The Daisy Chain
When I was aged twelve to fifteen, my favourite book was one of the best-selling novels of all time,
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I still have the dog-eared copy gifted to me by my cousin's Leah
and Dan (via their mother) for Christmas in 1983. I read it hundreds of times. Like so many other
girls before me, I identified with the awkward Jo March who was a misfit inside her own family, and
who loved reading and writing. However, it wasn't Jo who I was in love with. It was Marmee.
Marmee who knew her girls inside and out, revelled in their uniqueness, provided love and advice
like sugar and spice and managed her daughters without ever raising her voice.
I knew Alcott had based the novel on her own family, although at the time I didn't know how much
or how little. The concept that a real Marmee had existed in time and space fuelled the fantasy I was
building up of what a mother should be. As an adopted person, I am far from alone in building an
image of a fantasy mother in my mind...a mother so perfect that neither original or adoptive mothers could ever hope to live up to the ideal.
What I didn't know at the time was that the Alcott family, while sharing many events and character traits of the March family, was quite different in reality. The Alcott family moved around a great deal, but at the time of penning Little Women, they'd settled in Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is now known as the home of a 'genius cluster' of authors and great thinkers during this era who were also Transcendentalists (Transcendentalists believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly "self-reliant" and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community can form - thanks Wikipedia...hmm, maybe I'm actually a transcendentalist? I digress). This genius cluster included great minds such as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who are believed to have penned some of the greatest American literature within a radius of just three houses in Concord.
Alcott wrote Little Women while ill and in a rage. She was living in Orchard House, a home that is
now visited by upwards of one hundred thousand fans a year (probably more now thanks to the
latest film adaptation). The events and characters that Alcott draws on from her own life and then
fictionalises in Little Women, actually occurred down the street in Wayside. Very few
people visit the Wayside House however. American Bloomsbury author, Susan Cheevers (2006),
noted how she was confronted with the difference between fiction and life when she toured Alcott's
Orchard House. She said she found it to not be as warm as anticipated and observed that visitors to
Orchard House did not wish to see the reality of where the Alcott sisters came of age. If they did,
she suggests they'd have walked down the street to the Wayside property. They were more
interested in the glossy, fantasy version of the March family. So was I.
A couple of interesting trivia points that I didn't know until I was an adult are that Louisa May Alcott and I are born one day (and 188 years) apart in November (yay Sagittarians!) and that my family are also from Concord...Sydney, NSW.
So, where am I headed with all of this? Okay...
In 2014, I finished a doctorate that explored adoption wounds and the writing of a memoir about my own experience. It was an enlightening process and I learned a great deal through constructing my identity using writing and questioning how I felt about my adoption experience. The memoir, (Darling Adopted Daughter) is written through my lens, exploring my life, with other characters stories told only via how they relate to my experience.
Most telling to me is what I did after I finished the memoir (not much). I'd gone into it with the end goal of publication, however, instead I did pretty much nothing. I half-heartedly revised the manuscript and cast it out on the end of a fishing line a few times. Deep down I knew it wasn't finished. I didn't know what was missing - what I didn't understand or what revelations I hadn't experienced yet. It was just incomplete as a publishable manuscript in my eyes. Also, my goals weren't limited to publication. In writing the memoir I was trying to connect. Connect dots, family and ultimately to knit myself into the fabric of something larger than myself...a family and a community. The memoir might have achieved another goal of holding a mirror up so that I could see myself for the first time, however, I was all alone in that reflection. And that isn't how life works. We stand on the shoulders and stories of those who came before us, even if we don't know who they were or what happened to them. Shelley Davidow explores theses emotional legacies beautifully in her memoir, Whisperings in the Blood (UQP: 2016). I was largely alone in the reflection I had constructed. It just wasn't right. The memoir sat and collected dust.
A couple of years ago I completed an AncestryDNA test. I had a few hopes in doing so, however connection was the foundation of all of them. Though the DNA test I was blessed with finding two female cousins on my mother's side. These connections brought me a refreshed sense of belonging to something larger than myself and incredible stories about three generations of mothers in my family - my great grandmother, grandmother and mother. Women who had faced enormous challenges as mothers. Their stories and my own collectively span more than one hundred years. Their stories inform my own. When I look in a mirror, I now see them standing behind me.
