeating it will make a connection in his sclerified brain. “Wekker-weks?” Dad sounds less certain now. “How are you doing?” I ask. There’s a long pause. “Drinking beer,” he says at last. Then he chuckles. “Really?” I say. “That’s good, Dad.” “This way,” he says. “Going this way. Got to sort it out over there.” “Oh.” I slump. Of course. “That’s right. Over there. Got to cut those hedges.”

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‘Wekker-weks. Wekker-weks.’ Dad is calling out his childhood nickname for me

here’s a clatter as he discards the phone. I can hear him shuffling off, the slippers he wears all day slapping against lino. He says something else but I can’t make out what it is. “Sorry,” says my sister again. “I thought it might work.” “Don’t be,” I say. “It was a nice idea.” Our mutual disappointment thrums on the line. Another thing struck off the list. We hang up, but I replay the sound of him dredging up that old nickname. He was the only one who ever used it. It seems unlikely I’ll hear it again. Follow Rebecca on Twitter @rebeccahelenley

Problem solved
Annalisa Barbieri
We have three boys, aged 17, 15 and nine. The middle one is rude, moody, sullen, antagonistic, silent, lazy – nothing is ever his fault, he is always hard done by, etc. So far, so normal. The older two have never really got on and have reached the point where they can’t be civil to each other. Every conversation is hostile and aggressive. It brings us all down and makes family meal times unpleasant; either my husband or I lose it and get cross with them. The eldest is bright, works hard, is motivated and has done well at school. Although quite bright, the middle child isn’t motivated and isn’t doing nearly as well as all the teachers say he could. I try hard not to make the eldest the clever one – emphasising that everyone is different, it’s all about trying, etc – but the eldest does tease his brother about his grades. Aside from the relationship with his older brother, it is my second son’s surliness with me and my husband that is difficult and brings down the family mood. I know that it’s part of the job description for a mum to be an embarrassment to her teenagers so I don’t take it personally, but it does get wearing when every time I make a comment or ask a question about his day it is met with a rolling of eyes, an exasperated sigh or a “What?” I know it’s part of growing up and the impact of all the hormones coursing around inside him. But I don’t know how to deal with it. How much slack should I allow him and at what point do you tell your child that his behaviour is unacceptable? K, via email Only you can decide which elements of his behaviour aren’t acceptable. You clearly have a healthy perspective and a good (or better) relationship with your other children. I think it’s easy, as a mother, to look at where you perceive you are failing rather than succeeding. Your second son doesn’t sound dissimilar to many other teenagers. However, even if it is “normal teenage behaviour” (in some – I stress not all – teenagers) it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look beneath the surface to make sure nothing else is going on. Has he always been like this or is it recent? In adolescence a child’s brain goes through a major rewiring in order to prepare for adulthood and autonomy. You might find David Bainbridge’s Teenagers: A Natural History helpful as it goes into this in more detail. Dave Spellman, a clinical psychologist ( bps.org.uk), says that while it’s OK to say, “Oh this is typical teenage stuff ”, it doesn’t mean you have to a) find it OK and b) let it close you off to what may also/really be going on. He advises: “It’s less important which boundaries you give [all the children] than that you make the decisions as parents – and stick to them.” Spellman suggests restricting wi-fi, pocket money, etc if certain minimum standards of behaviour are not met. Be realistic about the boundaries. “We often talk about what’s going on with children during adolescence, but there’s also a big change going on for parents – huge adjustments need to be made.” He suggests trying to be a bit more arm’s length. “Maybe don’t be so preoccupied with every area of their lives – children often like to see their parents have their own lives, too.” Have you talked to your middle son and asked him why he is so surly? If there’s a particular flash point (you mentioned meal times times in your longer letter), try asking him if there’s something that could be done. Don’t be too hung up on how things “should be” all the time. Family meal times are lovely, if they work, but if not and he doesn’t want to sit with everyone, is it really the end of the world to concede a little and let him eat on his own a couple of times a week? It’s often what we fear will happen if we let behaviour go unchecked, than the actual behaviour in the moment itself. Set some rules that work for you as a family. Be confident and consistent. Stay connected but not intrusive. And don’t be afraid of having a row or “getting cross”. As a teenage boy I interviewed for my reply to your letter said: “It’s often only in an argument that we can say what we really feel.” Follow Annalisa on Twitter @AnnalisaB