Thanks to my cousins opening up and trusting me, I am now able to trace back traumatic events
that spread out like ripples on a lake to an epicentre. That epicentre is my great grandmother,
Daisy. There is a chain of events, set in place and starting with her story that has created a pattern
in my blood line. The chain begins with Daisy and I hope it ends with me.
I'm now deep in the process of re-writing the memoir, (new working title, The Daisy Chain) to
include small portions of these women's stories. I am grateful for the trust placed in me to do so
in a respectful way that does no harm and retains the privacy of those still living.
Part of this is process is donning my archaeologist's cap and sifting for fine details amongst the
big picture I have been gifted with. The story begins in 1894 and ends in 2020, so it is no small
task. Researching family history is always challenging. Researching family history as an adopted
person is next level. I'm up to the challenge and with the help of the women in my life I will fill in
as many blanks as possible.
I'll be sharing bits of pieces of my research process, stumbling blocks, directional changes and thoughts as I find them interesting and figure someone else might too. Keep an eye out here or on my Facebook or Instagram pages, where I will post updates from time-to-time using the hashtag #thedaisychain. This space is just going to be quick, informal information, discoveries and musings. Jo
Louisa May Alcott - author and legend.
My great-grandmother, Daisy.
15 June 2020 - Sydney or Bust? Looks like the universe opted for BUST! I last posted on the 6th of Feb when I was all prepped and ready for my Sydney trip. And then a pesky little pandemic happened. Whaddayagonnadu?! With the death of my Dad, cancelled travel plans, home learning, working on a new podcast (Check out Adopt Perspective if you haven't already) and the emotional weight of this strange, new, pandemic world we are all navigating, I haven't felt at all creative.
Thanks to a writer friend kick-starting my interest again (Jade, you're a gem) I am putting my toe back into family research, structure and actual (gasp) writing once more. I'm even starting to re-plan my trip to Sydney. This time I think I might invite the boys as well. They had a strange, cleansing effect on a location I visited with them a few years back, and maybe they need to be with me - walking amongst the ghosts and holding them at bay.
I started off this morning looking at photos and documents to remind myself where I was when I left off in Feb and the photo below was the first one I saw. It was timely, as it was taken at my mother's house, the day I met her at the age of nineteen in 1991. We'd met alone at Mt Coot-tha Botanical Gardens for lunch and she invited me home to her house in Bardon for dinner to meet her partner and my brother. I have two other photos from that day, one of she and I and another that included my brother. My mother was only thirty-seven when we met - twelve years younger than I am now. How courageous she was. I used to say brave, however my friend Lois, who I interviewed for the podcast recently, made me realise that neither of us were brave. We were courageous. She pointed out that bravery means to endure or face something without fear. I felt fear and I'm sure my mother did too. Courage means to do something despite being frightened. And that is what we were. Courageous.
In the photo, I'm eating Sara Lee Ultra Chocolate ice cream (still my favourite) at my mother's dining table, following a roast dinner. It was probably only 8 - 8.30pm, but I was exhausted at this point. I had hit that emotional wall. I was completely overwhelmed and couldn't think straight. I'd fulfilled a meeting that I never thought I could make happen and I didn't know where to begin with processing it. It is thirty years later and I am STILL processing it.
The photo and that moment are reminiscent of how I feel today as I try to structure my writing project. What do I take from the memoir I wrote for the DCA and what do I leave behind me? What am I writing about? What have I learned over the past thirty years? What is the moral of this story (if there is one)? What do these new developments mean to my personal narrative? I'm still careful about what I say, how I proceed, not wanting to harm as I autopsy the past. Is it any wonder that it is taking me so long?
I used to feel a pressure to get this project done and put it out into the world. That pressure is all gone now. I'm in no rush. I'm happy to percolate and do it once and do it properly. My next trip to Sydney won't bust - it will happen when the time is right and in the right way. For now, it is time to figure it all out.
17 Feb 2020 - Have you ever wondered about the types of information adopted people can gain access to? This is a certified copy of my original birth entry. I was able to access this document after changes in Qld's adoption legislation in 1991 (I was 19). I didn't apply for it at the time as I was a poor university student, reliant on my adoptive mother to pay for everything and I already had most of the relevant information in a letter or other document. I finally put in an application in January 2020 and received this last week. I've obviously blocked out some identifying information for privacy reasons, but the entry shows my original name, Teresa, my mother's name, age, birthplace, usual name and residence at the time of my birth.
Over the years I have also requested my adoption-related files through FOI and after even more changes in legislation, reapplied for some of this info again to get copies that didn't have my father's name redacted. I have built up quite the pile of information. It never seems enough though.
If you click on the image it will take you to www.jigsawqueensland.com which has a wealth of information on it about what information you are entitled to and how to access it, reunions, forced adoption...you name it. If you want to talk to someone about your adoption experience, help with a search or contact, I highly recommend giving the support workers at Jigsaw Qld a call on (07) 3358 6666 or email: email@example.com. They can help anyone affected by adoption - mothers, fathers and adopted people.
17 Feb, 2020 - I confess to an almost pathological curiosity about where I came from and events of the past that led to who and where I am today. It's not a new curiosity, it has been there since I was around five years of age, only, I thought I would never gain access to this information and tried to bury my need to know.
There are possibly no limits to what I would like to find out and no answers that could satisfy my curiosity. It isn't a salacious gossip-type need to know. I'd describe it as more of a hunger. I feel the desire to understand my roots in my gut. It gnaws at me and I am incredibly frustrated when I hit dead ends or am denied information (or if I sniff a falsehood...watch out!). I guess this can be traced back to that time when there was no information at all.
The fine line I walk now as I attempt to gather all the infomation I can for this memoir, is what information I truly have a right to know and what harm I might cause by having it. I have the support of family members to research and write these stories, however, when I dig into my family history, I am also digging into the nearer and often painful past for some of them. They had relationships with these people who I only know by name and stories shared with me.
My grandmother took her own life in 1963. She had attempted to do this more than once and from a young age. When she was successful (age 43 - six years younger than I am now), she left behind a husband and young daughter (the same age as my youngest son). When I received her death certificate, I saw there was a coroner's inquest into her death. Not unusual when a death is unexpected. I have applied for this report, even though it may contain nothing new.
Concerns about privacy - even for the dead - are a big part of the decision-making process the coroner's office will use in deciding whether I have a right to this information. I have questioned more than once myself whether I in fact do have a right to it. Because I cannot legally prove my connection to my family, they may also deny me access to the report. My mother has offered to make a fresh application for me if I am unsuccessful. Now I wait and see.
Do I have the right? I'm still undecided.
SYDNEY OR BUST
6 Feb 2020 - I have just finished booking a trip to Sydney in April where I will be staying at Watsons Bay (where Daisy was born in 1894 and raised). While I'm there, I will make a trip to Concord and the Parramatta Courthouse where Daisy tenaciously took a man who had harmed her to court not once, but twice. I'll write more later about this. I have to say...I'd also love to find time to fit in a trip to Alcott's Orchard and Wayside Houses in Concord, Massachusetts, however, I think that might be asking too much of my timeframes and wallet.
LOST COURT DOCS
17 Feb, 2020 - This history research stuff can be so frustrating! One of the lovely cousins I met via the DNA test shared with me the story of my great-grandmother Daisy, who had Polio at the age of two and needed to use a crutch to get around from that time on. I won't go into too much detail here (as it will spoil the story), but she was harmed by a man in 1911 and instead of taking it lying down, she got up and took him to court, not once, but twice in 1914.
As part of her own search for truth, my cousin had unearthed some news clippings about the court cases. One from a dismissal and others from her successful appeals. I'd hoped to find the court transcripts from these cases and despite NSW State Archives exhaustive search, they either never existed, or have been lost or destroyed.
I'm going to need to find other, similar transcripts from as close to the time as possible to feed these scenes. Bugger!
17 Feb 2020 - I've yet to meet a writer who isn't sometimes (or often) riddled with self-doubt. It can be a paralysing problem if you let it take root. Just as problematic (I think) is over-confidence. To think you have it all going on can mean you are oblivious to the crap you sometimes write, why it is crap and how to make it not crap.
I just started reading a newer adoption-related memoir and I was actually shocked by the first handful of pages. They bore a striking resemblance to portions of the memoir I wrote for the DCA back in 2014. Some of the phrases and sentences were practically identical (I got there first, so I'm plagiarism innocent hehe). I think what has actually happened is that the writer and I probably did some of the same research and had a similar writing style when it came to flat out telling portions of our story. Portions I have told without a lot of colour or art involved.
It was such a gift to discover this, as it clarified what had been niggling at me since I penned the memoir. It made clear what I need to cut out and what I need to rewrite in my own story as I include those of my family.
You can't let your self-doubt cripple you, but you also can't allow yourself to believe in your writing to the point where you are unable to see it for what it is and improve either.