We’d love to hear your stories
We will pay £25 for every Letter to, Snapshot, Playlist or We Love to Eat we publish. Email family@guardian. co.uk or write to Family Life, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Please include your address and phone number

A letter to...
The man who stopped
have no idea who you were, or what you were doing in the town centre on that weekday morning. What is probably for you a tiny, long forgotten incident had a profound impact on me and helped me on a very difficult day. You had no way of knowing that the funeral procession passing along the street was for my adored Nan and that I was sitting in the car behind the hearse, trying desperately to work out how our lives would go on without her. I was 16, en route to my first funeral, struggling with my first real loss. For the whole of that endless, painful journey, as I tried not to see the coffin in front, I looked out of the window. I could not understand how the shoppers and workers carried on as normal while we were steeped in

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misery. How could our aching, allconsuming grief not reach out and touch them? Two people out of hundreds acknowledged the funeral procession. A man in the street where my grandparents lived stopped to take off his cap, and you, a stranger at a roundabout, paused, bowed your head and put your hand over your heart. You were young, maybe in your 20s, Asian, and in my memory your jumper is blue. You alone out of all of those crowds of people halted your day to acknowledge my nan’s passing, even though you had no idea who she was. I can see you standing there among the passers-by, head lowered in a moment of stillness, entirely unselfconscious. More than a decade later I still think of you when I think of that day. You raised my spirits and made me feel less alone, knowing that a stranger cared. It is because of you I always stop and bow my head when a funeral procession passes, a sign of respect for the life that has gone and the people who mourn. Thank you. Sarah

The adolescent brain goes through a major rewiring in order to prepare for adulthood and autonomy

Your problems solved
Contact Annalisa Barbieri, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU or email annalisa.barbieri@mac.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence

8 Family Saturday Guardian 01.09.12

Endnotes
My family values Pam St Clement Actor
My early family life was crap, basically. My birth mother died when I was 18 months old. My father was married several times and I was very devoted to him, but he was a product of a broken family himself and was sent to an orphanage. I think he was carrying his own baggage and couldn’t relate to anybody. I was farmed out for foster care at the age of about seven. It is the best thing that ever happened to me. Before I was fostered, I didn’t have any social stimulus. I had governesses, a private tutor and a nanny, but it didn’t nourish my soul. I was the sort of child who would darkly sit in the corner and watch, which paid dividends when I became an actor. Eventually, I settled with a family on a farm in Devon in an environment that was absolutely a marriage of souls. My new family immediately gave me the company of other children, and it knocked me back into shape. I get annoyed when people say, “Oh well, they had a bad upbringing,” or “They had a bad background and that’s why they behave like that.” What happened to you in the past does not have to be the eternal stamp on your personality. My relationship with my birth father continued after I was fostered. I had contact with him and a stepmother. When she died, I was an adult, by which point I had realised that perhaps my father wasn’t quite the nice person my infant self had thought he was. We didn’t really have anything in common so I just did my dutiful bits and made sure he was OK, but there wasn’t an awful lot of heart there. Despite lacking a consistent mother figure I don’t feel emotionally incomplete, and I think that’s because I ended up with the right people, but you could say I was at an age when I’d already been formulated. Like the Jesuits said, “Give me a boy to the age of seven and I’ll show you the man.” I have not felt tempted to explore my genealogy. I know who my mother was. I’ve got her birth certificate. I know she died of tuberculosis. It was during the war and they were short of penicillin, as it was used on the front more than anywhere else. She didn’t have the medication that she should have had, but I also think probably she’d given up. From what I’ve heard from people, maybe she had given up with my father. I started boarding school when I was fostered and it instilled all sorts of values. It became home to me once I got over the first week of crying. Boarding school was like a family and I loved it. I suddenly came into my own. I loved the discipline and structure, and by structure I mean who gives you that moral code and direction. I’ve always thought that I quite like the idea of the traditional family, but actually you can get those structures and that moral direction from any sort of family structure. I’m very, very strongly in favour of giving people the opportunity of a family. Today, people wanting to enter the fostering system have to jump through a lot of hoops. There have to be legal parameters, but I still think a family that is not 100% perfect is better than a children’s home. It’s got to be. I didn’t have to spend any time in a children’s home, thank goodness. I agree with the discipline that a children’s home would encourage and foster, but it is also instilling in a child that they are just something that can be put away. It’s like kennelling a dog. Nobody is really caring. I’ve never had any children. I felt when I was younger that I would be a lousy parent because of my background. But I think now I would have been a better parent. I’ve got an enormous number of surrogate kids, including distant family youngsters, which is lovely because that is giving me grandma status. But most of the surrogate kids I have, I’m a second mum to. Interview by Nick McGrath
ALAMY

Pam St Clement ... ‘What happened to you in the past does not have to be the eternal stamp on your personality’

See Pam St Clement on This Morning, weekdays, 10.30am on ITV1

In the company of women
material that the adults of today grew up with – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers, for instance. But now the summer holidays are in full swing and TV is a necessary prop to see you through, I am reminded daily of how startlingly good American children’s programming is. I had the good fortune to have my first child in 1993, right at the beginning of an unacknowledged golden period of American children’s TV. Groundbreaking new series such as Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Rugrats, The Ren & Stimpy Show and the Animaniacs changed the game for American cartoons. In contrast with their 80s predecessors – the awful ScoobyDoo, The Smurfs and Alvin and the Chipmunks – these programmes were ironic, multi-layered and dark. Ren & Stimpy cartoons were frequently censored for being too violent and deranged. Animaniacs, an updating of the old Warner Brothers cartoons (the main characters, Wacko and Jacko, were meant to be the original Warner Brothers, along with their lesser known sister, Dot), threw in so many cross-cultural references as such a speed it was hard to keep up in between laughing. Rugrats was a dry sitcom set among children, and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, a precursor of the Monsters Inc film, was just plain weird – and genuinely creepy. I spent countless hours glued to the TV in those days and I’d never had so much fun. It all went a bit belly up towards the end of the decade, when The Powerpuff Girls, Pokémon and various low-grade Japanese anime cartoons began to crowd the airwaves, but, by the time my two youngest were born, in 2003 and 2006, the Americans were back with a vengeance – most notably with the awesome SpongeBob SquarePants, Futurama, and Phineas and Ferb. Weirdest of all was the operatic Wonder Pets! about a hamster, a terrapin and a duck who save pets in peril in a flying boat while communicating entirely in sung verse. he first time I saw it I thought it was deranged crap. The next time, I realised it was genius. Certainly the libretto from Wee-Wee, Pee-Pee, Tinkle!, about a puppy who is stuck in a house when he needs to relieve himself, is up there, for my money, with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. “Dogs do it / Fwogs do it / Even muddy oinking hogs do it / Sooner or later every one has to go / wee-wee, pee-pee, tinkle.” All this revolution was kicked off, of course, by the genius of The Simpsons in 1989, still the favourite cartoon of all my children. Nowadays the Brits have Horrible Histories, Charlie and Lola and much else to be proud of. But don’t diss the Yanks. Childhood – and parenthood – would be immensely impoverished without them. Follow Tim on Twitter, @timlottwriter

From the home front

61%
their homes
SOURCE: RESEARCH BY RATEDPEOPLE.COM

Tim Lott lone man in a female e household d
recently wrote a column stating that I believed my brain had been rotted by 18 years of being exposed to kiddie culture – Barbie dolls, puppet shows, shit movies with talking animals etc. But, as with so many of my opinions, it has recently occurred to me that I was wrong. I have misremembered all the cultural gems I would have missed out on had I not had children. I think I’ve had more pleasure out of kiddie culture – particularly books and films – than reading all manner of literary novels and art-house movies. The main scapegoat for the deleterious effects of kiddie culture is usually American kids’ TV shows. This is what is fingered by parents as brain rot, contrasted with our supposedly more wholesome, homegrown produce. But when people think of American cartoons, they still tend to think of low-grade, poor-quality conveyor-belt

‘For a long time I believed that that only mad people could be happy. I’ve since realised that to be happy multaneously The percentage of British you need to simultaneously love and be loved. That ved. families living with comes with parenthood’ renthood’ unfinished DIY projects in
Alan Davies

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The best way to get husbands to do something is to suggest that perhaps they are too old to do it
Shirley MacLaine

I had the good fortune to have my first child in 1993, at the beginning of a golden period of American children’s TV

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